MercyMe frontman Bart Millard has forged a successful career by writing and recording personal anthems, such as the Christian band’s iconic 2001 hit “I Can Only Imagine.” But on inhale/exhale, out Friday (April 30), the songwriter looked outward for inspiration. And if current single, “Say I Won’t,” is any indication, Millard’s fresh perspective looks sure to continue the award-winning band’s momentum.
Millard admits the shift was greatly impacted by the success of I Can Only Imagine, the 2018 faith-based film starring Dennis Quaid as Millard’s abusive father that was inspired by MercyMe’s signature hit. “I learned a while ago that I lament very well. I write about things I’m struggling with personally,” Millard tells Billboard. “After the movie, we took a breather and [when it] was time to start working on the record, I couldn’t find much motivation, and I couldn’t understand what was going on.”
The band’s longtime manager Scott Brickell offered Millard some insight that proved revelatory to Millard. “He said, ‘Maybe it’s because you feel like you have to manufacture suffering. Is it possible that things are okay right now?’” Millard says. “And it did feel like I was trying to create something that didn’t feel genuine.”
Success had become a double-edged sword for Millard, who was enjoying one of the happiest times in his life and the band’s storied career. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the band’s breakthrough album, Almost There. MercyMe, whom Billboard named its Top Christian Artist of the 2010s, made history in 2014 when “I Can Only Imagine” surpassed two million digital downloads, making it the first Christian song to go double-platinum in the digital domain. (The song has now reached 4x platinum). They’ve won numerous Dove Awards, American Music Awards and other accolades.
So the pressure to continue to deliver another hit album was formidable. “Going to these dark places that you have to go sometimes to write, I just didn’t want to go there,” he admits. “It had nothing to do with the band or making music. It was that I didn’t know how to make music that wasn’t connected to something painful, especially when I associated that with the songs that mean the most to me. It’s been hard to go to that place, but I love the results when I do.”
Millard found a way to empathetically tap into the struggles of loved ones that yielded the same emotional results. “When I did jump back in, for the first time, it was more about other people’s stories than mine, like Gary Miracle,” he says of the friend who lost both of his arms and legs to an infection. Miracle’s story is chronicled in the poignant “Say I Won’t” video. The album’s “Bright Side of Broken” was inspired by issues a pastor friend of Millard’s was going through. “It was the first time I felt like I was writing out of something that I witnessed more than I experienced myself,” he says.
Looking outside himself for inspiration opened Millard up to a different creative experience and a different kind of pressure. “Like ‘Don’t mess this up,’” he says. “I’m a little more forgiving if I’m trying to tell my story,” he admits. “I know I’ll get it right because I know what I’m thinking, but trying to be a voice for somebody else, you want them to be proud of it and capture what they are feeling. At first I thought, ‘This is way easier. I’m getting all of the emotions without going through the hard stuff,’ and then it was like the stress of, ‘Oh no! I hope they feel like that I did right by this.’”
Another new development was Millard’s collaboration with The Afters drummer Jordan Mohilowski, with whom he wrote 80% of the album. “We clicked from day one and he’s become a dear friend,” Millard says. “It’s definitely going to be an ongoing partnership.”
Produced by Tedd T., Brown Bannister and Mohilowski, inhale/exhale is an expansive 16-track set that features “Almost Home,” the lead single, which spent 17 non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Christian Airplay chart, as well as the current single “Say I Won’t,” which is No. 4 this week. There are also three duets with diverse collaborators. Disco queen Gloria Gaynor joins the band on the high energy “Brand New.” Rascal Flatts lead vocalist and longtime Millard friend Gary LeVox duets on “A Little Love,” which will also be on LeVox’s upcoming solo album. Millard’s own son Sam Wesley appears on “On Our Way,” a tune the younger Millard co-wrote.
“I just love the fact that these features are genuinely friends of mine. It’s not like, ‘Hey, my label called their label and they seemed to be available,’” Millard says. “Mike [Scheuchzer], our guitar player, suggested Gloria. I [sang] on her gospel record a few years ago, so I sent the song to her and said, ‘Hey Gloria, it’s hard to do a disco song without the Disco Queen. Would you be willing to do it?’ She said, ‘I love the song’ on a Friday, and the next Monday or Tuesday she was in the studio.”
One of the album’s most special moments for Millard came on the duet with his 19-year old son. “That’s the proudest moment for me,” he says. “It’s just crazy to think I’ve been in the band long enough to where we gave birth to my son, and now that same son is singing on a MercyMe record. ‘I Can Only Imagine’ went No. 1 the week that we brought Sam home from the hospital. I remember holding my son in my arms in tears, because it was all happening at the same time.”
Fans will get a taste of the new album when MercyMe embarks on its Live and Outside Tour of minor league baseball stadiums across the U.S. Planning a tour during a COVID-19 has proven challenging. “Some of these places are still understaffed because they let so many people go [during the pandemic],” he says. “They were like, ‘You’re the only show coming through town so far. We can’t hire everybody back for one show.’ We’ve had to wait until closer to the baseball season to where they had their staff again. Then because every state has different rules about being safe, we’ve had to figure out what to do.”
After being a band for nearly three decades, Millard says he’s never been more appreciative of the chance to make music. “I want people to say, ‘Man, he was a good songwriter’ when it’s all said and done,” he says. “The fact that we’ve been here for 27 years and people still care is mind blowing. I’ve never been more grateful for the fact that I still get to keep doing this.”