(Photo by Jonathan Kemp)
A Christmas Record Conversation
An A-Side/B-Side Look at ‘Smile in the Mystery’ With John Mark McMillan
By Sarah Komisky
Known for being a connoisseur of good music, Rolling Stone dubbed the Christmas records of all time to include a broad range from the poppy Beach Boys, to the Motown sound of Phil Spector, to the jazzy The Charlie Brown Christmas album, to the crooning classics of Bing Crosby. If you are a person who waits until Dec 1st or plays the holiday genre all year, it is safe to say that Christmas music is definitely beloved. But for those who really want to get nostalgic, vinyl is the next level. While the love for vinyl has remained with retro lovers, it is also being reinvented with new releases – one of them from indie/folk Platinum-selling artist John Mark McMillan with his first ever Christmas LP. For fans of indie must-have’s like “A Very She & Him Christmas” or Surfjan Stevens’ “Songs for Christmas,” John Mark McMillan’s “Smile in the Mystery” is a comparable hit. In celebration of this vinyl release that is on Marked Ministry’s radar this holiday season, we are breaking this interview into a fun A side, B side LP conversation on faith, song stories, music making, influences, old favorites, family, and all things vinyl. Enjoy!
Sarah: “Baby Son” – On your website you said that that this album contemplates what does this tell us “about God that Christ would be born not to kings, the affluent, nor the influential? What does this say of His thoughts on politics and power that His answer to the longing of humanity would be a helpless, homeless, baby boy?” Share on this statement as it relates to the song, “Baby Son?”
John Mark: At almost every stage of his human life, even from the very beginning, Christ seems to subvert every idea we have of who we think he’s supposed to be. He enters the scene in a position of weakness. Throughout his life he turns from almost every opportunity to assume a position of power. Then for his grand crescendo, he’s publicly executed. Of course he’s then resurrected in power, but the exact moment he could stage some sort of world takeover, he disappears.
It’s not that he doesn’t speak to politics – it’s hard to take him seriously without thinking about the implications of the way we allow people to be treated under systems of government. But I don’t think Jesus ever thought, for even a moment, that having the right people in places of influence was ever going to be the answer to our greatest dilemmas.
The new king was born in poverty, witnessed by workers of the graveyard shift, animals, and pagan astrologers (3 wise men). This is not how a conventional king assumes power. The hope in the story is that Christ offers us a new way to live. The beauty is that it’s not super obvious. It’s something that we must press into and explore in the territory of our hearts. It’s a mystery to be sorted out for sure, but I think at least it’s a commentary on our systems of value: upon what, and to whom we assign importance.
I guess my point is that there are things that we think are important that Jesus just didn’t pay much attention to. The story of his birth is just the beginning of this conversation.
Sarah: “Make You Feel My Love” – This is first cover on the record. It’s pretty well-known, yet it’s very avant-garde to include on a Christmas record. Why the song selection and for you, what is the connection to the holidays?
John Mark: I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, and I’ve always wanted to cover this song. I felt like Christmas was the perfect opportunity because the lyrics, oddly enough, speak directly to what I think is the essence of the season. Why would the Divine stoop down and step into our meager and messy (not to mention painful) human existence? Simple: “To make you feel my love.”
Also, it was my goal to combine elements of nostalgic holiday flare with new ideas that would seem foreign in the context of Christmas. The hope was to trigger all the Christmas feelings but in unexpected ways. In this case, we did it with a song that has no traditional context to Christmas but with production elements that bring into the season.
Sarah: “Silver & Gold (by Sarah McMillan)” – I’m going to go with my gut and say that this is the classic from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (if not, I’ll create a follow-up question, lol). But if it is indeed from “Rudolph,” I think that is so brilliant! Since this song is very nostalgic, I thought while on the subject of nostalgia, I have a three-part question: What is your favorite Christmas memory––what kind of nostalgia do you want to create this Christmas with this song, and how do you want to share that with your family this holiday season?
[Note: this is the song that features Sarah. She sings a verse of Silent Night, but she performs this whole song]
John Mark: Yes it’s the classic song from Rudolph…sort of. My wife wanted to cover it for years, but when we went into the studio, we realized that because it was only ever used in the movie, there was only one verse. So Sarah and I wrote two more verses. Also this was a great chance to make some commentary on what “silver” and “gold” really is… what really matters. That’s what we wrote about for verses 2 and 3, and it’s some of our favorite work.
My favorite Christmas memory is from 2010. We we’re in Atlanta, GA and came out of the a movie to discover that it was snowing! (It never snows in Georgia!) I was walking around the empty city that night with my son Jude on my shoulders. He was two years old at the time. He still couldn’t talk at all, but he heard his voice bounce off the walls of the buildings, down into the empty streets, and kept making these wild sounds that echoed into the night. I’ll remember that night forever!
Sarah: “What a Wonderful World” – This song is such a classic. Sung by Louis Armstrong and covered by artists like Michael Bublé and Joey Ramone! You’re cover is now being added to the list. What do you hope it brings to the table as a Christmas cover?
John Mark: It’s one of my favorite songs of all time. I love the idea that the world is a beautiful place even though it’s dark, painful, and confusing. I wanted to call the record “Dark sacred night” but David Bazaan beat me to that title.
To me, the song fits with Christmas, not just because you hear through out the Christmas season, Christmas is also the time you slow down and take stock of the world and what matters. It’s the time when you step back appreciate how wonderful life truly is. Even in the darkness, in suffering and pain, the goodness of living out-weighs the badness. Life is truly greater than death, and the sweetness is worth the pain. This is what Christmas “says” to me.
To achieve our goal here of creating Christmas feelings in new or unexpected ways, we applied the opposite approach that we used with “Make You Feel My Love.” We took a song that has become associated with Christmas and sprinkled it with Asian instruments that are usually more in the view of a Kung Fu movie.
Sarah: “Silent Night/Smile in the Mystery (feat. Sarah McMillan)” – This song is a cool mashup of old-meets-new Christmas carols. What was the melding of these two songs like and what was it like to have your wife (Sarah McMillan) be a part of it?
John Mark: It’s always a treat to work with my wife. We wanted to have her share the lead on several songs, but it can be hard to find a key that works for both of us. This song just worked perfectly for both vocal ranges.
I wanted to take the song to a new place toward the end. I think we originally just had an instrumental “ramp,” but in the studio, I thought up the melody and lyric that would become the title to the record and sort of define the vision for the project.
I couldn’t help but think about the idea of the incarnation and how the world often changes for us when we’re not paying attention. Goodness may even be conspiring in the dark and we have no clue.
Sarah: “Lights”– The Christmas story centers around Christ being “The Light of the World” and the “Light” that came to a dark world. Light is so synonymous with Christmas. For you, what significance does light hold when it comes to Christ and Christmas and how does that factor into this song?
John Mark: “Light” means something a little different in this song. It’s about “home.” I wrote this for my wife and a couple other friends who were having a hard time around Christmas. Sarah’s parents got divorced a few years back and sold the childhood home she grew up in. She felt displaced and little lost. I wanted to write a song for her about our home and “our light,” so to speak. The “lights” went out for her in one part of her life, but our “light” is still shining. She may never hang lights on her childhood home again, but we have a home and children and “lights.”
Sarah: “Joy to the World” – The song is so beloved. We sing it every year, yet for a lot of us, finding joy during the holidays can be difficult when we are facing hard things in our lives. For those who are in that place currently, what do you hope this song will speak into their lives?
John Mark: I think joy can be present even in life’s worst moments. I don’t think joy means that we avoid the subject of pain. But I think there’s a deep goodness that God has hidden in life, and I think we can draw from that goodness even while we’re in pain.
Sarah: This is just a creative music question that I’m asking for all fans of indie music. TW Walsh mastered this audio and he has worked with artists like Sufjan Stevens and The Shins (legends in indie music!) What was it like to work with him on this LP and what did he bring to the mix?
John Mark: His masters were super organic and felt warm and nostalgic from the first listen. I feel like his masters have a broad dynamic range. They’re not as “loud” as many modern records, but this allows the music to breathe, and I thought this fit the record.
Sarah: Let’s talk about the title of the record. Respond to the phrase, “Smile in the Mystery.” What does that mean when it comes to Christmas and how can we as readers engage in that this Christmas?
John Mark: I think that goodness is here in the “now” and God is always present, but we’re the ones who get caught up in the shame of the last moment and anxiety of the next. I think we can engage with “The Mystery” by stopping ourselves, pressing pause, and taking a moment to experience the world. We can contemplate the goodness of God that surrounds us and exists in all his creation, especially in people. I think Christmas is a good excuse to stop and fully experience the present.
To learn more about John Mark McMillan and pick up his new record, “Smile in the Mystery,” visit johnmarkmcmillan.com.