SUMMER LIGHTS with MercyMe

When MercyMe lead singer Bart Millard talks about the band's latest album, Welcome to the New, it's with the passion of an artist rejuvenated and reborn. He's proud of the lively, spirited rock vibe that drives many of the 10 tracks. He's still basking in the glow of the recording sessions, where he and his bandmates left their comfort zone and stretched the boundaries of the MercyMe sound.

But when he talks about the overarching theme of Welcome To The New (Fair Trade) Millard gets especially fervent. And here's why: "New" is the fruit of his real-life embrace of grace. It all adds up to a musical, lyrical and spiritual turning point—that most rare of trifectas for a beloved veteran act that's been at it since 1994, and has four gold albums and a platinum disc to its credit.

Simply put: If Millard asked big questions on 2012's The Hurt & The Healer, then Welcome To The New steps out boldly with a bigger answer that he didn't find so much as it found him. (More on that in a bit.)

"The last album was about needing a full-blown collision with the healer—when my family was hanging on by a thread, my cousin who was a firefighter died, and I wrote the title song in 10 minutes in a concert arena, in tears," Millard recalls. "I was thinking, 'Why we do we go though this mess, this junk in our lives? Is there any chance that what I'm going though is not in vain?' And Welcome to the New is the answer to that song: It's where we landed after the collision. And we didn't go through it in vain. I feel like the gospel has come to life for the first time."

You can hear Millard's conviction in the album closer "Dear Younger Me," a song he considers the most personally meaningful on "New." Built around an organic, slapped percussion loop and plaintive swells of electric guitar, the song is framed "like a letter to my younger self. I was physically abused as a kid and I've had a chance to play this song for people who've been through similar things. This is the one song I hope brings a lot of healing to people." Wrestling with how to encourage and bolster his younger self, Millard lands on this refrain: "You are holy / you are righteous / you are one of the redeemed / set apart / a brand new heart / you are free indeed."

Yet from start to finish, MercyMe wraps the "New" message in music that's infectious and inventive. The track "Greater" shows the band taking delightful chances and succeeding. Imagine shades of the Lumineers, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack, then throw the result into full gallop under a big sky: "Bring your doubts, bring your fears / Bring your hurt, bring your tears / There'll be no condemnation here / You are holy, righteous and redeemed."

"If there was one song that musically and spiritually represents the place where we are, the grace message of joy, 'Greater' is it," Millard notes.

Then there's the song "Shake," the first hit single from "New" and a throwback to the days of INXS and their most funky, danceable material. "We thought it was a great way to kick off the record," Millard says. "It's a little bit of a departure from what we do." Actually, it was a big departure for Millard when it came to showing off his moves for the music video. "I grew up Southern Baptist which means I would be banished if I were to learn how to dance," he says, laughing. "But we figured that everyone has at least a good shimmy in them. Even my grandmother, she can shake it." And the theme of rebirth shows MercyMe putting its best foot forward: "Brand new looks so good on you / So shake like you are changed."

Millard is quick to praise his longtime bandmates for their willingness to explore and expand (Nathan Cochran on bass; Michael John Scheuchzer and Barry Graul on guitars; and Robin Troy "Robby" Shaffer on drums). But he also singles out producers David Garcia and Ben Glover as vital to helping MercyMe find the footing that helps "New" more than live up to its title.

"This was our first time working with them, and fitting along the vein of being new, we tried it and just loved it," Millard says. "It's like they're an extension of MercyMe now. When you're in a band this long, it gets to the point where you get in the room with the guys and the same stuff comes out. We just wanted someone to stretch us."

And stretch they did. While the Nashville studio settings were certainly familiar (Ocean Way on Music Row and Dark Horse Studios in Franklin), the process certainly wasn't for Millard and company.

"We would track the drums and the bass, and then each musician would create parts on their very own," Millard says. "Some of the songs had as many as 100 tracks of background vocals, and the producers gave us an environment where we didn't feel like we could do anything wrong. We were chasing rabbits like crazy—nothing to lose and everything to gain. It was like kids being in a garage again playing music for the first time."

That's apt considering that Millard feels, by his own admission, akin to a spiritual beginner these days.

While some Christians may understand the concept of grace with glad hearts and open minds, Millard admits that for him, it's been a much different story. "I grew up with a legalistic background, and even though it was all about grace, there were always three more things you could do to make life better. But of course, I'd do 10: I was an overachiever. That's why I started a band; if we weren't giving God our best, he wasn't happy with us."

That relentless drive almost finished the band as well. Burned out from giving so much of his life and energy to MercyMe, and feeling as though he fell short somehow, Millard was ready to turn in his resignation and "go work at a Home Depot or something." That's when an old friend—a youth pastor from the first church camp MercyMe played 20 years ago—popped back into his life with a most unexpected message.

"He said, 'There is nothing in our life to make Christ love us any more than he does.' And I thought that was a novel concept, but I didn't buy it: I have a wretched heart, and I'm nothing without God. But then he said, 'Because of the cross you are a brand new creation. You can't worry about the heart that can't be trusted. You have a brand new heart and mind in Christ. And I thought, 'Wow, that's something I never heard growing up. There's no way I can sabotage this.'"

So yes, Millard stayed on with MercyMe, and it's a wonderful thing he did. Welcome To The New brings on the reboot in fine style, but not in such a way to kick the band's loyal fans into a wholly unfamiliar space. And if the singer sounds full of joy on this new disc, it's because he most definitely is. "We've never been more comfortable in our skin and focused on the message," he says. "I am not a tortured soul on this album."

Jeremy Camp

Jeremy Camp's seventh recorded studio album Reckless needs a warning sign: NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART. For come February 12, when the album releases from BEC Recordings, it just might inspire listeners to surrender everything, even what they never thought they could give up. This happened to Camp about a year ago when he felt God ask him, "Are you willing to surrender everything?" For him, "everything" was music. Something he has been quite successful at for the past decade, with 32 No. 1 radio hits, a Grammy nomination and five Dove Awards. Even with this success, Camp says God brought him to a place where he could, if the day ever came, surrender music. "Not that it wouldn't be a challenge," says Camp, "but I wouldn't be devastated because this is not my life. Christ is my life." It was with this mindset that Camp wrote "Reckless," the first single on the album. "Reckless" tugs atthe listener with its call-to-action lyrics: I'll lay my life down and give it up / I'll give it up … I will not be afraid to surrender my way to follow who you are / I want to be reckless. Camp explains the concept of recklessness through the life of Paul. In Acts 14, Paul returns to Lystra to share the gospel—a city where he had been stoned and left for dead just days before. Sounds crazy that he would return to a place like that. But as Camp explains, it's more reckless than crazy, and there's a difference. "[Paul] wasn't being crazy for crazy's sake, saying 'I don't care what's going to happen. I just want to go.' No, when you feel God calling you to do something, you have to be obedient. And that's the difference. Paul was just obedient. That's what reckless is." Camp co-wrote "Reckless," along with several other songs on the album, with producer and longtime friend, Andy Dodd. Dodd produced several of Camp's earlier albums including Stay and I Still Believe. With Dodd back on as producer, Camp says he feels like he is getting back to his roots yet creating a new sound. "Musically and vocally, it's more raw," says Camp, "but in a good way." Like with "Reckless," rather than bringing in heavy guitar for the chorus, they cranked up the keys and let the piano do that rock part, something Camp has never done before. And rather than overthinking it musically and trying to "over-perfect" the production, Camp and Dodd focused on the lyrics. "We were over-thinking it in a good way," says Camp, "going back and forth with each other always asking, 'What impacts most?'" "The Way You Love Me" impacts listeners with its reminder of God's love and what our reaction should be because of it. One of Camp's daughters demonstrated this reaction when she asked her father one day, out of the blue, "Is there anything that I can do for you that I've never done before that will make you happy?" Camp looked at her and said, "You don't have to do anything to make me happy. You make me happy." Camp heard the lesson God was teaching him through that moment. Just like his daughter knew he loved her, so do we know God loves us and that's why we desire to please him, out of love and not obligation. "The Way You Love Me" is a declaration of that love for him, as the worshipful and punchy chorussays So I will lift the broken words / Show the world how you love me / How you love me. Camp sites the prophet Jeremiah as the heart behind this song, a prophet who could not hold in his love for the Lord: "If I say, 'I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,' there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot" (Jer. 20:9). Camp provides an example of the tangible way we show God's love through the song "We Need." This upbeat anthem encourages acts of social justice, which is something Camp and his family are very familiar with. They support Compassion International and travel to places like Josiah's House, a home for boys in the Dominican Republic, and New Hope Haiti Mission, a children's home in Haiti. But Camp is quick to explain, "There are a lot of people doing social justice things, which is great. But we can't just say, 'Here's some food. Here's some stuff.' We have to be able to give the gospel, share the hope and have a real heart for that." As "We Need" says, Into the lives of forgotten children / Showing the love they were never given. Camp believes balance is crucial in the realm of social justice and following God's call. "We need to be reckless," says Camp, "but let's spend time with Him so we know where to go." That's what the final song on the album, "Without You," is all about. With a softer yet strong melody, this song, strategically placed last, gives a final instruction to listeners on how to surrender our lives to Christ: I won't make a move without you right by my side / I will wait for you to lead me to any place where you need. The chorus reflects Camp's main goal for this album. "My heart's desire is that people will listen to the Lord and his leading," he says, "and really dive into the fullness of what He's called them to do, whatever that looks like." "Come Alive" also expresses this desire for listeners to experience fullness. Struck by the solemn scene of a New York City street, Camp says, "It was like looking at the living dead… all they're doing is living for their own desires. I want this world to come alive, to see that yes, you're dead in your trespasses, but you have been made alive in Christ." With powerful strings as a backdrop, the chorus of "Come Alive" builds, dramatically proclaiming You have restored us / You have redeemed us / We have been given new life / You are alive. Camp will share this message of hope with large crowds as he tours this year. This CCM success would rather play for a crowd of 100 than 50,000 if that would increase the ripple effect. "If I play for 100 people and those 100 people are impacted radically," says Camp, "that's so much greater than doing something massive with no impact…. I'm at a place where I've just let this go. I put my whole heart, blood, sweat and tears into this and, God, it's yours." As a part of giving everything to God, Camp has also penned his story in the upcoming book I Still Believe (Tyndale). In I Still Believe, he shares, with unflinching candor and emotion, the extraordinary story behind his award-winning lyrics–from his impoverished childhood, rebellious teenage years, and spiritual awakening at Bible College, to the tragic loss of his first wife, Melissa, to cancer and the heart-wrenching spiritual journey that followed–a journey that reignited his faith, inspired some of his most beloved songs, and paved the way for a second chance at love with his second wife, Adrienne. Some may call Jeremy Camp crazy for not caring more about the success of his career, but others know, he's not crazy; he's reckless.

Meredith Andrews

Meredith Andrews has always had a gift for writing honest, compelling songs that resonate powerfully with an audience. Over the course of her first two Word albums, people have come to appreciate the Dove Award-winning artist's love for God and her heart for people. She's formed a strong bond with her audience, and yet as open and vulnerable as Andrews has been before, the true heart of this gifted artist is best revealed on her new project Worth it All.

"I never felt like I could write corporate worship songs, but that's what I always wanted to do because I am a worship leader," Andrews states. "So I just started asking the Lord for songs and I was like, 'God I don't just want songs to fill a record. I want to hear from heaven. I want to write your heart' and I was just overwhelmed with the way the Lord answered and the songs that are on this record. This album, I feel, is the most authentic to who I am. I can't believe the songs that we have and the way that God met us at every turn and the moments that we captured on this record."

Worth it All is a potent collection of songs that celebrate God's sovereignty and share Andrews' deep and unwavering faith. Listeners have already embraced the lead single "Not for a Moment." Penned by Andrews, her husband Jacob Sooter and Mia Fieldes, the gorgeous ballad features a heart-stirring vocal performance. "I always feel like every record, God gives me a song about the fact that he's not going to leave us," Andrews says. "With my first record it was 'You're Not Alone.' On the second record it was 'Can Anybody Hear Me?' and on this one it is 'Not For A Moment.'

"When you watch the news and see all the stuff that's happening in the world, a lot of it is really tragic," Andrews continues. "[We ask] 'Lord why does that happen? Why do bad things happen to good people?' That's the age-old question, but we live in a broken place. We live in a fallen place and we're always going to come up against tragedy, but the thing is we have hope and that's the message in 'Not For A Moment.' Even in the storms and the trials of life, even when we feel like God is far away, the truth is he's always constant. He never changes. He's always good. His heart for us is kind."

Worth it All begins with the exuberant "Open Up the Heavens." "It's one that we at our church open up the service with and just go 'God have your way. Do what you want to do here and show us your glory,'" says Andrews, who leads worship at Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago. "My pastor, James MacDonald, did a sermon series within the last year talking about the glory of God and how we were made for that. Sometimes we just get distracted when really it's about seeking the Lord, seeing the arms of the Lord and then running after Him and wanting more of Him and His glory. 'Lord show us your glory' was a big theme in our church and it was a prayer in my own heart as well."

The album also includes reminders of God's majesty and grace in songs like "Your Kingdom Reigns," a powerful anthem that opens a door to the throne room as Andrews sings "'You are our portion, our promise forever Your Kingdom reigns.' When you get to the bridge, that's my favorite part. It's like that fist pump moment," Andrews says with a smile.

One of the most personal songs on the album is the closing number "Pieces." "We set out to do a worship record and songs one through 10 fall into that category, but 'Pieces' isn't. It's horizontal," Meredith says of track. "I wrote this song with Ben Glover. He and I both have adopted brothers. I have three and he has one. I started telling him about one of my brothers who has just really been through a hard time. He's in high school, navigating those waters and trying to figure out who he is. I've been watching him and other kids in high school just trying to figure out who they are and striving so hard for acceptance. They'll do anything to get it, but inside they are really hurting and confused and that's how I felt. Ben and I just talked for a long time and this song came out. It's got substance to it. It's a challenge.

It's saying, 'God can take your life and put it back together. It doesn't matter where you've been and what you've done, so give him your wounds and your bruised and broken pieces, all your questions and all your secrets. You don't have to hide who you are.'"

Andrews is a frequent speaker at girls' conferences and she's excited about sharing "Pieces." "I feel like this is what I want to say to them: 'You are loved and special and God has a purpose for your life. You can hand over your broken pieces to Him. God can take anything broken and make it beautiful.' When we got to the end of the record, I'd written 'Pieces,' but I wasn't going to record it. We almost didn't record it. We literally had one more day in the studio and I looked at my manager and said 'I know that it's not a worship song, but I feel like it has to go on my record. I want to sing it and I want people to hear it.' We all talked about it and discussed where it would fit because I feel like the first 10 songs are a journey hopefully into God's heart, like getting a glimpse of truth, like who He is and 'Pieces' is its own other thing. It's separate. I'm not even going to try to pretend it's a worship song or where it fits in there because that's why we made it a bonus track."

She cites "The Gospel Changes Everything" as her favorite song on the record. "It was a beautiful spring day and Benji Cowart, Paul Mabry and I and sat outside of Paul's house just chillin' in his backyard," Andrew recalls. "We started telling stories about how we had seen just the purity of the gospel, the truth of the gospel transform people's lives. Paul was telling the story about how this guy came up to him and said, 'There's something different about you' and Paul was like, 'It's Jesus. That's what it is. That's the difference.' The guy showed up in church and gave his life to the Lord. We were just telling story after story. The truth and the beauty of the gospel is enough. It doesn't need any additions or subtractions. It just needs to be told as it is. The gospel changes everything. It is the turning point in history. Even now it's changing me from who I was. When I sing it, I cry because it's the simple truth and that's all you need. It changes you forever. So that's my favorite song."

"Start with Me" is a prayer to be used for God's kingdom. "It's saying, 'Lord if you're going to move again, would you do it in me first?'" Andrews explains. "We can always say, 'Well that needs to always change' and we can point fingers. We need to ask 'Lord change me first. Start with me here and let it just kind of flow out. Use my life and help me to love people that you put in my path the way that you love them.'"

Her love for people and servant's heart are rooted in her childhood. A native of Wilson, NC, Meredith's parents took in many foster children and adopted three boys who became her beloved brothers. Music was always an integral part of the Andrews home and little Meredith began singing in church at age six. While majoring in family and child development at Liberty University, Andrews felt God calling her into music ministry. After school, she relocated to Chicago and began leading worship at Harvest Bible Chapel.

Her incredible vocal gift and intuitive songwriting abilities caught the attention of Word Record executives who signed her to a deal. Her label debut, The Invitation, released in April 2009 and the stirring single "You're Not Alone" helped propel Andrews into the national spotlight. Her sophomore album, As Long As it Takes, bowed in March 2010 and the following spring, it was named "Worship Album of the Year" at the Gospel Music Association's Dove Awards. "How Great is the Love" earned the Dove Award for "Worship Song of the Year."

While such affirmation from her peers is appreciated, Andrews' focus remains on her growing family, serving her church and creating music that lifts the body of Christ to a closer relationship with the Lord. "I was at home giving my kid a bath and getting ready to go to church for Good Friday rehearsal, I did not expect that at all," she says of winning the Doves.

Meredith and Jacob have one son, Maverick, and another baby on the way, yet she found time to contribute songs to Harvest Bible's Live Worship From Vertical Church and participated on the tour with her fellow worship leaders. Balancing music and family can sometimes be a challenge, yet motherhood has impacted her art in unexpected ways.

"I was always a people pleaser and I feel like now that I'm a mom, I'm not anymore. I'm just over it," she says with a smile. "I'm not trying to please anybody. I just want to please the Lord and love people."

"I know my relationship with the Lord has changed since I had Maverick," she continues. "If he's throwing food at me or laughing and talking to me, my love for him doesn't change. How much greater is God's love for us? It's not based on our performance. God doesn't love us more on our good days and less on our bad and that was revolutionary for me. There's freedom in knowing that God just loves me and that's changed me. I'm so overwhelmed by the way the Lord loves me and it's come out in the way that I've written these songs. When I think of other moms listening to these songs, I just hope that whether they are at home with their kids or in the car driving to soccer practice or whatever that even just for three minutes, they can sense the presence of the Lord and God's love for them. We need that recharge. We need to get plugged into the source and have that time with the Lord. That's my prayer in all this."

Jimi Cravity

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