Christian Rock Crosses Over

"Crossover" is a music industry term for an artist that comes from one genre and finds a new audience in a totally different market.

Ricky Martin (search) crossed over from the Latin market to mainstream pop with his smash hit "Livin’ La Vida Loca." But perhaps no other band defines crossing over more than MercyMe (search).

The unabashedly Christian band has burst into the mainstream market with their hit, "I Can Only Imagine" (search) currently sitting in the Top 20 at No. 16 on the Adult Contemporary chart and No. 37 on the Christian Top 40, which makes it one of the biggest surprises on pop radio this year.

Audio: MercyMe's 'I Can Only Imagine' had the chance to ask MercyMe’s lead singer and songwriter Bart Millard a few questions.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you born? Where do you live? Where did you go to school? What church do you belong to? Life highlights?

A: Born in Greenville, Texas. Still live in Greenville, Texas. Quit college to start a band. Highland Terrace Baptist Church. Highlights: Marrying my wife, and my son being born.

Q: Tell us about your band. Who are the band members?

A: There are five of us: me, Mike, Jim, Robby and Nathan and we all live in Texas. Guitar player Mike Scheuchzer met me when he was in the Florida youth group I worked with. After graduation, I pulled him on stage and we’ve been playing together ever since.

Then there's Robby Shaffer, drummer and financial wizard. He's in charge of the band's finances and is known as "the responsible one."

Bassist and new dad Nathan Cochran is the quiet one of the bunch so when he does have something to say, it's usually worth listening to.

Then there's Jim Bryson, a keyboard player whose technical expertise has been called on frequently in the past to repair the band’s bus.

Q: Your official Web site is currently under construction. What plans do you have in terms of your online presence?

A: We have hired a company to redesign the site to allow us more daily interaction, so hopefully we can have more access to our fans.

Q: What are your influences and current favorite bands?

A: I grew up on everything from E. L. O. to Steven Curtis Chapman. I am a big U2 fan, but then again what band isn't? TobyMac and Delirious are in my CD player right now.

Q: Every successful band seems to have at least one horror story. The PA stopped working, the bus broke down, the drummer spontaneously combusted.... What would be yours?

A: All of the above! We have blown PA systems in the past, we are currently on our third bus because we were tired of being stranded, and we have gone through 21 different drummers since 1994 -- although, I do not recall them combusting, at least not during an actual show.

Q: Your song "I Can Only Imagine" has been a huge crossover hit. What was the inspiration for the song? Did you write the lyrics first and then put them to music? Who produced it?

A: I wrote it after my father passed away with cancer. I was 18 when he died and I was always told that if he could choose, he would rather be in Heaven than here with me. As a Christian I believed that, but as an 18-year-old it was a little hard to swallow. So the questions in the song came from me asking God what was so great about Him that my dad would rather be there. The song was certainly special to me, but I had no idea it would impact people the way it has. I wrote the lyrics first and put it to music a few days later. Our good friend Peter Kipley produced it.

Q: "I Can Only Imagine" was recorded and released nearly two years ago but only now has become a mainstream hit. Why now and why so long after its initial release?

A: I wish I knew. There is no question that it is a Christian song, so I guess we never thought about it going to mainstream. It happened simply because someone had enough guts to play it on a Top 40 station in Dallas. It exploded in Dallas and our label decided to give it a shot in other markets. And here we are.

Q: Christian rock is an evolving and exciting genre of modern popular music that is just beginning to produce crossover artists. Do you feel that MercyMe is continuing in the tradition of other successful Christian bands like Creed, POD and Evanescence?

A: I guess that depends on the motives of the other bands. If their desire is to tell about a hope that has changed their lives, then yes.

Q: As a Christian and a "rock star", how do you reconcile the two? Temptation must have increased dramatically.

A: A Christian "rock star" is an oxymoron. So far, we have still played mostly for the church, so that is difficult to answer. As we get further into the mainstream market we have to be the same as we are now or it simply does not work.

Q: Do you attribute your success to your faith or are they separate in your mind?

A: Our faith is what got us here. Any good songwriter writes about whatever consumes their heart. Mine is consumed with Jesus. Not because someone got to me at an early age, not because someone told me the story better than others, but because He is the only thing that has changed my life.

Q: While you incorporate religion and a positive message into your music, artists like Insane Clown Posse and Marilyn Manson, Eminem and 50 Cent to name a few seem to represent something a little less positive. What's your take? Do you listen to any of it? Disagree with all of it?

A: I believe they each have a God-given talent. Do they use it for God? Is it for me to say? I can't say I have personally listened to much of their music, but that is just me. I do believe they are successful because they are passionate about what they do, and whether I like it or not, I do respect their passion.

Q: What's next for you?

A: We are going on tour with Michael W. Smith in the fall, and are currently working on our third national release.

Q: How do you feel about people stealing your songs from peer-to-peer file-sharing programs?

A: I think it lacks integrity, but will it ever change?

Q: You now have an audience of millions of people including kids who see you as a role model. What words of advice do you have for them?

A: Keep Christ the center of attention in everything you do.