Bart Millard on worship music and TWU
by Keri Vermeulen
The writer and composer of the only single in Christian music to ever achieve certified platinum from the Recording Industry Association of America, is now also part of Trinity Western University’s Worship Arts Program. Bart Millard, frontman for the Christian rock band MercyMe, and author of the GMA Dove awarding-winning, double-platinum song “I Can Only Imagine”, has joined the TWU team as an ambassador and consultant for the Worship Arts Program, as well as interacting with and teaching the students from his own music experience, and helping them develop music industry connections in Nashville.
The Light Magazine looked in depth at Trinity Western’s Worship Arts Program in last month’s issue, and, as promised, this month we share our chat with Millard in full. The timing is good – a movie based on the story behind his song, “I Can Only Imagine” opens in theatres in March 2018. Millard shared with us some thoughts about his role at Trinity Western, authenticity in music, and tools for good song writing.
KV: What is your role with TWU’s Worship Arts Program?
BM: I’m a consultant … helping to develop the program and create awareness, almost like a recruiting tool to get students to see what Trinity Western has been doing. It’s been a really, really cool process just watching it develop over the last year.
My role is also to help students create songs that will outlast us, so that 50 years from now, maybe churches are singing songs that they were part of writing. That would be an amazing legacy, not only for the students, but for the university. So that’s kind of where I come in, to create community for these worship arts students who are taking the worship curriculum from amazing professors, and to equip them to be a part of the local church, or be recording artists or whatever may come after university.
KV: So, you will help the students to develop songs?
BM: Yeah, pretty much, and providing artists from Nashville to engage with these students and give them opportunity to work with people who are in the industry, whether it be Amy Grant or an engineer or a mixer or songwriters from Nashville. So, I’ll be not only visiting campus, but a lot of it will be skyped from here in Nashville, so I can get different people from the industry working with them in real time and taking questions and engaging with them from here, and if I’m on the road or wherever I am, it’s a way to plug in with students.
KV: So, what are one or two ingredients to writing a song that will “outlast us”?
BM: Yeah, that’s the million-dollar question. I want to just be transparent, you know? There are people who can write songs where the melodies are easy to sing along to, but there’s something to be said for it just coming from someone’s heart. I think people can tell whether someone’s genuine or not. For me personally, that’s kind of where song writing comes from.
When you hear a song from someone that’s coming from a vulnerable place, people believe that it’s real. It makes up for whether the song wasn’t that great, or the performance wasn’t very good. It doesn’t matter when you believe what the person is singing. I’d rather see kids who were slightly out of tune, who just liked to play guitar, but had complete heart about what they where singing rather than the most polished, perfect performance. There’s something to be said about being good at your craft, but man, when it becomes like an assembly line or machine instead of directly from the heart, with mistakes and all, there’s something weird about that.
Then the more practical stuff is to write something that’s not a super complex melody or a billion words. You’re trying to write songs that the masses can sing along with, especially when it comes to corporate worship. So, there’s some practical stuff that you engage with. There are definitely some songs that are easier to sing to than others.
KV: What do you think Trinity Western Worship Arts program is poised to do for students?
BM: The last thing you want to tell a 19-year-old is ‘you’re going to fail so have a Plan B.’ Especially when they have a calling from an infinite God. TWU is a university championing this calling on students’ lives, rather than saying ‘hey be practical and have another plan.’ Like, what if you equip them to go through with their calling, in an environment where they can fail and succeed safely and leave better than they were when they came in?
TWU called that vision and I’m excited to see how many students who would never go to university come to TWU. If my kid was like ‘I can either do this on my own or find a safe place to figure it all out and to write and to hone my skills and get a degree,’ as a parent I’d be doing back flips … We want people to be aware there are places like this that are trying to create an environment where they can be better at what they’re doing, and create stuff that outlasts them.
KV: What is your best tool for song writing?
BM: Mine is probably life experience. Your life is like no other. Whatever journey you’re walking is completely different from the person next to you … There are things you see that no one else sees. Anybody can write. No one can write the way each of these students writes.
There’s no cookie-cutter template that makes worship songs. I keep telling them, ‘Your life is like no other. And that’s what makes you stand out and unique as a songwriter. So you need to pull from that.’ Like “Imagine” was written after my father passed away from cancer, and “Bring the Rain” was written when my son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. There are things that you experience and that you see that no one else sees … you need to lean on that and not see it as a weakness. The way you see it or the way you describe it is different from anybody else. And that’s a gift.