116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The pandemic changed several things for MercyMe.
It altered the highly popular Christian band’s plans for releasing a new album. It torpedoed touring, keeping the band off the road during what was supposed to be a busy schedule of live shows.
Perhaps most significantly, it brought a different appreciation for what MercyMe does to frontman/main songwriter Bart Millard and the rest of the band.
“COVID forced me to slow down and appreciate the moment more than ever. And I’m still kind of in that mindset. So we treat these tours like they’re our last,” Millard said in a recent phone interview. “And we’ll sit in the dressing room for a solid hour afterwards.
“It’s enjoying everything that happened that night and laughing about it,” he added. “Even if it’s you forgot the solo or messed up, it isn’t like ‘Come on, get it right.’ We’re just laughing, going, ’That’s the funniest thing I ever heard.’ It’s a different attitude and we’ll never take it (MercyMe’s career) for granted from this point out. ...
“It’s like when somebody (says), ‘When are you guys going to call it quits?’ I don’t think we will. We’ll just maybe do (fewer) shows. But I don’t see any value in doing the ‘We’re retiring.’ It’s like the mafia. We’re in this thing until we die, probably.”
That’s reassuring news for MercyMe fans, especially considering there was a point before the group made its 2014 album, “Welcome To The New,” where all five members — Millard, bassist Nathan Cochran, guitarists Michael John Scheuchzer and Barry Graul, and drummer Robby Shaffer — seriously pondered whether they had run their course as a band.
Instead, that period of reflection and assessment brought about a sense of renewal to the band, which is now in its 28th year. It was followed by two hit albums that remain favorites within the band, “Welcome To The New” and 2017’s “Lifer.”
A bigger game-changer was the 2018 movie named after MercyMe’s signature hit, “I Can Only Imagine.” Millard wrote the song at age 19, after the death of his father, who had gone from being an abusive parent to living a life of faith. This transformation helped Millard grow close to his father before he died, and the movie told this story.
The movie was a significant success and introduced MercyMe to a new wave of fans who have put a whole new shot of wind behind the band’s sails.
But it’s not like MercyMe hadn’t enjoyed considerable success before then. The breakthrough came with the song “I Can Only Imagine.” It was released on the 2001 MercyMe album, “Almost There,” and crossed over to mainstream pop in 2003, reaching No. 5 on Billboard magazine’s Adult Contemporary singles chart.
The group has released nine more albums, six of which have gone gold or platinum, while notching 17 No. 1 Christian singles along the way. Billboard named MercyMe its Christian artist of the decade for 2000-2009.
Now, after some two years of pandemic-induced uncertainty and adjustment, MercyMe is touring to promote the group’s new album, “Inhale/Exhale,” whose songs are prominently featured in the show alongside earlier hits. The band will perform April 24 at the Alliant Energy PowerHouse in downtown Cedar Rapids.
While the guys in MercyMe weren’t sure how tickets would sell, the band didn’t hold back anything with the shows.
“It’s our biggest production, the biggest show we’ve ever done,” Millard said. “We just wanted to give the fans, if they were willing to come out, to give them something really special. So we’re pulling out a lot of tricks and a lot of things we’ve never done.”
Had the pandemic not interfered, MercyMe very likely would have been on a different path with its new music and live show. “Inhale/Exhale” might not have existed. As 2019 came to a close, the group was almost finished with a different album that was going to be released in spring 2020 and had already released the lead single, “Almost Home.”
“It’s interesting because the original album was called ‘Spaceman.’ That’s why ‘Almost Home’ had a video with an astronaut in it and stuff,” Millard said. “It was this idea of this world we’re just passing through, and that was kind of a theme. Then the pandemic hits, and ... the rules changed.”
With the world in a different place, the “Spaceman” album didn’t seem appropriate, and Millard returned to songwriting, eventually completing some 40 additional songs.
Eventually, the group settled on a single 16-song album that may be MercyMe’s most upbeat and energetic release to date. The pandemic wore on Millard and many of his musical peers, and over time, he and his bandmates gravitated toward creating an album that offered a respite from the stress and fear surrounding the pandemic.
“There are a couple of emotional moments, but for the most part, it’s a very upbeat album,” Millard said. “And we kept saying if people can take a deep breath and set aside the things that weigh them down, even for the length of this album, and be reminded what’s important, that’s worth it.”