By BRUCE DENNILL
We Are Messengers frontman (and proud Irishman; his brogue is so rich it takes up extra bandwidth on the intercontinental interview call) Darren Mulligan, now resident in Nashville getting on with the business of running a successful CCM band and being a husband and father, once tried to “break America with a post-punk band called Morello. He and his youthful colleagues lived the rock star clichés to the letter and, perhaps not surprisingly, failed to emerge from the musical morass of similar acts attempting to do exactly the same thing.
“When I was playing music as a younger man, I was very self-absorbed,” observes an older, wiser Mulligan.
“I was doing it in order to be validated; to find my identity in what people thought of me. I was using music as a tool – I thought – to help people to get to know me.”
Current act We Are Messengers, as clearly implied by the band name, is a platform for ministry, which must have required a substantial mindset change.
“It is, but we try to write about what is relevant, avoiding too much Christian terminology and the clichés that come with that,” says Mulligan.
“We have paid attention to the structure of the songs, though,” he adds, “so if we think something is leaning towards a worship chorus, we’ll try and make it simple and easy to sing. The main difference, though, is that this music really matters to us. That music didn’t. Now, we’re trying to write words that are honest, which is sometimes painful.”
That must make the songwriting process more of a challenge.
“As I songwriter, I always tell people to write what is true to them and their experience. Some of that might sound simplistic, but clichés are only a problem if you’ve included them because you think they’re what people want to hear.”
What of the other adaptations that are needed when moving from the standard mainstream model to the more focused CCM field?
“I think my experience is a bit different to a lot of people in Nashville,” explains Mulligan.
“I’m older than most guys releasing their debut albums, for one thing. That meant I started this chapter knowing what I want to say. And that has meant that there hasn’t been that part of the system where I have my output moulded by the industry. I’ve been allowed to be honest, and to avoid having to be homogenous.
“That said, it’s wonderful to have a team of people here who know how everything works. Some songs were left off the album for being too pointed or aggressive, and I rely on the experience of the label for the insight to make those decisions.”
Aggression should not be confused with masculinity, a concept that sometimes sits uncomfortably in the worship music space. Mulligan has spoken on this theme before; the expression of what might be considered “soft” sentiments in a masculine way. Why does he feel it’s important?
“God created us male and female, with different responses and qualities,” he muses.
“Men have taken the back seat in the practice of Christianity for too long. They’re not doing enough praying or teaching in the home, for instance. Fortunately, our mothers and wives have done a fantastic job there. It’s also these ladies who are singing loudest in church, and most worship song keys are set to suit them.
“But look at many of the men in the Bible – Moses, Paul, Jesus! They’re ferocious for the gospel. I want to follow that example; to give what I can with the voice and the perspectives that I have. I’m tired of the lack of authenticity in my life. I must be true to who and what I am as a man – and God in me.”
On this score, and because of the band’s name and stated mission, message has to be a central component of Mulligan’s songs. There must be a challenge in maintaining that drive while avoiding becoming frustrated because a relative lack of room in which to be creative.
“The songs I write are the starting point of a conversation,” Mulligan says.
“I don’t feel I have to try and provide an answer every time – or even a whole conversation. If a song I’ve written makes you feel anything, that gives you a reason to listen to me talk, and that’s where there might be some value.”
“My songs are the reason you and I are talking right now.”
Mulligan adds that this two-phase approach gives the whole enterprise a little more integrity, in his view.
“In many Christian songs, we start by saying, ‘This is terrible’, and by the end of the chorus everything is solved. That doesn’t ring true. We have to trust that God will allow us to finish the conversation in other ways.”
Mulligan’s home country massively over-delivers on world-class musical talent per capita – in both secular and Christian music. On the latter side, there are Kathryn Scott, Rend Collective Experiment and others to consider, while in the former category, artists from Damien Rice and David Gray to U2 are household names, while the likes of Glen Hansard and Foy Vance are treasures that await wider recognition.
“We do alright, don’t we?” smiles Mulligan.
“But it’s not ‘us’ and ‘them’. We’re the same image-bearers of Christ that they are. All that’s happened is that we’ve realised that Jesus is worth following.
“Great writers – in music or other areas – write what is true for them, even if it’s not true for everyone. An example is Foy’s new song She Burns, which has a lyric that’s quite erotic and incredibly intimate. I love that song, but there’s a part of me that wondered if I should be enjoying it that much as a Christian – until I prayed about it and God said to me, ‘That’s a song about how to desire your wife, Darren. You go ahead and put that into practice!’ For me, a song that makes us do better things in a Christian context is a great song. Great art and music make you think.
“I think as songwriters, it’s our job to write songs that prick at you conscience, rather than giving you ‘Five steps to healing’ or whatever.”
There might be these wonderful synergies in the creation of Christian and non-Christian music, but is the same true for the CCM industry, which can be incredibly competitive, and in which it’s easy to become more focused on product than the heart behind the compositions?
“The most successful Christian music artists I’ve met so far are the most genuine,” reckons Mulligan.
“I think God honours them. It is tough, though. Men have egos and a desire to be first rather than last. I think that if they start like that, they’ll remain like that.
“I have a wife and kids and we left the country we love to serve God here in the US. I ask Him every morning what we’re supposed to be doing today. And I try to listen to the answers.
“If you don’t know what you’re saying, you shouldn’t be talking.”