Lifer, the title of CCM band MercyMe‘s 15th album, is an apt label for a band that has been in the industry for 23 years. Also for a band that is as committed to their faith as they are to their music.
MercyMe celebrated Lifer, which is out today (March 31 via Fair Trade Services), with a performance and preview of the album for a select group of industry members and radio winners in Nashville.
The band previewed tracks such as “You Found Me,” “Heaven’s Here,” “Best News Ever” and current single “Even If,” which was inspired by MercyMe lead singer Bart Millard’s 15-year-old son Sam, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 2.
“If you know about chronic illness, you know it never goes away,” said Millard. “You have your good days and bad days. In the midst of making the album, I was having a bad day. We had finished a checkup visit, and it reminds you that it is still there. Even if it is the best checkup, you walk out thinking it’s something he will deal with for the rest of his life unless they find a cure or God heals him.
“I did the math and he has given himself over 37,000 shots in his life,” Millard continued. “It doesn’t bother him anymore because he’s never known anything different. But as a father it kills me, because I can’t fix it.”
As chief lyrics writer for MercyMe’s songs, Millard turned to fellow songwriter Tim Timmons with his concerns.
“Tim lives with cancer every day,” Millard said. “I just unloaded on him, and he was playing piano while I was bearing my soul. I said, ‘I just want to be able to say that I know God can deliver us, but even if he doesn’t, I’m not going to surrender. I want to be like that.’”
Timmons began playing a chorus that he had begun writing with Crystal Lewis about five years earlier. “I fell in love with the chorus, and we finished it,” Millard says of “Even If.” “If Sam does get cured from [diabetes], great, but I tend to think he won’t. Our attitude in our house is that Sam’s going to change the world as a diabetic and that’s ok.”
Though an appropriate album title, Lifer didn’t become the title track of the project until the eleventh hour. The honor previously went to another track, “We Win,” until those plans were changed by certain reactions to the recent election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States.
“We started with this hook, and the entire song was written, recorded, tracked and ready to go to mix by midnight. They didn’t even let me redo the vocal,” Millard recalled of writing and recording “We Win.” The uplifting track details how believers have the hope of good things to come in the next life, despite their present troubles.
“We loved the idea, but then I was watching CNN after Trump became president and they had these hard-core religious fanatics. CNN asked, ‘What do you say about this?’ And they were like, ‘We win! Who cares?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ So Lifer won.”
“Grace Got You” features rapper John Reuben, who had been signed to Christian label Gotee Records.
“He doesn’t do it much [rapping] anymore, but we started doing shows together a long time ago, so we convinced him that he needed to rap on this song. So he agreed and knocked it out of the park.”
In addition to their new album, the band will soon be the subject of a movie based on Millard’s life.
I Can Only Imagine, slated for release in 2018, is taken from the story behind the band’s 2001 single of the same name. Millard’s father, who had battled cancer himself, died in 1991, when Millard was just 18. Miller would write the words “I Can Only Imagine” on various things that reminded him of his father, but it wasn’t until 1999 that he began putting more words and melodies with the thought.
“Six years ago, someone approached me about doing a movie. They had asked what were some of the bigger songs in Christian music at the time, and I guess someone told them, ‘It’s either “I Can Only Imagine,” or “Shout To The Lord.”’ I guess she was looking for a story behind the songs so she came to us and we told her about my childhood and my father. For about five years, that movie stalled and they turned to different scripts and writers. About a year ago, the Erwin Brothers [Jon and Andrew, who directed faith-based films such as October Baby] got involved and wrote a new script. They filmed it in December and January.”
Millard says the band does not make a cameo in the movie, or sing in the movie. Broadway’s J. Michael Finley plays the role of Millard.
“He sang all the parts himself. It goes from me as a kid, through high school up through the independent days of MercyMe as a band. It’s surreal. There are amazing parts to the story and some it’s hard to relive in a way. The directors just wrote me and said they’ve finished the first cut so hopefully I get to see it in the next few weeks.”
The cast also includes Dennis Quaid (Frequency, The Day After Tomorrow), Trace Adkins (Lincoln Lawyer, Mom’s Night Out), Oscar-winner Cloris Leachman (Young Frankenstein, The Croods), Madeline Carroll (Swing Vote), and Priscilla Shirer (War Room).