With a hot new album out in the shops is tireless toiler for Christ JOHNNY MARKIN He spoke to Jonathan Bellamy.
Johnny Markin, Canadian Rocker' is a label that hides the truth. For this Brian May lookalike is far more than simply a rock 'n' roll singer. True, his fourth and latest album 'No Frontiers' is jamb packed with no compromise guitar and heartening rock ballads. True too, he has just completed a 12-city tour of Germany and is putting together a brand new British band for UK dates. But, any survey of Johnny's ministry will need to mention his involvement with worship leader Chris Bowater, his production of a variety of albums from Spring Harvest Youth Praise to up and coming contemporary artist Julia Bradley, and then contrast this with his extensive schools and youth group work throughout Europe and North America. Such multifarious activity shows a musician keen to share not only his music but the Gospel that has changed his life.
Just a rocker he may not be, but yes, he IS Canadian. Growing up in a non-Christian culture in Vancouver Johnny's earliest contact with Christianity was through American television. As Johnny remembered, "With those Southern preachers ranting and raving I used to take the mick out of Christians quite a lot. I thought they were a bunch of wallys and weirdos. Then I met some at my high school who were genuine, caring people who were good to be around. Then the drummer that I was playing with, his brother became a Christian and he started sharing the faith with us. Eventually I decided that people that I was involved with, with rock 'n' roll and drugs and partying and stuff were pretty much a dead end. So I chose to follow Jesus Christ because of His words and because of the love shown to me by other Christians." This happened in the late 70s and at the time Johnny's high school band, Beowulf (from the 8th century old English epic poem) was beginning to make noises, getting a lot of concert dates throughout Vancouver and the province. Influenced by heavy rock of the day, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Kansas and Yes, they got involved with a big name agent. "The whole idea of being a rock star was all I'd ever dreamed of being," Johnny continued. "But when I realised what an empty life the music business could be I asked myself 'What if I ever got there? What then?', and then I was hit by what Christ said, 'I came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly,' I decided that fame and fortune wouldn't necessarily be the be all and end all. I never rue that decision of giving up, potentially, mega millions in the rock business, at all."
Soon after, Johnny enrolled at the Vancouver University to study psychology. A period of soul searching resulted from the barrage of deep questions that seemed to challenge aspects of his Christian faith, but, far from dissuading him, the effect was only positive. "I found very good answers which gave me not only a heartfelt experience in the Christian faith but also a great understanding of it. I expect this is why I love to read apologetic material by people like Roger Forster, Josh McDowell and C S Lewis."
At the same time, Johnny's church involvement was developing, and out of the church music group came his first Christian band Titus.
Titus grew. They crossed the Atlantic for summer tours and even had a cassette released privately in the UK. They must have left an impression for as Johnny ironically pointed out, "It's funny, people still write to me saying, 'Hey, I've got a copy of that old thing you did', and I don't even have a copy of it myself!"
Then in 1985, having graduated from university Johnny fell into a song writing, publishing and production contract with a company in Vancouver who owned Little Mountain Studios; home to Bon Jovi, Brian Adams and Aerosmith. Suddenly, dollar signs started appearing in people's eyes. As Johnny remembered, "They tried to make Christian pop heroes out of us, out of Titus; and they tried shopping our music around the States and although a few things almost came off I think it was another one of those cases of needing to be in the right place at the right time." So, did Johnny regret missing out? "No. It really didn't bother me if I didn't sell millions of albums or have my songs on Christian radio across America if I could impact the lives of young people at my concerts and in high schools and that. Many times I've seen Christian musicians in North America wandering quite a long way from the idea of ministry. They are just involved with business and 'How many gigs do you do a year?' and 'How many albums do you sell?' and things like that. Of course, it's not all like that, there are still a few of them around who inspire me."
In the next few years God took him at his word and the band ministered at a lot of selective dates throughout Western Canada and Washington state learning how to reach young people. As Johnny described, "I think that in not having had a Christian background I find it very easy to convey the reality of my faith in God to people who have also not grown up in a Christian environment." God gave him the opportunity to do so! Tours to Europe had not stopped though, and one of the most memorable occurred in 1986. Johnny related the details: "We were coming over from Vancouver during the time of the British Airways bomb going off in Berlin and the American disco getting bombed in Berlin, and you've guessed it, we were headed for Berlin! Well, we did a week's tour and were headed to the UK for another three week tour and getting on the plane at Berlin the pastor said to us 'I thought I wouldn't tell you but last night before your concert we had a phone call saying that if the concert went ahead they were going to explode a bomb in the church. So we decided not to tell you so you could play the concert anyway. We get these things all the time you know.' So that was memorable!"
In 1988 Johnny felt God calling him to Britain. The openings for evangelism in schools were great and so, along with his new wife Darlene, the pair decided to work as 'music missionaries' alongside British Youth For Christ, where they were resident. One year became two, which became three and they, were still here, with no direction to leave. So in March 1992, taking up residency in the UK, they bought a place in Lincoln and subsequently joined Chris Bowater's New Life Christian Fellowship. Johnny's respect for Chris is obvious. "I think he's one of the most humble individuals I've ever met in Christian music. In many ways he's been like a spiritual father to Darlene and me and certainly I have learnt a lot about being sensitive to the Holy Spirit in leading worship."
With the opportunity to lead worship from time to time at New Life and festivals like Spring Harvest Johnny is obviously getting the worship leading practice, but what about the rock 'n' roll gigs? Is there a need to be sensitive to the Spirit then? "As a matter of fact I think there is. I try to hear from the Holy Spirit if there is a particular thing I need to say between songs or whether I should alter my programme to include a particular song I hadn't expected to do, and it sounds flippant but there have been so many times when somebody has come to me after the concert and said, 'Wow, that song you played was so powerful, I'm so glad you played it!'. I think that all people in music ministry who are trusting in God, if they feel an impression on their heart to move in a certain direction during a concert and they go with it then God will bless that willingness to follow His order. Also, I think one of the most exciting things I have learnt is that Christian musicians don't need to talk all the time in their concerts. I have become very relaxed over the years and I think that if you share only one really important point with people over the course of a concert which they can take home and apply, then that is far better than talking 85 spiritual points that they'll all forget!"
Surprisingly, it wasn't until 1988 that Johnny Markin put together his first album 'Look To Love', basically because "I thought it would be nice to have something so people could take away my music." As a collection of earlier demos dating back to the Little Mountain Studios days it is not surprising that what some might regard as his most anointed tracks are featured on it. As Johnny explained, "Over the years people have pointed to two songs on the 'Look To Love' album; "What I Am In You" and "Don't Go Away". The latter I quite often use as a closing number at my concerts for people who haven't yet met Jesus but are investigating Him."
Hot on its heels, in 1989, came 'Through The Waiting'. Recorded to be a fundraiser for the BYFC missions department Johnny doesn't really count it as representative of his work; "I only wrote one song on the album. The rest of it was a collection of instrumental praise tunes!"
1989 also saw an increase in touring, particularly in Scotland. "I did a BYFC tour with a chap called Bill Harvey all over Scotland. We did 12 concerts in 14 nights and that was just crazy!" Over the next two years things developed still further. Most of his work was on the road, across Britain and increasingly into Europe, taking in Belgium, Holland and in particular Germany.
The first major tour of Germany was in 1991 and it was extensive and highly demanding, not least because Johnny had to do most of the driving. "We went from the south to the north to the east to the south and back and we crisscrossed Germany three times in three weeks." Despite this Germany is rapidly becoming a favourite place of his to play, and indeed for many other artists too. As Johnny explained, "The Electrics are great buddies of mine and I run into them in Germany all the time. They are hilarious. If you haven't seen Sammy Horner trying to decipher a German menu, then you haven't lived! Also I get the chance to work with groups like Split Level and meet people like Larry Norman and Margaret Becker, who lives out what she writes and that is very refreshing to see."
The Call Home' was released in 1991 and became the start of a
relationship with ICC recording studios that has been followed through
to the latest album 'No Frontiers'. It too produced a couple of songs
regularly played at gigs. "Be My Guide" and "Hold On To The Love"
Johnny regards as possibly "the freshest tracks I play", the latter
being a fast song about "doubt, faith
But of course the album with the most interest about it has to be the latest, 'No Frontiers', not least because of the joint production work of ex-Nutshell-ite Paul Field.
Does that make it a goodie? Musically the album is superb, switching from hard crunching rock to smooth emotive ballads very successfully, and there is even room for a particularly Scottish sounding rendition of Vivaldi's "Spring" from The Four Seasons'. Nice touch. Whilst another bonus is the appearance, yet again (she appeared on Adrian Snells' 'Beautiful...Or What?!'), of ex-Level 42 and Simple Minds backing singer Annie McCaig.
Johnny gave me his opinion. "Instead of dwelling on simple issues and
writing songs because I think there will be a commercial kind of thing
about it, these songs were actually burdened on my heart and that's
why t wrote them. I think this album represents a lot of things that
God is doing in maturing my faith. It represents the most spiritually
changing time in my life."