Tony Cummings talked to Darren Mulligan about the Irish American band WE ARE MESSENGERS
If you scan America's Christian charts this week you'll see that alongside TobyMac, Chris Tomlin, Newsboys and the other big hitters is the act We Are Messengers, a worship group built around singer and songwriter Darren Mulligan. Darren hails not from Nashville but from Monaghan, Ireland and is in fact no stranger to Cross Rhythms radio listeners. Darren's previous band The Remission Flow notched up CR radio hits like "More Like You" and "Fearless" with presenter Jonathan Bellamy enthusing about "the band's passionately performed anthems of worship." Now things have moved along much further for Darren. He and his wife Heidi relocated to Nashville after being offered a dream record contract - a deal with Word/Curb Records and with We Are Messengers' latest song "Everything Comes Alive" high on the Christian radio charts, performances all across the USA for the group and the 'We Are Messengers' album shaping up to be a big seller, things are progressing nicely for the Mulligans.
Before the release of the We Are Messengers debut, Darren spoke to Hallels website about his early life in Ireland. He recounted, "I grew up in a little village along the border with Northern Ireland called Ballinode in County Monaghan. We didn't have much growing up materially, but had almost everything we needed. My parents and siblings are more than I could ever have dreamed of wanting or needing. The only thing we didn't have was Jesus. We did not grow up in a Christian family. We were religious and traditional but had no knowledge that there was a God who loved us and who we could love. Unfortunately, my life spiralled into a mess because I was searching for something to fill the emptiness in my soul. My wife Heidi became a believer about 10 years ago. God rescued her from loneliness, anorexia and depression. Christ gave her her joy back and a peace that is astonishing, even in the middle of great loss. We had been together for seven years when she was saved, and I was in absolute turmoil, faithless, hopeless and living a life of adultery and shame. Heidi prayed incessantly for me and believed that one day I too would become a Christian and write Christian music. In 2008 Heidi and I found ourselves sitting in a little church in Monaghan shortly before we got married. I remember feeling incredibly guilty and unclean, and keenly aware that God was real and that he was exceedingly Holy in every way. I was convinced that only Jesus could reconcile the gulf I understood that existed between God and me. I turned from my sin that night, surrendered my will to Jesus and gave my life to the Lord. We have not looked back since."
In 2012 after a youth mission an ad hoc group of musicians were formed. Originally called Remission they consisted of Darren Mulligan (vocals, guitar), Trevor Brimage (guitar), Mark Allister (bass), Raymond Douglas (keys), Darren's younger brother Mark Mulligan on drums and with Lorraine Brimage and Heidi Mulligan providing BVs. Thanks to Darren's inventive songwriting and powerful vocals the group immediately found a receptive audience and things moved along for the band when one of Britain's top Christian producers, Trevor Michael, signed the band, renamed them Remission Flow and released two excellent albums 'The Light That Floods' (2012) and 'Rhythms Of Grace' (2014) on his pioneering independent label 7Core. What was to happen next though was completely unexpected - a Word record contract.
Explained Darren, "The Remission Flow guys are our best friends from home. They were as much a part of it as I was. When we got offered the record deal, it was offered to me primarily, because I was the songwriter. I offered it to all of the guys without telling them it was just to me, but it just so happened God had put other things in those guys' and girls' hearts. It was wonderful because they've gone on to serve in other ministries. Heidi, my wife, sang with us in Ireland but here, it's a lot more difficult because I'm going on the road, long journeys, and Heidi's had to take care of the kids at home. I have a live band here - a good group of guys who want to serve God, good musicians."
Alongside Darren, We Are Messengers consist of Dylan Craig (guitar), Stephen Stringer (guitar) and Matthew Montgomery (bass). Said Darren, "We have a couple of guys from Arkansas, a guy from Nashville, and then me. We say we're an Irish band but we're really an Irish/American band." Darren began writing the material for 'We Are Messengers' in 2015. He said, "I have loved the writing process and hearing the songs come to life from bare-bone arrangements. The highlight has been hearing the stories of how God has been using these songs to set people free, heal, save and restore. I am amazed that God chooses to use anything that I have touched, but he is wonderfully faithful, and it is an honour to play a small part in his great work."
With Word drip feeding singles to US Christian radio the band have been touring across the US. "We just came off a tour called Winter Jam. That was 60 dates - pretty much four months - all across the country. It was an arena tour, so we were out with For King & Country, Matthew West, David Crowder, those kind of guys. It was wonderful to see God reaching into people's lives and changing them. We've probably done about a hundred shows in the past eight or nine months, and the rest of this year looks really busy too."
I had always thought of Remission Flow as much a band of musical evangelists as anything else. Was Darren happy with We Are Messengers being called a worship band? "We're definitely an unorthodox worship band. We sing songs to God, for God, but so that people will understand how God intersects with our humanity. For me, the songs are a way of us having conversations with people - people that know Jesus and people that don't know Jesus. When we have conversations with people, we get to build relationships; then we can speak into their lives and they can speak into ours - really just to have a dialogue about Christianity. People call us a worship band, and I suppose we're very worshipful in how we approach it. God is always at the centre: when we get into the tour-bus he's at the centre, when we get off the bus he's at the centre; when we're soundchecking, when we're playing, it's always, 'How can we serve God?' We try and write songs that are relevant with ordinary words - words that people understand - so that there's no more barriers to people coming to Jesus than there should be."
There were a lot of producers involved in the making of 'We Are messengers'. Why was that? Darren responded, "When I was writing the record, I wrote about 120 songs over nine months. I wrote every day - I worked really hard - because I knew God had given us this opportunity and I wanted to honour him in that. I wrote with a lot of different producers, and how I decided on the producers was, the guys that I wrote the songs that I was happiest with and felt were most honourable to God, I asked the record label if we could let those guys to produce the songs. They were invested emotionally and spiritually in the songs: instead of taking them to another producer who maybe wasn't so much invested, I asked could we do it with those guys. The label have been incredible and allowed me so much freedom. We have maybe five different producers on the record, because those were the guys that I wrote the songs with."
Darren namechecked some of his favourite tracks. "There's a producer called Josh Bronleewe; he's a young man out here, his career's developing. In the summer of 2014 when I first came out here to meet with the label, we wrote the single currently out here in America - I know you guys are playing it too - 'Everything Comes Alive'. That morning I woke up with Ephesians 2 in my head: we were once dead in our sins, but God is rich in mercy. We met with Josh and we talked about it; we talked him through what my life looked like before Jesus, and what it looks like now. We wanted to write a joyous song about redemption, but we wanted to make it understandable. We tried to use the analogy of a day: what would redemption look like throughout the course of one day? That's why you get the verses, 'In the morning...', 'In the evening...', 'When the day is done. . .' That's just a really joyous song about redemption, and I love it. Joyous songs can be the most difficult to write.
"Josh was the one I connected with most. We wrote another song called 'I Don't Have The Answers'. This is a strange song in that it starts with, 'I don't have the answers/And maybe that's OK/But we can search together/I'm not running away'. The chorus is the same thing, the idea that whenever we meet people that don't know the Lord, or people in great pain or sorrow, we have a tendency to want to fix them. I've realised over the past year and a half that I can fix nobody: I can do nothing without God. Even with God, my role most of the time is purely to love people, to stay with them, to hold their hand when nobody else will, trust for them when they have doubts. Remember the story of the paralytic? You have these men that carry this paralysed man to Jesus; they lay him down and he's made well. He wasn't made well because of his faith, he was made well because of his friends' faith in bringing him to the Lord. For me, that song reminds us that we can't do anything outside of God. God heals, God restores, God redeems; our only job is to love, and trust in him.
"Another song I really love - two songs - I wrote with Ed Cash, a wonderful songwriter. I've become friends with him. We wrote these two songs; one was called 'Wildfire'. I don't think of God in this soft, white-beard, little baby kind of God; I think of God as being a consuming, ferocious, unrelenting, immovable, powerful, wonderful God. So I wanted to write a chorus in a song that would describe the love of God being like a wildfire. So the chorus is, 'You are a wildfire/You're the one/That lights up the dark/With a furious love/Take my ashes/And turn them to gold/Sweep over me/With a furious love.' It's a rollicking song; it's probably the only song on the record that has an Irishness to it. We have some bagpipes in there, mandolins, bouzoukis: it's one of the only songs that hints at where I've come from.
"The last song we wrote for the record - Ed called me one night and asked me if there was one thing I could say that I hadn't said already, what would it be. This was 11pm - my kids were in bed, the wife was in bed - and we talked for about 40 minutes, then Ed hung up. I thought, 'Oh no! I've said something that's offended Ed!' Ed's a big deal out here: you don't want to offend Ed. But I found that he's a very hard man to offend. He called me back and he said, 'Darren, I've recorded our whole conversation. This is the song.' I went into the studio with Ed the next day, and everything we talked about on the phone we put into that song. 'I Look Up' is essentially a song about me. A lot of the time I live in a place of melancholy - in a valley-type place. It reminded me it's OK to be at the valley, because when you're in a valley you can only look up. If you look left or right, you'll see trees and rocks: your view is obscured. But when you look up, that's where you'll see the goodness of God. The second verse says, 'I'm tired of chasing/After feelings/That are only found/On mountaintops/Because when I'm standing/On the top of everything/I'm looking down/Not looking up.' It's a reminder to me that being on the mountaintop feels good, but when I get to that mountaintop I start looking down on the things that I've made, and I forget about who God really is. I've learned to understand that the valley can be a beautiful place too - a place where I'm closest to God. And 'Love is a man hanging on a tree' is the chorus. 'What does love really/Look like for me/I have realised/That love looks like/Jesus Christ/Hanging on a tree/With his back marred more/Than any other/With a heart crushing/Under the weight/Of my sin and my shame.' I wanted to write a song about the cross, because it's always been the centre of my redemption; it's the centre of Christianity. Without Christ's death, Christ's resurrection, our faith is empty. I wanted something on the record to portray that."
One thing which is clear in a conversation with this most passionate of songwriters is his clear determination to follow God wherever he wishes to take him. Said Darren, "I preached yesterday in a little church we're helping to plant in Nashville on Jesus when he said, 'Come follow me'. He says it to lots of people, but the two groups I was thinking of was Simon Peter and Andrew and the rich young ruler. When they were fishing he said, 'Come follow me,' and they immediately left their nets and followed him. We know those two men played a part in turning the world upside down. He said the same thing to the rich young ruler, but he grieved in his heart. He was already on a journey, but not where Jesus was going. Quite often what happens is we start this journey, God revives us, then we start chasing after comforts. We make idols of the strangest of things - careers, bands, church, holiness. One of the most subtle idols is our families: we put the comfort of our family before everything else. It's a dangerous thing to do. I'm not that young - I'm 36 now - and two years ago I prayed to God and told him I didn't want to do music anymore; then he opened this up, and we said OK. The reason I prayed that is I had started to become fearful, and I just wanted to provide for my family, have a good house, a nice car. Those are good things in themselves, but it's that chasing after personal comfort that chokes our desire to go into all the world and spread the Gospel. It can't be about me: if it's always about me, I'll never move."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.