By Joshua Maloni
If you think Christian music is judgy, preachy, stuffy or boring, then you’re doing it wrong.
We Are Messengers can help.
Seven years since forming, the band has amassed more than 360 million video views and 1 billion radio impressions by crafting songs and sounds that invite listeners in. Upbeat in nature, these tracks downright dare you not to pump your fist or nod your head in jubilant fashion.
Irish frontman Darren Mulligan and his bandmates are (and offer) an unexpected approach to God rock. They want audiences to leave shows feeling better – not worse – and optimistic about life.
On the road touring, Mulligan shared more about the heart of We Are Messengers in a recent Q&A. He said he’s excited to perform in Buffalo on March 18, opening for Casting Crowns in a Kingdom Bound concert at The Chapel.
Q: You guys are coming out to Buffalo and we're excited about that. Now, tell me, are you in Florida or on your way to Florida?
Darren Mulligan: I am in Florida right now; in Gainesville. I was daydreaming about being in Ireland, just before I called you. When I come to a place like this, I love the people. But, my goodness, sometimes I feel like a stranger in the Promised Land (laughs). I feel like that today.
Q: Well, I was going to warn you about coming to Buffalo, because it's quite a contrast from Florida – but then again, so is Ireland. And I'm wondering: Why does anyone leave Ireland? My goodness, man, it's such a beautiful country!
Darren Mulligan: (Laughs) Well, I suppose it's this idea that you’re called to something. I was just writing about it, actually.
I feel like, you know, there's a story in the Bible about Jonah and the whale. Where, this man, this guy that God likes – this prophet – is called to go to a place, but he runs from it because he wants to go to the place he loves.
And it's not quite that for me. I didn't need a whale to carry me to America. And I didn't say that I was pushed into it. But I feel very much called to be here.
So, even though I feel like a stranger sometimes – even though I miss everything I love about home every day – there's a beauty in walking in a calling. I’ve been able to see people turn from addiction and turn towards Jesus; to turn from adultery and turn towards Jesus; to turn from hopelessness and find hope and mental health.
I suppose that's why we're here – because God brought us a message of just hope, and we want to bring that to these people. We have for seven years, and it's honestly been the greatest joy of my life to do this.
Q: When I look at your band, I see a lot of juxtaposition. I listen to the music and it gets me pumped. It gets me going. But you also, obviously, have a message in there that you want people to listen to and think about. That's one juxtaposition. Another one is this idea that your live shows – as your team says – they're “gritty and rowdy,” but they're also “tender and connective.” And then your band – you guys identify with being outsiders or underdogs and, yet, when we see you, you're going to be here with one of the biggest bands in Christian music. Of course, you've also won a slew of awards. So, I guess the question is how do you make it all work?
Darren Mulligan: Yeah, we're pretty complex. I suppose we're just humans. You know, we're just messy men. And so, being Irish, we're storytellers, right? And so, we're strange people that we can laugh and cry in the same sentence. We're walking contradictions. We can be incredibly angry in one moment, and then so full of compassion in the next. …
But musically, I suppose, I grew up with rock ‘n’ roll – I love rock ‘n’ roll music. So, we're a rock ‘n’ roll band. But we have this heart for starting conversations with the underdog. And when I talk about the underdog, I talk about those that are marginalized in society. I talk about those who are caught in patterns of addiction, or whatever it may be. And the reason we're able to talk about those things is because we've lived a lot of those things.
We want to remind people that you don't have to stay there. You can come somewhere else – there's a better place. There's a better way. And it's a way where no one is excluded. Everyone's welcome at the table with Jesus.
So, yeah, we are a walking contradiction. And I understand that (laughs). And it's a strange thing to have the success that we've had, because we've never longed for success. We've just longed to tell stories, and sing songs in sweaty, rowdy rooms. And we get to do both. And I'm a privileged man because of that.
Q: When you talk about helping those in need, helping those who are hurting, in the past two years have you found that it's been more challenging to do that? Or maybe has it been easier to do that, in light of everything that's been going on?
Darren Mulligan: Yeah, and again, here's the contradiction. It's been both of those things, at different times.
I think people in the last couple of years have really examined their lives and gone, “What really matters? Does any of what I do matter? What's my purpose in life?” And so, that opens up conversations about those big things.
There's big things that we can avoid when we have enough money, or when we have enough business in our lives. But when you strip the money away; and the sense of career, purpose; and then you realize your identity is found in things you do – not in who you are – then we can have conversations about that – which is beautiful.
But secondarily, if you look at how difficult it's become in America to say anything that contradicts another person's narrative, right – we all have these narratives in our lives; we believe certain things to be true and certain things to be false. When I grew up, it was OK to disagree. It was perfectly OK to disagree with each other. But in America, in particular, it seems to me that, if you disagree with someone, the response instead of someone saying, “Why?” tends to be shouting at you, or shouting you down, or making assumptions.
And so, I really hope that, as a country and as a people, we can go back to having conversations – because that's how we move things forward. Not by shouting our opinions on people.
Q: They say that great art comes from great challenge. I don't think they necessarily had pandemics in mind when they were talking about that. But what was it like for you guys to put “Wholehearted” together? I mean, with everything that was going on, what was the mindset, and what did you hope to accomplish with this album?
Darren Mulligan: Yeah, I said to my wife one day, recently, she asked me is “Wholehearted” the last record we're ever going to make. You know, and I was kind of sideswiped by that. I didn't know why she was asking me the question. But my response was pretty honest. I said, “I don't know.” I said, “But if it was, it's been the record I’ve always wanted to make.”
And what I meant by that was it's a record that I haven't tried to make cool, or seem as relevant, or to write it in a way that may work in certain platforms on streaming or video. I just wrote stories. I wrote stories about the truth that I've experienced. And I allowed the production to help tell those stories. I didn’t feel forced. It didn't feel like a struggle.
And honestly, part of the pandemic was a gift to that, because it allowed me to just sit back, step back, and go, “Do I really love this? Do I love music? Do I love doing what I do?” And the answer was “Yes.”
And so, for the first time in many years, I didn't feel any pressure. And it's been beautiful just to watch it. Even the first single – it's just been the most successful song we've ever put out. And trying to tell people that, it's amazing. We had a No. 1 song with “Come What May.” It was No. 1 for 15 weeks, right? And you know what I did during those 15 weeks? I was in Ireland building a cabin in the hills, in the back in the woods, with no internet. I didn't do anything – other than write music.
And people really just connected with it. And I think that's the sign of art, is that you don't need to force it up the hill. If it's good enough, people will love it. And I'm grateful it worked out.
Q: Along those lines, I know touring has been sort of hit and miss the past two years. But in playing those new songs, and in sharing that with your fans, what has the response been? Certainly, you've had the commercial success, but what about in the venues and places that you've been to? How has the fan reaction been?
Darren Mulligan: It’s been wonderful. It really has, mate. The crowds have been back. They’re back. I was saying to the boys in the band last night, once we got off stage, isn't it cool to see an audience really hungry again? Hungry to be together, firstly, and then hungry to engage with music – to engage with art, to engage with conversation.
It's just really exciting, because I think people started to believe that they didn't need each other. They just needed some stupid social media accounts, or some position in a career. And when you realize that humans were made to be together – we were made to embrace; we were made to sing together – to dance, to shout – it's really reinvigorated the live music scene. And I hope that continues and we don't fall back into that kind of apathetic, laissez faire kind of culture.
Q: You guys play at all different types of venues, of course. When you come to Buffalo, you're playing at a place called the Chapel at Crosspoint. It's our largest church. I think Chris Tomlin was the first person I saw perform there. They've had all kinds of different Christian artists and all kinds of great acts in there. When you think about the performance – when you think about the setlist – does it change at all based on the room you're in? What should we expect when we see you guys in that particular venue?
Darren Mulligan: Yeah, it doesn't change so much with the room. It changes kind of on the spot with the audience. We allow a lot of room in our set for flexibility. So, if the audience wants a rowdier night, then we get rowdier. If they want a more tender night, we’ll get tender. Because we don't want to be the kind of band that just kind of serves up a dinner, whether you want it or not. We want to honor the people who come to the show. So, we're really flexible.
But, honestly, whether we're in a theater or an arena or in church or in a dive bar in downtown Nashville, it doesn’t change who we are. But we do want to react and honor people.
Mate, honestly, do you know what I really want sometimes? I just want people to have a good time. Go to forget about, maybe, the mundanity of our lives, the grind, the heartache; and just give them a brief glimpse and a brief look into what it looks like to be a follower of God. That means that we have peace in every circumstance, joy in every situation, no matter how hard it is.
That’s all we really want, mate. It's not complicated. That’s that paradox of us. We talk about big ideas, but at the end of the day, we're just a blue-collar bunch of guys wanting to love people where they're at.
Q: Tell me a little bit about playing with Casting Crowns. How did that partnership come about?
Darren Mulligan: Yeah, really cool, actually.
So, when I first became a believer, that was in 2007. I didn't even know that Christian music was a thing, you know? But I remember my wife buying me tickets to a concert in Belfast in Northern Ireland. And it was for a band called Casting Crowns. We went to the SSE – what is the Odyssey Arena in Belfast. I sat up in the corner of this arena, and I watched this wonderful band, Crowns, play. And I remember thinking, “It's amazing how many people are in this Jesus community.” Because I thought I was the only one. I thought there's only a few Christians in Ireland.
And so, to be on stage with those guys each night, and to be with them, is a real gift. You know, they always talk about meeting your heroes – you know, be careful; they’ll often disappoint you. And I have to say that this group of people who they are backstage is exactly who they are on stage. They're humble. They’re tender. There are no egos. No one's trying to be cool. And it feels like the way I hoped the music community would in America. And it hasn't always been like that. But these guys are the best example of a family at work in the music industry that I've ever seen. And were honored to be part of it.
Q: So, you became a Christian 15 years ago – and in 15 years, you've had this kind of impact on the industry – and you're this passionate about spreading God's love and God's mission to people? I mean, if that's not proof of calling, I don't know what is, right?
Darren Mulligan: (Laughs) Yeah, and you know, again, the paradox is that I am not always like that. You know, I have parts of every day where I'm wrestling with depressive thoughts or loneliness or isolation, and then parts of my day where it's just this incredible piece of God that comes over me.
I think the passion remains, because I remember who I was when God found me. What he rescued me from. And I would like to say that, you know, these 15 years later, that I've made it. I’ve become the man I wanted to be. And the truth is, I'm so far from it every day.
And that's why we can still write songs for people like that, because we realize that this “following Jesus thing” is a process. It's gonna take a long time. Shorter for others. But everyone goes at their own pace with Jesus.
The passion remains, no matter how hard it gets, because I know what it cost to buy me with.
•Find We Are Messengers online at https://wearemessengersmusic.com.