John van der Veen
The band may have been formed in a dorm room with a group of college friends, but it has since become a music ministry that has touched peoples hearts and minds all over the globe.
Here is Mike Grayson, the lead singer of Mikeschair, speaking about how he got involved with music, his songwriting process, and explaining some of the tracks from the latest album, All or Nothing.
John: Well hey, Mike. How are you, sir?
Mike: Good, how are you?
John: I’m doing very well. Thank you so much for calling, man, I really appreciate it.
Mike: Yeah, thanks for having me.
John: Mike, I’m wondering if you could start off by giving us a little bit of background information. What made you decide to get into music in general and then into Christian music specifically?
Mike: Going way back I’ve always been really, really, really drawn to music. When I was really little I was in a boy choir where it was like whoever could sing the highest was the coolest. It started out there but then I just desperately wanted to play an instrument. For a long time I thought it was going to be the saxophone, like that was going to be my jam, but in my middle school, they actually offered guitar in band. That’s where I learned how to read music, by playing guitar back in fifth grade. From the very first moment I had a guitar, I learned one chord, which was E, and I learned you could move it around the neck and it sounded good in different places, and I started writing music.
I’ve never really been one of those people who wanted to be a guitar god. From the very beginning, it’s always been about writing songs. I actually, in fifth grade, started writing music. I wrote some songs and recorded them so they were on a cassette tape. I gave them to my middle school Bible study leader who happened to be the mother of Dan Haseltine, who is the lead singer of Jars of Clay. She ended up playing it for Dan and then I don’t know what Dan heard in those songs back then, but he brought me up to Nashville the summer before eighth grade.
I ended up recording three songs, which Dan produced, and some of the Jars of Clay guys played on the recordings. As you can imagine, that blew my mind. I was so young and I think Hanson was really big at the time, so that might have played a part in it. I just remember leaving Nashville being that young and feeling like I was leaving home. It was very weird. Then for the rest of middle school and high school, I wrote songs and sent them to Dan or whoever and I just really remember thinking that was my moment.
I thought [becoming an artist] was going to happen right then and after years of that not happening, I got to the point right before I went to college where I thought, You know, I don’t really want to do the artist thing. I’d been leading worship in my youth group and just really had a heart for worship. I came to Belmont University, which is the only school I applied to there in Nashville, and I really just wanted to be a worship leader. Then, funny enough, in the first two weeks of my freshman year, Mikeschair formed and I’ve been an artist ever since. That was ten years ago now.
John: When you talk about your journey, do you continue to write about that? You mentioned that you are a song writer. Would you consider yourself to be a song writer first and then a musician? Or a musician first and then a song writer?
Mike: I was definitely a song writer first and then, I mean, I obviously loved playing guitar. I could play some piano but there are people who are far better than me when it comes to that. My heart leans toward writing music first.
John: When you talk about your story and how God led you from what you were doing into Mikeschair, you continue to weave that story in and out of your songs. Your new record is called All or Nothing. Are there songs that deal with that specifically?
Mike: I think maybe not specifically but I do think throughout my entire journey, the Lord has been teaching me about his timing and about the fact that we can’t really look to people to make our dreams come true. One of the things I feel like I’ve learned is that the Lord really is ultimately the only One who sees that through and sometimes he uses people, but the question is, where are we putting our hope?
There’s a song on the new record called “I Can Wait,” and it deals specifically with the fact that I still struggle, even with God proving himself faithful time and time again in my life. I still deal with the whole, “God, I think my timing is better” mentality. I say, “If the events would only happen in this order, wouldn’t that be better, God?” When I write, it’s not necessarily about how my life actually looks, but rather how I want my life to look. They’re prayers; they’re statements of faith so that when I sing them it’s instilled in my heart. “God, okay, I can wait. You’re not a second late; you’ve proven that before so let me believe that now.”
John: When you go through the process of writing a song, are you writing them because there is something that you are going through? In other words, is the song writing for you or do you have a particular audience in mind?
Mike: It’s definitely both. This is our third studio album, so at this point we’ve spent a lot of years on the road. I’ve met a ton of amazing people and heard a lot of incredible stories. I definitely think that when I sit down to write there is an audience in mind now. There are actual faces that I can see when I write. And I definitely think, What do I want to say when I’m on stage at this point? Or, What are the words that I want to express to people? At the same time, on this record there are a lot of personal songs specifically for me. One of those songs is called “People Like Me.”
That song deals specifically with my family and our struggle with addiction, and how my immediate family didn’t escape that. That song is intensely personal yet I think at this point when it comes to writing, I’ll write for myself knowing that I’ve been through enough scenarios now where people will come up and say, “Man, it’s almost as if you took the words out of my mouth.” I know that even though I’m writing something for myself, there are a lot of other people who feel the same way and need to know they’re not alone in their struggles. In that regard, it’s almost as if there’s a crowd of people in the room with me every time I write.
John: Is it ever intimidating?
Mike: Yeah, for sure. I’ve also gotten to the point now where I don’t want to mess it up. I want every lyric to be honest. I don’t want things to come across as cliché or fake. I always try to be as honest as I can, and that can be hard sometimes in Christian music because we tend to want to focus on the joy aspect of being a believer. But in my life, I’ve found that sometimes I focus on the difficulties of being a believer and just the hardships of what it means. Songs like “Let the Waters Rise,” “Someone Worth Dying For” and “People Like Me” lend themselves toward what it means to be a believer in a world that’s broken.
Yet, on this record I made a conscious choice not to throw joy to the wayside. There are songs like “Loved By You” and “This is Our Moment,” which really speak to the joys of what it means to be a believer and being saved by grace. I’m trying to be more well rounded I guess when it comes to the songs that we’re singing.
John: The title track “All or Nothing” says, “I wanna lose myself in grace’s ocean / Find my heart in your hands / Every piece I give it over / Nothing less, you have everything I am.” What’s behind those lyrics?
Mike: “All or Nothing” was the first song that I wrote for this record and it really set the tone for the entire album. For our previous records we kind of wrote songs and then looked back and realized there was a theme throughout the process. This record, though, was the first time I actually set out with a theme in mind. I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to write an album that really spoke to the fact that there are so many things in the world dying for our attention. A lot of things are very loud about it, and I thought, Why can’t Jesus be the thing that is loud, the thing that is bold?
It goes on to say, “I’m done wasting time … I wanna shine a light like the skyline.” It’s saying I want to be bold, I want to be all out, I want to be all in for Jesus. This song was the first thing that I came to the table with. It just set the tone for the entire thing. We start the record with “All or Nothing” and then the very last song is a song called “All to Jesus, I Surrender All.” That’s the prayer, that by the end of this record, people will be willing to join the ranks of those who say, “Yes, I’m all in. I found where my hope is, where my joy lies, and it’s in Jesus, and because of that I’m ready to surrender all.”
John: Mike, I think to some extent because of the framework at least of that song and the rest of this record, you are really calling out the casual approach to Christianity. Do you think the church here in the west is suffering because of this lackadaisical attitude of we go to church once in a while, or we participate in the holidays of the church or we have this, in a sense, Christ-less Christianity? Do you see that going on?
Mike: Yeah, I think I used to a couple years ago. I dealt with the “am I preaching to the choir” thing. I’ve been able to go out of the country multiple times now, and I think that really awakens the thing inside of me that’s like man, we are so blessed and we have such an opportunity to drastically change the world. I feel like every night when we do a show there’s this thing in me, I think it’s this warrior nature almost, that wants to shake people up and be like guys, do you realize what we have? Do you realize what we’ve been given in Christ?
Yet most of us, including myself, struggle with this. Like I said, this record is a challenge to me as well, to stop wasting time and stop living a life that’s not to the fullest. What I found is that when we live life to the fullest, that means living life for Jesus, but what does that look like? What does it look like to wake up every day and say, “I want today to be all or nothing?” If you ask yourself that question, how would your day look different? That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. Yes, I do feel that. I do feel the sense of comfort that we all have and that we all enjoy, and yet how can we use that to further the kingdom? How can we use the things we’ve been blessed with to make a difference in a world that is desperate for truth?
John: Mike, you’ve graced the Family Christian version of the record with a couple exclusive bonus tracks, including “Let the Waters Rise” and “Someone Worth Dying For,” and we are certainly grateful for those. I know that you guys have had guests on your previous albums, but do you have any special guests joining you guys on this one?
Mike: Yes, Matthew West actually joins us on “People Like Me” which is so awesome. We toured with Matthew two years ago and just love him. He is the real deal and he was so gracious, excited and willing to join us on this album, and I’ve always wanted to do a duet with a guy like Matthew. That song is really special for a number of reasons, but to have him on it makes it that much more special; that’s a really cool moment on the record.
John: Awesome. Mike, are you a book reader?
Mike: I would like to think that I am, but if you could see the list of books I’ve started and not finished, I think I would shame actual book readers by calling myself a book reader. I like to start them, does that count? No, my wife is a book reader, though, so I feel like I definitely get a lot from her. But I feel like I would be lying if I said that I was a legit book reader.
John: Well, we won’t hold anything against you.
John: Are you a coffee drinker?
Mike: This is embarrassing, I’m not.
John: That’s not embarrassing.
Mike: That’s the other thing. I feel like in order to be taken seriously as an artist you have to be this coffee connoisseur and I’m just not. I never have been, but I’m attempting to. My wife is a huge coffee drinker so I think it’s her mission in life to make me a coffee drinker.
John: I always thought that if you put enough cream and sugar in the coffee then anybody could be a coffee drinker.
Mike: Yeah it’s true. I love mochas, but I feel like that doesn’t count.
John: Isn’t that like the wimpy version of coffee?
Mike: Yeah, it’s just got a lot of chocolate in it or something like that.
John: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. According to today’s standards I think you are a coffee drinker if you drink mochas.
Mike: Yes, okay. I’m going to start saying I’m a coffee drinker then.
John: There you go. You can wear a name tag even, if you wanted to.
Mike: I'll take it.
John: Good, awesome. Mike, thank you man. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today.
Mike: Awesome. Thanks man, it means a lot.
John: My pleasure. God bless you, brother.