NASHVILLE (CelebrityAccess) We Are Messengers is a band associated with the identification of Christian music, although singer/songwriter Darren Mulligan, originally from Ireland, says below that the band is a hard one to pigeonhole. They were nominated for the Dove Awards’ New Artist of the Year in 2016 and, on Monday, were nominated for two K-LOVE Fan Awards: Group/Duo of the Year and Breakout Single for “Maybe It’s OK.” The band is expected to perform on the awards show (and will be part of the K-LOVE Cruise next January).
“Maybe It’s OK,” focusing on suicide, inspired its own website, https://maybeitsok.com/, where visitors can tell their stories of struggling with life anonymously. To date, more than 1,000 entries have been submitted.
So far this year, We Are Messengers have performed for more than 500,000 people in 40 states and five countries and the album Honest has received 12.4 million streams. “Maybe It’s OK” has spent 16 consecutive weeks in the Top 10 on the Christian charts, and 11 consecutive weeks in the Top 5, with 11.4 million streams. Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global Review said the song “is not only beautifully wrought, but its message projects intense waves of protectiveness, hope, and meaning.”
The story of Mulligan and his wife, Heidi, is an inspiring one, moving from days of intoxication and infidelity to ministry and opening their own food bank. Yet, the story is recent, with many changes over a three-year span. But Mulligan has been a musician for many years, playing at plenty of small clubs in Ireland as he built a career.
“Every once in a while an act comes along that really makes an impact on the world. We Are Messengers are making a HUGE impact on the world right now!” Curb | Word Entertainment GM Ryan Dokke told CelebrityAccess. “From the life-changing hit song, ‘Maybe It’s Ok,’ to their international touring, we are at the beginning of seeing the impact We Are Messengers are going to have on our society and culture.”
Where are you now?
I live outside of Nashville in a little town called Spring Hill, Tenn. Those dates, when we go to Ireland next week, we’ll do three shows and then we do two shows in Holland, one in the UK, and then we come back for a bunch of festivals in the summer, and then, in the fall, it looks like we’re going to do a major tour with another band for 15 dates, then a 30-date headline run in the U.S.
Who do you get to credit for putting all these dates together?
(laughs) I was telling someone the other day how far we’ve come in the last three years. It was only three years ago we were in a one-bedroom apartment, my wife and I and our three kids. We were on food stamps; we were broke. And we hadn’t any music as We Are Messengers at that point.
So, to get to where we are, it’s been a lot of hard work on my side, on my wife’s side. Just taking care of everything at home.
But I think the team we have together – there’s no way you get to do what we do without the team. I really have to thank Curb Records in particular. They’ve been amazing. You know how you hear people ragging on record labels all the time, complaining about them? Our record label has been huge for us, so supportive. When we need tour support, they’re there. Marketing, branding, everything has been excellent. The radio & promotions department too. A lot of Christian touring is driven primarily through radio, and we’ve had four or five Top 5 songs in a row, and that has been driven by an incredible radio promotions team. Jeri Cooper is the head over there, and she’s phenomenal.
Then, honestly, our booking agency. We’re with Creative Artists Agency. We moved to them about a year ago and part of the move has to do with strategy. That was to do a lot fewer shows. Say yes to the ones that really had a purpose and meant something, and say no to just chasing dollars and chasing checks.
So, we really cut our shows back, from 200 a year ago to just over 100 this year. On headline shows, we’re selling more tickets than we ever have. Festival shows are bigger shows and better billing.
Because we have a team around us, our business management – and I’ve never really told anybody this – but our business management comes in and looks at tour opportunities. They make sure that it’s feasible. They make sure that it makes sense. They talk with our management, Hill Entertainment Group, who have been amazing. The whole team works together. Everybody is bouncing ideas off each other. And I find that they really care about me, my sanity, the health of my family, and the health of what we do, what we’re called to do.
We got here because of a team that is much smarter and brighter than I am, but nobody could accuse We Are Messengers of not working hard all day, every day, for the past four years. It’s hard work, with a lot of luck, hopefully, some good songs, and just the favor of God in our lives.
Greg Hill, manager of Rodney Atkins?
Yeah, same guy.
It was a brave mood for us because Greg hadn’t really operated in this realm. Especially in Christian music, people tend to put you in this little box and try to trap you and keep you in a small, little space, and you have to do what you can within that. But we think much broader. We think the message we have, the songs that we have, really matter and really impact not just Christian culture but culture in general, so we needed a manager who thought like that. Greg had been out of that space for a long, long time and he didn’t want to come back into it, necessarily.
And I had so many people tell me that it’s a big risk going for a manager outside of the genre. I said, listen, I need someone who is going to think bigger, and broader, but someone who is honest and has integrity and decency. Greg Hill has been that man. I trust him implicitly with everything we do. I just got off the phone with him five minutes ago. When we work with people, they become our friends, they’re our family. We care a lot about them on an emotional level, not just a business level.
Why would someone say it would be a risk to go with someone outside the Christian market?
Because I think there’s a perception within the Christian music industry that people outside of the format don’t understand the needs of the audience and I think that’s absolute nonsense.
I think if you’re going to pigeonhole an audience, that they’re only responding to certain words, certain phrases, certain types of sound, then we lose all sense of creativity. There are artists within our genre, like us and For King & Country, and Switchfoot to an extent, and TobyMac, that we appeal to a much broader audience than what even people within our industry felt we could, or think we can. So the risk is that if you go with an outsider and bring them into what is relatively cliquey, then it’s like bringing someone into a school clique and having it go, “Oh, we don’t like this guy. He thinks he knows everything. We’ve always done it this way.”
I wanted someone to come in and say, “Yeah, you’ve always done it this way but there is a better way to do it. There’s a smarter way to tour. There’s a smarter way to perform.”
And he’s been that. He’s a challenger so he challenges all of the status quo, and that’s the risk: when you challenge the status quo that you offend people. But because he’s such an incredible human being, he’s never offended one, single person. Yeah, he’s definitely engaged in some hard conversations but how are you ever going to change the system if you don’t try? What’s the definition of madness?
We wanted different results, and he’s bringing them.
And as for CAA, I assume that also changed the strategy.
When we first signed to Word Records, which was the Christian division of Warner Bros., we signed with an in-house booking agency called 25 Artists. There was a guy there named David Breen. Wonderful man, worked incredibly hard, but we felt as we grew we needed to move to an agency with maybe a bigger roster. So we moved to Jeff Roberts & Associates and spent a year and a half there. They did an incredible job, too.
But we were probably touring too much. We were scorching the face of the earth. We were doing 200-250 shows a year for two, three years. So, while we were making good income, I think we were burning too many markets. At home, we were suffering as a family. Our band was exhausted. So we started looking at CAA because they had marquee artists like TobyMac and Chris Tomlin.
We looked at how they toured and they toured very smartly. They’d do East Coast one year, West Coast the next. They’d limit their shows because they knew if they did that they’d increase demand. We have found that by limiting our shows we’ve increased demand and therefore get better guarantees. We get more people coming to the shows, and our goal is to reach human beings. More humans are coming out to fewer shows.
And because of CAA, because that’s their strategy – to keep the artist healthy, to keep the family healthy and to grow the artist consistently with strategic touring.
Who is your RA there?
Tony Johnsen. Those things were hard to do, to move from someone like David Breen, who had invested in us, and to move from Jeri, because we’re very loyal. Now, we always wait out the contracts so we were never breaking any kind of contract, but people do invest in you. For me, that was one of the toughest decisions I had to make, the move from Jeff Roberts to CAA. I knew that I was going to hurt people who had put a lot of time and effort into We Are Messengers.
But, likewise, we had put a lot of time into them, too. And I’m always slow to put us first because I am so loyal, but that decision had to be made because it just wasn’t sustainable to continue that model of touring which, in fairness, is very successful. But if we wanted to do something broader, we had to take the risk and move to an agency that had a different strategy.
It would seem that Christian touring is, quite literally, preaching to the choirs, and aren’t you supposed to go to the sinners?
(laughs) Well, you’ve got the right artist for that. Here’s the thing: as a believer, I’m called to love my community, and then I’m called to love everybody else. So, I think, as a Christian artist, we realize that right now the majority of our fan base, the majority of our radio comes through typical Christian music avenues, and we’re really grateful for that.
But we started playing shows at dive bars in Nashville a couple of times a year, where a Christian artist would never play. And we lose a lot of money doing this, but we do it because we’re called to exactly what you said. We’re called to reach beyond the confines of our comfortable, safe Christianity.
If you look at Jesus, who he actually spent his time with, it was with outcasts and immigrants, the outsider, the broken, the dregs. And I recognize myself in all of those people. So those are the people we want to reach.
Now, you can reach them in the church as well, make no mistake. There’s no difference between a man or woman who loves music that attends a show in a church or those who attends our show at a dive bar in an inner city. The only difference is we have a tendency that we’re going to offend people, the gatekeepers in our genre, if we try those things. That’s the mindset.
But what I find is quite the opposite. I find that the people of real influence within Christian music, like the real gatekeepers, when they see us trying to reach beyond what’s comfortable, they roll in behind us.
I don’t want to preach to the choir. I really don’t want to. I want to go to places no one else is going to go, and I want to love people in the least expected of avenues, where they think I shouldn’t go.
You know when you tell an Irishman don’t do something, you know what he’s going to do? He’s gonna go and do it!
You hit the nail on the head. It’s very easy to make a very good career preaching to the choir but I’d rather risk a good living to do something that really matters, to create art that really matters, and play shows that really matter and stand on their own, in any genre.
What, exactly, is the change in numbers between two years ago and now?
Our touring has been a mixture of headline shows and arena touring and supporting big artists like TobyMac, then festival shows. So, if you’re going to go on our hard-ticket, headline shows, we’ve probably grown that. About two years we would have averaged 200 a night. Now we’re averaging between 500 and 800. We think that’s going to grow close to 1,000 in the fall.
And people might look at that and go, “Those aren’t huge numbers.” But we’ve built real, hard-ticket numbers through touring because that’s the kind of musician I grew up as. Someone who would get into a van and drive, get in a van and drive, get in a van and drive.
Now, you can’t judge what we do when we’re doing support slots. People talk about the numbers they bring in on a support slot. I’m not even going to pretend I can do that accurately. We’ve gone to being pre-close at a lot of major summer festivals. Two years ago we would have been opening those festivals.
There’s been a lot of growth and next spring we’re going to go back at it when TobyMac is out West. That will be 34 arena shows. We just finished 36 arena shows with him this past spring on the East Coast and Midwest. All those things carry into making sure all of our headline numbers grow and that we develop that side of things.
The website MaybeItsOK.com – it’s a great idea. Is it common for bands to set up a site like this, or are you unique? It appears you went way beyond just writing a song regarding this topic.
Yeah. Well, first you’re right: nobody has tried anything like this before. We didn’t want to just lump that onto our website. We didn’t want to make it cheap, you know? We didn’t want to make it just another way to promote We Are Messengers.
I realized early on, about that song, was that it was way bigger than me or, our band or even our genre, to be honest. The song was starting to reach people from all walks of life. We found that they were coming to our social media pages and sharing some of their stories, but you knew that when they were on Facebook or Instagram that they’re still only giving you 30 percent of the truth because they’re afraid of the stigma around mental health or sexuality.
We’ve had people coming on there talking about abortions they’ve had, about the abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of family members. People talking about bipolar condition and anxiety, and all these stigmatized things. We wanted to create a space where they could tell their story anonymously and could tell it all.
At the bottom, we have a list of resources, just to help folks out. I don’t want to just leave people in limbo.
But I got to tell you this story. I was outside my house, where I’m sitting. I was home a few weeks ago and me, my wife and my kids were walking along the sidewalk and this SUV screams by, slams on the brakes, backs up, crosses the road to us.
And I was ready to fight. That’s my natural tendency. And this guy – I’ve never seen him in my life – shouts out the window, “I know where you live.”
I was thinking, jeepers, this is not good.
He then says, “What about that website? MaybeItsOk.com.” Strangest thing I ever thought I’d hear on the side of the road. He says, “What are you going to do to fix those people?”
Do you know what my response was? I said, “I’m not going to do a single thing to fix those people. I want them to be able to tell their story and share their story. That’s it. That’s it.”
He was of the opinion that because I was a Christian, that I spend my whole life wanting to fix people but what I’ve realized as a Christian is I can’t fix anybody. I can’t make anybody well. I can’t make anybody happy. God can do all of those things. My only job is to love people, to give them the ability to share stories and so MaybeItsOK.com is the same reason why we wrote the song, why we write all the songs: so that we can have conversations with people.
That’s what we want. We want to start conversations. We want to be a band that people can believe in.
Do you remember when you were young, you’d go to shows and you didn’t necessarily know all the songs? I remember going to Radiohead when I was a kid. I loved Radiohead. I didn’t know all the songs at the concert but I loved what Radiohead stood for. I loved what they were about. Same thing with Soundgarden.
I think sometimes, in our genre, people become fans of songs they hear on the radio. We’re grateful for that but we want people to be fans of a band that means something. That there’s a movement in it, you know?
So, to go back to those ticket sales, why they’ve been growing exponentially and looks to continue to grow exponentially, is because people are driving four and five hours to see us. They hear from their friends that they don’t know what’s going to happen at the show. See, nobody knows what we’re going to do at a show because we don’t even write setlists. We have a few songs we know we’re going to play but then we just go at it. We stop shows. We cry and we laugh. We shout and we jump. We do whatever we feel like because we believe that the message we’re singing about – hope – is the movement. That’s the meaning. And that’s why people are falling in love with what we’re doing.
Yeah, we write good songs and we’ve had good success. We’re really grateful for all those things but we know how to look at a room and understand what they’re feeling, and then go there with them.
And everything we do is risky. Everything we do potentially kills our career. And I’m OK with that, you know?
But you didn’t finish your story! Did the guy get out of his SUV and beat you up?
(laughs) No! It turns out he was from a local church and he wanted me to send all the people’s information to them so that they could get the people the help that they needed.
I’m like, “Dude, it’s anonymous. That’s the reason why we set up the website the way we did. I couldn’t even get their information if I wanted to. And, in any case, I wouldn’t.”
Oh, so he wanted to mend them.
And that’s the problem. If we’re going to reach an audience with this news, with hope, with Jesus if you want to be that blunt, and I’m not ashamed of my faith, then we have to be honest with our lives. We have to tell the truth all the time. We have to stop loving people with an agenda. I don’t love someone because I want them to become a Christian. I love them because I know that I’ve been loved in a way I shouldn’t have been, that I didn’t deserve the kind of mercy of God. So our lives are just changed. There’s no agenda in what we do.
Half the songs we sing on any given night are love songs about my wife, you know? We’re not your typical band. We don’t sing in metaphors, at least a lot. We tell story about brokenness, and heartache, and disappointment, and stories of joy and hope. What we’ve found is that these songs seem to become the audience’s songs. You can turn up to a We Are Messengers show you’ll see people know every word of every song. They’ve decided that we’re not lying to them. And I can say that without being cocky or arrogant because we are not lying to them. We’re telling the truth.
And it’s risky business, to tell the truth, no matter where you stand ideologically, but that’s what we do.
Somehow, your music – and songs about your wife – remind me of the Lone Bellow.
They’re fantastic. I know the artist.
I was asked one time if I was an artist who happens to make Christian music or a Christian musician. And I knew what they were trying to do. They were trying to trap me into some kind of an answer whereby they could label me as something. I said, “Listen, when I mow my lawn, I’m a Christian lawnmower. When I’m hanging out with my kids, I’m a Christian daddy. When I’m with my friends, I’m a Christian friend.”
I was asked one time if I was an artist who happens to make Christian music or a Christian musician. And I knew what they were trying to do. They were trying to trap me
It’s not that I put this label on me and I have to operate inside of a box but everything I do is because of the hope of experience. Everything I do is because of the love that I found. I don’t think it has to be this boring, sanitized, impotent form of music. I think if I believe this Jesus is who he said he was, the guy who was with the outsider, then I think we should be writing the most cathartic, beautiful songs – not just about Jesus but about life, you know? About our experiences. And that’s what we do. Our records are songs about Him, songs for Him, and songs for our wives and for our friends, and songs for fans who have taken their own lives because they couldn’t handle life. Those are the things that are going to matter. I don’t want to write songs that don’t change the world. I want to write songs that would change, even if that’s the world around one person.
I would say that what we have learned, as we have grown into a headline artist, is to treat everybody around our camps with the utmost respect.
I think when you have a platform, then you have a responsibility to treat people the way you wish people would have treated you on the way to that platform.
There are artists like TobyMac. Incredible artist and we just finished an arena tour with him. Not once did we feel like we were belittled or made small, or made to be less. We felt like we were invited into his home and treated like family. So, from a business side of view, we want to treat every artist that we bring on tour with us like our family.
You know when you have family and you invite them into your house for dinner? You don’t make them sit out on the back porch. You have them sit at the best seat at the table in your house and let them eat everything you have. We want to treat artists like that, who come out and support us. We don’t want to limit their lights, or their LED wall, or the decibels on their sound desk. We want them to have everything we have, you know? Within reason – obviously, we have to turn a profit and stuff.
I would just say that I’ve learned that if you treat people well, that if you have integrity and honesty and decency, that your platform will grow much quicker than if you’re trying to climb over the bodies of the people around you.
If you have integrity and honesty and decency, that your platform will grow much quicker than if you’re trying to climb over the bodies of the people around you.
Competition? I don’t even see the competition anymore. I used to look around at what people were doing and try and do it. Even on our socials, we’ve deleted nearly every musician, every record label person, not because we don’t love them but because we don’t want to be looking at what they’re doing and comparing. We want to do our own thing.
And when we meet them at festivals and industry events, then they’re our friends. Then we can hang and talk and chat and dream but looking around at what everyone else is doing steals every once of joy you have. We’re learning that we want them to win. All boats in our industry can rise together. Dog-eat-dog is so old school.
I think it’s a much more beautiful thing than wanting people to feel that you might be the one to succeed, and not them, to feel better about yourself.
Tue, MAY 21 | Bangor Elim Church | Bangor, Ireland
Wed, MAY 22 | Bangor Elim Church | Bangor, Ireland
Thu, MAY 23 | Bangor Elim Church Bangor, Ireland
Fri, MAY 24 | Bonfire | Dordrecht, Netherlands
Sat, MAY 25 | De ark | Assen, Netherlands
Sun, MAY 26 | Big Church Day Out | Steyning, United Kingdom
Sat, JUN 1 | Rock The Park 2019 | Charlotte, NC
Fri, JUN 14 | Montgomery Ruritan Club Camp| Montgomery, IN
Sat, JUN 15 | Joyful Noise 2019 | Blaine, MN
Thu, JUN 20 | 2019 KingsFest | Doswell, VA
Fri, JUN 21 | SpiritSong Christian Music Festival | Mason, OH
Sat, JUN 22 | RiseFest | Sheldon, IA
Sat, JUN 29 | Celebrate Freedom | Fort Worth, TX
Thu, JUL 11 | The Mix | Des Peres, MO
Fri, JUL 12 |Morris Performing Arts Center |South Bend, IN
Sat, JUL 13 | Light The Way | Rogersville, MO
Sun, JUL 14 | Headwaters Park | Fort Wayne, IN
Sat, JUL 20 | Rock the Island | Saginaw, MI
Sun, JUL 21 | Great Jones County Fair | Monticello, IA
Wed, JUL 24 | California State Fair | Sacramento, CA
Fri, JUL 26 | The Barn at Mader Farm | Genesee, ID
Sat, JUL 27 | Liberty Bay Waterfront Park | Poulsbo, WA
Wed, JUL 31 | Darien Lake Theme Park Resort | Darien Center, NY
Fri, AUG 9 | Unity Christian Music Festival | Muskegon, MI
Sat, AUG 10 | Mercer County Fairgrounds | Celina, OH
Sun, AUG 11 | Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary | Cochrane, Canada
Mon, AUG 12 | Dayton Fair | Dayton, PA
Sat, AUG 17 | Riverfront City Park | Salem, OR
Sat, SEP 7 | Yoder Family Farm | Garden City, MO
Tue, SEP 10 | Clay County Regional Events Center | Spencer, IA
Sun, SEP 22 | Bloomsburg Fair | Bloomsburg, PA
Jan 29, 2020 | K-LOVE Cruise | Fort Lauderdale, FL