Musician ‘dangerous’ in speaking truth about his faith
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Darren Mulligan and his Christian worship band, We Are Messengers, sat on the side of the highway in the dead of night. Dazed. Flames crackling and whipping and punching through their tour bus.
The bus had slammed into a car stopped on the road.
The passenger in the car did not survive.
Mulligan and his band did.
“I remember saying to God, ‘God, how many times can you kick me before I stay down? And he said, as many times as I want, Darren. That’s kind of a sucky answer, isn’t it? But there’s a cost,” said Mulligan, who on Wednesday stole away from his band, which was performing that night at Grand Canyon University Arena for the Air1 Positive Hits Tour.
He took time out to drop in and talk to GCU Worship Arts students about his songwriting process, tearing his family away from their beloved Ireland, drinking and sinning, his beautiful wife and his obedience to God.
While living the rock lifestyle touts a certain mystique, it has cost Mulligan a lot, even beyond that fiery crash last year that took a life.
It cost his family everything they knew.
Happy in Ireland
They were happy in their home in the Irish countryside with its gardens and the river nearby.
It wasn’t a joyfulness that came easily.
Mulligan had run away to America the first time to play in a “hardcore scream-o band, which is so stupid that that genre really existed (actually, I enjoy listening to it still),” he said to a crowd of 35 or so students gathered casually around him in the Songwriters Lounge, with its cool vibe of raw wood tables and modern wingback chairs.
He fell into all those typical rock musician vices — the hard drinking, the women — and wasn’t happy to hear that his girlfriend back home, who had struggled with anorexia and depression, had been saved.
Mulligan and his girlfriend, Heidi Dresing, were just teens when they met and had been dating for 10 years.
“She fell in love with God,” Mulligan said, and when he returned to Ireland, he did the same. “… My girlfriend, she led me to faith in Christ three weeks before we got married — that was in 2008.”
That’s also when Mulligan abandoned music.
“I sold every guitar I had, every instrument I had, because my association with music was always needing something from people. I wanted applause and I wanted affection. … I would use music to get everything I could from humans, and then I would take everything I could.
“So I was an adulterer, I was a drunk, I was a thief for a long, long time. So when I came to Christ, I sold everything. Music was just heartache.”
Mulligan, who was raised Roman Catholic but had become an atheist, returned home to tiny Monaghan, Ireland, and also returned to church — “It was like 50 chairs in the church,” he said. He started playing acoustic guitar. Then the church needed someone to sing at a youth event.
“I never sang in my life ever,” he said, but he gave it a try.
Four years later, he and his wife acquired full-time jobs. Mulligan found his way to a job he loved — taking care of children with disabilities.
“It was the first time in my life I ever felt any purpose.”
That’s when Heidi did something surprising and told Mulligan he needed to quit his job.
He said, “No, I’m taking care of you guys. I’m providing.”
But he did quit, and the couple spent a year setting up a food bank and traveling to minister to people.
“We wrote little songs, and we went all over,” Mulligan said.
He was outside his children’s school one day and prayed to God that he would go back to work.
“I said, God, I don’t need music anymore,” and that’s when God called his bluff.
“The next day, someone from Warner Bros. in Nashville called me and asked me to come out,” though Mulligan said, “I didn’t want to play music anymore. I didn’t want to come to America. None of it.”
He wept, he said, when they moved to Nashville four years ago. But they believed God had a calling for them.
“Somehow, the Lord has told us we’re to love America more than ourselves.”
We Are Messengers charted with its first Top 10 hit on Christian radio with “Everything Comes Alive.”
“Last weekend, they told us we sold half a million records in the last 12 months — and I’m not that talented. Most of you are more infinitely talented than me,” he told the students.
One of the band’s songs, “I’ll Think of You,” which Mulligan performed using a borrowed guitar from one of the students, is included on the soundtrack for the film “The Shack,” starring Octavia Spencer and Sam Worthington, about a father whose child is molested and murdered and who falls away from God.
Tell the truth
Mulligan said what makes his band “dangerous” is that “We tell the truth and we don’t care what they think about us. … Prostitutes come to our shows, drunks come to our shows, thieves, addicts, real people come to our shows. … We’re dangerous because we love people, whether they want to be loved or not.”
Mulligan remembers a time God called him out again. He said he and his band were in Portland, Ore., riding scooters all around town, eating doughnuts and wearing lumberjack-looking vests.
He noticed on that afternoon ride, “There’s homeless people everywhere.”
Later that night, when singing one of the band’s songs, “The River,” his lips wrapped around the lines, “I belong to a world nobody here seems to know. … You couldn’t trade your mind for a sip and you wonder why you feel so cold. Go on and put your feet in the river and let the river save your soul.”
“I couldn’t sing the line because the Lord got me. He said, ‘Darren, you’re a hypocrite.’”
He signaled to the band to stop playing the song and told the audience how he didn’t even bother to say hello to one of those homeless people.
“I’m not saying I have to rescue every homeless person in every city. But what about saying hello and showing them some dignity?… In every city we’ve gone to since then, we’ve found one homeless person and we talk to them and offer them food.”
Outside of his life on stage, Mulligan spoke to the students, many of whom are songwriters themselves, about something more insular — his songwriting process.
Ironically, he said, he isn’t very good at writing worship songs.
“I don’t understand metaphors really well. If I could criticize one part of Christian music, it’s that we have a metaphorical lyricism that bores my pants off. … (Grammy winner) Zach Williams has a song called “Fear Is a Liar. … I tell him, ‘Dude, fear’s not even a person.’”
He told students that everyone seems to be creating the same kind of metaphor-filled songs and songs that describe Jesus’ qualities.
Instead, Mulligan writes love songs for his wife and children and how God meets them in their humanity.
“People say it’s not a worship song because you didn’t mention Jesus. You tell me one thing that’s more beautiful than me weeping over my wife — one thing that looks more like Christ, admitting that they’re flawed and broken and that their wife means everything to them. I never met Jesus, but I met a beautiful girl who loved me when I was dirty.”
He also told students, “Don’t represent the best part of you. Tell the truth.”
— Lana Sweeten-Shults (@LanaSweetenShul) September 27, 2018
Mulligan performed several songs as part of his visit, such as a new composition, “Sorry,” which he wrote for his wife, who he leaves half the year to perform on the road. He also wrote a verse for his daughter, who he had to leave behind at their first father-daughter dance in America. “I had to … leave for tour, and so another man came and took her hand and it ruined me.
“In the third verse I say I’m sorry to my boys,” said Mulligan, who teared up remembering a dark time when he wasn’t there for his boys.
He also talked about the song “Magnify” and how, one day, he came to believe in the truth of the words: “Take it all, take it all away.” For Mulligan, the lyrics were a plea to take his desire away to unleash his anger on someone who had wronged his family: “The power of a song sometimes is to heal places you didn’t even know were broken. God gave me my own song so that we were mended.”
Of his writing process, Mulligan said he rarely goes into a writing session not knowing what he’s going to write about: “For me, the idea is more important than the melody. And it’s different for different people. … What I rely on is my gut telling me the truth of the words. … So I always come with an idea first, and the idea has to be honest, and it has to cost me something to sing about it.”
He also never writes with a guitar, because, “I always go where I want to go, so I always get someone else on a different instrument to take me somewhere else.”
Recording Studio Manager Eric Johnson said of Mulligan’s talk, “What a great opportunity for our students to hear the story of someone with such a rich journey on the road to Christ.”
Even with all the songs he has written, Mulligan told students, “I’m not a theologian. I’m just a human who realizes I’m messy and I’m broken and I’m wrecked and I need the mercy of God every single day of my life.”
Follow Grand Canyon University senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at Lana.Sweeten-Shults@gcu.edu or at 602-639-7901.
GCU Today: He’s taking Canyon Worship to the Community
GCU Today: Coming soon: Canyon Worship shines bright
GCU Today: Upbeat ‘Rhythm’ sets tone for Canyon Worship