After 15 years with 4Him, a collaboration that resulted in 22 No. 1 hits and eight Dove Awards, Mark Harris wasn't laying the groundwork for a solo career when he released The Line Between The Two in June 2005.
While each of the four members was working on or had recently released solo projects, there was no plan to put an end to 4Him. In fact, later in 2005 the group was planning to go into the studio and record another hymns album. But as they sat down together in a North Carolina restaurant one warm summer day, Mark, Andy, Marty and Kirk found themselves planning an ending for the group that had brought them such success and fulfillment.
"We didn't sit down to end 4Him," Harris says, but a variety of ministry opportunities for the individual members made it, "in hindsight, such a God thing." That's how the foursome found themselves spending 2006 celebrating what had been. They released Encore, an album filled with hits and fans favourites, and embarked on a farewell tour.
Once that chapter was finished, Harris began to contemplate his future. While he'd already done more than most people could accomplish in several lifetimes, retirement wasn't even an option. Instead, he relished the opportunity to face a new challenge of solo work. As 4Him's primary songwriter, Harris had spent years writing from a corporate perspective, making sure his words encompassed what the entire group wanted to say. Now, speaking only for himself, he was able to communicate more personal messages straight from his own heart.
"It's exciting for me to be able to do that," Harris says, adding, "I never knew what it was like to write 12 songs and cut 12 songs. I always felt like I had to write 50 and record 12." What this streamlined process allowed him to do is spend more time on each song, honing the melody and message until they were just right.
And it's those songs that provided the direction for Windows and Walls, both musically and thematically. Harris' second solo project was definitely influenced by his current role as Head of Worship Ministries at Bay Community Church near his home on Alabama's Gulf Coast, but the project really centres around story-driven songs.
The title track is one that Harris says is particularly special to him. A tender story of just how quickly kids grow up, "Writing On the Wall" is one any parent who's ever marked their child's height on a wall will relate to. In comparing it to his work with 4Him, Harris says, "it's more vulnerable, it's a more intimate setting. It's such a very honest statement. I won't regret not doing more concerts when I'm older, but I will regret not being there for things in my kids' lives."
Another transparent tune, the title track Windows & Walls, is about someone headed for a spiritual fall. It's a "there but for the grace of God go I" reminder. "I have found myself saying things from stage that I'm not living in my home," Harris admits. "Just because I'm an artist doesn't mean I'm perfect. I have faults, I have challenges. That understanding keeps Harris committed to making sure his kids see him living out the ideals he promotes on stage.
Then there are ballads like Takes You By Surprise and the more up-tempo For the Glory of You. Then others, like I Will See Jesus, started out as "a nice, tender ballad" but took an up-tempo turn during the recording process. The unassuming Come to the Mountain is just a beautiful ministry song for anyone hurting and in need encouragement (there's that worship minister influence), while His Words is based on the well-known prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.
Real True God is another song that is special to Harris. "I love that message." Triggered by a friend, the song is a reminder that God isn't something we can create or keep in our pocket or put on a shelf. "The big challenge for me," Harris says, "is to not lose sight of His majesty, of how awesome He is. When we rest in our own ability, we take away the 'bigness' of who He is."
That concept leads right into the calming surety of Nothing Takes You by Surprise, a reminder that when catastrophe strikes, when something like the 9-11 attacks happen, God doesn't say "uh-oh! Change of plans." His plan didn't change that day and they haven't changed throughout history.
To bring Windows and Walls to life, Harris again relied on the expertise of producer Pete Kipley, also adding Nathan Nockels to the mix. And to help craft the songs, Harris tapped long-time collaborators Dave Clark and Tony Wood. During live shows, a song is never exactly the same twice, and Harris and his team worked hard to bring that same organic feel into the studio. "If we're not careful, we end up sterilizing the mix," he says. "One thing we fought for was to make sure it stayed pure."
While there's not doubt Harris has the talent and drive to enjoy a long career of ministry and music as a solo artist, what keeps him out on the road and in the studio after all these years? This husband of 17 years and father of two "tweens" admits that there are many other ways he could make a living.
But Mark Harris understands the power of music.
"You get to a point in life where you're not doing things for success as much as for significance. I want my music to make a difference in people's lives. I do this so a dad can hear a song like "Writing On the Wall" and say, 'I'm kickin' off at noon and I'm gonna go home. I'm not gonna work late tonight.'
"I believe that songs can make a difference when someone hears them at the right time. Because I've seen how songs impact people, I just can't leave this behind,
Believe him. He has the e-mails and stories to prove it.