Miller Time

by Jason MacNeil

IF YOU CAN SOMEHOWf effectively juggle a family with a music career you are indeed a rarity in the music business. If you can then juggle your musical career between your solo work and that of a longtime critically acclaimed group you are in quite select company.

But for Rhett Miller, that’s been his life for over two decades, the last 15 of which has seen him routinely releasing solo albums when his main squeeze Old 97’s are either off the road or coming from another stretch of touring.

Now Miller is branching out again, possibly writing for the page and not for the ear. It’s not a radical departure as he’s been published in an array of magazines including Salon and even Sports Illustrated.

“My secret dream to write fiction is something that I’m going to focus on and try and do that in some of this down time,” Miller, appearing at the Sanibel Island Writers Conference at Florida Gulf Course University, November 4 told this writer in an interview this past summer.

It’s unclear what direction such fiction might head, but Miller explained how a recent trip to Cuba was “eye-opening” for him.

“It really made me feel like I had been so isolated in my life and to realize that just 90 miles off the coast of Florida there’s this country that has gone through all of the massive hardships they’ve gone through,” Miller said. “Especially in the last 20 years, but for decades, and how much of that falls on the shoulders of the American people, the American government. That was hard and it made me wish I had been more socially aware and politically aware.

“But it was also really inspiring to see how these people responded to everything they’ve been through. Generally, Cubans have such a positive attitude. They take these hardships and they turn them into music and poetry and dancing. And it helps that they don’t have wi-fi and they’re just finally getting hand held devices. Every night people are sitting out in the streets playing guitars and playing music with each other and singing. It’s a real beautiful culture and I was so glad. It made me appreciate just how good I have it here.”

That traveling might have in part fueled the title of his recent studio album, The Traveler, his fifth since 2002 and the follow-up to 2012’s The Dreamer. Miller said the album wasn’t arduous to make, but more of a labor of love thanks to working with Black Prairie, a band Miller found instant chemistry with.

“It came about very quickly,” Miller said. “I had a big batch of songs that were the songs the 97’s hadn’t wanted and they wound up being a pretty cohesive unit. It was a kind of sweet batch of songs with tinges of tortured songs in there. But working with Black Prairie was so easy. Musically, they’re such a strong unit and they’ve worked together for so long that it was really cool to get to slide into that band and be a part of it.”

Miller said touring behind The Traveler was also great. The only downside, logistically of course, is being away from his family. But he, as well as his family, realizes it comes with the vocation.

“When the kids were little I made a point to stay at home more because they were just more work and I needed to be around and help more,” Miller said. “Now that they’re older they’re more self-sufficient and they’re more aware of my job and its requirements and they’re more forgiving about it. That part of it’s easier. I think they kind of can handle it better.

“But I just miss them, they’re so much fun right now, they’re these human beings that have these ideas and thoughts and it’s great to be around them. And in the blink of an eye they’ll just be gone. It’s harder on me I guess.”

Perhaps Miller’s biggest strength from a songwriting aspect came from launching his proper solo career in 2002 with The Instigator. This meant songs which might not work best for Old 97’s would end up finding a home somewhere.

“I guess the trick is I started doing the solo shows and recording in 2001 and 2002 because I had all these songs that the band didn’t want. And that’s still the model for the solo career; it’s whatever the band doesn’t want becomes a solo record. So because of that I don’t really have to think about it much.

“The only thought process is: What band do I hire? What producer do I hire? Who does the sound? And that’s fun because usually I’ve just come off from making a band record that’s all about democracy and capitulation and everybody having veto power. It’s nice to just go in and be dictatorial about it being a solo record.”

Miller toured behind The Traveler earlier this year and said some of the new material took on a life on its own onstage.

“It’s always like that. There’s a handful of songs that I think are the strongest songs on the album and then they just don’t translate into the live performance as well,” Miller said.

“And then there are always some songs that always jump out that the audience just really respond to. I had a feeling that ‘Most In The Summertime’ would be a really good live song and that has really been the case. But then some of the more kind of tortured, pensive stuff doesn’t ever find its way onto a set list because I just don’t play those kind of shows. I tend to want to make set lists that make people happy and make for a fun night out.”

As for Old 97’s... The group toured sporadically in 2015, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the studio album, Wreck Your Life. Miller enjoyed the experience even if playing an album in its entirety is something he’s rarely done. He said Old 97’s was close to completing a new studio album, one Miller described as “the hungover Sunday morning to [2014’s] Most Messed Up being a drunken Saturday night.”

Miller explained that the only big thing left to do for the new band album, aside from mastering the record, was coming up with an album title. Oddly enough it’s not something that comes easy for the songwriter.

“It’s so weird to me as a songwriter because I can write an album that has thousands of words, but then coming up with two to four words to sum it all up or to name it is so hard,” Miller said with a laugh. “I guess it’s the old saying of ‘quantity versus quality.’ I can come up with a lot of words, but to come up with two perfect words for it is a lot harder.” •

Rhett Miller will be performing a free concert at 6pm on November 4 in Schein Hall at BIG ARTS during the 11th Annual Sanibel Island Writers Conference. The Writers Conference is at BIG ARTS and the Sanibel Island Public Library, November 3-6. BIG ARTS is located at 900 Dunlop Rd. on Sanibel. For information, call 590-7421.

November-December 2016