Rhett Miller is doing triple duty today. Our conversation encompasses his seventh solo album, The Messenger, an upcoming book of poetry as well as his band, Old 97’s, contribution to the catalog of holiday tunes with the album Love the Holidays.
Miller discusses these subjects while nursing a sore back after shoveling snow that collected on the sidewalk and driveway of his upstate New York home. After a discussion of low back problems and solutions, we move on to The Messenger, which finds him at his most open and vulnerable as a singer and songwriter. The subject matter deals with depression and a suicide attempt as a teenager or as he put it, “a long distance phone call to myself as a 14-year-old.”
Songs such as “Total Disaster,” “The Human Condition” and “Permanent Damage” revel in Miller’s clever wordplay that mixes poignant moments, self-deprecating humor and revelatory results. As he moves away from his darkest days, he finds a kernel of wisdom to go on another day and another in a manner that’s life-affirming without being cheaply sentimental.
To return to that time of feeling alone Miller purposely chose to work with musicians unfamiliar to him. Recorded in five days with producer/musician Sam Cohen (Kevin Morby, Benjamin Booker) the approach resulted in a cohesive yet loose-sounding album.
Sticking to the alt-country sounds that have worked so well in the past, musically Love the Holidays sounds as familiar and worthy as any previous Old 97’s album. Lyrically, it focuses on the season of giving (and taking) with originals — “Gotta Love Being A Kid (Merry Christmas),” “Snow Angels,” and “Rudolph Is Blue” — and a few choice covers including “Blue Christmas,” “Angels We Heard On High” and “Auld Lang Syne”
Our conversation ends with Miller offering a preview of his non-musical project, No More Poems, a collection of irreverent poetry for modern families that comes out on March 5, 2019 by Little, Brown Books For Young Readers.
I start off by reading the opening paragraph of my Relix concert review of a 2014 Rhett Miller solo show because my reaction then just happened to correspond to the new album probing the bleak areas of his mind while maintaining a sense of humor and hope for the future.
JPG: “Misery may love company but under the direction of Rhett Miller what could be a maudlin evening of life gone wrong turned into an uplifting communal experience. The Old 97’s frontman opened his solo winter tour at Pittsburgh’s Club Cafe where the sold out crowd embraced his tales of melancholy and multiple heartbreaks through a liquor glass half full, life goes on attitude.” In hindsight I can see you dropping hints about how you feel or felt whereas now you’re actually putting it out there.
RM: Yeah, yeah, which is a tricky thing, right? This job is such a funny combination of artifice and pretense, upholding the mystique of the rock ‘n’ roller or the songwriter or the tortured poet or whatever but also brazen honesty. It’s a weird fine line to have to walk. And if you tip too far either way, there’s this gross, self-congratulations that happens, “Oh, I’m so sad. I’m such a disaster.” Or “Oh, I’m so brilliant.”
Either way, nobody wants to hear that. So, you’re just trying to be simultaneously honest and cool, and it’s just hard. Both of those are pretty tricky little things to navigate.
JPG: Since you’re walking a fine line, did it take you longer to write the lyrics for this album than anything previously?
RM: No, writing these songs didn’t work differently than the usual except there was this 10-day window when I was traveling through the mountains and I wrote what became maybe the bulk of the songs on this record. My friend, Tom DeSavia, who was our A&R guy at Elektra Records for years and has remained a super-close friend and is sort of an ersatz A&R guy for me regardless of whether or not he’s technically working on a project, he called me up and said, “Man, I was thinking about this next solo record you’re going to make. I was thinking about the songs you should write. I really think you need to go back in time and address your 14-year-old depression and suicide attempt.” It’s stuff that I’ve kind of been really opening up about the last few years for the first time because I’ve got kids that are approaching…my son has obviously hit that age.
I’ve just been thinking about it a lot and I’ve been realizing how useful it is to other people that are suffering themselves to just have it be destigmatized. People talking about it. Be open about it. Anyway, when Tom first told me that, I thought it tipped way too far on the wrong side of the line of introspection and self-reference. So, my initial reaction was, “No thank you. That sounds gross.” But then, I started thinking about it. I thought that this is the kind of challenge that if I don’t dig in and accept it then I’ll always wonder if I missed out on something. Also, I just liked the idea of this deep into my career of being challenged by something. “Can I do this? Can I address this weird moment in my life that’s so central to my self-identity? Can I address it in song without feeling overly opened up to the public?” And it felt really good.
What was funny was, when I committed to that, and I had a 10-day window when all of a sudden, all these songs started pouring out, some of the songs like “The Human Condition” is a song that was specifically…I was really thinking about putting myself in that place and going back to that place. But then, the same day I wrote “The Human Condition,” I wrote “You Were A Stranger,” which, on its face, has nothing to do with anything like that. It’s a song about love and gratitude in a long-term relationship but it’s also inspired by going back to that feeling of being a really vulnerable, young person, and then all these years later, being an adult who feels really grateful that I’ve survived and that I found love and a good situation.
JPG: There’s heart wrenching lines in there but there are some dark comic lines that change it up, so it’s not maudlin or depressing.
RM: Yeah, thanks. I feel like there’s a reason for gallows humor because in that situation if you can’t laugh, you’re gonna cry. That’s always been my trick over the years with the 97’s, and now on these solo records, I never want to go all the way there. I feel like if I have a song that’s potentially maudlin or super-emotional I want it to at least sonically have a counterbalance. I want it to sound fun or feel like there’s some joy. But I think that’ the the way it is right? Haven’t you ever been so sad that somehow you fill up with this feeling of happiness in a weird way? Maybe you feel so sad that it feels good to feel that sad. I don’t know.
JPG: I know what you’re saying. I was telling somebody the other day, that for some reason, listening to The Smiths when I’m feeling bummed out during these crazy times we live in and — in the same way there’s a lot of darkly comic lines in what Morrissey sings or can be interpreted that way as well as sadness, instead of making me sadder — it ends up cheering me up.
RM: Exactly! It’s kind of that thing. What do they talk about, foxhole humor? We’re in this together. If we can laugh about the darkness then we’re both together laughing at this really tragic moment.
Like you were saying, these are kind of tragic times. There is something about our culture right now that feels really weird, like we’ve stepped off a ledge or something. And yeah, maybe that made it a little easier to go back in these songs when I was personally feeling my darkest. If I really felt alone in it then it would be a lot harder, but I don’t. I’ve got a family. I’ve got a band that’s full of bandmates that I really love and connect with.
I’m lucky. I get to go play in rooms every night where there’s hundreds of people that are all joining together deciding to spend that evening together and what’s even cooler is they’re all singing along to these songs that I wrote that ward off that darkness. It’s pretty sweet. I love my job.
JPG: Well, yeah, you should. Good for you. You made the album with a lot of things unknown to you — unknown producer, unknown musicians. Why make such an effort to work with people you didn’t know? Why take yourself out of your comfort zone? You’re already doing that lyrically, why this too?
RM: Personally, it felt like it was of a piece with the songs because when I went to the place to write these songs it felt very raw, and I loved the idea of approaching them fresh with people with whom I had no pre-existing relationship.
I got a really good feeling about Sam [Cohen]. He’d been in these bands where he made such psychedelic music yet he came from a place where he grew up in Houston and was like a child prodigy, rockabilly guitarist. He and I were both playing gigs in high school. We were both trapped in this world where we felt a little bit like a fish out of water. I was the folk singer opening up for the punk bands in the early ‘90s. Then, in the mid-to-late ‘90s I was in this alt-country band.
Despite my being a seventh generation Texan, I never really felt like I was some kind of old school cowboy. There’s always that feeling of outsiderness, sort of fear of fraudulence. I can’t speak for Sam, if he ever felt those things, but he and I had a lot in common.
So, when it came to doing these songs, it just felt like it made more sense to do them completely fresh. I’ve worked with a ton of musicians over the years that I love and that I consider friends, and whose playing I really love…and even a ton of musicians outside of my own band that I’ve got a really good musical rapport with and could easily go into any studio with no preparation and record an album quickly and easily but I thought it would make more sense if I had a clean slate with the musicians that I worked with on this record. By the end of the five days that we tracked, we were quite close. The level of rapport was through the roof and we just loved each other.
I think about the stories about the Astral Weeks sessions where Van Morrison had a band and then he cast them to the side and got all these musicians that he didn’t know and just gave them the songs and they had to play them right then. There’s something about that that’s so scary. I guess that’s what it is. I guess that’s what I was really reaching for in going with these musicians and with this producer that I didn’t know. I wanted it to be scary.
When I was 14-years- old, the feeling at the heart of everything that drove me even to my suicide attempt and the feeling at the heart of my depression and my feeling of outsiderness was this feeling of just really being scared of the world and scared of my impending adulthood. So, I wanted to be scared. I wanted to walk into a room and not know these guys and have to navigate my way through unchartered territories.
JPG: I understand that approach. On a side note, if you’re a big Van Morrison fan, one of the Boston shows where he used the original band before the Astral Weeks recording sessions popped up on iTunes UK and then it was taken off hours later. Keep an eye out for that.
RM: I heard about that recently. That’s like the Holy Grail of the Van Morrison community because there’s always been a debate about how much did the musicians that were on the album take from the musicians that Van had been doing pre-production with and playing with for a long time. I heard a story, just the other day. I was in Alaska with this old school Boston guy who’s a concert promoter up there. He was telling me about that recording and how when that finally came out, the bass player, who had been Van’s bass player before but did not play on Astral Weeks, when he finally heard it, he broke down in tears because it validated his claim of the last 50 years that the bass lines on Astral Weeks were pretty much the bass lines that he’d been playing, and they’d been kind of ripped off by the bass player [in the studio]. And he’d always said, “Those were my bass lines!” They’re like, “Nah. That guy was a session guy, way better than you. Those couldn’t be your bass lines.” Here’s this guy, his whole life, it was finally validated and he was revealed to be telling the truth.
I remember in high school when I heard that record, I just thought it was so magic. I thought it was just a perfect album.