LABOR & LOVE: HANNAH MILLER DELIVERS GORGEOUS NEW ALBUM
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Musicians often go through a creative rebirth, following up one album with another featuring different sounds and subject matter. In the case of Nashville-based singer-songwriter Hannah Miller, the birth of her baby boy made her change her tune – literally and figuratively – by instilling in her a higher degree of confidence and courage that manifested in her maternal and musical instincts. “When you have a kid it’s kind of like, oh, it’s not as big a deal if the record isn’t perfect or the songs are just a little different…so it kind of gave me a little bit more freedom,” Miller revealed during our recent conversation. “A lot of [the songs] had been on the back burner, so, I’ve said this before, it just kind of made me a little more fearless. It put things into perspective for me.”
Miller flexed her new found musical muscles on her recently released 10-song self-titled album with the help of a full band and the encouragement of producer Mitch Dane, who oversaw the sessions at Nashville’s Sputnik Sound Studios. Miller describes the end product as “more raw than mainstream pop. Bluesier. Crunchier.” The result is a mother of an album from a mother whose son’s birth helped her see her songs in a whole new light.
Let me begin our conversation by asking you about your earliest musical memories. Your bio notes: “A childhood spent in Alabama, a musical coming-of-age in South Carolina and an eventual move to Tennessee.” I’m interested in you musical coming of age in South Carolina. Tell me a little bit about that.
(Laughs) Well, let’ see. I was kind of a late bloomer. I didn’t really start playing guitar and writing songs like until post-college. After graduating Mars Hill University near Asheville, NC I moved to Columbia, SC and about a year after that move I was just working retail and kind of like had the moment of, ‘what am I doing? I’ve always wanted to be a singer and musician but I’m not doing anything to make that happen.’ So that’s when I started going into little coffee shops and playing open mics and writing my real terrible songs and playing them for anyone who would listen. So that’s kind of where I count the start. All through my life I had wanted to do it and I’d written a lot of poetry and sung in church and stuff, but that’s kind of where I started, in Columbia, SC.
Let me take you back further. Did you have the proverbial Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment when a song came on the radio, or maybe you heard your folks playing around the house where looking back now you might have said to yourself, ‘Wow, I’m in love with music?’
It’s always been kind of hard for me to pinpoint where the desire came from but my earliest memory is people asking me what I wanna do and I would say a singer. I remember writing a song when I was about four years old and I remember my sister and parents being so supportive and asking me to sing it all the time. I just had this very early belief that I was gonna do that when I grew up, that I was gonna be a musician or a singer but I don’t know where it came from. My most ‘aha moment’ that I remember listening to a particular piece of music and being like, oh and having the world open up a little bit, was when I was in fifth grade I used to go home after school with a friend cuz my mom was working and the had a Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits record and I just remember hearing “Cecilia” in their living room. I don’t know why that song; I’d never been exposed to something like that before, I guess. “Cecilia” came on and I was just like, ‘I love this!’ So they’re a very early influence on me, just the Simon and Garfunkel harmony and just the melodic and lyricism of that kind of music just really affected me at an early age and that’s kind of what I’ve always been drawn to.
That’s interesting that you mention Simon and Garfunkel because just last week my best friend Mark and I were talking; he’s a huge Simon and Garfunkel fan and we’ve known each other for close to 30 years and we’re both major music junkies and just last week he told me a story he’d never told me before that at seven years old he asked his mom which one is Simon and which one is Garfunkel (both of us laugh). And that was the spark and his earliest musical memory. So artists like Simon and Garfunkel and songs like “Cecilia” give birth to a lot of people’s love of music, and speaking of giving birth I understand that you giving birth to your son helped shape your approach to writing and recording your self-titled CD. How did your professional perspective change?
I mean, it [music] just kind of became less important in a way and so that kind of helped me just be a little more free and do what I wanna do. Before [music] had been kind of like the only thing going on for me…and I felt like I had gotten into this singer-songwriter safe corner and I had these other songs that I wanted to do but they were kind of electric and rhythmic-driven. They’re not like the story songs that you wanna pull out at a house show and make people cry and stuff. So it was just kind of like [me saying] just do what I wanna do and don’t take music so seriously because I have this other thing going on that’s way more time consuming now and more important.
I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with countless songwriters and many of them – and you’ve probably heard this, too – have described their songs as their children and therefore not being able to say which is their favorite on their record or the favorite they’ve ever written. With that said, let’s talk about some of your audio offspring (Millers laughs) on your self-titled album. I wanna ask you about the marvelously moody opening track “Help Me Out.”
Well that’s one of the ones that I had just kind of waiting in the wings. I wrote it, I hadn’t played it out live music, it just felt like it didn’t fit with everything else I was doing. I don’t remember specifically writing out of an experience or a story, I remember it was pretty soon after I had put out 2012’s Doubters and Dreamers that I wrote that one. I don’t always write from a super self-experience place, I just like to write songs, all kinds, so that one is just one of those where I said, hmm, I wonder what this is about. I don’t know, it’s really not about anything from me in particular. I’m not really trained on guitar – I kinda just play by ear – but this song was one of the first ones I wrote a little part to, like that guitar part you can hear in the beginning (makes guitar sounds).
I’m gonna ask you more about that little guitar ding ding ding a bit later on here but let me quote a lyric and please feel free to correct me if I get it wrong: “Your words don’t break my bones/I’m full of sticks and stones.” Did I get that right?
That’s a great line from “Been Around” and you may have already answered this question but I’ll ask it anyway. Is this about cumulative universal experiences or one or ones much closer to home?
Goodness. I feel like it’s (pause) both (laughs). I feel like it came out of some personal angst, like some music industry thing, like whatever, I’m not just like some newbie kind of thing. I feel like for me songs sometime start out in a more specific way, like I might be inspired by something in particular for like one line of it but then the whole song gets flushed out and it no longer has everything to do with that [one thing] and it becomes like something more universal. So I wouldn’t say that the whole thing is about this and this and this.
With all that in mind, the song “Leaving,” gosh it seems like it hits really close to home; these appear to be deeply personal lyrics. Can you take us through the writing of that song?
Yeah, that one’s interesting. You know I’ve told people when I’ve sung that live, I give the caveat that it’s not my own experience. And I had to tell my mom that this is not about me (laughs) or she would be really worried about me. But I do feel like sometimes I kind of process life and other people’s stories. I process it by writing a song and that song in particular I just remember that there had been some tragic event in Nashville. I didn’t know any of the people involved, someone had killed themselves and it was a very public thing and t just kind of shook me up I guess and that song I feel was just kind of borne out of processing that story and just king of going into…how a person gets to that point. I remember writing that last verse and crying, and I always think it’s always a good song when I start crying (laughs) while I’m writing it. I think, this is a keeper.
Listening to it several times in the last couple of weeks it seemed to me like one of those Springsteen-esque story songs. I’m listening to a mini movie.
And I guess in support of your mom I’m glad I asked about it (laughs). I’m glad to hear you said to your mom, mom don’t freak out here.
Yeah, she takes everything I write very personally and what’s going on in my life (laughs).
Well it’s a beautiful song. Again, at the end of the day, it’s probably one of those universal songs. So you mentioned it first and I said I would come back to that little guitar ding ding ding thing that you mentioned. On several songs, including “Leaving,” “Help Me Out,” “Soothed,” “Promised Land” and “Been Around” the first thing we hear is the strum of an electric guitar. Was this intentional, something conscious in your songwriting or am I reading way too much into that?
(Laughs) I think it was intentional in that I didn’t want this record to be acoustic-driven at all. The producer kept kind of like asking don’t you wanna play this song and I was like, no I don’t care. For me it’s enough that I wrote it, it’s my song and I love for other people to put there thing on it and so we had a great guitar player and I just wanted to use him as much as possible.
Well I’m certainly not complaining about it because the guitar does really set the tone for all those songs very well. Now at the risk of maybe reading way too much into something I couldn’t help but notice the juxtaposition of song titles “Leaving” and “You Will Stay with Me” coming back-to-back on the album. Again, coincidence or planned placement there?
I thought it was cool to have those back-to-back. I always go through several different orders and arrangements and its always a question of like, do people really care what order these songs are in? I tried to find a flow that to me the songs kind of made sense one after the other and I kind of liked those two the best back-to-back.
Again, a nice juxtaposition, not just in the titles, but in the moods of those songs. And, Hannah, I’ll raise my hand; I’m one of those who do pay attention to the flow of the album and where a particular song lands in the record. I think it makes for a more complete listening experience.
Well I’m glad there are still people who care. You know it’s such a digital world and people are just getting these singles and just the songs they like and you tend to think that it doesn’t matter to anybody.
Oh don’t get me started on the digital world we live in. We could go on for some time, but I’ve got just a couple more questions for you, Hannah. “Soothed” is sonically soothing but the lyrics seem to tell a more sinister story with lines like “I’ve said goodbye to my dear old dreams,” “it took a turn for the worse late last night” and “I will not be soothed.” What’s going on here?
Well that’s interesting. It’s kind of funny but I wrote that song [as] a melodramatic response to my Kickstarter campaign like a year and a half ago. I didn’t have any way of making the record that I wanted to so I just sort of put this Kickstarter campaign out that was asking for a lot of money and we didn’t reach the goal. I was totally fine with it not reaching the goal but what affected me was like people reaching out to me and saying how sorry they were; [so it was] just like my own pride, like these people feeling sorry for me. I felt kind of stupid for having done it and I wrote that song (laughs)!
Finally, for those who are unfamiliar with the connection your song “Promise Land” has with the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, tell us the story and the connection.
That’s been a great experience. I just wrote that song in conjunction with a company that I work with here in Nashville called Sorted Noise. I write songs for film and TV for particular placements and stuff. We didn’t have a particular pitch [for this song] but then through their connections this filmmaker, Danny Cooke, he put it on a video that just ended up going viral. It’s crazy. I think the song really fit the video and the video really helped the song, you know they both kind of play off each other so well and people started sharing it all over the internet and I started getting just tons of messages and it just kind of blew up from there. So we just finally released it on iTunes because previously it had not been available anywhere. It was exciting and it was kind of like a catalyst for this new record, too.
Watching the video I wondered, just imagine a movie without music. That’s one of the many, many beautiful things about music is that it can help tell a visual story better than the visual alone.
Yeah I think it’s a really cool relationship that picture and sound have because that song I had been playing it by itself at shows and it wasn’t one that everybody was just like ‘I love that song’ but when it’s paired with that imagery people respond in a different way.
It’s very cool. Now is there anything, Hannah, that we haven’t discussed here that you wanna bring up? Anything that I haven’t asked you about?
I think you did a good job. I can’t think of anything in particular. Thanks very much. Talk to you later.
**To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Hannah Miller, please “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics and look for a link to an upcoming episode of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.