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Rhett Miller: I Believe

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The label didn’t really exist anymore, and yet I was still under contract to them. Finally I extricated myself from that, and then it was just a matter of figuring out, in this weird landscape of the music industry these days, where was the right place.

 

 

“My name is Rhett Miller and I sing and play in a band called the Old 97’s and the reason I do music is…” Rhett Miller is telling me about the time he ran into Elvis Costello—literally—in an L.A. bookstore. “We knocked all the books out of each others’ hands, and I had on my Elvis Costello Junior glasses,” he reveals. And though he thought about rambling off the above introduction by way of expressing his admiration for Costello’s work, he chose instead to scoop up his books and silently amble away. “I’d just rather not be that guy,” he says, and we both know what he means: that gushing fan guy. “I’d rather meet him when we perform on a television show together, or when he comes and guests on an album.”

Rhett Miller is a man of passion; this much is apparent through the lyrics he writes, and now in speaking with him. It’s what keeps his music—his 13-year tenure in the Old 97’s and his solo career—real, relatable. Out this month is Miller’s next solo offering The Believer, the follow up to 2002’s well-regarded The Instigator. As we talk, I want to ask Miller what he believes, but he beats me to it, smattering our discussion with a number of self-truths.

“I really believe in, at the risk of sounding cheesy, the redemptive power of music,” he says. That much is apparent from a close listen to his songs. The lyrics are smart, poetic, about love and longing and loss; they’re experiences to which we can relate; they become a part of us as we listen.

Following the release of The Instigator on Elektra, first the Old 97’s were dropped, and then Miller. “The only problem [with Elektra] was that they were about to get shut down the whole time I was working the record. So there was this weird, pervasive feeling of impending doom. They had dropped the 97’s—we had gotten them out and onto another label already—and they still had me. For some reason they had dropped a bunch of people off the roster and they wouldn’t let go of me. So there was about six months where I was frustrated by being in limbo. The label didn’t really exist anymore, and yet I was still under contract to them. Finally I extricated myself from that, and then it was just a matter of figuring out, in this weird landscape of the music industry these days, where was the right place.”

Despite the industry’s current state of despair, Miller’s cautious but not jaded. “I really do believe in not just the bigger things, like the meaning of life, but even in the music business,” he says. “My A&R guy at Verve was very excited and pursued me in the kind of way that makes you feel loved; that’s what all artists really want anyway. It’s the perfect setup for me now: I get to be in a small, nurturing environment at Verve that’s part of a much larger company, Universal.”

The Believer is a delightful collection of power-pop, a nonstop romp with thoughtful compositions, sharp lyrics, and crisp production. The album, largely upbeat but nonetheless introspective, opens with the playful “My Valentine” which proclaims, “Love in the asylum is a beautiful thing/stars when your head hits the floor.” On “Ain’t That Strange,” Miller sets the stage: “You were sitting on a goldmine/working in a shop/I was rolling around in a ghost town/waiting on a record to drop.” And on “I’m With Her,” a love letter to his wife, he sings, “We will be wed and we will procreate/and we’ll examine life on another plane/We are in love with the big blue sky.”

All is not sunshine and light, however. Miller penned the title track in reaction to the suicide of his friend, Elliot Smith; he sings, “You are hereinafter referred to as someone who gave it a shot/gave it up, left the cruel world to us.” He’d been a similar place himself, lost at a young age; the fact that he’s around today attests to his belief in redemption. “I really believe in true love, and the good things I’ve been able to find in my life,” he says. “Having come from a bad place as a teenager where I was pretty depressed and suicidal, [love’s] a great thing. So that’s why I used ‘The Believer’ as the album title, because I feel like I’m a different person now that what I was.”

Musically, the new album is a turning point, as well. “‘Brand New Way’ is my favorite song on the record,” Miller effuses. “It’s very much, for me, a watermark in my songwriting. I really studied a lot about music theory in a way that I hadn’t before, and I was able to come up with a chord progression on that song that was a lot different from anything I’d ever done.”

Working on the album, he spent a lot of time dreaming, thinking about things in unusual ways. What resulted was some of the cleverest and catchiest writing of his career. “Lyrically, I felt a little freer and easier on this record,” he admits. “Like on ‘Brand New Way,’ when I say, ‘I’m a worrier, it’s true/I came over to cushion your breakables’—that’s my favorite line on the record. It’s just a silly, kind of funny come-on, but it speaks to where I’m at these days.”

Where he’s at these days is good: happily married, second child on the way, two successful musical endeavors. The Old 97’s—who appear in the upcoming film The Breakup, starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughan—are not going away. “I really believe in the concept of a band and a democracy,” Miller maintains. “That’s the nature of the band. [There are] things that you give up—like control—and things that you get from it, [like] having the input of these other guys. But I’m really glad that I have the solo career to do also, because it [gets] frustrating. I don’t always have to control everything, but I know when I’ve got good ideas and I know that there are times when they get sublimated to the lowest common denominator effect of having a band.”

The Believer’s “Fireflies” (a duet with Rachel Yamagata) and “Singular Girl,” were in fact, Old 97’s rejects. Now that they’re finally recorded, Miller can’t help but feel a little smug. “[The 97’s] didn’t say as much, but I think when those guys heard the version I recorded, there’s probably a little bit of regret, like, ‘Hey, those songs are good; we should have said yes to them.’”

Closing out the disc is its most beautiful song, a 97’s remake called “Question,” on which Miller takes the age-old ritual of a marriage proposal and makes it fresh: “Someday somebody’s gonna as you/a question that you should say yes to/once in your life/maybe tonight I’ve got a question for you.” Why the remake? “I wrote it in the studio for Satellite Rides,” Miller explains. “I was working on it and the producer walked by and said, ‘That’s such a great song; we’ve got to record it.’ I’m not even sure I was finished with it at the time, but that was the version that went on the record. As the years have gone on, it’s emerged as one of the songs I’m proudest of in my whole catalog. I decided I was going to give it a more fleshed-out treatment. My compromise to the fans that might have a problem with it and think that I was just re-treading the same old ground is that I put it as the last track of the record. If they want to end after track 11, they can just pretend there’s only 11 songs on the record. It’s like Highway 61 Revisited for me: It always starts on track two because Lord knows I don’t need to hear ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ ever again.”

Miller talks a bit more about his inspirations, including books—early influences like A Catcher in the Rye, and later works such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (“Reading both of those books, I felt like my head was literally expanding,” he says). Happiness—or its absence—also plays a role in his creativity. “I cranked out a lot more songs when I was miserable, but also I had more time; I was constantly escaping situations using my guitar and my pack of cigarettes as an excuse,” he admits. “Happiness does make it a little tougher, because so much of it is that hunger, but I’m never going to be a completely happy person; it’s always in there. The therapy that is songwriting will always be useful to me.”

Next month, the touring in support of The Believer begins: Miller will appear at the South by Southwest music festival, then tour for five or six weeks. After a quick return home to welcome his new offspring, he’ll be back on the road for much of the rest of the year.

I have time for just one more question. On the title track, Miller sings, “People like me keep a list of the things in this world that we trust.” I want to know: What’s his list? He hesitates, then slowly relates: “Ray Davies, ice cream, my kid, sunsets, a good book.” He stops, laughing. “[My publicist] just noted that I sound a lot like Woody Allen at the end of Manhattan.”

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