Chris Mills

The song starts with a woozy sway, strings and acoustic guitar and piano and brushes: “I heard you’re a drunk,” Chris Mills’ sweet-scarred voice begins, while the instrumental layers cool off. “And you never shut up,” he adds, light piano touches following the line. “Yeah the word on the street is that your sweet ass is totally fucked.”

This, for those unfamiliar with singer/songwriter Chris Mills, is not a snotty condemnation. It’s a romantic first line. True, the opening’s rawer than most, but Mills has always shined his light on those whose scars are showing. And any concern that the song’s just a jab at a barfly’s expense ends with the chorus, which the singer enters on a rescue mission: “But if I loved you hard enough/could you shake off that black coal dust/and shine for me?”

This song, “Diamond,” from Mills’ new, fourth record, The Silver Line, is a good introduction to this gusty songwriter’s material (his concern remains the state of our hearts), and it represents a bit of a shift in his songs’ tones. While his first record, the EP Nobody’s Favorite met listeners with bleak news—“This love is gonna kill me,” sung in a soggy lament—the new one has Mills’ voice soaring in declaration: “Everything’s gonna be cool.” Mills maintains this mood of resilience, even on a song titled “Suicide Note.” Its piano and popping horns give listeners reason to believe the song’s struggling-musician narrator will not, in fact, let the room go quiet.

While The Silver Line will probably drive tonight’s set at Frederick’s (particularly because Mills will be joined by the cellist, bassist, and drummer who helped make the album), back-catalog songs are sure to make an appearance. Mills’ middle two records—the rugged and mantra-titled Every Night Fight For Your Life, and the more layered and lively Kiss it Goodbye—are both gems that will shine brightest with a full band.

Live, Mills is no lovelorn mope. He’s jokey and inclusive, and his shows are celebratory affairs. And while his early songs often sounded like elegies, many of the newer ones are more fit for celebration: They sound like toasts. To all those listening—the crushed, the cheaters, the totally fucked drunk at the end of the bar—Mills raises a glass and offers assurance: Everything’s gonna be cool.

First off, tell us a bit about Friday’s show at Frederick’s. You’ve played there before, but this one sounds like it’ll be a bit different.

Mills: I always love playing at Fredrick’s. But this show is exciting because it is the first time I’ll be bringing a full, four-piece band to St. Louis. I usually have to play solo because I’m fitting St. Louis into part of larger tour and can’t afford to have everyone. But since we’re out for just the weekend, I can finally bring down some of my guys.

The Silver Line marks your split from the label that put out your first three albums. You’re now going at it alone. How has this changed how you tour?

When I was with Sugar Free [Records], I kind of felt pressured to be out on the road all the time. Now, since I am running my own label, I have to keep a little closer to home. I’m not making so many trips to the coasts. Now I can concentrate on the Midwest a little more than I used to, hitting places a little more than usual.

The Silver Line sounds like your most layered, most thoughtfully arranged record. When you were making the album, did concerns come up of how you’d represent the songs—which mingle strings, piano, and even horns—on the road?

I always look at the record as a separate experience from the live show. As long as the songs are strong, I feel like they can be presented in any number of contexts. So in the studio, I used the tools there to flesh out the songs as much as I could and find out what they would sound like filtered through that kind of production. In a stripped-down live setting, the band and I try and present the essence of what’s on the record while rearranging the songs to fit whatever combo we might be using that night.

Your records have the admirable quality of sounding fat-free. Rarely does a song sound like it shouldn’t be right there, in the order it is. How do you approach selecting songs for a record from those you’ve got in the notebook?

I generally just try and stick to the best songs I’ve written during that time period. I hate the idea of putting a few “hits” or “singles” on an album and then throwing on a bunch of filler. I mean, nobody would say that they do that, but it’s obviously done to some extent on records these days. I really like the idea of making albums where every track works together with the whole picture. I’m definitely very careful about how I put things together and about which song goes where, in order to make the record flow.

Your new record ends with a cover song, and you just put out an eight-song covers record, Tell It Like It Isn’t. What do you enjoy about choosing and recording covers, and what can you say about a few of those you’ve chosen?

I love all sorts of songs and writers. I’m really attracted to intelligent writing and songwriters that have a unique sensibility that still falls somewhere in my own field of vision. Often I’ll try to take a song that I really love and find some way to make it my own. I also like to expose people to other songwriters that I am a fan of that they might not otherwise hear. I love Hawksley’s stuff [Canadian Hawksley Workman, whose song “Don’t Be Crushed” Mills covers on The Silver Line], but you can’t really get it in the U.S. So I feel like even though my audience is small, I might be able to turn some people on to what he, or others like him, are doing.

While you’ve been headlining shows for years, you’ve also managed to snag a few interesting opening slots. Two I’m interested in hearing about: A major New Year’s Eve show opening for Wilco in Chicago, and a show in Sweden opening for Willie Nelson. How’d those two go?

Those were awesome! It’s always great to see those guys play live.

This past fall, you returned to Europe and the U.K. for a run of shows. Any memorable stories to pass along to those of us locked in the Midwest?

Not too many. Most of them have to do with chronic insomnia, vans crashing, amps exploding, and fire alarms going off, so they’re not all that interesting.

Finally, the last month has been a time of year-end list-making for favorite records, movies, etc. Care to comment on what you connected with in 2002?

I’ve been watching a lot of stuff at home on DVD, older stuff like The Best Years of Our Lives and Children of Paradise. Musically, it’s still all about Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman.

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