The Old 97’s excellent new solo LP, The Misfit, in stores this Friday
“So this will be the 21st time I will have completed an album, and then waited around to find out whether the world thinks that I’m good,” says Rhett Miller with a laugh.
His tally so far: thirteen albums with Old 97’s, his alt-country band – and, on September 16, he’ll put out his ninth solo album with The Misfit (via ATO Records). With so much critically acclaimed work to his name, it seems safe to say that the world does believe that Miller’s music is, in fact, good.
Despite being so prolific, Miller still found an entirely new way to work for this latest release. Instead of Miller bringing nearly-completed songs to the studio, this time producer Sam Cohen (who’d also worked on Miller’s 2018 solo album The Messenger) contributed significantly as a co-writer.
Miller recalls how this new dynamic came about: “I came to Sam during the pandemic and said, ‘I want to make an album, [but] it’s been frustrating trying to write. Songs are not coming to me as fully fledged as they usually do.’ And he said, ‘That’s good for me because I had envisioned making an album where you and I write songs together on the fly.’ So we built this working dynamic where I would roll up in the morning with a notebook: ‘I’ve got this piece of a song.’ Or, ‘I’ve got this song that’s got a ton of problems.’ Something would speak to him, and we would just go down a road. By six in the evening, not only would we have finished writing the song, but we’d have a rough mix of it recorded. It was incredible. I’ve never seen that happen before.”
The result of their efforts are eleven stunning, sometimes off-kilter tracks that range from psychedelic rock to dream pop. Again, Miller credits his working relationship with Cohen for this. “Sam is so brilliant,” he says. “His level of expertise on so many musical instruments, and then when it comes to the architecture of the song, it’s so gigantic.”
The unusual lyrics – poetic, yet sometimes strange – are fully Miller’s doing, however. The rather unsettling nature of some of his stories is understandable, given that he began writing them when the world seemed especially troubled.
“The little germs of the songs had come throughout the scarier moments early in the pandemic, most of them,” he says. “A lot of them are pretty escapist. I just imagined this world that was so different from the one that I was trapped in, where I wasn’t allowed to go on tour, I wasn’t allowed to go out in public.”
One of the album’s prime examples of Miller’s unusual storytelling perspective is “The White Tops,” which he sings from the point of view of a trapeze artist who, after failing to reach the outstretched hands of his performing partner, yearns for his unrequited love interest as he plunges to his death. Even Miller admits it’s a particularly dark story. “The problem for me is, when I go into my escapist fantasies, they’re not super fun,” he says.
Even when his songwriting veers into unusual territory, though, Miller allows the process to happen freely. “I really love the mystery of trying to find a song,” he says. “I know that it’s a conversation between my own subconscious and the universe, and I try to let the song have some say in its own creation. As it’s coming out, there will be a line of lyrics that will have with it a suggestion of a melody. And then that melody will want something. Like, that melody will want to move into a chorus. The song has an idea of where it wants to go. For me, I love listening to it and following it.”
Miller, growing up in Texas, knew from an early age that he had an unusual musical knack. “I think I was kind of born to do it. I’ve always been a ham,” he says. “My mom has an audio cassette of me at two years old going through a medley of songs, and there’s a Broadway finale where I hold the note for like thirty seconds. At two years old!”
Later, he went to Sarah Lawrence College, just north of New York City, on a creative writing scholarship. He dropped out after one semester, though. “I realized, ‘I can’t get a degree because then I’ll just get a job and I’ll do music on the weekends.’”
Miller has certainly fulfilled his desire to do music full-time. His band Old 97’s have been going strong since 1992, and he’s supplemented that with an equally acclaimed solo career. He says it isn’t hard to alternate between the two sides of his music career: “It’s pretty great for me and for the band because by the time I’ve made and promoted a solo album, I wind up missing those guys. And then I’m excited to climb back into the [tour] bus and talk to them,’ he says.
Beyond music, Miller is also an accomplished writer, publishing array of magazine articles and two children’s books. “I like to keep myself really busy,” he says. “I try to prioritize real life things like family, but I also do love to keep trying to make other kinds of art. I’ve always got writing projects in the works. It’s kind of a different muscle and a different set of rules. It feels like a vacation from rock and roll, if that makes sense.”
For now, though, he’s focused on his music career. He has an extensive list of Old 97’s shows set throughout the fall, and he’s also working on lining up solo tour dates to support The Misfit.
For someone who named his album The Misfit because he says he can relate to being an outsider, Miller seems content with his busy career, and his life as a husband and father in New York’s bucolic Hudson Valley.
“I’ve never won any Grammys. I’ve never made a fortune,” he says, “but I have spent decades now building up a catalog of songs that I am really proud of, and they’re not like anybody else’s songs. So I love the idea that I get to celebrate my own weirdness – and, sounds cynical, but I get to monetize it. I get to feed my teenage kids with my own skewed perspective of life, my own willingness to be vulnerable – and then also dance while doing it.”
VIDEO: Rhett Miller “Go Through You”