This has been a hell of a year,” Rhett Miller says. “I turned 48 in September and I’m still surprising myself.”
After more than two decades as founding member of the venerable Old 97’s and acclaimed singer–songwriter in his own right, Rhett Miller has crafted a trio of new projects that see him pushing his creative energies in hitherto untraveled directions. Among them are two utterly unique new albums – one solo, the other as part of Old 97’s – as well as his first ever book, a collection of subversive kids’ poems.
The Messenger, Miller’s eighth solo album, is perhaps his most unflinchingly personal collection of songs to date. Recorded over five spring days at The Isokon in Woodstock, NY with producer/musician Sam Cohen (Kevin Morby, Benjamin Booker), The Messenger sees Miller playing it faster and looser than perhaps any other time in his quarter century career, instilling songs like the first single, “Total Disaster,” with a groovy limberness that belies the reflective darkness within. Backed by a white hot backing combo comprised of Cohen (Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Pedal Steel Guitar, Keys), Brian Betancourt (Bass), and Ray Rizzo (Drums), Miller worked quickly and with purpose, fast-tracking four or five “keepers” each day.
“I wanted this record to be less safe,” he says. “I wanted to put myself in the hands of a producer who was going to do things that I didn’t expect; I wanted to perform with people I didn’t know and be surprised by what they came up with. And all of that really came to pass. That’s what you’re getting with this record. You’re getting a locked-in rhythm section with a crazy, psychedelic guitar maestro playing along with me as I dig deep into these songs about depression and insecurity and modern life and somehow wanting to live despite all of it,” Miller chuckles.
While that might sound somewhat flip, Miller is in some ways more serious than ever before. The Messenger sees the veteran songsmith diving deep into his own youthful encounters with suicide and depression, placing “a long distance phone call to myself as a 14-year-old” on surprisingly buoyant new songs like “Permanent Damage” and “I Used To Write In Notebooks.”
“For a lot of years I tried to keep self-reference out of my work,” he says, “and I believe there’s a lot to be said for that. There’s enough about what I do that’s masturbatory without me reading from my diary. But at a certain point, when you want to dig into personal issues and maybe explore things from your own past, you have to let yourself go there.”
Miller hadn’t publicly addressed his adolescent suicide attempt until a 2008 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. “She asked me about my suicide attempt and I found myself telling her the story. I was surprised at how people responded. I ended up doing a little work on behalf of the National Suicide Prevention Network and that kind of blossomed to where I’ve made a point of recognizing my own history and doing whatever I can to try and bring it out of the shadows and make it something people are okay talking about. But even then, I’d never really recognized it in my own work.”
And while The Messenger addresses this darkness head-on many times, the album also visits the brighter corners. Songs like “You Were A Stranger” and “Wheels” speak to the joy that comes with having survived. Towards the end of “Wheels,” when Miller sings “I’m broken, we’re all broken, we just keep on trying,” it’s clearly a rallying cry rather than a lament.
Miller’s crop of original output is testament to those aforementioned decades of experience, each distinct project marked by his ever-increasing skill set and multi-faceted approach to art and artistry. Having long ago committed himself to the artist’s life, he has kept his nose to the grindstone, determined each and every day to create something of quality, meaning, and purpose.
“I’ve always believed that making art gives meaning to life,” says Rhett Miller. “So far it’s worked out pretty well.”