While most artists would be sufficiently happy and content being considered a pioneer of a musical genre, a select few just can’t stop there. Rhett Miller has fronted the legendary alt-country giants Old 97’s since the early 1990’s and he has remained somewhat of a not-so-elder statesman in the scene since its inception. While Old 97’s have spent the last 18 years or so playing packed out shows all over the U.S., releasing stellar albums, gaining a fanatical following and continually defining/redefining their sound, Rhett has also been weaving in a handful of ridiculously good solo albums and scores of intimate one man live shows as well. Where he finds the time and energy, we may never know. However, as long as it’s the same place where he finds his poetically heartbreaking/lifting/melting/beating songs from, then I hope that well can never run dry.
Where an Old 97’s show is known for playing loud, singing along and having a good time, Rhett’s solo shows are much more of a quieter, laid back affair. His commanding stage persona is still there, but it’s filtered through a stripped down, singer/songwriter/storyteller vibe. Live at Eddie’s Attic, Rhett’s exclusive 19-song solo live set released here on NoiseTrade, perfectly captures Rhett in the kind of revealing one voice, one guitar setting that shatters the veneer of lesser artists. That’s what makes him such a mesmerizing musical force. He has no need for frills or flash. Rhett lets his gorgeous songwriting, honest emotions, hilarious banter and genuine appreciation for an enthusiastic audience get him where he’s going and his songs are an open invitation to anyone who wants to tag along.
Rhett was gracious enough to take some time out of his crazy schedule to grant us an insightful interview that delves into his approach to full band and solo work, his first experience in the producer’s chair and his creative efforts outside of songwriting.
NoiseTrade: Going back to 1989, you’ve released 6 solo albums and 9 full-length records (plus a handful of other releases) with Old 97’s. For you, what’s the biggest motivation for having two separate creative outlets and what’s the biggest differentiating factor between the two?
Rhett Miller: The Old 97′s are such a democracy that I often find myself bending to the whims of the band members. That egalitarianism is what makes the band successful. Everything we do is a true collaboration. But it leaves me with a pretty big stack of leftover songs and ideas. If I didn’t have the solo career as an outlet for those ideas, I’d have a tough time subjugating myself to the band dynamic. It’s never a perfectly clear line between the two sides of my musical self. I have to feel that out as I go. There is no handbook for what I’m doing, carrying on as a member of a quartet and as a solo artist.
NT: Live at Eddie’s Attic captures one of your stellar solo acoustic performances. When it’s just you on stage, do have to get into a different headspace when deciding on the set list, performing the songs and engaging the crowd?
Rhett: It’s a lot more demanding to stand up alone in front of a crowd. There is no safety net. The collective eye of the audience is never drawn elsewhere. It can feel like a lot of pressure. Sometimes when I think about it, it freaks me out, the idea that I’m about to walk out in front of that crowd with no accompaniment other than my guitar and my meager wits. But I love it. I started, in high school, as a folk-singer, playing bars, coffee-houses and rock clubs. So I’ve been doing it for longer hand can remember. By now, I guess it’s second nature.
NT: Some front men need the security of a band to exist within and some are able to create an entirely new experience for the audience when it’s just them. What’s the trade off and the pay off for each one?
Rhett: The band draws a bigger audience and is much more rocking. The solo acoustic shows are more intimate, confessional and stripped down. Both have their own particular upside.
NT: When you sit down to write, do songs present themselves in some way as solo or band songs or do you get to decide their destination based on which project is in front of you at that moment?
Rhett: I like to give the 97′s the first crack at my songs, but sometimes a song will appear in the midst of a session and demand to be part of a solo recording. I don’t typically write for one or the other.
NT: Four of your solo releases follow a similar naming structure: The Instigator, The Believer, The Interpreter and most recently, The Dreamer. Are these different sides of the same personality or are these completely separate character roles you feel you float in and out of?
Rhett: I don’t know. Titles are always after-the-fact. I steal from a lyric and try and fit the mood of that collection of songs. If I could go back in time, my recent eponymous album Rhett Miller would have been called The Rhett Miller.
NT: After having so many great albums under your belt, The Dreamer is the first one you’ve produced all on your own. Can you detail what that part of the process entails from the other side of the board and why you choose to man it yourself this time around?
Rhett: I had a vision, and as I heard myself expressing it to others, I realized that I was capable of achieving that end result by hiring a great engineer, studio and band. Thank goodness it worked out.
NT: You’ve released cover albums both solo (The Interpreter) and with Old 97’s (Mimeograph EP). Do you feel it’s important to recognize and point back to what influenced you? Also, are you at a place where you can actually recognize your own influence in the grand musical landscape, especially as an early innovator and continuing forerunner in the alt-country vein?
Rhett: It’s fun to sing the songs I love. I had always had too many of my own songs that needed to be released. Finally, I said “to heck with it.” I will probably do more cover albums in the future. Maybe I’ll even do an album of standards someday. Let loose my inner crooner.
NT: If the stories are true, you made it to college on a creative writing scholarship. Besides your romantic, heart-breaking and imaginative songwriting, do you have the desire to tell stories through any other arena of writing?
Rhett: I dream of making a segue into the written word. I have some short stories and essays under my belt. I would like to tackle a novel soon. Though I imagine it won’t be high-brow literature. More likely low-brow pulp. We’ll see…
NT: Finally, anyone who has seen you in concert (or even has access to the internet) is well aware of your gravity defying antics on stage. If the music business doesn’t get its act together, have you ever thought about a career in the NBA or do you need a guitar in your hands to gain maximum in-flight performance?
Rhett: That’s sweet of you to say. Rock jumps are a fun part of my job. I won’t be able to do them forever, but while I’m still relatively young, I enjoy catching a little air.
Live at Eddie’s Attic is a great chance to check out a sampling of Rhett’s impressive catalog of solo material with some Old 97′s gems thrown in for good measure. Also, Rhett just recently released The Dreamer, his sixth full-length solo release as well. Get on it and thank me later!
When writer Will Hodge isn’t hitchhiking to Rhome, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack