Rhett Miller, Old 97's

I started this site in 2010 as a way to give a voice to songwriters in the same way that interviewers give poets and prose writers. I wanted to treat songwriters as writers and to have an intelligent discussion about the writing process. A Paris Review of songwriting interviews. Rhett Miller of the Old 97's fulfilled that mission for me perhaps better than any other. But that's because he sees himself as a writer, not because I treated him as one. There are a few times during our conversation when Miller reveals himself as a songwriter as he discusses guitars and chord progressions, but for the most part Miller could just as well be a poet or a short story writer. Of course, Miller is both of those: he's written poems and essays and short stories.  

At some point in our talk, I mentioned to Miller that he refers to his unfinished songs as "drafts." I told him that using the word "drafts" shows that he sees himself as a writer since that's what prose writers call their works in progress.  Throughout the afternoon, there was never a moment when I felt that Miller wasn't thinking about writing. He carries his notebook everywhere: it was in the car as we rode together, in the treehouse as we talked, and at the table as we had lunch. As you'll read, his answers reveal the anxiety and struggle that all writers face as they try to distill their experience and very existence to an audience.

Miller and I talked while sitting in his treehouse outside his house in upstate New York. It was a warm, cloudless day, and as we chatted the occasional deer ran through his backyard and a hawk flew overhead.  Read my interview with Rhett Miller after the video.

Note: Miller actually starts the interview, so the first quote you read is his, not mine.

We’re sitting here in my treehouse. I’ve been selling this as something for the kids, but in reality I can see myself sitting here with a guitar. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum is that little cramped office off the garage. It’s stuffed with guitar cases and books. It’s claustrophobic even though it has a window. I could go down there and work on songs, but the truth is that I wind up sitting at the head of the dining room table with the TV on and the kids running around and Erica on the phone, and I write songs there. That ability comes from years of being on the bus or the van with all the guys. You have to learn to write where you can.

This is pretty awesome.  It’s every kid’s fantasy to have a treehouse, so I’m sure you’ll be competing with them for time. You’re shattering the illusion of the rock star who sits for hours in isolation crafting his song.  But when you have a family, it’s not easy.

When you have family, there is no isolation.

What other creative outlets do you have besides songwriting?  I know you do a lot of other writing.

As you discovered on your website, a lot of people who do what I do read a lot. I usually have two books going at once: one tactile book and one audiobook. Recently I’ve written a lot of musician biography book reviews.  I enjoy that because it’s an exercise of the mind. There’s something about the life of rock n roll that’s anti-intellectual. I think that’s why so many rock n' rollers get hooked on [vices]. It becomes a way of not having to think about what can sometimes be a life of discomfort on the road.  

Now it’s all about everyone looking at their phones: Did anyone mention me in a tweet in the last five minutes? I try to combat that by doing a lot of reading and as much writing as I can.

I find that songwriters are voracious readers. There is a clear correlation: you cannot be a good writer unless you read. But the bigger issue with constantly staring at our phones is that we’re not engaging with the environment. And if you’re not engaging with your environment, it’s hard to write about it.

The best writing is built on details and noticing your environment. Right now I’m reading Owen Kings’s debut novel called Double Feature. There are large philosophical observations in the book, but what he’s really good at are the details of the scene. In my best songs, the message comes across from an avalanche of detail.

There’s a song on Too Far to Care that I’m really proud of called “Barrier Reef." A guy walks up to a girl at a bar, and the song is all about the details of that encounter. It doesn’t say how they are feeling. It’s just about the scene. You learn what they’re feeling through what they say, what they do, and where they go. Even the kind of car they’re in.

You can say somebody is sad, but that’s such an inadequate descriptor. If you really look at the way people feel in certain situations, there’s a lot more going on. He’s happy that he’s going to get laid but he's sad that he doesn’t really love her.  He’s happy that she’s beautiful but he’s sad that he’s going to be inadequate in bed. It’s the oldest adage in the writing rulebook: show, don’t tell. If you’re spending all of your time looking at your phones as a songwriter, you miss the details in life that you can use to create the art.

Andy McCluskey of OMD told me that you have to actively engage your environment if you want to be inspired. He will go to art galleries, for example, to get inspired. How do you feel about that? Should you wait for the muse or seek it?

I think about it all the time. I go through phases. In 2013 I wrote well over two albums' worth of material just because I was on the road a lot. It was something about reaching the middle of my life and thinking Holy shit, is this it? It’s a little scary. I’ve never really had to think about inspiration only because I write all the time.

Lucinda Williams said once that she was going to rent a hotel room so that she could write a bunch of songs. I've actually done that. For TheInstigator, I felt like I had 12 good songs, but I wanted 25 to choose from. So I got a hotel room in Santa Monica for a month to write. You have to work at it.  It has to be a craft. 

Do you find that this beautiful environment, out in the country away from distractions, is a good place to get writing done? 

I’ve begun to write better amidst chaos. When the crew is loading in, I’ll find a corner and write. There’s a song on the newest 97’s album called “Wasted." We were loading into this club in Memphis. We’d been on the road for a while, and it was just one of those nights when everyone was bitching and at each other’s throats, and you think Is this my life? I found a spot in the corner and pretended I was alone.

I used to have to be alone for fear of someone hearing an unfinished song and being embarrassed. Now I don’t care. That helps a lot: not caring what people think as you write a song. That song reflected that mood with the line “They might think I wasted my life. They’re wrong." I don’t care how miserable I am right now; this is what I was meant to do.

That’s why the dining room table with the kids running around screaming is a good place. And stairwells are also great with their acoustics and the fact that they are a little bit removed from everyone.. 

When you’ve got a productive writing session going, do you always know when to stop, or do you keep going until you've got nothing left to say?

I often think about that. Jon Brion told me he has a number: if you work on something for 17 minutes, after that, you’re not going to get anything good. I was like, “Dude, are you kidding?" I play the same chord progression for 17 minutes and then just start to get a feeling for what it's suggesting. It’s all about the repetition and falling into the feeling of the thing I’m working on. It’s about letting the lyric suggest the chord progression or the next movement, or letting my melody line suggest the next lyric.  

Our bass player Murry says you have to know what the song is about as you’re working on it. You have to be conscious of the fact that it’s about, for example, a guy who’s getting dumped. You have to know the story. But for me it’s always been more stream of consciousness. I feel it happen and let the words fall out. I don’t try too hard to figure out what they are.

But lately I’ve realized that it does help to get an idea before I start to write. I co-wrote a song called “Lost Without You" with Ben Kweller.   He helped me a lot in the way I think about songs.  He would ask me things like What does that song make you think about? or What does it make you feel?  For that song, he asked me where the character is sitting. I realized that the character was sitting in my grandma’s house that I had to live in when they put her in a old folks' home.

It was good to have another person make me think about those things. Now when I get stumped on a song, I step back and think about where these characters are. What’s happening to the guy?  If there’s a corollary in my life, what would it be? And if there’s a similar scene in my life, what is that scene and what does it echo? How can I plumb it for the song? 

Do you believe that what comes out first when you write is the best?

Not necessarily.  Some of my songs just come out, but most of them I revise. Usually while I’m writing, I imagine singing to an audience. And as I’m singing to myself, I realize there are some lines I could NEVER sing to an audience. They make me cringe. As I’m singing it, I’m thinking, Oh no. No way can I live the rest of my life singing that fucking line!

It’s rare, though, that I’ll write a song and not revise it. I wrote “Question” at 3am in London.  I was there visiting my sister, and it was also the first week I had spent with Erica. We were platonic at that time and were hanging out with a couple who had just gotten engaged, and it was a really cute story. I tried to distill their story in as simple a way as possible.  

I think a lot of the writing process is about not being mean to yourself as you write. We all have voices in our head that tell us we suck, and an artist’s voice is probably louder than anyone else’s. How many potentially great songwriters have careers that have never happened because they always listened to that voice?  “Question" just came out, and I think it was because I kept telling myself that it was just a silly little song that didn’t mean anything. There was no pressure.

I’ve read many writers who don’t believe in writer’s block. They think it’s just a lack of courage and an unwillingness to just start writing.  The poet William Stafford once said that if you're afraid to start writing, just lower your standards. And in her essay “Shitty First Drafts,” Anne Lamott discusses why the first draft of anything should be atrocious. Just get it all out.

That’s great. That’s why I’m so against the idea of writing something perfectly the first time.  If you don’t have revision as an option, you will get blocked. But if you know that you’ll go back, that won’t happen.  That’s why so many of us just make up words as placeholders when we first write a song.  We know that we can go back later and clean it up.

To write about something, whether it’s a topic or an emotion, do you need to be close to it, or will distance make for a better song?

I found recently that in moments of crisis, there’s no writing.  But when I get on airplane and fly away from the crisis? I’ve been writing so many songs on airplanes. 

It could be the role of motion.

Maybe. I’ve written a bunch of songs while driving. Even while actually being behind the wheel. In the old days, it was terrifying. I had my notebook next to me, and I’d either write the lyrics without looking at my notebook, in which case it would be almost illegible, or I’d put the notebook on the steering wheel and write while steering.

(Note: at this point Miller shows me one of his notebooks) I always have to write the date in the top right corner of the page, along with where I was when I wrote it. The chord structure is at the top, along with the title.  This song took me about 45 minutes to write in a dressing room.  See this line? It was “I don’t care what the sad sacks say,” but "sad sacks say" was too hard to sing. So I changed it to “I don’t care what the cards might say.” When you write a song, you have to say to yourself Am I willing to sing this every night for many years to come?

This one says “JFK to Atlanta.” There’s something about being in a small space with a bunch of strangers, like an airplane. It makes me anxious. And that anxiety can only be alleviated by creating another world in a song. Everything around me just melts away. There’s a song on the new solo album called “Wanderlust."  I wrote it on the Long Island Railroad.  I was facing backwards, and it was a beautiful thing to see things disappear slowly rather than coming at me.

Is there an ideal emotion when you get your best writing done?

I have this theory that each songwriter writes one song over and over.  In my case, there’s a parental figure I’m always trying to impress or justify myself to. Or I might be wondering where this person went and why they left. In the songs, it will be a girl or the narrator who’s gone. There’s always someone who’s not fulfilling their promises. It’s not the same story, but there’s always that same feeling.  My best songs come from, and I hate to say it, guilt. I got into songwriting so I could turn sad stuff into happy stuff.  It feels like some sort of therapy or working out of issues.

Many songwriters tell me that “hungover” is their best emotion.

Laughs. Yes! But if I had to say an emotion, I’d say longing. I do think that the physical state of being hungover gets you out of your head.  The voices in your head find less purchase, and you write without thinking about it.  There’s something about songwriting that’s a lot like meditation.  You go to a place, and in that place you find that song.  I’ll play through a chord progression, or I’ll find a rhyme scheme without a melody and let the story come out.

After 9/11 Erica and I were homeless, so we went to Ohio to live with her family. Her grandmother was 90 at the time, and one time they all went out and I stayed home to write.  I played the same chord progression for probably an hour and a half, just letting it take over my brain.  At one point the grandmother walks in and says, “You really have to practice a lot, don’t you?”  Laughs.

What’s your ideal environment to write?

I get a lot of writing done in dressing rooms.  Something about that place makes me feel more musical, much more so than at home.  When I’m home, I tend to be more of a dad, which frustrates me because I like myself as an artist more. I love my kids and I’m more proud of my accomplishments as a parent than I am of my accomplishments musically, but in terms of who I like to be, even though it’s fraught with self-loathing and self-doubt, me as an artist is my favorite me.  And he’s a fucked-up guy. So when I’m on the road and I’ve got a guitar in my hands, that’s when I’m comfortable.  

As I look out over this amazing scenery, I’m curious as to how your songs would differ if you wrote them up here instead of in a dressing room.

I’m worried that I might not be able to write songs up here. I may just come up here to look at the sky.  I’m not sure it’s conducive to me because it’s way too peaceful. I could write songs on a subway car full of people easier than I could write up here.     

Do you try to stick to a writing schedule?

When I got that hotel room and wrote The Instigator, I tried to write from 10am until about 5 or 6 in the evening.  When I got stuck, I had tons of books to read for inspiration. Lots of poetry. But often, when I'd hit a  wall with a song, I’d open up my own notebook to find an unfinished song and see if either song could give me ideas for the other.

How often do you abandon songs in the middle of working on them?

All the time. There’s different levels of completion. Sometimes a song will just be two sets of rhymed couplets on my phone. Then it migrates to the notebook, where it becomes a set of verses with a question mark where the chorus should be. I’m not afraid to abandon a song because I know that I can always come back to it.  I remember writing a song one time where I loved the chorus but the verses were bullshit. Two years later, I used that chorus somewhere else.  It never left my mind. Even now, there are a couple of sections of new songs I’m working on. I can’t get them out of my head. They’re in there for days, wanting attention.

What comes first when you write a song?

Usually it’s a line with an inherent melody.  I like to look at it this way: each couplet is its own guy.  And he’s like, I’ve got this friend who’s another couplet. You should invite him. So the next couplet comes along.  They make this team, and they invite other couplets to join them.  

The chorus is the hardest part for me.  I can write verses all day long, but the chorus requires inspiration. My verses are rhymed couplets telling a story, but the chorus needs to be galvanizing. It needs to speak to something deep. It’s less craft and more spark. I usually start with a rhymed couplet that I think is going to be the chorus, but then I realize that I need something bigger for the chorus.  

You do a lot of writing outside songwriting.  Does that influence your songwriting at all?

I think it’s the opposite, actually. The longest completed piece I’ve written is a story called “Tender Till the Day I Die.”  As I was revising it, it occurred to me that it’s a lot like a song.  You move from place to place and character to character, so it’s a lot like a verse-chorus, verse-chorus structure. But when I went back to songwriting after writing longform pieces, I wanted an economy of words in my songwriting more than ever. Every line has to be important.

I have a theory that every great song has one moment, or one line, where it goes from being good or great to being phenomenal.  One of my favorite songs is “Sunday Morning Coming Down” by Kris Kristofferson. There’s a moment in the chorus where he says, “And there’s nothin’ short of dyin’/that's half as lonesome as the sound/of a sleepin' city sidewalk.” The song is about dirty laundry and breakfast and being hungover, but he introduces, in a flip way, mortality.  It’s just so beautiful.

Last question: who are some of your favorite writers?

John D. McDonald is one of my favorite writers. His language is very simple, yet heroic. There’s no airs about it.  I really like that.  But I also love Orson Scott Card.  He’s famous for his book Ender’s Game.  There’s a lot his personal beliefs that I cannot get behind, but his writing is so good.

The writer who’s influenced me the most is Elmore Leonard. I’ve read everything he’s every written.  When we made one of our first records, I name dropped him in one of our songs, and his daughter turned out to be a fan. This was around 1994, and he and I wrote each other when I found out that he liked our music. You can read every line he’s every written aloud, and it doesn’t sound stupid.  I want to be able to say that about my music: I want to be able to sing my words every night and have them ring true just as if someone would say them.