"I went full Christmas": Rhett Miller on writing holiday songs for now and for the ages

Salon also talks with Miller about his solo album "The Messenger," mental health and silencing the lizard brain

Published December 22, 2018 1:00PM (EST)

Rhett Miller (Ebru Yildiz)
Rhett Miller (Ebru Yildiz)

When Rhett Miller decided it was time to make another solo album, he shook up his recording process. More specifically, the Old 97's frontman sought out producer/musician Sam Cohen (Kevin Morby, Benjamin Booker), with whom he had neither met nor worked before, and recorded with two musicians he had never met, bassist Brian Betancourt and drummer Ray Rizzo. To spice up things further, both Betancourt and Rizzo were also strangers before the sessions.

"The idea was that none of us had ever performed together, had no pre-existing chemistry," Miller says. "We did no pre-production as a band. When we got down to record, everybody learned the song right there and played it right there and it happened really quickly."

However, over a five-day period, this makeshift band recorded 12 songs — whittled down from a pool of 30 — and emerged with "The Messenger," a moody record rooted in sinewy blues, and smoldering soul and twang. Lyrically, the album is even more profound, as Miller went back and drew from painful times he experienced as a teenager, including a suicide attempt. This subject matter was a new thing for the songwriter, although a reflection of how in recent years he's opened up and been more public about his own mental health.

Between the loose genesis and somber subject matter, the music on "The Messenger" is cohesive and engaging. "It's a testament to Sam's intuition about each of us as people and players that the chemistry that happened right away was so strong," Miller says. "Even on the very first day, within two hours of having laid eyes on each other, the takes that we got were such keepers. It felt like a band that knew each other. That was just an immediate reaction. Something sparked when we all played together, and it was really beautiful."

While driving to a solo show back in November, Miller checked in with Salon to talk about "The Messenger" as well as the raucous first holiday album by the Old 97's, "Love The Holidays," which also hit stores in recent weeks.

Doing your solo record the way you did probably could have gone in the complete opposite direction. It could've completely been a disaster.

In my mind, that first morning driving from my house, the one-hour drive up to Woodstock, all I could imagine was that. [I was] trying to visualize positive things, but my lizard brain kept thinking, "What if they all hate me?" Those are the voices in one's head that you have to silence, or at least just ignore.

There's something I really love about music as a vocation. The men and the women that play music for a living and have devoted their lives to making and writing and recording music are such generally kind, funny people. I don't know if that's because making music, and the act of creation, inspires something positive in a person, or if it's because people who are naturally positive are drawn to the act of creation. I really love this job, and I love the people that I get to play and work with.

That's so cool to have such a wide circle — and, decades after starting your career, being able to have those experiences then too. That's so rewarding and gratifying.

I think about the hundreds of people that I've gotten to perform with. When I made "The Dreamer" a few years ago, I used the band that I had been touring for a few years before that. My drummer, Angela Webster, played on that record and now she is married to my brother-in-law, so she and I are now literally family.

The people that I made the last solo record with, "The Traveler," were a band, they've since disbanded, Black Prairie, although most of them still play together. They've stayed some of my best friends and favorite people over the years. And the Old 97's are not literally, but practically literally, my brothers at this point. It's a really beautiful bonding experience to create something like that.

When you and Sam went through your songs and whittled the amount down, what was that process like? The songs that ended up on the record — what really stood out about them to you and Sam?

Sam had no compunction about telling me that a few songs that I really felt were important songs for the album sucked. And I really appreciated him doing that. I don't want him trying to record a song that he doesn't believe in. And I don't want me trying to convince somebody that a song is good if they don't feel it.

The songs that he convinced me to cast aside are songs that I will go back to and I will listen to with a critical ear next time I'm making a record to see, "Do they deserve a second look? Do they need a complete overhaul? Or do they belong in the garbage?" That's fine. Writing songs is just a numbers game. The fact that Sam was so unsentimental about these songs, that I saw as sort of children, which is inevitable for a songwriter, I thought that was really great, and I really appreciated that.

I also loved Sam's fearlessness. He works quickly, not necessarily even out of necessity. He works quickly because he sees the music so thoroughly and so, in a way, like, architecturally, that he's ten steps ahead of everybody else. So we're all just keeping up with him. It's really inspiring to play alongside of someone like that. You're always, literally, inspired by something that they're doing in that moment.

When they think that something is good that you've done, you want to push yourself to live up to that expectation.

That's the way in which a producer is not unlike a baseball manager or really good eighth grade English teacher. It's someone that I want to impress. It's someone that I want to feel justified in their decision to work with me.

The topics and the themes are pretty heavy on the record. Was there a particular incident that kind of threw you back into that mindset? How did your songwriting come to this point for this particular record?

There was definitely a window of time during which I was frantically writing these songs that were some sort of meditation on, or letters to, my 14-year-old self. And I think there were probably a number of things that contributed to that mindset.

I've been doing a lot of work in the last few years with different suicide prevention organizations. It's just something that I tried to keep hidden for a long time for a number of reasons. One of which was shame. Probably the primary reason was shame. The other was this fear that I would be seen to be dining out on my 14-year-old suicidal depression.

But I did have a suicide attempt when I was 14 years old. On paper, it should've worked. The things that I put in my body that night were certainly fatal. There was the lamp oil that I drank that coated my stomach. I took a bottle of Valium and it slowed down my heartbeat so that it didn't pump the toxins. It was this weird, perfect combination of fatal substances to where none of them were able to overcome the other.

I don't know if it has to do with my own son being 14 years old; I'm sure that has a lot to do with it. For whatever reason, I guess, I've gotten over my self-imposed [hesitation] about considering that time in my life and the things that went into making me so unhappy. I was in therapy for all the intervening years. It wasn't like I just examined myself or my life. I was never willing to do it in public.

There's a friend of mine, Tom DeSavia, the A&R guy for the Old 97's on Elektra, and who's remained a really close friend. [He] challenged me to write songs to, and/or about, my 14-year-old self. My first reaction was to scoff and say, "No one wants to hear those songs." And then I thought, "Well, there's no way I could even do it if I wanted to." And then, like a lot of the challenges that I eventually take on, I just started doing it.

I wrote three times as many songs during the two weeks that I was lost in this headspace than appear on the record. I think a few of them that didn't make it onto the record are good. Definitely a few of them are beyond maudlin. It was really therapeutic for me to go there, and it was a good exercise. As an artist, I've always made a point to separate myself as a character in my songs.

I did a little of that, even in the course of writing about my 14-year-old self. And maybe that was a part of it; I was separating him from me. It wasn't necessarily fun, but it felt really good.

Turning to the Old 97's Christmas record. You've said you had always wanted to do one. What finally pushed you over the edge to do one?

When you're in high school and you want to take a certain class, but it's really advanced, in order to take that class you have to fulfill all the prerequisites, the more basic classes. To make a Christmas record, you can't open with a Christmas record. You gotta kind of earn it. It felt like we had to be at a certain point in our career—or maybe I did as a songwriter. I had to have a certain number of songs written, a certain number of albums out there in the world, before I could make a holiday record.

It's a weird thing to do—and it's not as weird as making a kids' record for me. If I ever make a kids' record, that's probably it. At that point I will either just make kids' records or I'll stop making records altogether. It's not like it's an evil, or reprehensible, move to go out and make a kids' record. It's just one move you can't really come back from.

A Christmas record, I feel like at this point in our career, we've sort of fulfilled a lot of the prerequisites. We've had live albums; we've had best-of albums; we've done anniversary tours for records. At this point, if we put out a Christmas record, it doesn't seem—I don't think, and I hope not—like a cash grab or like, "Oh, now we've run out of ideas, better write some Christmas songs."

To me, it was its own unique challenge. I did my first gig 33 years ago. This deep into a career, unique challenges are few and far between. It was really cool to step up to this one and come up with Christmas songs that I felt like could stand alongside the classics.

What are the particular challenges writing original holiday music?

The space is pretty saturated, for one thing. For me, I discovered that I needed to approach the holidays not as the theme of the song, or the subject matter. I needed to approach the holiday as an aesthetic. Or maybe the subplots. Most of these holiday songs, with a couple of notable exceptions, are really songs that are not unlike any other song I write. They're about love relationships, good or bad. thwarted or fulfilled. It just so happens that they take place in the snow, here in December. They're pretty much of a piece with the bulk of the, I don't know, 3,000 songs I've written over the last three decades.

There were a couple of songs in the record where I really did go all the way. I went full Christmas. Both were songs I wrote with Ben Greenman, the novelist, author, New Yorker editor. Both of them, he kind challenged me. One of them was more simple: We were trying to write a Christmas song from the kids' perspective. We used "We're a Happy Family" by the Ramones as a template. We wound up with "Gotta Love Being a Kid (Merry Christmas)," which was basically a really fun punk rock song.

The other one was a lot more complicated, as it's the song called "Snow Angels." We got to talking about the song "Do You Hear What I Hear?," which was written during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I never realized that; I thought it was a more traditional Christmas song. But that song is sort of a social commentary in response to international crisis. Ben and I were talking about current climate of divisiveness and anger and that is something that I've never written about. I don't really see myself as a political writer or a writer of social commentary. I've never given myself permission to visit those topics as a writer.

But we came up with this song. It's pretty straightforward social commentary. It's weird that I feel like it works as well as it does. Not to say that now I'm going to start doing that. I just don't know that I enjoy it that much. And I was really proud that the band stepped up like they did and made the song as sonically interesting and expansive as it is.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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