With his sixth solo record The Dreamer, Texan-turned-New Yorker Rhett Miller blends his Americana roots with a modern rock-pop sound. The result is a striking album of lyrical folk, with catchy melodies and some awesome Western guitar riffs. The frontman for Old 97’s talked to American Songwriter about becoming a “competent songwriter” and finding lyrical inspiration in random photographs, unfamiliar faces, and even Helter Skelter.
How would you describe your new album, The Dreamer?
With the exception of a few moments of grandiosity, The Dreamer is the most straightforward thing I’ve ever done. It hearkens back to the folk music that was my first love. Strum an acoustic guitar, sing some words that mean something to you, find some friends to play along.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Johnny Cash, David Bowie, Willie Nelson, Joe Strummer, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Buddy Holly, Charles Thompson (a.k.a. Frank Black), Ray Davies.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
Oh, god no. I started writing songs at 13. And they were terrible. I started gigging at 15 and that helped a great deal. It isn’t so much the feedback from the audience as it is your internal radar that helps you improve. When you stand up in front of people and sing a song, part of you is hearing it as if you were a member of the audience and you can feel what works and what doesn’t in a way you never could in your bedroom.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
My first song was an open letter to Charles Manson. I had just read Bugliosi’s chilling book, Helter Skelter. Some lyrics from that song are: “you killed the actress / and the hairdresser too / Charlie what’d they ever / do to you / Charles Willis Manson / oh boy look what you’ve done.” Wow. What a cringer.
What’s your approach to writing lyrics?
Usually, a phrase jumps out at me and insinuates itself into my unconscious mind. That phrase suggests a melody which suggests a subsequent phrase. I like to let the lyrics come naturally. Not automatic writing, per se, but there is definitely an element of stream of consciousness.
I have tried working from a fixed idea and trying to create a song that says or does a certain thing, but that usually backfires on me. I have better luck chasing a wisp of an idea that I can’t quite get my head around.
What percentage of the songs you write do you finish?
The percentage has gotten much better over the years. My first hundred songs were all pretty much garbage. The next hundred yielded maybe five good ones. Now, I only have to throw away about a quarter of the songs I start writing. I can salvage some of these later. The throw-aways may become a middle break of another song, for instance. But there are still a bunch of songs on the cutting room floor. Which, I believe, is how it should be. It’s about quality, not quantity, right?
Do you have any standards for your songs you try to adhere by when choosing them for an album?
Again, it goes back to the question: Will I be proud to stand up in front of an audience and sing this song? I understand the need for self-gratification, and I see what we do as “art”, certainly. But, at its heart, this thing we do is entertainment. And if you’re not entertaining anyone, you shouldn’t bother.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
I write best when I am running late. It’s always, “Just one second, honey, I need to get this chorus down while it’s hot.” I’ve also noticed that if I have a day off on tour, and I’m in some grim, cloudy locale that just happens to be halfway between real cities, I almost always wind up writing a song. It’s like I’m painting over an ugly picture with something beautiful.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of?
The song “Sleepwalkin'” is a personal favorite of mine off The Dreamer. I wrote it in a dressing room in Seattle, Washington during the lull between soundcheck and gig. I felt inspired, but only vaguely so. I decided I would pick up a copy of the local weekly, open it to a random page, find a picture on that page and write a song about whatever was in the picture. I found a photo of indie film director Lynn Shelton. She wore a cowboy hat and a mischievous grin. The caption said that she’d won something called a “Genius Award”. I constructed a story about a doomed love affair based simply on those few details. “She was a genius / she’d won awards and stuff / I was infatuated.” I am usually driven to write by subject matter that is more close to home, but there it was, a song that felt so sweet and personal. I’ve since been introduced to Lynn and played her the song. She says she loves it. And I don’t think her husband is going to beat me up.
What’s a lyric from the album you’re a fan of?
There is one lyric in “Lost Without You,” a song I co-wrote with my friend Ben Kweller, that I keep coming back to. It’s almost like a throwaway line from one of the 1960’s thrillers I like to read. “She was glowing like a open sign on a place I’d never tried.” I usually try to avoid simile in song lyrics, but this one was almost self-consciously pulpy and I think that’s why I like it, rules being best when they are broken, and all that.
The more you write, is it easier or harder to write songs?
I do believe in the theory of accumulated hours equalling expertise. I feel more competent, as a songwriter, than I ever have. But youth brings with it a certain self-importance. You feel justified opening your heart or your diary to the world. That conviction, that your every observation is solid gold, falls away over time, which makes it harder to write. But it also makes your songs better, I think.
What other creative outlets do you have besides songwriting?
I love to write. Mostly fiction. I’ve written a number of short stories over the last few years. Lately, it’s been essays. And I am plugging away at a novel. Someday…
What’s a song of yours that’s really affected people?
My song “Question” comes up a lot. It has proven, over the years, to be very useful. It recounts the simple story of a man who hopes to propose, that day, to his girlfriend. He has the ring and only the one day off of work. His girlfriend is in a bad mood as he leads her to the park where he intends to pop the titular “question”. He cajoles her out of her funk, proposes successfully and leads her home “the long way”. I wrote it in London at 3 a.m., suffering from jet lag, after the first day I ever spent with the woman who would later become my wife. My conscious mind had no idea at the time, but my unconscious mind proved to be rather prescient. Since then, the song has taken on a life of its own. Countless proposals have taken place at our shows, and every night I hear another story of “Question” being used in a proposal or as a first dance at a wedding. Yes, very useful indeed.
What song (written by someone else) do you consider the perfect song?
I got to perform alongside Kris Kristofferson recently at the Johnny Cash 80th Birthday Celebration in Austin. During rehearsal, he played “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” I felt my eyes well up with tears as he sang this song that has meant so much to me over the years. Afterwards, I got a chance to tell him that, in my estimation, it was one of the greatest songs of all time. I went on, gushing a little, to say that I believe every great song contains a moment, be it a lyric or a chord change, that pushes it over the edge from being good to being great. In that song, for me, it’s the line in the chorus, “there ain’t nothin’ short of dyin’ / half as lonesome as the sound / of a sleepin’ city sidewalk / Sunday mornin’ comin’ down.” The way he pulls mortality into it, so subtly, so colloquially that you don’t consciously register that the stakes have gotten so high, makes the song more than just a meditation on a hangover, but a meditation on the nature of our existence.