Julie Miller talks and laughs easily and joyfully these days. But it hasn’t always been so.
Miller and her husband, legendary Americana instrumentalist/producer and singer-songwriter Buddy Miller, have just released their first project together in a decade, Breakdown On 20th Avenue South. The couple and their album Written In Chalk had dominated at the 2009 Americana Music Awards, and they were working on a follow-up when Julie lost her younger brother to a lightning strike.
“We did start a new record like 10 years ago or something,” she says, “and then my brother was killed, and it turned out that the record was sort of prophetic and it freaked me out and I was upset and I couldn’t do anything. All these songs I had written were about storms and water and lightning and dying and saying goodbye, and it was hard for me to carry on for a while. Then I got sick, and Buddy got some different work … But God got me back up on my feet and got Buddy into the recording studio with me.”
Well, in this case “the recording studio” can be a somewhat subjective term.
“Our whole downstairs,” Buddy says, “is a dedicated studio where I’ve recorded Richard Thompson, Shawn Colvin, lots of records. But Julie didn’t want to do that. So I brought up a floor tom with a towel on it, and a harmonium, and a hurdy-gurdy, and I stuck them in a 4’ x 4’ corner of our bedroom with ProTools on a laptop. She would sing a song and I would pick up a guitar. And early on, this 12-string acoustic guitar that doesn’t have octaves, an Avante, became the rhythm guitar for what’s on the record.”
“I was in the middle of some other projects but I stopped all of them for this,” he continues. “We didn’t even tell [record label New West] we were making a record until we were most of the way through. I was in a tiny corner working on a laptop. I’m not a track builder, I don’t work that way, I like to play with other people. This is a different project than anything I’ve done before, and I’ve produced a lot of records.”
Once the couple got settled and started working in the makeshift bedroom studio, Julie began writing. And writing. “We started this record with a completely different list of songs than what we ended up with,” Buddy says. “She’d wake up and start writing; she’d write a song a day sometimes.” When it was all over the Millers had recorded a dozen new songs, all written by Julie, the duo singing together with an ease and confidence that has developed during their four-decade personal and musical partnership.
“We had some pieces from 10 years before that I completed,” Julie says, “but most of it … well, it’s really pretty funny, because I thought we already had most of the songs, but then I just kept writing, and the songs we thought were ‘the’ songs didn’t make the cut.”
Julie laughs even heartier than usual at the suggestion that she is a lover of perfect rhyme. Indeed, one has to really comb through the lyrics of the songs on Breakdown On 20th Avenue South to find two lines that don’t rhyme.
“I’m a rhymer!” she exclaims. “It just comes out like that. What I find interesting is that if I write a line, and the next line doesn’t rhyme with it, I think of all the words that would rhyme with it, and I get a difficult word to rhyme and it ends up being the best line of the song sometimes, because it forces me to be more creative. It’s just more artistically satisfying for me that way.”
“Before I wrote songs I was interested in creative writing,” she said, “maybe wanted to write a book or something, but then I got into music, and I couldn’t write songs! Couldn’t write songs for about six or seven years. Then I had this epiphany with Jesus and all of a sudden it was just like a dam burst with songs. Not necessarily good ones, but it was like He gave me permission to be bad. And that was what I needed to be able to learn to write songs. Songs just started coming to me and I was able to teach myself to write mostly listening to other songwriters.”
Julie was originally signed as an artist to Christian label Myrrh Records after the Millers moved to Nashville following stints in L.A. and New York. The couple’s first official album together, Buddy & Julie Miller, won the Americana Music Association’s Award for Best Album in 2002. Julie’s songs have been cut by Lee Ann Womack, Joe Bonamassa, Allison Moorer and others, while Buddy was named Artist of the Decade by No Depression magazine in 2008. He’s worked as a musician, producer and writer with countless respected names in Americana and beyond, and at least one rock god, Robert Plant. And he’s known for a guitar sound that somehow fits whatever project or artist he’s involved with. “I haven’t turned my tremolo off since, like, 1979 probably,” he said. “I see no need to.”
With the exception of a couple appearances by guest musicians, Buddy plays most of the instruments on Breakdown On 20th Avenue South. “I play some acoustic guitar and some tambourine,” Julie says, “but it’s mostly Buddy. The Band Buddy.”
On the new album’s second track, the lyrically vivid dirge-like “Feast Of The Dead,” Buddy plays the aforementioned hurdy-gurdy, a primarily European instrument that produces sound via a rosined wheel rubbing against its strings when a crank is turned. “I’m proud to say it was my idea,” Julie says. “I’ve wanted a hurdy-gurdy for probably 30 years. When we lived in L.A. we went to hear Bob Dylan, and we were backstage and I heard this sound, and it was two members of the Pogues with a hurdy-gurdy and an accordion, and I was so rude, I just walked up and said, ‘What’s that?!’ and they said ‘It’s a hurdy-gurdy,’ and I said ‘How much do they cost?’ and they said ‘$1,200,’ and I said, ‘Golly, I’ll never make that much money in my whole life.’ So for this record Buddy got me a hurdy-gurdy. I think it should have been on everything on the record. I love the hurdy-gurdy.”
Julie loves it, but Buddy, well, maybe not so much.
“I had actually recorded one before for a guy,” he says dryly and sarcastically, “and the hurdy-gurdy is complicated and it’s a horrible thing. There are people who’ve thrown them out. You can walk around and find them in dumpsters, the way they sound. They sound like a horrible fiddle player.”
Julie may have hit a stumbling block for a while, but she has been able to get back on the creative path she started traveling so long ago. And she gets to do it with her life partner, who happens to be one of the music industry’s most versatile and respected artists. “I don’t have songs, songs have me,” she says. “It’s what I’m supposed to do. It’s my calling.”