A lead singer releasing a solo album could kill many bands, but that's not the case with Rhett Miller and the Old 97's. In fact, Miller says that his continuing solo career has helped the Old 97's stay together for 25 years.
They'll celebrate that accomplishment with two new releases on ATO this month -- Miller's eighth solo album, The Messenger, released Nov. 9, and the Old 97's' first Christmas release, Love the Holidays, out Friday (Nov. 16). They'll support the albums with a tour beginning Nov. 28 in Seattle with Miller doing double duty, opening solo and headlining with the band.
As if that wasn't enough on his plate, Miller also has his first book coming out, No More Poems! -- a collaboration with artist Dan Santat -- due March 5 from Little Brown Books For Young Readers. While on the road, Miller got feedback from his 15-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter on speakerphone or FaceTime. "The idea wasn't that I was trying to impress them," he says. "The idea was I was writing these poems for eventual publication and I needed their critique and I wanted them to be as harsh as possible and really let me have it and it was so fun."
Reached by phone in the middle of a solo tour in late October en route to Houston, Miller -- who turned 48 in September -- explained how these projects happened to come together over the course of the last year.
The book, Miller explains, has been in the works for the last few years. "Books take a really long time, especially when you have an illustrator on board," he says. As for the albums, "I was making them both during the first few months of this year," he explains. "And it's funny, too, because they're just very different records. The Christmas record is just so happy and kind of hopeful and the solo record is more complicated."
On that end, Miller deals with personal demons from his past on The Messenger in songs such as "Total Disaster," "I Used to Write in Notebooks" and "Permanent Damage," including a suicide attempt in his teens. The option to turn to the Christmas project offered some relief. "As I was writing songs for The Messenger I kept thinking I needed to transport my head to a space that was happier," he says. "I was bouncing back and forth between the two in order to kind of give myself a break from the darkness of The Messenger. Although that does have moments of hope on it, it also grapples with a lot of heavy stuff, whereas that Christmas record is pretty much candy canes throughout."
Underneath that holiday cheer, though, Miller notes that there is some darkness. "The lie of Santa Claus is sort of a parallel lie that we're told throughout our youth -- that you can be anything and do anything, and that happiness is our birthright," Miller says. "Eventually you figure out that being a human being is really hard. Sometimes it's hard to convince yourself to go on. But when you're a kid, that isn't ever explained to you or presented to you as a really normal thing that happens to all of us."
At the age of 14, Miller says he made a "serious attempt" at suicide. "I decided I didn't want to continue living," he recalls. He ingested pills along with poisonous liquids. "I was lucky because the combination – the Valium I took slowed my heart rate down. The lamp oil I drank coated the inside of my stomach. It was all these things that would have killed me [separately], but the combination of them and the fact I was found by a stranger on the road…I survived it."
Since then, Miller has been in therapy, which is something he believes in, but had previously shied away from speaking about publicly. "It's embarrassing in a lot of ways," he says. "Suicide and mental health is so stigmatized." He was also concerned that some might accuse him of exploiting his suicide story. Yet Miller had second thoughts. "I realized it was good for it not only to be part of the conversation to try to de-stigmatize mental health [problems] and suicidal ideation, but also it's good for me to not beat myself up about it and feel like it's something I have to hide or be ashamed of."
Musically, as well, the two albums offered varied approaches for Miller. While Love the Holidays paired him with the familiar backing of his long-time bandmates, he took himself out of his comfort zone with The Messenger, hooking up with producer/musician Sam Cohen, who played guitars, piano, organ and drums along with bassist Brian Betancourt and drummer Ray Rizzo.
"He's a really brilliant instrumentalist and producer, who in a lot of ways reminds me a lot of Jon Brion," Miller says of Cohen. "He likes to work quickly, he sort of sees the architecture of the music as it's being made." To keep things fresh and spontaneous, Betancourt and Rizzo hadn't previously played together. "The four of us would set up and just record live off the floor really quickly," Miller says. "I think there's a propulsiveness to the sound. It's happy and ebullient and it moves a lot. It's a different sounding record than anything I've ever made. It's really lively sounding and I think that helps a lot, because some of the themes on the record are really heavy." The album opener and first single, "Total Disaster," is a perfect example, as Miller lists his personality flaws over an irresistible beat and some tasteful guitar riffs.
Love the Holidays offers the flipside. Produced and engineered by John Pedigo in Dallas back in April and May, when it was "hot as hell," getting into the Christmas spirit in the spring proved to be a bit of a challenge. "When I came to the guys with the idea to do the Christmas record, it was January," Miller says. "We had all just come through the holiday season and the last thing any of us wanted to think about was Christmas music, but I knew if we wanted to make it and get it out for this year that it all had to happen pretty quickly, so I was writing Christmas songs all through January, February, March and into April. It was really weird."
Still, Miller, his Old 97's bandmates – bassist/vocalist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples – and a few co-writers managed to find the holiday spirit. Highlights on the album include "Rudolph Is Blue," written by Miller and Dan Bern as well as the title track, co-written with Kevin Russell of the Gourds. The album also includes covers of such seasonal favorites as "Auld Lang Syne" and "Blue Christmas."
"I think Christmas music is inherently bizarre," Miller says. "It's sort of a funhouse time of season where everybody pretends to be happy, but there's always this sort of bubbling sadness about everything. We lie to our kids about Santa Claus. There's a certain creepiness to the Christmas thing that I tried to avoid when writing the songs, but it was always sort of present in my mind."
As for balancing his solo career with the band, Miller says they've managed to find a happy medium. "I wouldn't presume to speak for them, but my sense is they've achieved a level of comfort with me doing solo records," Miller says. "There was a time when it was more stressful with me doing solo records because there was a perception within our fanbase that I was trying to break-up the band or that we wouldn't survive the solo records."
Around 1999, Miller realized that he was ending up with a lot of quality material that didn't make the Old 97's albums. "I knew that I was going to make solo albums for the band to work," he says. "Otherwise, I was going to feel too much resentment towards them for stifling my creativity. I think they appreciate me having the solo career as an outlet that allows me to stay a full member of the band and not try to impose some dictatorship on them, which really wouldn't work anyway."
On the upcoming tour, the band has even agreed to play "Total Disaster" from The Messenger during the band's set. "I tried to get them to record that song on [the band's 2017 album] Graveyard Whistling and they weren't interested." Yet when the band heard Miller's completed solo version, they had some regrets. "They all said, 'Why didn't we do that on our record?' And I said, 'Because you guys hated it,' but it worked out."
Old 97's/Rhett Miller tour dates
28 – Seattle, WA – The Neptune w/Rhett Miller solo
29 – Portland, OR – Wonder Ballroom w/Rhett Miller solo
30 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore w/Rhett Miller solo
1 – Los Angeles, CA – The Troubadour w/Rhett Miller solo
2 – Solana Beach, CA – The Belly Up w/Rhett Miller solo
6 – Richmond, VA – The National w/Rhett Miller solo
7 – Philadelphia, PA – TLA w/Rhett Miller solo
8 – Baltimore, MD – Rams Head Live! w/Rhett Miller solo
9 – Cambridge, MA – The Sinclair w/Rhett Miller solo
13 – Asbury Park, NJ – The Wonder Bar w/Rhett Miller solo
14 – New York, NY – Irving Plaza w/Rhett Miller solo
15 – Pittsburgh, PA – Mr Smalls w/Rhett Miller solo
29 – Dallas, TX – Statler Ballroom w/Rhett Miller solo