Texas-bred singer-songwriter Rhett Miller has been making music since the late 1980s, most famously with the alt-country group The Old 97’s. But over his long career, Rhett’s kept an open mind to collaboration, and on his new solo album, that spirit rings true as ever. On The Traveler (out May 12 via ATO Records), Miller worked closely with the fine-tuned backing band Black Prairie (featuring Decemberists members like Chris Funk and John Moen), in addition to college rock legends Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey. After producing a fine batch of songs, Rhett spoke to Billboard about his secrets on great collaborations (even with drummers with great harmony ideas) and finding inspiration to endure life’s darker moments.
On your new album The Traveler, you collaborated with the band Black Prairie, which includes members of the Decemberists. What was it like working with them?
Chris Funk is the dobro player in the Decembrists and Black Prairie and is sort of the musical director for both bands. I don’t think anybody would get mad at me for describing him this way; he was technically a producer on this record, although one of the things we kept bringing up was that everybody in Black Prairie kind of has production chops and has lots of ideas. Everybody is really respectful of each other’s ideas and there’s no competition about it. It was really great. John Moen is the drummer for the Decemberists and Black Prairie and is a famous Portland drummer that has played with everybody. When I saw Elliott Smith do his SNL appearance, John Moen was his drummer. He’s been around a million blocks and he’s just a really brilliant guy. When he comes up with an idea for a harmony, you’re thinking, “Well you’re the drummer dude. You don’t have to be thinking about harmonies; we’ve got that covered.” But his ideas for harmonies were great.
How do they compare to your main group, The Old 97’s?
Black Prairie is really broad, with a wide range of talents that can play a lot of different styles. They’re just really flexible. The 97’s have a big muscle, but it’s really specific. It’s like a machine; you put a song in the machine and it comes out sounding like an Old 97’s song, where with Black Prairie, we tried things so many different ways. That kind of flexibility is really liberating and you can hear it all over this record.
What was it like collaborating with (former R.E.M. guitarist) Peter Buck? I know he’s a hero of yours.
This sounds like hyperbole, but in a lot of ways R.E.M. changed my life. I was this 14-year-old kid who didn’t see much point in all of the pain inherent in this world and I got Life’s Rich Pageant… I would sleep and listen to one side one over and over and the next night I would go to the other side. There was a good six to eight months of my life when that was how I made sense of the world. Here I am decades later and I’ve got to be friends with Peter through getting to open for R.E.M. over the years… Then to call him up and get him to play on my record was something I had never dreamt of as a young rock and roll love. He’s just my buddy now and he’s a sweet dude.
Aside from being called The Traveler, the theme pops up a lot in the lyrics — both in actual travels, and travels through life.
Yeah, I didn’t really think of these songs as a concept album per se, but I really love exploring the moments between people and the tension — not even the bad kind — the way things rub against each other and how the things that are said have nothing to do with what’s at the core of the conversation. The microcosm that I really focus on is the male-female relationship, the love relationship that heightens and embodies those discussions, the discussions within the discussions. So when I think about the traveler I think about the way you move in and out of love, in and out of relationships, or the closeness you could feel with a person. Even for me I was thinking a lot about reincarnation.
I was reading this author David Mitchell, who is best known for his book Cloud Atlas, but a lot of his books include reincarnation and being caught up in the Buddhist idea of a soul that lives collectively and is eternal. It doesn’t go somewhere special at the end; it just kind of gets recycled. I thought about how that can apply to love relationships. Like you love someone, but if that doesn’t work out, the love kind of gets recycled in the life that you live, even within. You have all of these lives that you live, even within this one life you live. So I saw the traveler as the character within this album — the narrator, the protagonist. I thought of him traveling geographically, emotionally and spiritually.
What did you learn about yourself through making this album?
Putting “Reason to Live” at the very end was my way of saying I have found there is hope and a reason to keep going when you’re really defeated. I wanted to give people the ray of light and say I learned a little bit about perseverance and survival in the making of this record and surviving the last 40-odd years of my life… Navigating this life is a tricky thing but if you are open to the beauty of it — and open to creating beauty of your own — it can be really rewarding. How did I get so heavy?
An abridged version of this story appeared in the May 22 issue of Billboard