Q&A: Rhett Miller On Producing His New Record And Crowdsourcing’s Unintended Physical Side Effects
The past year has been non-stop for Rhett Miller. The Old 97’s frontman launched his own label in 2011 with a covers record, The Interpreter—Live at Largo, and the 97’s put out The Grand Theatre Vol. 2 a mere eight months after 2010’s Volume One. It’s only going to get busier from here—this week Miller releases The Dreamer, his first studio effort on Maximum Sunshine, and plays Maxwells and the Bowery Ballroom.
Miller’s sixth solo album also marks his first time he’s produced his own work, and The Dreamer was funded through a PledgeMusic campaign where fans could donate money for perks such as handwritten lyric sheets, album acknowledgments and meet-and-greets. The reality of delivering on these pledges has caught up with Miller in the last few weeks, “I’ve got a little carpal tunnel anyway,” he says, “and I have to write out 50 sheets of lyrics.”
SOTC talked to Miller about his decision to go the crowdfunding route, working with Rosanne Cash, Ben Kweller and others and what’s next for the Old 97’s.
What made you decide to do a PledgeMusic campaign?
That was a nerve-wracking decision, to decide whether or not to go the crowdfunding route. In the end, I think it was good. It’s a little strange, but I get to own my own master from my record. And I got to raise the money my management and I are now using to hire all the people that the label needs to make a real release.
You’ve got to have radio people, publicity people and just all the infrastructure, the team. And I get to do that using the kind nature of the fans as opposed to the greedy nature of the man. Not that my interactions with the record labels were all that bad over the years, but it did always bother me that they owned the record I made. It didn’t make sense. On some fundamental level, the old business model seemed flawed. Why does the artist have the least amount of say in his creation? It seems weird to me.
Yeah, it does seem weird.
It was high time that old system got overthrown.
I think it’s kind of interesting too, especially since 10 years or so ago, [the Old 97’s] seemed to be shying away a little bit from the Internet. And now you seem to have embraced it, especially with Twitter.
I do like Twitter. I like the succinct nature of it. I love that comedians are able to excel at Twitter. I’ve got some good comic friends, and it’s just so built for that kind of a thing. I go in waves.
The last month or two, I’ve felt sort of incapable of contributing in the way that I have been in the last couple of years. I started trying to do Facebook too, and suddenly I felt like I was stretching myself too thin doing the Facebook and the Twitter and the PledgeMusic updates and doing the updates on my site. I was like, “Dude, I write songs. I’m creating way more content than I’m usually being asked to create.”
What made you decide to start Maximum Sunshine, and are you going to have any other artists on the label?
That’s funny, I never thought about that until a couple of people asked me about it recently, because I’ve been constantly bragging about how I’m a record label mogul now. And I don’t know. I like the idea of curating a label and being able to handpick artists. I would want to make sure I could offer them a service that was worth them putting a record out with me. I’ll have to see if I’m good at it first, I guess. It’s a little terrifying, but I do. I do love finding new artists and listening to music, not that I’m that on top of it.
What was it like to self-produce the record? Was that especially nerve-wracking? Do you have a new appreciation for your producers?
Not that I don’t have an appreciation for my producers, but it was not challenging in the least, strangely. It was so awesome and liberating and fun and easy. I just had the theory from the very beginning that I knew what I wanted the record to sound like generally, and I hired people that I really liked and that I worked with for the most part and people that I trusted. I sort of let them do their thing, and if in the rare instance that I thought I had a better idea than their idea was, I had enough of a shorthand with them that I could ask them to do what I wanted without feeling like I was being a jerk or having to walk on eggshells…
We were working a little more quickly, which was not entirely due to financial pressures, although I did like the idea of making a record and being able to say, “Hey look, I made this record for this small amount of money.” It doesn’t have to take $300,000, like I used to spend on a record.
But we worked kind of quickly, and it was sweet just watching everybody, especially my band the Serial Lady Killers, Greg [Beshers], Tommy [Borscheid] and Angela [Webster]. We’ve played together for so long, and we’ve always daydreamed about making a record together. And I knew that they were excited to be able to commit their talent to tape and to be able to release their talent to the world. So they came in so prepared and so on their A-game that they really just nailed it.
I was really proud of them and so grateful because I really love them all. Even though they’ve all had success on their own, I’ve always felt that like they were underappreciated by the world, which is the case for so many of my friends and so many of the people that I admire. God, in music in general if we’re really going to get down to it.
There was a time when musicians were deified, and now we’re in a time where musicians are easily discarded. I’ve got to think there’s some kind of middle ground. We’re not gods, but we’re doing something that’s kind of valuable. And the world needs this. I used to have girlfriends and they’d be like, “It’s not like you’re curing cancer. You’re not saving the world.” I used to have to stand up for this weird profession that I’ve chosen as I’m packing my suitcase to leave for three weeks again.
And I’d say, “I know, but I’m creating something, and it’s making the world maybe a little more beautiful.” Maybe it’s helping some kid that’s having a hard time in his life like I needed music to help me, and maybe I’m doing the same thing for somebody else. The defense of my job has been a big part of my job over the years.
You can pretty much take that and replace “music” with “teaching,” and it’s the same thing.
How did you get Rosanne Cash to appear on The Dreamer?
You go back to Twitter. She’s so great, and I started following her and we would tweet back and forth little stupid things because she’s so interactive with people on there. We realized we had friends in common and it just sort of became obvious that we should try our hand at writing together because I had been doing more and more of that, and she was gearing up to make another record.
So she emailed me some lyrics and the first verse of the duet on the album that we do together was the first thing she ever emailed me. To have somebody I admire so much—and obviously her dad was such a huge influence on me—and she’s somebody I think is so great and has carved out her own niche against all odds.
Within 24 hours I had written a chorus and a second verse and I sent it to her, a terrible little iPhone recording of it. And she loved it, and we went back and forth fixing a few things. We got together to record a demo of it, and that was when I got to play with Rich Hinman, the pedal steel player, because he plays guitar with her. We made this demo, and she and I sang just sort of looking at each other, real old-school live, two vocalists singing at once in nice microphones. It was just so natural, and we got along so well that when we went in and listened to playback, we realized our voices sounded so good together.
Then we went to take the obligatory photo at the end of the session and held the picture up on the phone, and we looked like siblings. It was this weird connection that we made very quickly. So that was nice. That was such a cool, magical moment and it inspired me to pursue more co-writing for my record.
What was it like collaborating with some of the other guests on the record?
I’ve never felt like I needed other people and I probably don’t need them, but to do what I wanted to do—which was to expand my horizons and go into some things that would not necessarily come naturally to me—I do need them. I needed Ben Kweller to make my little two-and-half minute, three-verse song into a full-on, seven-verse, five-minute extravaganza [“Lost Without You”]. He’s such a cheerleader, eliciting that from me was sweet, and it was something that wouldn’t have occurred to me. He made that song.
Ironically, it took him encouraging me to make the song really personal, for me to do that. I was beating around the bush, and he made me tell him, “What do you think this song’s about? What are you thinking about? What’s the visual of the place that the song’s taking place?” So he got me to come up with these images that I would’ve always considered too personal…
And then Jude Cole co-wrote a song called “I’ll Try To” that was sort of the opposite to me, because that was sort of like going into his world and the lyrics he had started with and it sort of started with building something that was almost more about Jude, about something he was going through and I was functioning as sort of a conduit for these emotions, kind of like not a therapist, but when you create art together you have to find a way where you’re not just going, “All right, let’s find a word that rhymes with ‘love'” and whatever because that can be such a beating. It has to be a real thing. With Jude, we came up with something that’s not as obviously personally connected to me, but at the same time feels like something that’s a part of me.
[Collaborating] really made the whole experience. It had a lot of depth in a way that no other record I’ve made has had.
Are the Old 97’s doing anything anytime soon? You did recently put out a record.
God, we put out Volume One and Vol. 2 of The Grand Theatre within eight months of each other. That was such an intensive thing, and the touring behind that was pretty heavy. We’re gonna tour a little bit in the next couple of weeks, and then in the fall, and we’ll do some one-offs throughout the year. And then starting in August, at the end of the summer, we’re going to start touring the 15th anniversary of Too Far to Care.