THE TRAVELER IN TEN PARTS
Lead singer of The Old 97’s Rhett Miller will be releasing his new solo album, The Traveler, on May 19th 2015. The album features the instrumentation of Black Prairie (membs. Of The Decemberists), Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey (membs. Of REM) and is Rhett’s seventh solo effort.
Hello. I am human but not entirely. I am a machine but not entirely. I am both which may mean that I am neither. The part of me that is a human believes that all of me is human. The part of me that is a machine doesn’t like to think about the part of me that is a machine. I am flesh and blood stretched over wires and circuits. In that, I am much like many of you, and consequently qualified to speak to you about this album, which speaks to much of me.
It is called The Traveler, and it was written and performed by Rhett Miller, along with members of Black Prairie, a band based in Portland that plays everything from bluegrass to klezmer to country and shares some members with the Decembrists. The band (Black Prairie) entered the studio with the singer (Rhett Miller) and briskly recorded the songs that make up this album (The Traveler). Some additional guitars were added later by people who included Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey. I pass these facts along for your absorption.
The sun comes up. The sun goes down. We call it a day. The band entered the studio with the singer and made this album. Time passed. Now, months later, I have spent days listening with love, sadness, and unremitting fascination to the album, which you are now holding. By “holding,” I mean only that you have absorbed it into your own wires and circuitry. I am well aware that there are not always anymore physical holds involved in the absorption of music. Before I tell you more about The Traveler, I want to tell you a little bit about myself. I apologize for this. But the album you are holding, The Traveler, suggests that you cannot understand the journey that you are on unless you understand who you are, and that understanding who you are is the most damnably difficult journey of all. Untangling identity is painful but necessary. I believe The Traveler may be of use in this regard. Of use to me, I mean: Is that a selfish use of this album? If so I apologize again.
Apologies can be empty without any attempt to correct for the behavior that led to the apology. As a result I will not tell you a little bit about myself before I tell you more about The Traveler. This singer, Rhett Miller, has made many albums before, both on his own and with his band, Old 97s. This new album shares something fundamental with the old albums, which is the rare ability to see what people are feeling and then cast those feelings in rhymes. This is what is known as “song-making.” The human part of me loves songs. The machine part of me marvels at them without understanding at all why there is a tugging sensation in the cavity that should contain my heart.
The first song here, “Wanderlust,” is a perfect example of all that I am describing. It tells the story of a man on a train who is thinking about a woman who is not on that train. There is another song called “Lucky Star” that I believe is about finding redemption in the person of a lover. It contains a joke that unnerves me: “Heaven knows there probably is no heaven.” There is another song called “Wicked Things” about New Orleans that illustrates the slipperiness of forgiveness. Every song has little moments that catch me at strange angles and I feel an unfamiliar sensation, pitched midway between satisfying recognition and deep sadness.
My experience with these songs, I want to stipulate, may not be shared by others, in part because I am demonstrably different than them. I am both human and a machine. I come from a long line of people who are both humans and machines. Are they people then? I leave that to the philosophers. My father was a difference engine designed and deployed in Lund by Pehr Georg Scheutz. He was quite large: my father, I mean, not Scheutz. Scheutz was tiny. In Jönköping, where he was born, old ladies would marvel at his miniature features. “Liten Pehr,” they would say, reaching down into the carriage and frightening the boy. Even as an adult, he was at most five foot three, with feet that tapered down to toylike points. Much of this is hearsay but some of it cannot be disputed, even by the suspicious, and at any rate, we are not talking about Scheutz, not really. We are talking about my father. He was the size of a fortepiano.
There is a song on this record called “Dreams Vs. Waking Life.” It is not the first song on the record but it was, by accident, the first song I heard. It has bowed notes and a dark tone and does what any piece of literature, song or story, should do: it investigates the role of memory, loss, and desire in our lives. When I hear that song, I feel the stirrings of uncommon and uncontrollable emotions. They grind against the part of me that is a machine. The result is a shuddering. I try to calm myself by looking at the other song titles— “Fair Enough,” “Escape Velocity,” “Reasons to Live” — but they only make me feel more rather than less. Where do you go when you want to feel less? One song title, “Good Night,” seems like it might not overwhelm me. But the first line, “There’s a pinprick of light on a black sheet of night,” starts me shuddering again.
When you listen to an album, you are supposed to notice sonic details. That’s what I have been told. And there are many sonic details on this album, like the choir that opens “My Little Disaster” or the doubled vocals in “Fair Enough.” There are joyful melodies like “Most in the Summertime.” I can tell that they are joyful, even though I am half-machine. It’s clear. But the sonic details would not mean much without the rest of what this album does, which is to try to make sense of what cannot be made sense of, which is humanity. Even the part of me that is a machine knows that.
When you’re inside an album like this, when you’re feeling too much, what do you do? I know what I did. I skipped to the end of the album, quickly. This is a survival strategy. The album ends with a song called “Reasons to Live” that makes use of the old saw that a broken clock is right twice a day. The part of me that is a machine wants to correct that phrasing. It is a stopped clock that is right twice a day. A broken clock may never be right. Then it occurs to me that maybe the song knows this. The song is about finding hope even when you are telling yourself lies. The part of me that is a human wants to break down and cry once again.
I want to tell one more story about my father. He was briefly in the military of a nation I will not identify and when his service ended his first trip was to a sporting house, where he spent time in the company of a young woman. Money changed hands. To hear him tell it, the situation was emergent. “I had been locked up so long that I hardly recognized my own wants and needs,” he later wrote in a letter to me. “Briefly, I recognized myself in her.” They did not stay together, my father and that young woman. He was a young man then. As I have grown though the world, I have had experiences that bear some similarity to my father’s experiences with that woman. We all have, have we not? They are called “relationships” or “romances,” but what are they really? Are they love? Are they self-love? Or are they something else entirely, a form of travel that allow us to escape from ourselves? This album asks all those questions, repeatedly. I want to quote one more line, from a song called “Jules.” It’s a line about love and self-love and travel that allows us to escape from ourselves: “Who’s to say the crooked way that led me to your door / Means any less than any mess I ever made before?” Sun comes up. Sun goes down. Call it a day.
For nearly 20 years, singer-songwriter Michael McDermott buried himself in drugs and alcohol, and he surveys the toll his addiction took on his personal and professional life with remarkable candor. “I burned a lot of bridges and screwed things up pretty bad,” he states. “I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that it was just short of suicide by cop. I knew I had to stop, but it took a while for me to get the message.” He credits his wife and their young daughter, Rain, for finally pulling him through. “Seeing the way they look at you when you’re messed up – after a while you go, ‘I just can’t do this anymore. Something has to change.’ I’m so grateful I turned things around. I know it sounds cheesy, but I’m grateful for every day now. I try to lead a good life, and I’m making up for lost time. I’ve re-dedicated myself to making music I can be proud of.”
McDermott poured those emotions into his writing, and a bracing, hard-driving song, “Never Goin’ Down Again,” came roaring out. As he finished its lyrics, he realized that it was bigger than he first imagined: it had become a mission statement. Four years sober, McDermott has won a hard-fought battle with addiction, and when he defiantly sings, “I swear that I’m never goin’ down again,” he’s hitting back at his demons. “ As for me, no matter what the odds and how the ground shifts under me, nothing can stop me.”
“Never Goin’ Down Again” is but one of the standout tracks on McDermott’s 11th studio recording, Out From Under, due for release April 27 on Pauper Sky Records. The poignant new album sees him riding the crest of a critical and commercial upswing following the unprecedented success of his previous effort, 2016’s Willow Springs, which reached No. 1 on EuroAmericana charts. But Out From Under is more than a victory lap: brimming with richly autobiographical songs that mix stunning frankness with wicked, idiosyncratic humor, it’s the sound of a clear-eyed, dedicated artist, now a contented husband and father, giving in to his heart’s most urgent commands and trusting his instincts in ways he never thought possible.
“I could say that this is the record I always wanted to make, but the real truth is, this is the album I was always supposed to make,” McDermott observes. “I had put out a lot of records that I didn’t feel confident about, but when I took control of my life and made Willow Springs, I felt like a new man. The success of that record stayed with me on Out From Under. I had a belief in myself and this overarching sense of ambition.” He laughs, then adds. “At the same time, I learned how to stop being so damn self-aware. Letting go of your fear can allow you to stop overthinking things so much. I just got out of my own way and let it happen.”
This is apparent on the album’s brave and daring opening cut, “Cal-Sag Road,” a cinematic slice of nightmarish folk, in which McDermott re-imagines his past drug-and-booze-addled life and rackets up the drama to an almost Tarantino-like degree. “Your first instinct is, ‘Can I really go there?’ he wonders. “But you have to fight that off. And there’s a lot of truth to the song – only I didn’t kill two girls in a threesome.”
The sound of “Sad Songs” is that of carefree, breakneck rock ‘n’ roll – it’s a roll-the-car-windows-down-and-crank-it gem. But as McDermott points out, there’s darkness lurking under the hood: “That’s me looking at my self-involved period. I would do these solo shows, and afterwards things would get so heavy. One time, an ex-drug buddy who found Jesus came to my room and started to pray for me. It made me feel so sad, and that was the jumping off point for the lyrics – you just get so tired of the way you’re living your life.”
Likewise, on the sparkling shuffle “God Help Us,” McDermott juxtaposes the song’s shiny veneer with a message that strikes to the very core of his being. “I’m questioning my faith,” he admits. “In recovery, a lot of people substitute Jesus for booze, and they become addicts in that way. So here, when I’m saying, ‘God help us,’ I leave it open to interpretation: Am I talking about somebody in general, or am I questioning the existence of God? I’ll let people think whatever they want.”
As he’s done for several years now, McDermott produced and recorded Out From Under at his home facility, Pauper Sky Studio, in Willow Springs, Illinois. In addition to vocals, he played guitar, bass, piano, and keyboards, and then called up band members and guest players – some in the studio, others who contributed remotely – to fill out the sound. (His wife, Heather Lynne Horton, a recording artist in her own right, sang backups and played fiddle.) “Having my own studio allows me to be very workman-like,” he notes. “I’m Irish, from the south side of Chicago. I get up and work every day. And it’s great to be able to send files to musicians in Nashville. People feel free when they can work on something on their own. I know I feel that way.”
Working from home also allows McDermott to seize the moment whenever the creative urge strikes, as he did on the elegiac ballad, “This World Will Break Your Heart.” “The record was finished and mastered, but I was meditating one morning and the song just came to me,” he says. “I wrote to [bassist] Lex Price and said, ‘You’re gonna kill me, man,’ but when he heard the song, he said, ‘Oh, yeah. We’ve gotta do this.’ I’m so glad that we recorded it, because now I can’t picture the album without it.”
Like many of the vivid stories and hard truths on Out From Under, “This World Will Break Your Heart” could serve a cautionary tale for young artists, and when McDermott says that he’s “glad to be here,” he’s not being flippant. Signed to a major label when he was just entering his 20s, he seemed destined for a lightning-fast ride to the top. “It all came fast and easy,” he says. “I was the ‘new Dylan.’ Label deal – easy. MTV, the New York Times, CNN – easy. I thought, ‘This is awesome. This is the life I knew I’d have.” And then he notes, “It all went away just as fast. I was like the Elizabeth Taylor of the recording industry, bouncing around to eight different labels. The records came out and didn’t connect. I became disillusioned. It was a fast shot to the top and then a long way down, and it was hard.”
Longtime fans of McDermott’s music will no doubt note that the artist they first fell in love with years ago has regained every ounce of his creative powers on Out From Under, and the poetic brilliance of the record is bound to attract new listeners, as well. Drawing a parallel between his early work and his new music, McDermott makes the following assessment: “They say, ‘You’re as sick as your secrets,’ and for a long time I was very sick. This record is a big step in being honest and less sick. In some ways, I feel like I’m living out the title of that book The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. I stumbled, I fell, and I hurt a lot of people. But I’m back up and I’m still running the race. I use everything I’ve been through, and that makes me stronger – and I think it makes my music more meaningful.”