By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Miller says that she tries not to worry too much about messages and implications in her songs. "I'm a pretty analytical person, but with songs, I found along the way that the more analytical I got about music, the harder it was--like that analytical left brain didn't do music," she concludes with one of the laughs that pepper her conversation. "I just found this other feeling-place, and I don't think about it very much. Of course, you do have to think about words that rhyme and stuff, but it's kind of an accumulation of my life experiences. There could be a little bit about a certain person, but usually not--it's a lot more about everything, [bigger things] like how we're so easily deceived as people because we end up believing what we want to believe and learn the hard way."
Miller takes a similar approach to constructing her songs. "Mood is the biggest factor, but usually songs just sort of happen, like when I'm walking down the hall to go to the bathroom. I have to capture these things on tape when I'm motivated, because I won't remember them. It's funny, because when I listen to these things back on tape, sometimes they don't even ring a bell--I'm like, 'What was that? What's that?'"
She's not exaggerating. The first song of hers that many encountered was the eerie ballad "All My Tears," off of Emmylou Harris' groundbreaking Wrecking Ball; later, the song was covered by jazz singer Jimmy Scott. The first time she heard Scott's version, she didn't recognize it at all. "It was really strange, to hear a song you wrote and not recognize it. The lyrics sorta sounded familiar. When I wrote it, I thought I was writing a bluegrass song. When Emmylou and Daniel Lanois did it, it was an incredible, really cool song, but it definitely wasn't a bluegrass song, and then this other jazz version comes out. I guess I'm going to have to get Ralph Stanley to do it."
Although Blue Pony does have some upbeat numbers on it--"Letters to Emily" is a bouncy acoustic number that celebrates the rewards of having a soulmate (although at the same time it recognizes the frustration that comes with that kind of bond), and "Last Song" is a gentle declaration of faith and changeless love--many may find the overall tone of the album a bit sad, which provokes merry laughter from Miller.
"We had quite a few songs that we were fooling around with, trying to decide what to put on the album," she explains. "I really wasn't paying attention until people started asking me all these questions, so I went back and listened to the album and it was like, 'My gosh, all these songs are so melancholy!' But it wasn't deliberate." She seems highly tickled by the whole deal. "I think the next album I put out will just be a bunch of meaningless songs," she says, vainly trying to suppress a giggle. "I just want to rock!"
The giggles subside. "Here's what's funny," she says. "I've got all these animals around here, cats and squirrels and possums. I worked in children's music for a long time, and every day I'm constantly making up these little rhyming songs for the cat, or the squirrel, and I guess that's where all my happy songs go--they're just not very recordable for adults. I guess that it's those sort of heart-breaking things that inspire me musically. The part of myself that I need to express musically isn't the part of me that comes up in normal conversation."
The parallel paths that she and Sam Phillips traveled intersected at one point: Phillips picked Miller's demo tape out of her slush pile and gave it to her producer, which started her out on her four-album gospel career, a trail she regards as more of a detour now. "It wasn't really what I planned to do," she says. "I think that my musical sound seems to be better understood by non-gospel audiences, and they seem to like me better. I'm not even sure that many people know that much about that [gospel] part of me."
It doesn't really matter; for Miller--as for her music--the past still exists in the present, even if it's in the form of knowing what you don't want to do. She plays country music in the manner that Emmylou referred to when, speaking of her own Wrecking Ball, she allowed "We live in a country, so..." Certainly the mysticism of folk is there in Blue Pony, as is the sturm und twang, the pathos and regret, of C&W. What's important is that these things exist not as a result of some marketing consultant's check list, but as honest vehicles for expression. On that high level, Julie Miller and Blue Pony succeed brilliantly.