Demons and Angels
Between songs, Mara Lee Miller receives a signal from the man behind the boards at Sons of Hermann Hall. Her band, Bosque Brown, only has time for one more song, he says. At this point, Miller lowers her wide-eyed look at the crowd, turns to her band members and whispers a song title.
This is the first time she has spoken during her entire set.
The 25-year-old songwriter from Denton might act shy in concert, but when Miller sings, her strange restraint melts away as her songs, full of fear, darkness and shame, are released by a fearless, angelic voice. Only three years ago, her homemade demo was collecting dust, but with the support of acclaimed singer-songwriter and kindred spirit Damien Jurado, Miller is well on her way to becoming the most important musician to come out of the local scene this year.
It's a surprising distinction for someone reared in the tiny Texas town of Stephenville. Growing up in the town of 16,000, Miller (born Mara Lee Caves) was exposed to plenty of music, but due to her strict Baptist household, it wasn't the standard oldies and classic rock most of us heard growing up. Mara's mother, a piano teacher, taught her and her sister Gina to play and sing hymns, taking them to church talent shows and nursing homes to perform. Her father, a lover of old movies, taught them songs from classic musicals like Oklahoma!
But it was country music, heavy in the Stephenville air, which would eventually have the most profound impact. "I wasn't exposed to much on the radio," Miller says. "It was either church music or old music."
At 18, Mara moved to Denton to attend college, where she had few, if any, distractions. "I didn't have a roommate or TV or anything," she says. "I didn't know anyone--so I was bored--and that's when I started writing songs." In her solitude, Miller found her voice, writing graceful coming-of-age songs as familiar as they were poetic.
Miller quickly grew enamored with Denton's music scene, taking in shows by bands like Lift to Experience and Centro-matic. She also found inspiration in Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams ("I love the fact that he can sing about drinking and having affairs, and then he can turn around and sing a hymn," she says), as well as modern roots artists like Gillian Welch.
Eventually, musician friend Ryan Miller offered to record her haunting country-folk songs on a four-track--an arrangement that eventually led to their wedding at the Chapel on the Bosque in Miller's hometown. With Ryan's encouragement, Miller began to pass out demos to her family and friends, complete with her own handmade artwork.
When Jurado toured through Denton in late 2002, Ryan offered him one of Mara's demos, hoping only for some advice or words of encouragement from the critically acclaimed singer-songwriter. A few weeks later, the Millers received an e-mail from Jurado, who was completely taken with Mara's voice and songwriting.
"God doesn't make voices like hers anymore," Jurado says via e-mail. "It reminded me of how I felt the first time I heard Robert Johnson or Kitty Wells. Here was and is the combo of both being channeled through the songs and voice of Mara Miller... she's the real deal." In fact, Jurado was so impressed that he invited Miller to record with his producer of choice, Eric Fisher, in Seattle. The sessions eventually resulted in Bosque Brown's debut album, Plays Mara Lee Miller, which Jurado personally shopped to several labels.
Both Miller and Jurado have been unfairly stigmatized as Christian artists by the indie music community, defined only by their faith, but their music is about as far from the cookie-cutter positivity of modern Christian music as it gets. "We just carry on a tradition," Jurado says, acknowledging that religious themes have traditionally co-mingled with love, lust, murder and drinking in the common language of country and folk music.
Considering her childhood, Miller doesn't see how it's possible for her to avoid writing about her spirituality. "Even if I didn't believe the things I did," she says, "if I'm writing about what I know...it would almost be impossible for me not to say something about it."
On record, Miller's religious songs come across much like her other songs--full of confusion, hope and despair all at once--and she's quick to admit that they all come from personal experience. "I admire storytellers," she says, "but I can't do it. I can only write about what I know."
"Fine Lines" is a potent example of her highly personal song craft, a mix of adolescent woe and religious anxieties as moving as it is disturbing: "Here they walk down the hall / Dressed in skin and bones / I'll wear my mound of clothes / I'd buy their profiles / I'll begin killing myself / 12 noon / And I would die for their fine lines / I'm a liar / Call me a sinner."
Miller admits that her religious upbringing plays a part in many of the dark undercurrents in her music. Her first childhood memories consist of the "fire and brimstone" teachings of an old Baptist church in Dublin, Texas, where a young Miller heard about demons and Satan on a regular basis. "It instilled a lot of fear in me," she says, remembering the adults who always told her, "There's demons and angels watching you!"
After finishing her recording, Miller returned to Denton and assembled a band to play the songs live. Her sister and husband joined first, with Gina playing piano and Ryan handling bass and pedal steel. Jeremy Buller, a guitarist and acquaintance of Gina's, heard the album and burned a copy for Winston Chapman (AKA Slap Bracelet), drummer for Denton's Fishboy. They both joined soon after, and Bosque Brown (named after the river that flows through Stephenville) was complete.
While trying to re-create the spare and haunting mood of the record, Bosque Brown quickly found that they had several advantages over most newly formed bands, including a firm family foundation from which to build. After playing only a couple of gigs, the band found themselves surrounded by the kind of buzz usually reserved for bands that have been together for more than a few months. Bosque Brown: Plays Mara Lee Miller was finally released on April 19 and has since risen as high as #108 on the CMJ college music charts. The band will take their first trip on the road in September to play the CMJ Music Festival in New York City. It will be their 10th show.
In concert, Miller is a captivating presence, and her shyness only accentuates that quality. She rarely speaks between songs, and when she does, it's only to say a brief "thank you" or to whisper an aside to her band mates. Once her voice fills the room, however, you can't help but forgive the awkwardness. Though reminiscent of artists like Cat Power, Hope Sandoval and Jolie Holland, Miller's singing, especially when complemented by her sister's harmonies, is truly incomparable. When their two voices melt together on "Silver and Gold," they can make a rock club feel like an old country church, conjuring something beautiful and uplifting from all the smoke and the darkness.
"I'm not the type of person that's very comfortable with being the center of attention," Miller says, but lately, she's been just that, going from complete obscurity to darling of the Denton scene in a few short months. The added pressure can't help her stage fright, but she doesn't let it bother her too much. "It's weird. As soon as I start singing, I can kind of put myself somewhere else and it's okay," she says. With her heartbreakingly beautiful music, Miller has found a way to take her listeners with her.
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