Canadian singer/songwriter Lynn Miles is a frequent visitor bringing her literate and lean songs to the listening rooms of Europe. This year she released what is arguably the best album of her career. She was born in Quebec to parents who loved music, ranging from jazz and opera to country. She started to write at an early age and to perform in her mid-teens. Later she took took voice lessons before becoming a teacher herself in Ottawa. She began to release her songs in 1990 with a self-titled debut album. In the late 90s she released two albums on Rounder and in 2006 Love Sweet Love came out on Red House. She is now recording with True North records who have released her Black Flowers album as well as her current album Fall For Beauty. We spoke to her prior to her appearance on Sandy Harsch's live Country Time concert. She was as open and honest as her songs are.
When did the process of writing your own songs start?
I started writing songs when I was 10 and this (Fall for Beauty) is my eight studio album. I have written about 650 songs. I tour the USA and also come to Europe to Holland and Ireland probably about once every two years or so. This is my third time over here.
Is there any difference that you perceive with an audience in another country?
No, I think singer-songwriter audiences are the same. They're people who care about the lyric and their usually pretty well read in terms of other song writers, they're listeners and they seem to care about the words. I think they're an educated bunch. They seem very passionate about this style of music. So, in the end I think they're similar. I mean there might be some place were they're a bit more reserved in their responses but always at the end of the night it's the same as people come up and say to me thanks for doing a particular song, or "I love that song".
You seem to have a very clear theme in your songs. Do you have to work at that?
I think I have a very clear voice. There's not a lot of rough edges on my voice and I also think I work very hard on the lyrics as I want people to know what I'm saying. It's kinda the main part of what I do. I love to sing but I love to express the feelings I have as I want to connect with people. And in order to do that they need to know what I'm saying.
Do you then start a song with lyrics or is it an open process?
It works every different way. Because I've written a long of songs they come from different ways of writing. Sometimes I come up with the title and I'll go on to write the song or I can come up with a melody and I'll add lyrics to it or I have books and books of lyrics, little pieces of lyrics, that I go back to. Sometimes a melody will come into my head and I'll think "oh, I have some words that will go with that".
Three chords and the truth is a Harlan Howard expression and he often used to go into bars to pick up phrases or expressions that he would later turn into songs...
Melanie Howard, his widow, told me that he would go to bars every night to listen to people talking and I thought that was brilliant because there's a lot of wisdom spoken in bars. I lsten to peopel when I travel, when I'm on the train or at an airport or sitting in a cafe. I do listen, but I don't go to bars as much as I used to because I quit drinking. So that kind of a hard place for me to go (laughs). But I did get some inspiration from bars when I was hanging out in them. I get a lot of inspiration from literature because I'm a voracious reader. I'll read fiction by somebody and something that is said in that will make me think "that's an interesting concept and I'll try to expand on that".
The song Little Bird on the album about addiction being a case in point?
That was a book by Gabor Mate (In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts) who this amazing doctor in downtown Vancouver, one of the worst neighbourhoods in Canada, where there are a lot of heroin addicts and crack addicts and prostitutes and he works at the needle exchange clinic which is the only one in Canada. He's constantly battling the government but he wrote that most compassionate book about addiction that I've ever come across. He loves these people and he knows where they come from and why they end up where they end up. It's a very compelling book and it was very inspiring so I wrote about it.
We most of us have addictive possibilities in our own lives.
You know I have song that I just wrote that I haven't put on an album yet that has a first line that says "everyone is addicted to something" and I think that that is true. Somebody said to me when I was trying to quit drinking that "it's just a way of avoiding the void". That hugh void that we all have and all carry with us. Something we're afraid to look at - shopping, sex of food or whatever it is that you use to avoid the truth about yourself to deal with your darkness or aloneness or whatever it is. That's the truth about it.
Is age a distraction for you?
Why, because I brought it up a couple of times? You know I wrestle with it but sometimes you see a band and they're old people and it doesn't quite work. I wrestle with it but I'm in a music where it's ok to be a bit older. It's because I'm a woman and I think there's a thing when you're a woman that it's more difficult to age. You're not supposed to age and there's hair colour and facial surgery and all that stuff and your not supposed to put on weight. There's a lot of pressure from mainstream society. I wrestle with that and I wrestle with my own level of exhaustion fro touring which is much more profound now that when it was when I was thirty. It's just harder.
Is that sense of being alone is very much part of who you are as a traveling troubadour?
Yes. I'm on the road alone a lot. So I face it every day. I have to get up and say "well. I'm alone here, who am I and am I good, you know". I have to check myself and say "I'm good". I've struggled with depression and all those things that a lot of people struggle with and it is a one day at a time thing. I have days when, like last week, when I'm in England and I had a first class ticket and I was crying in first class. I had my sunglasses on and I wasn't happy. I was sad. So I was crying on the train and sometimes that's what you have to do.
Does the actual performance then help to exorcises the demons and those feelings?
I don't know if it exorcises the demons but it connects me to other people who have the demons. That makes me feel not as alone in my own experiences as a human being. I always that it woukld be a more compassionate world if more people confessed their frailties and insecurities. The more sharing there is the better off we'll be as a human race. So I'm not afraid to express those things. And I know, as I said earlier that when I finish a show I will get people coming up to me and saying that " that song really helped me with my divorce" or " I lost someone and that song got me through it". I use music for the same reasons. When my father passed away I listened to Patty Griffin and Tom Waits. That's all I listened to. Everyday when I would come out of the hospital, where he was dying of cancer, I would put my headphones on and that's what I would listen to and it got me through. So I understand about that, it's the gift of music.
You have to have that fearless heart.
I wish I had a fearless heart.
There is not much music around today that can draw on those negative aspects of life and turn it into something that is positive and inspiring. Especially modern day country music or what passes for the genre.
There's a fear of it. A fear of looking at that stuff. But I think that it's imperative that we do. How do you get through a difficult time like that unless you go through it? If you van have something like music to help you and soften the edges then more power to it.
Leonard Cohen used to be accused of making downer music but I found it very positive.
I love his music and I have his set list from his last tour as I sat in the second row of a show and it's hanging in the bathroom and I read it everyday when I go to the bathroom. It's so beautiful. The poetry is so beautiful. It's so profound and it's not suicidal music. It's actually very hopeful and joyful.
He would perfect his lyrics over a long time to get the rhythm just right.
Oh my god, that's what he does. I think every single word is chosen for its beauty and its place in the song. Every word in every single line is absolutely correct. He's the master of that.
Your last album has a great sound...
That's really just me and Ian (LeFeuvre) we like to have a sparse studio and not too many people around he plays a lot of instruments.
Do you get the opportunity to use a full band in Canada?
I have a guitar player that I use a fair amount. When I release the CDs I have band shows in a couple of cities but I can't really afford to do that. It's hard.
Do you have good label support?
True North is the oldest and largest independent label in Canada. It was started by Bernie Fingelstein in the 60s in a hippie village in Toronto with Bruce Cockburn. They started it and it's been going ever since. They have been very good to me. I signed my first record deal in Canada when I was in my forties. Which I love (laughs). I love that I'm 53 and I get to still be doing what I'm doing. I just think it's a very cool thing.
Do you gig in the States a lot?
I did, when I was on Rounder I did a lot of shows. I don't have a label in the States right now so it's not as easy for me to do. The US government makes it quite difficult for artists to cross the border. It's expensive. They charge you money and you have to apply for your visa three months before you go. So it's complicated. So if i go it's a big deal. I have to put a lot of effort into it. There was a band from Vancouver who just tried to get in a van and drive across to play and they got caught and deported for 5 years. I'm not a good liar so I know I'd get caught if I tried that.
Are you think about where your next album might go in musical terms?
I am. I have some new songs and I've talked to my label about that and we're going to have a discussion when I get home. I'd like to put one out sooner that later. The last one took about 5 years which is way too long so I'd like to start recording in December but I don't think that's going to happen. In a perfect world that's what I'd do.
Will you do more voice and guitar albums like Black Flowers?
I will, I love doing them. I do play a lot of shows solo and people come up and ask me if I have anything like I just did.
Well, both work.
Yeah. I love the idea that you can take a song and do it with just voice and guitar or you can go and put make-up on it and dress it up. Then you can also take that version and change it if you want. That's the beauty of songwriting. You can have a song but you can change the groove, the pace of it you can change so much about it. I love that.
Are there any aspects of your music that you haven't done that you would like to try?
I would like to do a more pure country album. It's something that I've been thinking about and writing some more pure country songs. I'd also like to explore bluegrass. So I'd maybe do a record that has a bit of both on it. I have a real thing about country music and where it comes from, the real stuff, like bluegrass and I'm not a pure bluegrass artist but I love that music and country music and I been listening to it my whole life. So I'd like to explore that a little. But what it is now is pop music it's not country, but it doesn't have anything to do with me. I don't really listen to mainstream radio. I just find artists that I like. But the truth is that when I listen to country music I listen to Hank Williams. When I listen I listen to Dylan, Leonard Cohen. I listen to the master of the craft because I don't like background music and I want it to be exceptional. So it's Hank Williams or Del McCoury or back to Dylan or Neil Young or Tom Waits, people like that.
Who's your favourite contemporary artist?
I'd say Patty Griffin, she's the one I go to. She's a great songwriter.