Lynn Miles Interview - October 2011



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.

Tift Merritt Interview

 Tift has been a regular visitor to these shores as either a solo artist or with her band. Her most recent performance was a number of her own gigs as well as opening for Mary Chapin Carpenter. Tift hopes to return early in 2011.

Given the fact that your career path means spending long periods away from home and family and having to deal with a lot of non-musical factors have you ever regretted your career choice?
I've never regretted my career choice because I never really felt like I had much of a choice. I've tried to stop and walk away and the first thing I do is write songs. Music and being a writer have always been what made order of my life. What I've learned, more than anything, is that everyone's choices and everyone's job has ups and downs, rewards and consequences.

You often have to travel on your own or with another player for some gigs. Do you find that gives you time for reflection that can be used as inspiration for song writing or do you find it a lonely pursuit?
Like anything, it really depends. While I love to be alone, being alone in a strange city or motel room around strangers can be hard. I usually don't have time to really write on the road, as the best in you is given away during the shows. I love to go to museums on tour, and I did have a chance to write quite a bit on a recent tour opening for Mary Chapin Carpenter as we were on a bus and I had a dressing room to myself all day. Generally, though, touring comes down to being alive in the music for the hour or so that you are onstage.  

You've released both live and studio album, how do you compare the experience. Is one more nerve wracking that the other?
Sitting in a studio and biting your nails over every detail is much more difficult that performing purely in one single moment. Though taking the time to labor over a record is rewarding, the immediacy of music is always what one is after. I've been thinking about making a record in an old theater for the very reason of keeping the intensity of performance as present as possible. 
You've spoken about the time you moved to Paris on your own to begin writing the material for what became Another Country, what special impetus did that situation bring to the writing process?
Freedom. That was a very innocent and rare and pure period of time where I lived very simply. I was free from the constraints of what I knew, the culture I was accustomed to, anyone I knew, and most importantly, the language I was accustomed to. I enjpyed how intimate and human basic communication can - from ordering a coffee or asking directions and depending on someone's eyes to understand. The writing on that record is so plain for that reason, and I am proud of that.

You have brought your music to many fans in the U.S. and Europe do you think there is much of a difference between the two audiences?
I find that European audiences are so attentive and loyal. I am lucky to have experienced that in the US as well, but you are much more likely to find people fraternizing at the bar in the US.

Having worked with  a number of major labels and seeing how they work and the demands they make on an artist do you see your future there or possibly with an independent?
I'm not sure what shape the music business will hold for me, but I would say that people who believe in what you do are the most crucial ingredient, and beyond that, hard and fast rules are hard to find these days. I think it is very exciting that people can put records out on their own these days. I was on a major before the music industry really took a sharp left turn, so what I saw may not apply anymore. I don't like to compromise, and I don't consider myself an entertainer for entertainment's sake. I make what I make, and I imagine my decisions will fall where I find support for that.

What's the most important thing to look for in a label?
That is a pretty good question these days. What is really important is to find someone who is passionate about what you do, willing to protect it, and has some muscle to follow through. If you are asked to change your name, show your cleavage, fire your band and write a hit, you should probably run.

You are, obviously, passionate about your music do you see that changing for any reason in the future?
I would surely hope not. The music business is hard, for sure, but I don't think music is really about the music business. I am usually passionate about whatever I do, from making soup to watching old french films. I always want to be learning, and I figure that if that hasn't changed yet, I'm probably out of luck.  

What motivates you to write the songs you do and how much of yourself do you put into them?
Something I care about or something that touches me is always where a song begins. I put an enormous amount of myself into writing a song - both in heart and in energy. But a song that is worth its salt usually takes on a life of its own and stands on its own legs by the time it is finished.  Whether it is some sort of magic you can't explain, or something the lyric demands, a good song usually crosses a distance from being purely a personal statement to something that makes its own way without me in the end.
Do you write in forms other than songs and when did you start songwriting? 
I started writing songs and stories when I was a teenager. I always wanted to be a writer. I love writing prose and there is always a stack of vignettes that accompany a good batch of songs but I usually don't have the time to go back and take them from ramblings to something polished and finished. For awhile, I really thought that writing short stories was where I belonged, but over the years, I have really come to love the potency of story telling in just a few sentences which is a song.

What have been your highs and lows so far?
That is a really hard question to answer in a few sentences. I have had some opportunities as a musician that I only dreamed about - being nominated for a Grammy, singing with Emmylou Harris, writing in Paris - and sharing those victories with my family and friends who have believed in me is something that I will keep forever. But the highs and lows that come along in anyone's life are terribly personal and usually somehow tied to each other. The lows earn their way to the highs and the highs give way to the lows, and the details aren't that interesting to anyone but me, but the lessons they elicit make their way into my songs. 
After the mid-term elections and what seems to be a loss of ground for Democrats, do you feel worried about what's happening in the U.S.? I know you met and played for President Obama and would have been a supporter.
I was very honored to do some small part for Obama's campaign, but I certainly worry about what is happening in the US. Politics don't make sense to me.  I wrote a song called
Do Something Good about it.  I just don't understand how decisions are continually made that just seem immoral and hurtful are continually justified on the basis of money and the interests of a few. To me, if one has power, one should use it to do good, not consolidate more power. I guess that is why I am a folk singer.

Are their places you haven't yet played that you would love to visit?
I would really, really love to spend more time in Italy, Spain and Portugal. I really love the Mediterranean countries.
Finally, do you ever see your self make another out and out country record like the Two Dollar Pistols one you did at the start of your career?
You never know what might come about. I love pure, spare storytelling and the rawness of early country music. My work usually is centers itself in songwriting, and at this point, I try to write in a way that honors the tradition of roots music while at the same time tries to push forward with a voice that is my own.