Two years ago, stunned by the news of singer-songwriter and friend Elliott Smith's apparent suicide, Rhett Miller sat down to write the title track for his second solo album, The Believer. Smith's death took Miller back to a darkness he had flirted with in his teens.
"I had a really serious suicide attempt when I was fourteen, so I know his despair," says the Old 97's frontman. "But it was stupid -- just a kid who felt too much. Elliott was very closed and very quiet. It wasn't like he was so aware of his enormous talent; it was always the opposite of that -- like he was scared [of] this thing that came out of him. I always empathized with him so strongly. He was just so sweet, and it's so fucking sad."
Due February 28th, The Believer -- like Miller's 2002 solo debut, The Instigator -- is a chronicle of the human condition, with both solemn recounts of loneliness and done-wrongs, and rollicking, country-rock odes to love. Songs like "Brand New Way" and "My Valentine" push Miller's yowl to the forefront, while "Firefly" finds him exchanging delicate croons with piano songstress Rachael Yamagata.
"When I was making The Instigator, I was at the beginning of this big life change where I was going from a full-time road dog to having a home and family existence," says Miller, whose son Max recently turned two. "But on this album -- It's like you go through your whole life thinking that true love is a fucking sham created by Hallmark, and then one day you say, 'Why don't I try it? Why don't I let go?' And then you're here, and it's a fucking great place."
Miller says he decided to dictate The Believer's direction more so than he had on any album prior. "I was able to take advantage of this attitude and control when I went into the studio," he says. "I was able to hire musicians that I had known -- like Jon Brion, [who produced The Instigator,] and [drummer] Matt Chamberlain, who worked with Tori Amos and Fiona Apple -- and stand there with the material and make the record sound how I envisioned. I felt like I needed to be Leonard Bernstein conducting the Philharmonic."
Miller plans to launch a full-scale tour behind the album's release. And he'll play his heavy new song mindful of the positive lessons that misery taught him. "It's a fight every day to find a reason to live, and if you do that -- if you try and make your life a good place where you can find peace and comfort -- then that's self-propagating," he says. "I figured out that I loved . . . I loved to make out with girls, drive around the country, do stupid things. It's what the Beatles talked about. That in the midst of all the meaningless, there's that. There's love."Mariah Carey's The Emancipation of Mimi; Madonna's Confessions on