For all her heartbreakingly honest reflection on nearly a decade of experiencing physical and emotional pain, along with grief, alienation and depression, Julie Miller laughs with more unfettered delight that one might expect.
The songwriting wife of musician and Americana stalwart Buddy Miller, Julie has battled the effects of fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes chronic pain in the muscles and bones as well as fatigue and mood issues. Yet, out of the ashes of loss, abandonment and melancholy, the songwriter has emerged like a phoenix for the sizzling Breakdown on 20th Ave. South (New West Records), the couple’s first duet record since 2009’s Written in Chalk. As much a testament to faith and forgiveness as it is a pulsating chronicle of a marriage beset by physical and emotional challenges, the album, which takes its name from the Music Row-adjacent street on which the couple resides in Nashville, ranks among the year’s finest. While Buddy told Rolling Stone Country recently, “This is much more Julie’s record than a duo record,” there’s no denying the acclaimed guitarist-producer’s role in shaping the LP’s organic sound, or the honey-and-vinegar harmony in their vocals throughout.
His greatest challenge, however, came as a result of Julie’s illness, which necessitated setting up equipment to record her vocals in the couple’s bedroom upstairs while he ran the massive recording console in the studio downstairs. The multi-track board takes up residence in a huge back room on the ground floor of Millers’ 100-year-old home, which they moved into in 2003, after living directly across the street. Although the front room is populated with antique furniture and colorful Tiffany lamps (“all Julie,” Buddy says again), the studio is lined with vintage guitars and recording equipment, and the walls contain shelves housing what appear to be every CD boxed set on the planet.
In this conversation with the creative husband-and-wife team on the eve of the release of Breakdown on 20th Ave. South, the couple candidly recalls how nearly a decade of anguish turned around almost instantly and yielded a torrent of creativity, while also restoring their relationship in nearly every way possible.
How much have you and Julie worked together in this home studio?
Buddy: We never worked together in this room, in this space. Matter of fact, when we did work on her music a little bit, before I did mine, this wasn’t even built. It’s not like she’s never been down here, but I’ve been down here a lot. A few hundred people come through here, making records. [Julie would] come down maybe when Solomon Burke would record here. When Richard Thompson was here, she’d come down and meet him, but she’d never hang out. And there’s not a bigger Richard Thompson fan than her.
Julie: My health, it’s so unpredictable. It sort of orders me around every day, and I don’t know what orders it’s gonna give me. So it’s so hard to make plans and stuff. But I’ve discovered I can sit on my bed and write songs, and lie down and write songs. There’s a lot of co-writing in this town, but I don’t know how that’s done very well. That wouldn’t work for me.
What kind of environment do you need for songwriting?
Julie: I could go underwater to do mine. [Laughs] It’s like, there can be another song playing on the TV or something and it won’t bother me at all. I won’t even hear it. I’m so solidly in my own world, I’ll be writing these songs and that’s all I hear.
“I used to do anything to do music, and music had become my enemy.” – Julie Miller
When Buddy started being away a lot more on tour and producing, how did you feel about that?
Julie: I thought [we] were going to be playing together, and then I got sick, so he started taking some other jobs. We kind of had some misunderstandings about things, and some alienation. But I just couldn’t go as much as he wanted to go and play our thing as many nights in a row as he wanted to, in this RV. There’s no sleep. It’s hard enough when you’re not sick to go on the road. It will make you sick. It really got to me. Buddy couldn’t understand that.
Buddy: I kind of took myself everywhere the work was for 15 years or so, except for home. It was all incredible work with people who were my heroes and I only took work that was meaningful to me, but Julie was put on the back burner. I still feel bad, I kind of took the wind out of her sails with a record that she had started, then her brother died and she got sick.
Julie: Buddy’s pace is just faster than mine. I kept feeling that if he would just slow down a little bit… “Whoa, fella!” [Laughs]. At the same time all this was happening, I had a family tragedy. I was just a bundle of grief. And Buddy was on the road, so I was left with my grief by myself, and the cats and dogs. I just shut down. He did so much music with other people, he’d be so busy. I realized at a certain point that in some psychological way, my best friend was music. I used to do anything to do music, and music had become my enemy. Music meant Buddy’s gone.
Buddy: She wouldn’t want to talk about music. It would just be a hurtful thing because that’s what I was doing. I’d come home, and I’d be excited about it, and that would just kind of bring her down more.
How did things finally start turning around?
Buddy: I started saying no. We hung out watching television for a year, basically. Bad television like Blacklist, Madam Secretary and Blue Bloods… binge-watching all that stuff. We just had to hang out a lot before music actually even came in the picture. Then when it did, it sort of just started pouring out of her. I realized that she’s got a record in her. Every day she would pick up a guitar and write something.
Julie: I had to keep talking a lot for these things to get through. One day he said, “We’ve only done two records for New West, and we owe them another record.” As soon as he said that it was like this radio station in my head turned on. It was just an overflow, a flood, a glut of songs. I was so in my place of happiness, writing these songs. My depression was gone. I realized what I was supposed to do and what I was meant to do was write songs.
One of the most striking songs on the record is “Feast of the Dead.” What inspired that one?
Julie: I was just pondering the way that God had used animals to clean the earth. I don’t know what made me think of it. Maybe I saw a documentary or something. I heard somebody saying the animals cleaned the dead bodies from the earth and that’s God’s way to keep the earth clean. I heard something at the same time that our molecules go into things when we die. So we could have a molecule from Einstein, or something like that. I’ve got this hurdy-gurdy that I’ve always wanted, for about 30 years, to play something I could put it on, so I had my hurdy-gurdy song. I wanted it to be kind of a happy sounding song, because it could be pretty morose of a message. [Laughs]
“Thoughts at 2 AM” is probably the most powerful, and spiritual, song on the album. Do you do your best writing at that hour?
Julie: At that time of night, you start thinking your deepest thoughts it seems. But I’m so happy you said that because the record has songs of trouble and sadness on it, and I wanted people to … come to this song that would lead them to the ultimate source of true joy and of true love, which is Jesus for me. I had an epiphany with Jesus in 1980. I would spend hours in bookstores reading, looking for the truth. I went to this self-help group in New York City, and they said, “Now, just look inside and you’ll find it.” I looked inside, and there was only a screaming 2-year-old. [Laughs]
Speaking of toddlers, your only co-writer on this record is your nephew Alasdair MacKenzie. He was just four years old when he gave you the title “Storm of Kisses” many years ago.
Julie: And he just graduated from Harvard. But when he was four years old, he was all into music. Buddy said to him, “Why don’t you write your own songs?” He didn’t even realize he could do that. He goes to the table and gets out a paper and pencil and starts writing down names of songs, one of which was called “Storm of Kisses.” I waited until he was of age to ask him if he would be interested in a co-write with Aunt Julie. Because that line “storm of kisses,” that was all he had, but that was enough. During this time, I had lost my brother. He had been struck by lightning. I started feeling these whispers from God, saying to me, these comforting words, “Julie, you know, this was not an accident, I just took him. It was a storm of kisses. It couldn’t hurt. I took him where I wanted him to be, with me.” That would bring me so much comfort.
Even though this record is done, are you still writing songs at the same pace?
Julie: Yeah, I’ve got pretty much another record. I have so many songs. There’s still some songs that we have, or that we almost finished, that I really think would really be good to get out. So maybe we can just release them ourselves on whatever it is that people release things on. [Laughs]
You’re getting ready to do your “world tour,” which is one show at Nashville’s City Winery next week. How are you feeling about that?
Julie: I haven’t had stage fright in 25 years. I forgot how stage fright feels, and I’ve really got it now. Only because I can’t remember the words. If it was somebody else’s song, I’d probably remember it, but since it’s my song, I don’t think I have enough self-respect to [remember]. [Laughs]
Buddy: We’re trying to rehearse every day that she’s feeling up to it. We just run them once or twice and it’s going to be a challenge. I told her Lucinda [Williams] has made it OK for everyone to have a music stand with their lyrics in front of them. Because before Lucinda, it was in poor taste, but now she’s made it alright.
The Breakdown on 20th Ave. South release show, featuring Jim Lauderdale and Lillie Mae, will be recorded for later broadcast on Miller and Lauderdale’s Buddy & Jim Radio Show on SiriusXM.
*Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.