Rock stars aren’t supposed to be as chipper as Rhett Miller. The Old 97’s frontman is driving through the Hudson Valley one November afternoon on his way to a solo gig in New Jersey, and there’s no sign of a let-up on the road ahead, with plans for two new albums, a holiday tour, and his first book release all scheduled in the near future. Yet even over the phone, you can hear the charismatic Miller smiling.
“I’ve always thought of it as a shark that can’t stop swimming or it will die. Not to be melodramatic, but artistically, that’s how I’ve always felt. I want to keep moving,” says Miller, who recently turned 48 but talks about his craft with the enthusiasm of someone half his age. “I love to make things. I have this deep-seated fear that if I stop making things, I’ll lose that ability. I don’t want to live a life where I’m not making things, because the act of creation is the thing that got me out of the darkest places in my life.”
Those dark places get brought into the light on The Messenger, Miller’s eighth solo LP and first since 2015, which is out this month on ATO Records. Recorded in less than a week in Woodstock, New York, not far from where the Texas native now spends most of his time with his family, its 11 songs are lean, loose and rocking, but delve deeper into his own past than ever before — including, on songs like “The Human Condition” and “Permanent Damage,” detailing his struggles with mental health and a suicide attempt as a teenager.
“The last few years, I’ve done a lot of work with different suicide-prevention groups, where I realized it’s better to say something to address these things and try to de-stigmatize them instead of give in to the shame and fear that goes along with talking about them,” says Miller, who tried to take his own life when he was 14. “It’s just an inherently tricky negotiation to wake up every morning and figure out the motivation to go on. Some people are able to overcome that more easily, and some people are never able to overcome that.”
Miller’s two children, ages 12 and 14, gave him further inspiration to open up about his life. “I only have a few more years left of having kids who live in my house, so it sort of feels like now I’m in the thickest thick of it,” he says. Having already discussed his own experiences with them in the past, The Messenger fits into a larger family dialogue. “I’m looking at my son, who’s the same age I was when I tried real hard to kill myself. Fortunately, I don’t think he’s having to traverse as tricky a minefield of emotion or mental health issues as I did at his age, but it’s still hard.”
Equally important is the fact that, since he finished his last solo album, The Traveler, Miller has quit drinking alcohol. He admits that talking about it in public has proven just as difficult as discussing his mental health, although at least one friend and fellow musician has encouraged him to come forward.
“Jason Isbell has told me over the years how useful it would be if I were to talk about it in public. My sobriety is not something I’ve talked about in the press at any length,” Miller says. Isbell’s own struggles with and recovery from substance abuse have been well documented. “I wonder if I’m reaching a point where I’ll feel comfortable talking about it without feeling too self-conscious. I’ve been sober the last three and a half years and I feel like it was definitely a part of wanting to take care of myself, wanting to love myself — but also maybe me recognizing a few years ago that I was headed in a bad direction, back towards a place I thought I’d come out of.”
“I think of myself as a 27-year-old who’s just barely hanging on to a normal, responsible life.”
That might sound like sacrilege for someone who, with Old 97’s, so frequently inhabits a character who still wants to “get drunk and get it on.” But, as a song like the swaying, melancholy “Close Most of the Time” lays out with autobiographical specificity, his clear-eyed perspective isn’t so much a counterpoint to the swaggering party animal as its vulnerable flip side. “When I see photographs of myself, I don’t really believe that it’s me. I think of myself as a 27-year-old who’s just barely hanging on to a normal, responsible life. I don’t think of myself as being two years away from being a half-century old,” Miller says. He lets that sentence linger, then, half sighing, half laughing, adds, “Jesus Christ. Thanks a lot!”
Not that he can be blamed for letting time get away from him: As a first-year creative writing major at Sarah Lawrence University who dropped out to pursue his music career, Miller didn’t think he’d still be playing at this age. “Little did I realize that the kind of music I’d wind up making was the one genre of music that allows you to age,” he says. “That’s been a good thing, but maybe me not getting kicked out at the age of 30 stunted me as far as a writer of prose or fiction, like I thought I’d have done in my forties and moving on.”
Having had his writing appear in publications like Salon and McSweeney’s, Miller is moving toward his prose-writing goals. At nearly the same time that The Messenger and a new album of original Christmas songs from Old 97’s, Love the Holidays, are released, he’s finishing his first book, a collection of children’s poems. No More Poems, which publishes in March 2019, was written with the help of his kids, whom he called to discuss the poems with while he was away on tour.
“They relished the opportunity to take the wind out of my sails, which I’m more than fine with. My job is having people clap for me, for god’s sake,” Miller says. He’s already onto another, even bigger test of character: writing a novel. “I have 160 pages or about 40,000 words. I know it’s terrible. A first draft of a first novel is going to be bad, so I’m giving myself permission to write a bad first draft. But like I always tell songwriters, your first song will be bad. In fact, your first 100 songs will probably be bad. Then you write a good one, and after that it just gets easier and easier.”
Mastering an art form may take hundreds of failures, and growing up may take a lifetime, but in The Messenger Miller thinks he may have written his best song yet: “The Human Condition,” the bridge for which gives the album its name: “Don’t get mad at me/ I’m just the messenger,” he sings.
“That idea that, ‘You might die young when you want to/ You might die when you’re old and you don’t/ You might live forever’ — the living forever is sort of the trick I’ve been trying to play on myself by trying to make things,” Miller says. “If I make enough things, they’re just going to live forever.”