Interview: Sheri Miller
Self-taught and self-funded, this articulate US singer-songwriter offers her insight on everything from creativity to the writing of Bukowski
ou may not recognise the name Sheri Miller, but with just a handful of self-released records under her belt you could be forgiven, but this female singer-songwriter from Long Island had been steadily working her way up through the unsigned artist hotlists, and only recently appeared on the Songwriting radar with her latest single I Could Love You Still.
On the face of it, the song appeared to be a solid pop ballad, but behind the slick production and Sheri’s measured vocal performance lay the flawless tremolo guitar of Stax-era legend Steve Cropper, and the warm bed of a Hammond organ played by Paul Shaffer – recognisable as David Letterman’s on-screen band leader. So, with such stellar backing, we felt there might be more that meets the eye with this particular artist, and after checking out Sheri’s back catalogue – the Sheryl Crow-esque Winning Hand being a brilliant example – it became clear there was serious songwriting talent in the making here.
Although spending her college years in Philadelphia, briefly living in Spain, California and Nashville, Sheri Miller is “a New Yorker through and through”, and that’s where we caught up with her on the phone, to talk poetry, the joy and torture of songwriting, as well as her passion for staying creative. But first we wanted to know the Sheri story so far…
When did you first get into music?
“From a very early age I started playing on my mother’s brown ivory-keyed piano and I always had a desire to compose songs. I studied classical piano, but I had this creative, songwriter instinct, so I was writing songs from age six or seven years old – full melody, lyrics and chords. I felt somewhat channelled because I was writing about a wide range of topics. One of my earliest songs was called The Lost Tribe. I’m not sure what continent it was based on, but there were buffalo involved in it – who knows where that came from! Every time I was supposed to be practicing the piano, I’d play that song on a loop. My mother would hear me and she told me years later that I was driving her nuts. I didn’t like the rigid construct of playing scales and I had all these songs pouring out of me.”
That’s surprising for a classically-trained musician to be so keen to improvise. Did you really have the instinct to write songs right from the word go?
“Yeah, I just loved creating. The words would flow and I had songbooks with dozens of songs in them – I knew it was a gift that I had and something wonderful would come of it. It’s always a choice. With music, I feel it chose me and I chose it back.”[cc_blockquote_right] I WAS ALWAYS WRITING POETRY – THAT FELT MORE ACADEMICALLY ACCEPTABLE [/cc_blockquote_right]Was your mother a musician as well?
“Yes, but I don’t think your family has to be into it for you to be gifted at something. It can just be your thing and something you develop and cultivate. In my case, my mother was an opera singer and a classical piano player, so I grew up listening to classical music and opera, but a lot of rock music too; Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and The Beatles. My uncle was a recording engineer in Los Angeles and he’d send me mix-tapes of Etta James, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and music that I thought was pretty random at the time, like Hungarian gypsy music, flamenco and Michael Hedges. I love blues, jazz and soul music. I love songs that touch me, so I feel very connected to the messages in songs throughout rock’n’roll. I love a good story too and somebody sharing their experience.”
What was the moment when you stepped up a gear and decided to be a singer-songwriter?
“I never made a decision about being a singer-songwriter. I’ve always considered myself as an artist, but I’d write songs in secret for a long time. I was taking jazz piano lessons in college, learning guitar and singing in blues bands, and doing all this stuff, but I was very afraid to share my music. I was always writing poetry and that felt more academically acceptable.”
Is there anything else you do that’s creative?
“I read all the time and have four or five books on the go at the same time, and I still read poetry. I really listen and make an effort to observe other people. Even at a young age I loved to draw and create avant-garde fashion ideas. It was a way of expressing. I think any creativity expressed helps all creativity – it’s all about the flow and enjoying it. It’s all symbiotic.”
Have any of your songs been informed by a book you’ve read?
“Sure, I think everything sticks on some level. I’ve had all kinds of periods reading poetry – I used to read a lot of Charles Bukowski. There are grains of truth in them and they’re wonderful, but they’re very subversive. From him I might’ve been influenced by the brutal honesty and simplicity of what he was saying. There are a lot of poets who speak in coded language, so it’s good to be aware of how you can express yourself in different ways. And movies too – I’ve always been an unabashed, proud romantic and The Notebook is a really beautiful love story. I was really inspired after watching it and, brimming with emotion, I ran home and wrote Right Here, Right Now really quickly. For me, I can spend years re-working a song and sometimes it can be torturous, but this was a rare one that flowed out. It’s interesting that, when we’re really connected to our emotions and something just pours out, those songs can really touch other people. It’s like you’re touched by grace – you’re aligned and other people can feel it.”
Have any of your poems ended up being lyrics, and vice versa, or do you treat them differently?
“I used to write a lot of poetry that was stream of consciousness, obscure and coded, but I find it has evolved and changed a bit. I think they can be intertwined and you can base a song off a poem, and a poem off a song. The two can inspire each other and converge. I have made a poem or two into a song and I have intentions to do more. When I was about 18 years old, and I showed my poetry-based songs to people for feedback, I thought I was being so profound and it was all about how deep I could get. Maybe some people could enjoy that kind of obscurity, but the feedback I got was the message wasn’t clear enough. There wasn’t enough clarity to really get to people. I love the depp, poetic writing of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen – and also songs with a clear direct message as in a song like You Can’t Hurry Love. They’re all wonderful pieces of art, with different kinds of writing.”
You said that you felt that your poems were taken seriously, but didn’t you think your songwriting would be?
“I wasn’t sure at that age and I was maybe thinking too much about what other people thought. You have to be really clear about your intentions as a writer, and I think it’s important to create art for yourself. Unless you’re specifically writing for another artist and then the process might be different.”
Have you ever written for anyone else?
“I have done a little bit of writing for other people, but it’s a whole different experience. It’s a wonderful thing, but I prefer to write either by myself or with one other person. I think it’s purest when I wrote alone. When other people are involved it can often become a ‘song and dance’. Maybe something I need to work on is how to melt into the consciousness of the other writer, so you’re almost writing as one voice together, as opposed to two people trying to please each other and walk on eggshells.”[cc_blockquote_right] [SONGWRITING] CAN BE A LITTLE CHALLENGING BUT IT’S REALLY A JOYFUL THING. IT SHOULDN’T BE TORTUOUS! [/cc_blockquote_right]Where do you like to write? Do you have a room in your apartment that you like to hide away in?
“I haven’t written outside and I’m sure that would be a wonderful experience to be around nature. I do write in my room here, both on piano and guitar, so I go back and forth – the two instruments help me to flesh out a song. I’m working on being a minimalist and getting rid of possessions. I’ve got masses of pages, napkin notes, scaps of paper and tapes. It’s nice to know that there are endless ideas, but I need more feng shui!”
Tell us about your creative process. What comes first – lyrics, chords or melody – and what do you do when it doesn’t flow?
“It’s different every time really. I don’t believe in writers’ block, so I think the best thing I can suggest is to read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I think she’s brilliant and agree with her that you should try to write every day, or at least think about songwriting every day, whether you put pen to paper or not. Or, if you’re feeling stuck and you’re writing a song, take a break and get your mind off it for a second. Often if you push too hard it takes the fun out of it and disconnects you from the initial thought. It can be a little challenging at times to get the right translation of what you’re trying to say, but it’s really a joyful thing – it shouldn’t be tortuous… ideally!”
What’s the story with your latest release?
“I Could Love You Still is a song and video we’ve released recently and it’s just a single that I recorded with Will Lee, Steve Cropper and Paul Shaffer. I wrote it a long time ago when I was in a four-part vocal harmony group called The Delilahs based in Nashville. We recorded it while we were there, but the group broke up and the song never got released. So I was very lucky to get another opportunity to record the song with a wonderful bass player and producer like Will, who’s one of the best musicians I’ve met in my life. It was a blessing to have Will and Paul, who played keyboards on the song, and Steve Cropper who played guitar.”
Is there another record in the pipeline?
“I’m recording some holiday songs right now and hopefully I’ll be recording another record next year. I’m prolific so there’s always a lot that I want to say, so it’s a question of being able to fund the recording. I’ve released a tiny fraction of what I want to put out, so I’m praying over the next few years I’ll be given the opportunity to record and release a lot more music.”
Interview: Alex Miles
Find out more about Sheri Miller at her official site www.sherimiller.com. The single I Could Love You Still featuring Will Lee, Paul Shaffer and Steve Cropper is out now on iTunes and you can watch the video here: