Growing up, John R. Miller used music to escape from a world he felt trapped in and didn’t understand or like very much. 20 years later he’s instead using it as a way to confront his traumas head on, healing emotional wounds in the process.
On his new album Heat Comes Down, Miller recounts pandemic isolation that threatened his livelihood, sleepless nights, mushroom trips, tending relationships and more in what is easily his most personal collection of songs to date. The reflection within acts as a rallying cry not just for himself, but for anyone experiencing anxiety and other mental health hurdles, that they aren’t alone and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
“Music is far from the sole form of therapy, but it has been very therapeutic for me,” Miller tells Holler. “That’s why we engage in it as humans. It’s a universal language that can explore all the ranges of human emotion that we know and even some we don’t. It all goes back to that old cliche ‘music soothes the savage beast’. The beast is our minds, and music is one of the ways we can nurture it.”
Helping him to conquer the beast inside, on the record were everyone in his touring band minus bassist William Matheny. The group’s collective chemistry - paired with the familiarity of Miller with co-producers Andrija Tokic and John James Tourville - led to this not only being his most personal songs, but his most sonically developed as well.
This can be heard in the waltz of ‘Ditcher’, the punk rock angst of ‘Conspiracies, Cults & UFOs’, and the spoken word recollections of ‘Basements’, all of which come together like a patchwork quilt to complete the vibrant and vulnerable project.
During Americanafest Miller met with Holler at Gram’s Coffee in Nashville to talk about everything from late night clarity to psychedelics, the themes of anxiety, empathy and mental health running through his new album, and more.
You’ve always been a deeply personal songwriter, but it feels like even that’s gone a step further on Heat Comes Down. What do you think is behind that?
I certainly think you’re right about that. A lot of that has to do with me starting to write these songs at home during quarantine. There wasn’t a lot of going out, traveling or seeing anybody, so a lot of it stems from a deep, deep isolation. It was just me, Chloe and our roommate for a while. That was great, but when you’re around one or two people for that long you start to really relish the time to yourself. So I tried to get into a good routine with writing for the first time ever, really. I would wake up early and make a conscious effort to do it every day. It was kind of like being in a void. All I had was things to reflect on, which formed the foundation of the record.
Is that void what you’re singing about on ‘Insomnia’?
I’ve dealt with insomnia my entire life going all the way back to staying up all night when I was eight years old, but it hit a fever pitch in the winter of 2020. That song was just going to be a throwaway bunch of words that I wrote at literally 3:30 in the morning sitting at my living room table bleary-eyed and wondering why the hell I can’t sleep through the night.
As frustrating as insomnia can be, I think there’s also something to be said for late night clarity and bursts of creativity that artists experience.
It’s a great time for creativity. Everything is so clear and silent. You really feel like you’re the only person awake in the universe. It’s a great time to think on stuff and to try to create new things. That being said, I used to just stay up that late and be in such a state that I wasn’t going to get anything done. Now I try to get up before the sun every day so I can access a little bit of that time from the other side and not be piss drunk when I do it.
Another insomnia-fueled song is ‘Ditcher’, which has a very waltz-y feel. What inspired you to take the song down that route?
In my head when I was writing it I had this chilled out, western swing thing bouncing around. I must’ve been listening to a lot of Asleep at the Wheel from the 70s when they really got into that joint and a cocktail kind of feel. I’m not a western swing player, or much of a player at all, so it’s an approximation of what I heard in my mind.
I imagine that willingness to experiment was only emboldened by being familiar with the Bomb Shelter and the band/players around you there. With specific regards to your band, what’s your collective cohesion meant to your sonic development as an artist?
We’ve been fortunate to be touring with the same group for a few years now. It especially helps interpersonally when you’re working out stuff. We all have a good sense of boundaries and respect for one another, which helps with talking things out in a crowded van heading down the highway. We’ve also been playing together long enough that we’ve developed a sense or intuition with each other, which is not something that you can easily replace.
We’re almost like a family at this point. We certainly have our moments of grumpiness and stuff, but for the most part we love each other very much. It’s nice knowing we all have each other’s backs because the music industry is really hard, even more so now that I’m getting older.
When I was a kid just drinking my way through it broke all the time and falling asleep with my boots on, I didn’t really think twice about it. I just thought that was how it is, but I’ve since learned how to manage my health and expenses a bit better. But the work is real. There’s a lot of people who don’t realize how much work goes into getting out to do one gig for an hour and a half of music. At the end of the day it’s a labor of love, because if you don’t love to do it then it’s not worth it at all.
Is the ruggedness of the music industry what you’re homing in on with the song ‘Basements’?
I’ve never felt like I was part of the music industry at any point. Most of that song was really reflective from before I got back out on the road. I was trying to piece together these disjointed parts of my life as I often do as a way of processing them. That song in particular came out in almost a diary-like format.
The first is about the first band I was in with my buddy James in high school. We would practice in our drummer’s dad’s basement, recording ourselves on a little shoebox tape recorder that we’d situate on the stairs to get the whole room in frame. We’d rent out church halls and other local spots to play shows for our friends. Through that we connected with other indie and punk bands in the area and started to get our own scene going. Up to that point, it was the most liberating thing I’d experienced.
Sounds like there’s an acknowledgment of not being from the “in” crowd and creating your own space in response to that in the story as well?
Yeah, I think so. There’s a lot of grief in that song too. Grief for things that I lost along the way, from bands to friends and relationships. It’s fun for a while, but when you live so untethered and don’t really make an effort to maintain those relationships then they’ll just slip away over time. One day you’ll wake up and realize that you haven’t talked to this person in 10 years and that there’s no reason for the silence between you. If you haven’t watered that garden, it’ll be hard to get the soil ready to go again.
That can also be tied into the album’s overarching theme of anxiety, mental health and the idea that we don’t fully know the battles people are facing on the inside. Would you say the latter is the concept at the core of ‘Nobody Has to Know Your Mind’?
You’re the first person that’s told me about picking up on that. To me that’s a huge part of the song. We can put the mirror up on ourselves all we want, but never knowing what’s going on behind somebody else’s eyes is something I try to remind myself of all the time. We could all use more empathy in our lives. It’s more important now than ever before. It’s good to have your boundaries and psychological autonomy, but it’s also good to respect other people’s boundaries and never taking what they project at face value. At the same time, it’s also about eating mushrooms and walking in the park.
It’s a song of many layers! I’m glad you mentioned the mushrooms though, because the line about getting “dilated in the woods” did pique my interest. What’s the impact of psychedelics on your creative outlook and process?
I started gobbling acid and mushrooms in my early twenties. It became a routine for a couple of years. I learned a whole lot and have since forgotten a whole lot. It turned out to be such a profoundly formative thing for me. I really needed it at the time it found me to help me get out of my own way. It also turned me onto a lot of great music I’d missed like stoner metal, John Hartford and Michael Hurley.
Overall, I think it was a net positive. I wouldn’t advise anybody to do drugs as flippantly as I did, but I do still occasionally revisit that space, just to see what’s there. Now I like to microdose because I enjoy how it loosens your perspective. I recommend anyone who has a stable psychology try it, especially if you’re feeling particularly nervous or tense. It’s been extremely helpful for me, especially since I don’t have 10 or 12 hours to devote to a full trip anymore. I remember reading a quote from Alan Watts where he said of psychedelics, “once you get the message, hang up the phone”. It’s a lesson of taking what you can learn from those experiences into the real world rather than overconsuming as a way to stay in that space.
We’ve been talking a lot about mental health and care, something I’ve seen the music industry do a lot toward making more accessible in recent years. What else would you like to see done on a micro and macro level to build on those initiatives?
There’s a lot of great organizations, like MusiCares, that are helping with those resources, but they’re not available everywhere. I also think there needs to be a greater understanding from all sides that artists aren’t just performers but human beings that occasionally reach their limits as well. There needs to be more acknowledgement of that burnout. It’s a nebulous problem that’s not going away. When people have to cancel a tour because they’re overwhelmed, that's a real thing, not something they just made up. Most people are respectful when that happens, but you’re always going to have the folks who grumble about it too.
Part of my problem with that is I’m a doom-scroller, but honestly, it’s all moving in the right direction. People from the top down are understanding it better than they ever have. The stigma is slowly disappearing which is good, because these are invisible problems until they’re not.
Exactly. I feel that all circles back to the lesson of empathy instilled within ‘Nobody Has To Know Your Mind’?
Yes. Try to default to empathy at every opportunity.
Through all the turmoil encompassed in this album, I feel there’s no better song you could’ve ended on than ‘Press On’. It feels like a reminder that there’s still things in the world to find joy in and hold onto despite everything else trying to tear you down.
It’s a very simple message, but an important one. The world’s not getting kinder. In some ways it’s getting easier, but in many ways it’s also getting a whole lot harder for folks. The best we can do is find things we really care about and throw ourselves into them, but not so much that it’s at the expense of your mental or physical health.
It was the first song I wrote after coming back after months and months without when the pandemic first started. It took shape over the next couple of years, but I never thought it would end up on an album. I ended up liking what the band did with it so much that I wanted to close the record with it because it really needed to end on an optimistic note. The song took on a very motivational role in my life, and I hope it’ll do the same for others by making them feel good.
Heat Comes Down is available Oct. 6 via Rounder Records. For more on John R. Miller, see below: