A while ago, back when I first started writing for Scunthorpe Nights and I didn’t know what to do, The Boss said to me “Just write about whatever you like”. So I did. I decided to email a musician I had just heard of and asked him for an interview. Anyway I never wrote it up, I got stuck, I didn’t have time, I forgot about it, and then we got bigger, busier and well it just wasn’t local which is what our site is about, so I never finished it. Anyhow I just happened to be going through stuff and I re-read the interview. And having spent the last year attempting to be a songwriter myself what I read didn’t just come over as someone talking honestly about music-making but also as something really useful and quite inspiring. So I thought I would share it with the music-lovers and musicians who follow Scunny Nights. I think you will, at the very least find it interesting, and you may get something good from it too.
The guy I interviewed is an american performer called Chris Mills and he has a band called The Distant Stars, one of whom he found in the lonely wild places of Norway. He had just played in Sheffield when I first messaged him. People would describe his sound as alt-country maybe, no frills rock, folky I don’t know, as he says himself its just his sound. Its a very nice sound in my humble opinion. Here’s a quote.
[Mills’] hidden elegance lies in the twist of lovesick metaphor, the wistful chord, the revisionist take on the slamming door. – NME
And he’s a nice guy. I hope he comes back to this country for a tour this year. The interview transcript follows and a little acoustic video from his current album (which you can purchase here if you want to) and another older upbeat tune.
Scunthorpe Nights: Do you write with an audience in mind? Do you want people to know what you mean or make there own mind up about a songs meaning?
Chris Mills: I don’t generally write with an audience in mind. I hope that if the songs are honest enough in the way they tell their stories then they’ll reach people. And people are always going to filter what they hear through there own experiences. What you’re trying to do as a songwriter is to elicit a reaction. So it doesn’t really matter if they can figure out exactly what the song is about for me as long as people react to it emotionally and connect it to their own lives. In fact it’s probably a better song if people can take something personal away for themselves, rather than if they can just pick up directly on what the song’s about for me.
SN: Do you prefer or find yourself writing more upbeat songs rather than slower ones and do you have a preference for guitar driven songs or keys?
CM: I really don’t have a preference. Again, the main goal is to get the song across in a way that provides the strongest connection. So if I have something that I think is going to translate better as ballad, then that’s how I’ll frame it. Although, if it’s a great song, hopefully it lends itself to a variety of interpretations and then I can just pick the production style that’s most interesting to me at the time. Sometimes it’s fun to take something that would work great in a more low key mode, something dark or depressing, and re-frame it as an upbeat rocker.
SN: The story of how you met up with Christer Knutsen In a bar in the middle of nowhere in Norway and went on to create the album is brilliant. Was there an instant connection could you even speak the same language?
CM: I immediately picked up on how great a player he was just from watching him. But after talking for awhile it was obvious that he was a great guy and would be excellent to work with. And there was no language barrier. Most of the Norwegians I’ve met speak better English than I do.
SN: What inspires you to write?
CM: I’ve always wanted to connect with people. When I was younger we moved around a lot and I felt pretty isolated, but music always made me feel like there were other people in the world that felt the same way I did. So I’ve always hoped that I could do that for other people.
SN: What is your favourite thing to see in the crowd at a gig?
CM: Someone singing along.
SN: How does Alexandria differ from your earlier albums? And what makes you proud about it?
CM: It’s been a while since I’ve had out a record of new material, and I feel like I’ve matured a lot as a writer and performer in the last few years. And I think that really comes across on this record. I’ve also been able to move away from a lot of the orchestral and production related bells and whistles that I used to indulge in. Working with Christer really gave me a lot of confidence in the whole process and helped me trust the songs and the writing a lot more than I have in the past, so I’m pretty proud of that whole aspect of things.
SN: I don’t like putting thinks in a genre (I think it’s a spectrum) but for writing about music its hard not to. I’ve seen you classed as folk, alt country; no frills rock… the list goes on how would you describe your sound?
CM: I really don’t get into all that. I just try and write the best songs I can and record them in ways that i think are interesting. I just think that debating issues of genre is something that journalists feel they need to do, but isn’t really relevant to the quality of the music. What kind of music does Bowie make? Or Dylan? Good music. What kind of music does some crappy band make? Crap. I just hope I fall into the former more than the latter.
SN: Besides, “work hard”, “never give up” etc what piece of golden advice would you give to musicians just starting out? (yes I’ve gone and asked this one for myself sorry )
CM: Care about what you do, and enjoy it. It’s very easy to get caught up in what other people think about your music, or where you fall on the arc of ‘success’. And while you should always try and make good business decisions, your main job as an artist is to do good work. And in order to do that you have to care about what you’re doing. You have to be willing to put yourself into it as much as you can and approach things with sincerity.
Annd try, as much as you can, to not worry about other people’s success. That’s a tricky one, but it’s absolutely key. Other people’s success is not a detriment to your own ability to achieve. Don’t talk trash. Making music is not a competition. Making music is about creating shared experience and connecting with people in a deeply personal way. Just try and consistently perform at the highest level you can and people will notice.
Oh, and when I say don’t talk trash, I also mean about your own work. The goal is to get people to listen to you, and nobody’s going to do that if you’re constantly putting down what you do. There is a difference between confidence and arrogance, figure out what it is and then go forth with confidence. If you put time and work into something that you care about, there’s no reason not to be proud of it.
SN: What are your aspirations for the coming year and most importantly have you any plans to come and play in the UK again soon?
CM: I’ve already done around forty shows this year so I’m going to take a little time to hang out with my wife and daughter, and to get back into writing the next project. But I’m hopefully going to do a series of house concerts here in the US later this year and maybe another short tour of the UK before year’s end.
SN: Do you have anything you’d like to add, a message, or anything that I’ve missed out in my amateurishness that I really shouldn’t have haha?
CM: Nah, you did great!