Jeff Pearlman

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Rachel Miller

#115
You've never heard of Rachel Miller. But with a powerful voice and a determination to succeed, don't expect the 17-year old to be spending much more time in the local Knights of Columbus Hall. POSTED August 13, 2013
miller
So a couple of weeks ago the wife and I hit the Jones Beach Amphitheatre for a rare night without the kids. We were there to attend a pretty sweet concert—Gavin DeGraw, The Script and Train (admittedly, this doesn’t exactly help my Tupac-esque thug rep. But, hey, no one’s perfect).
Anyhow, before the show began we were walking through the concourse when I spotted a young woman with bright red hail, jamming away on a small stage near the bathroom. She wore glasses, held a guitar and had a r-e-a-l-l-y big voice. As I stood there, listening with 20 or so other folks, I thought to myself, “If this woman were headlining tonight, I’d be psyched.” Then, of course, I followed that thought with, “Quaz material.”
As it turns out, Rachel Miller is the perfect Quaz. Why? Well, A) I’m 100 percent convinced she’s gonna be a star, and stars generally agree to Quazes only when they’re not quite stars yet (or stars of long ago); B) She’s incredibly intelligent and articulate; C) I genuinely love her music; D) You won’t believe how old she is (read more to find out).
Here, Rachel talks about the rocky road to musical stardom; what it feels like to play an Elk’s Lodge and why—dear God—she can’t name a single Hall & Oates song [Jeff’s note: WTF?]. You can follow Rachel on Twitter here and Facebook here, and can visit her YouTube page here. Oh, and this is her website.
Rachel Miller, when you’re selling out Madison Square Garden, remember your special as the 115th Quaz (and hook a Jewish brotha up with some tickets) …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Rachel—I first learned of you while walking through the concourse of the Jones Beach Amphitheatre. Inside the arena, people were packing the place for Gavin DeGraw, The Script and Train. Outside, you were playing solo on a small stage, surrounded by, oh, 20 listeners. People were sorta talking over the music, buying $8 sodas and $40 T-shirts. I watched you and wondered, “Is she happy or sad? Is this a good gig or a shit gig? Does this make someone want to chase her musical dream even harder, or even less?” So, Rachel, do tell …
RACHEL MILLER: Honestly, I really don’t believe there’s such a thing as a shit gig. Even gigs that don’t go incredibly well are valuable learning experiences (even though they’re frustrating as hell). From the second I found out that Sofia (my drummer) and I had landed the gig at Jones Beach, I was completely floored. (As an aside, when I saw that the stage was located between the food court and the restrooms, I was even more excited. I knew that people would be rushing to eat and use the restrooms before the show inside the arena began, and so they were hearing my set whether or not they intended to.) I’ve had so many incredible memories as an audience member at Jones Beach and similar arenas, and the thought of attending such a place as a performer—regardless of my stage’s location—still amazes and inspires me as I’m typing this.
For an aspiring musician such as myself, any opportunity to have access to a guitar, a microphone, and enough people to fill an arena is an absolute blessing. Although only a fraction of the people attending the concert stopped and remained for my set, I was simply excited to be there. I was ecstatic to connect with my audience, and I was grateful beyond words to have the opportunity to be heard by thousands of ears. Even better, my family made up a portion of those people watching me perform. Seeing their faces as I engaged a group of music lovers I had never before met at the venue of my dreams, I felt as though I had just won the lottery. So that was an incredible gig for me, and my desire to eventually hit the stage inside of the arena has increased exponentially since.

J.P.: There’s a line on your website that I just love, because it speaks to the plight of the up-and-coming singer fighting for legitimacy: “In November 2011, Rachel played her first solo set when a friend’s band asked her to perform at the local Knights of Columbus Hall with them.” I’ve been to the local Knights of Columbus Hall—and there’s usually a moose head hanging above a fireplace and 15 old guys complaining about black kids and their hippity-hop music. Tell me about the gig, and why—in your story—it matters.
R.M.: I’m laughing so hard! That’s both accurate and pathetically hilarious.
Before I can properly explain the significance of that gig, I’m gonna have to provide a bit of background. I had formed a band with some friends during my freshman year of high school, and we played together for about a year. Around the time of the Knights of Columbus gig, I was a sophomore in high school. Right before that—a week before my 16th birthday—both the band and a relationship ended, which was pretty rough. Lots of rejection, lots of confusion. A few weeks after that, I was approached in the waiting room at the orthodontist by the father of some friends (they played in a band that my band had often performed with). He told me that they had landed a gig at the Knights of Columbus Hall and that I should play with them. I informed him that, because my band had broken up, I would not be able to do so. He replied by saying that I could perform alone—that I didn’t need to rely on them to play music. Although I had played music independently for years prior to forming the band, for some reason, this information took me by surprise. I had forgotten how to be an artist, and had lost myself while trying to appease my bandmates while we were together.
So, putting myself out there by myself was a huge step. All of my friends and family attended in support and were just as surprised as I was at how natural the set felt. It felt as though I should have been performing that way all along. It was a huge turning point for me. It was my first paid gig (I received $50 that my mom wanted to frame). That night—even though a good percentage of the crowd consisted of the irritable elderly men you mentioned—was one of the most important nights of my life. I was finally set on the path that I still am trudging down today, and I intend to stay on this path for the rest of my life.
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J.P.: So I know very little about you. Your website bio is pretty vague. Rachel, where are you from? What do your parents do? How, exactly, did they push you into music? And when did you know this was what you wanted to do for a career?
R.M.: I grew up—and still reside—in an apartment in a New Jersey suburb about half an hour west of New York City. My parents were always extremely hands-on. Mom was class mom every single year in grade school. She’d show up with cupcakes, cookies—you name it and she had probably made it for my super small group of peers. (I attended a Catholic elementary/middle school for eight years in a grade with the same 32 kids.) Dad had been heavily involved in the music business for decades. He began working as a recording engineer in the 1980s, and had his hands in projects by Miles Davis, Mariah Carey, the White Stripes, and countless other musicians. He would always play tracks that he was working on or just noodle around on the guitar at home, and my mom was always humming along to records by The Beatles, Eric Clapton, and Queen. Growing up, music was all I really knew. I received a little keyboard for my first birthday, and my dad used it to teach me notes. As soon as I knew what words were, I was singing. Guitar lessons by Dad came along when I was 3, and by 7, I was writing music. I started performing at school talent shows when I was ten (I was very shy about it beforehand), and eventually got involved in the choir. In fact, I was so involved that my teachers let me help them direct the school choir when I was 13. I would arrange music for my peers, accompany them on the guitar, and belt out whatever harmonies or leads were necessary. I sang so strongly that I was still the loudest voice heard when they would put the other soloists right in front of the microphone and position me all the way against the chapel’s back wall.
As a kid, when people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, although I would throw in other fun things like “astronaut” or “karate instructor,” I always included something involved with music. Instinctively, from the very beginning, I knew that music was my life. My growth as a human being has always been paralleled by my growth as a musician. It’s always been my core.
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J.P.: It seems, oftentimes, when a young singer is on a stage, all people want to hear are covers. And, when said singer utters the words, “Here’s a song I wrote about …” myriad folks bolt for the bathrooms. How do you handle this? Is it hard not merely leaning on covers? Hard to establish yourself as legit?
R.M.: One of the hardest things to overcome as a new artist is the public’s natural disinterest in you and your art. There are hundreds of thousands of musicians who have “made it,” and their music and performances are extremely accessible. Why should people waste time listening to amateurs when they could be entertained by the real deal? And then, those who do decide to lend an ear certainly prefer to hear songs that they are familiar with. They wonder what young, inexperienced musicians could possibly have to say that’s valuable and why they should even care. It’s a difficult truth that both myself and my peers are constantly confronted with. From the very beginning of my performance experiences, I’ve refused to rely on covers. After all, what good is it to keep them listening if you’re not going to say anything new? Even if you can keep them interested with covers, at the end of the day, they’re going to remember you as “that singer that impersonated Adele” or “the Paramore cover band”—not as an individual, unique musician with a voice of his/her own. It’s simply counterproductive.
And so, there are a few things that I always do to both appeal to the public’s natural desire for the familiar and to introduce my own voice in the small amount of time I’m given to do so. I always open sets with my song “Johnny.” It’s a very peculiar song that is propelled by extremely descriptive storytelling—similar to that of a film. Even if people have absolutely no interest in listening to me, “Johnny” shocks them and compels them to hear more. People are fascinated by bizarre characters and stories, and so I make sure to lure them in by giving them just that. Then, after perhaps another original or two, I engage them with a cover (usually Maroon 5’s “This Love” or Neon Trees’ “Animal”) that involves singing simple call-and-response lines, clapping, or waving arms. This is to make them feel as though their participation in the show is as important as mine.
My theory is this—people can stay at home and listen to high-quality recordings of music for free. Why would they spend their valuable time and money listening to live music (that, in most cases, doesn’t even sound as good as the recordings)? It’s because they want an experience. They want to be a part of the music. They want to be involved. They want to connect. So I use covers to get people comfortable enough to initiate that connection with me, and to maintain their attention in slower spots throughout the set. If you’re a good enough songwriter, covers should simply be a device with which to connect with your audience on a familiar plane—not to carry your set. And, if you’re a good enough songwriter, establishing yourself as “legit” should be a simple task once you get people to listen. It’s frustrating at times when people don’t want to give you the chance to make that connection with them or to hear your voice, but closed-mindedness is a frustrating bump in the road for people of all careers—not just musicians.

J.P.: Let’s talk songwriting. I was just listening to “Johnny,” which is a really fucking brilliant little tune. Soup to nuts, how’d you write it? Where’d the idea come from? Where do you put it down on paper? When do you know a song works? Or doesn’t?
R.M.: Thank you so much! Writing “Johnny” was probably one of the most unique writing experiences I’ve ever had. Right after the Knights of Columbus show, I entered The Break Contest, which was a large Battle of the Bands (there were about 500 bands and five solo artists) to perform at Bamboozle. (Bamboozle was this huge annual music festival in New Jersey. The year that I performed—2012—headliners included Bon Jovi, Foo Fighters, My Chemical Romance and Jimmy Eat World.) At each round of the competition, it was mandatory to perform mostly original songs, and since I had just recently gone solo, I didn’t really have many in my repertoire. So I went on this crazy writing binge, but most of the songs were way too personal.
One night, my dad walked into my room. Sensing my frustration at my lack of songwriting success, he suggested that I write about one of my favorite movies. He told me to close my eyes, imagine the opening scene of The Dark Knight (with the Joker’s henchmen), and to write a whole song about one of those unnamed, faceless characters. And so I did. And I named him Johnny. “Johnny” was written on a piece of tattered loose-leaf paper on the little shelf above my keyboard over the course of about 45 minutes. The interesting thing about songwriting is that some songs happen very quickly and some songs need months—even years—to properly take shape. From my experience, the pathway from one good song to another requires at least two or three shitty songs. When you can’t get your own song out of your head, that’s when you know it works. If you can’t remember the melodies after a day or so, or if you just aren’t feeling it with your whole heart and soul, that’s when you know that it’s simply another stop on the road to another song.
Not entirely sure how to explain this one—Rachel with, ahem, Aaron Carter.

Not entirely sure how to explain this one—Rachel with, ahem, Aaron Carter.

J.P.: In an earlier Quaz I interviewed the drummer from Blind Melon, the group that hit big with “No Rain” in the early 1990s. He told me, back then, record deals were flying left and right; that they were shockingly easy to land. It seems, Rachel, that you’re coming along during a truly … confusing time for new artists. Is it even about landing a record deal? Is it about getting YouTube hits and Twitter followers? Like, what is success?
R.M.: It truly is a confusing time to be pursuing music. Technology has completely turned the industry upside down. The negative side of it is that CD sales have completely plummeted, and people can pirate music more easily than ever. However, the positive side is that anyone can have access to materials with which to make an album and to people who will hear/purchase that album simply with the click of a mouse. It’s incredible. Both of these affects of technology have taken insane amounts of power away from record labels. They don’t necessarily have the power they used to. Credibility and artist development are the only things that record labels provide that are still particularly difficult to be obtained independently. That being said, if you can build up that credibility and really take time to hone your abilities as an artist, you may not need a label to be “successful” anymore. The people that really dictate your career are no longer record label execs – they’re your listeners. And so devices such as YouTube and Twitter and Facebook are extremely important to keep your listeners engaged and involved in the process. If you have enough loyal listeners, “success” is realistically obtainable. However, “success” in the music industry is a very vague term. I personally define musical “success” as the ability to support a family without desperately needing to get another job. If a musician can do that, regardless of whether or not they’re still confined to obscurity, I think they’ve really “made it”. Anything beyond that – fame, fortune, etc. – is just icing on the cake.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your musical career? Lowest moment?
R.M.: Oh man, this is tough. I’ve been blessed with so many incredible experiences so far. This may have to be a “top three” kind of thing. Picking one memory is way too difficult.. (I’m probably going to sound like a sappy asshole for this answer, just a warning.) The moment I found out that I was playing Bamboozle was indescribably amazing. I got the email during school. I was a sophomore, and if I remember correctly, it was during a geometry lesson. The whole class celebrated with me until the bell rang. It was pretty awesome. And then when I found out that My Chem (who had been one of the most influential artists in my life) was added to that same lineup, I actually cried. Then there was the first time I had a line at my merch table for autographs and pictures. Knowing that people appreciate what I do that much means a lot. One time, I was performing at a little venue in Boonton, N.J., and the crowd was singing along to one of my songs so loudly, I could barely hear myself, which I believe is a dream of any songwriter. I’ve had some low moments, but music has usually carried me through them. It’s never really caused them. I mean, there are frustrating times when I start to question my path, but there’s never been anything particularly horrible (except for one time when I uploaded a single onto iTunes realized that there was a typo in the album art, but that was more annoying than traumatic) … but as grateful and excited I am about all of these things, I like to think that my greatest moment is yet to come.
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J.P.: I’m gonna ask you an odd question, and I demand an honest answer. It has nothing to do with music, which makes these Q&As fun. You seem to be in your early 20s. I’m 41. When you hear “41” do you think, “Jesus Christ, that’s old?” Because, when I was in my early 20s, I’m pretty sure I thought, “Jesus Christ, that’s old” about 41. Yet I don’t feel old, sitting here, typing. Thoughts?
R.M.: I was actually just thinking about the meaning of “old.” I think it’s merely a relative term. This will probably sound a bit ridiculous, but with my eighteenth birthday coming up, I’m feeling quite a bit old. However, I’m not feeling old because of the number 18—I’m feeling old because I’m in a transitional phase. The difference between a child and an adult is very dramatic, and the transition between the two can be shocking for some. If you’re used to wasting time and not having a care in the world, suddenly being struck with responsibilities and robbed of the time that you once thought was infinite can make you feel quite old. I also don’t think there’s a certain age defined as “old.” I believe that it’s more of a gradual gradient between “young” and “old” with loads of shades of gray instead of a specific age when you just suddenly become an “old person”. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that 41 isn’t old to me, although it might have been to your 20-something-year-old self. (And I’m sure you’re probably surprised to read that I’m 17, which is something I should probably address. I’m usually thought to be at least 21. I constantly get offers to play at bars that I’m way too young to play at, and when I tell people how old I am, they usually look at me like I have 997 heads and tentacles instead of eyeballs. It’s pretty amusing.)
J.P.: I’m fascinated to know your thoughts on American Idol and The Voice and shows like those. Have you auditioned? Would you? Do you watch them? Do you at all consider them cheating, or shortcuts to the big time?
R.M.: I do occasionally watch them. When I was a kid, I kept a countdown that marked how many years I had to wait until I was old enough to audition for American Idol. I do have a lot of respect for The Voice. In fact, I recently auditioned for the upcoming season. Although I can’t really say anything about the process, I can say that it was a great experience and due to a certain participant quota, I didn’t advance very far. However, the feedback that I received from producers provided validation that I’m on the right path, which is extremely important. I think that the show is a shortcut, but I don’t mean that negatively at all. Basically, the exposure provided by the airtime artists get on The Voice is a nice, quick way to gain access to listeners. Those listeners could support you throughout your career regardless of how far you get on the show, and that’s far more valuable than any grand prize such a show could provide.
J.P.: Do you have a non-music job? Or, put differently, what do you do when you’re not being musical?
R.M.: Yes I do! I book shows for a local venue. I also am an art student at a local technical high school (which, despite the reputation of technical schools, is an intensively academic institution). When I’m not booking bands, studying, or doing something music-related, I’m usually either drawing, writing, baking cookies (terribly), reading comic books, watching stupid cartoons, or playing games with friends and relatives.
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••QUAZ EXPRESS WITH RACHEL MILLER:
 •
• Five greatest songwriters of your lifetime?: Christina Perri, Billie Joe Armstrong, Jason Mraz, Paul McCartney, Gerard Way.
• Do you think Alex Rodriguez deserved the 211-game suspension?: I’m completely oblivious to all things involving sports. My friends have tried to teach me the rules of football at least three times … I know Alex Rodriguez is in the middle of some kind of drug controversy, but I’m not really educated enough on the topic to form a valid opinion.
• Your hair—last I checked—was dyed fruit punch red. Why?: Brown just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I was 15, I wanted a hair color that suited my personality, and my mom didn’t say no. Thank god my hair stylist is adventurous.
• Why do so many singers smoke cigarettes when it’s bad for your voice and lethal?: Bad habits are tempting to form and hard to break. It’s a matter of personal preference and addictive tolerance, I guess.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Syracuse University, The Bitter End, Twitter, Victor Cruz, Carly Rae Jepsen, “The Hangover II,” Paul Rudd, Jim Furyk, acid reflux, apple chicken sausage, Popular Mechanics, pink eye, the screaming baby one row back on the airplane, Chris Christie: Um … Twitter, The Bitter End (made my NYC debut there! Much love for that venue.), Paul Rudd, the screaming baby one row back on the airplane (as a new aunt, I’m currently in love with all babies, regardless of volume), Popular Mechanics, Syracuse University, Carly Rae Jepsen, apple chicken sausage, Chris Christie, Victor Cruz, Jim Furyk, “The Hangover II” (what was the point of that movie?), pink eye, acid reflux.
This is my all-time favorite song. What do you think?: I can dig it.
What are you more concerned about—climate change or your set list?: Although I really am concerned about the environment (and I’m not just saying that to avoid looking like an asshole), I spend way more time thinking about set lists than climate change.
What one question would you ask José Bordonada Collazo were you given the chance?: I actually just took about five minutes trying to figure out who he is on Google and I still have no idea what I would want to ask him.
I’m a die-hard Hall & Oates fan. Without cheating (Google, asking a friend, etc), list as many songs by the duo as you can: Damn, I’m drawing a blank, and my mom was literally just talking about their music an hour ago.
I just stepped barefoot on an enormous slug tonight, and no matter how hard I scrub, I can’t get the goo off my foot. Any advice?: Purell is a magical thing, my friend. If that doesn’t work, I recommend wearing socks … forever.
  • NRWillick

    This might have been my favorite one for some reason. Maybe because she comes across as not bitter yet.

  • sanford sklansky

    She is good. Here is another young woman who is also very good. She is also 18.

    http://www.bonzie.net/

    Here is an interview she did on WGN a couple of weeks ago. Her interview is first.

    http://wgnradio.com/2013/08/03/bonzie-and-svengoolie/

  • Sue Miller

    My niece is beautiful, brilliant and talented!

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