After a recent conversation with Columbia, SC singer-songwriter Hannah Miller, I’m convinced that the title of her new album, Into the Black, isn’t coincidental. You see, Miller is a fully independent artist with no label, management, or other business backing her. The real bottom line, therefore, isn’t just about how good the music is—and it is quite good, more on that later—but on how much it has cost her to put it out the way she wanted it to sound, and how now that it’s out there, her focus is on getting out of the red and into the black, financially speaking.
“I got hooked up with my producer Mitch Dane through a Jars of Clay album he worked on, Who They Are Instead.” Miller says. “I loved that album and listened to it a lot, so I figured that Mitch, who co-produced it, would be a guy I would like to work with. I found his website and email address and wrote him an email which gave him a link to my music and said I’d like to work with him.”
This audacious approach worked for Miller, probably because Dane heard something he liked in what she was doing.
“He liked, “Ashes,” which is on my Storms Of Summer EP, and he got in touch and we talked about doing something.” It was then that Miller realized what she was getting into, or at least the cost of it.
“First, he gave me the price tag of way too much money for a week’s recording, which there was no way I could do.” Miller’s persistence and follow-up paid off, however.
“About a year later I got back in touch and talked with his assistant about working with them on some song publishing, and he offered me a little better deal to do the project, which I really couldn’t afford either, but I decided to go for it and raised money through friends with a fundraising campaign–I’ve paid off about half of it so far.” The other half, Miller figures, will have to come from CD sales and her live performances.
The talk about the business side of things for Hannah Miller would be pointless if her music wasn’t any good; the business is littered with self-financed vanity projects that have little musical value outside their creator’s circle of close friends and relatives. From the start, however, she has radiated the kind of heart-stopping stage presence and vocal command that demands attention even in a noisy bar or smoky coffeehouse. Her earlier recorded efforts were all in a mostly solo acoustic setting, as were the majority of her live shows, so the new album’s fully produced sound is sure to turn even more heads as she hits the road to promote it.
“I feel like I’m just getting started for real,” Miller says, “I’ve kind of had some false starts where I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet. If the EP was kind of like being born, this is me taking my first steps—so there’s a lot more to come and this is just a beginning, a starting place.”
Miller sounds confident and sure of herself in person as well as on the new disc, and her focus now is on continuing to improve.
“I finally feel like I’ve come into my own sound and style the way I want it,” She says. “You put something out there, but you keep writing, so once it’s out you want to go back and do it again. You’re really only in competition with yourself, trying to get better.”
The difference-maker between her earlier work and the current album has to be its producer, Mitch Dane, an observation that Miller is quick to agree with.
“Mitch Dane’s awesome, and even from the start he was helping me get better,” Miller says. “Over the summer I sent him songs and we picked which ones we wanted to record.”
Miller says that Dane’s outsider perspective allowed him to advise her on both major and minor points, from that song selection process down to just how Miller was actually singing them.
“I was going a bit more of a country-sounding route without thinking about it, and was sounding a bit more country in my singing,” Miller says. “He nipped that in the bud after listening to my other recordings–he recommended I get rid of the country ‘Reba’ kind of sound and re-focus my voice. I came from a very strict vocal way of singing and got kind of looser over the years, which is where the country sound had crept in, I suppose. Mitch picked up on my best voice, out of the four different ones he said I was using, and helped me find it. He also had me raise the songs a couple of keys and sing them in a higher voice than I was used to–it all resulted in a better record.”
Into the Black is indeed a better record—better than Miller’s previous work, and better than much of what one can hear on commercial radio, though several songs would probably fit in well on certain formats. The noncommercial and college radio stations that have already started playing the new disc have all picked up on the same song, “In So Deep,” which with its upbeat, breezy pop-jazz sound is probably the most refreshingly atypical song Miller has ever done. She says Mitch Dane, her producer, was largely responsible for the recorded version of that song.
“He had a vision for that song from the beginning,” Miller says, “I did it for him the first time I played in Nashville, but the lyrics were a lot different. We really worked on it, gave it that real 1970s vibe and re-wrote it together as a real joint effort.”
Dane gets a co-writing credit for, “In So Deep,” and several other songs on the album, something that Miller says was a new experience for her.
“I struggled with the co-writing thing but I wanted to give him credit,” Miller says, “I wanted people to know that I really appreciated his help. I’m glad I had the assistance with ideas on the songs, we tore up some of the songs and reworked them so much, going back and forth, but every time it made a better song.”
Miller’s songs tend toward the sad-eyed end of the girl-meets-boy spectrum, something that those who know her status as a happily married young woman might find a bit odd, but she says there’s no deep, psychoanalytical reason for that.
“I just like to write sad songs, it’s easier than writing happy songs,” Miller says. “It is just easy for me to get in that mindset. All the relationship songs have nothing to do with me and Jim (Miller’s husband and sometimes band member), however–I’m growing as a songwriter, and I think it’s good when I can write from different perspectives, not just from my own experience.”
Miller may not have problems with her songwriting muse, but as a self-professed Christian in a mostly secular music industry, she does have some issues in balancing her faith and her vocation.
“That is one of the big struggles I have with doing this as a career,” Miller says. “I don’t really agree with the Christian music industry, which I see as pretty much the opposite of a truly creative force, and I don’t want a deal like that–I feel like creativity is a part of God and Christian music is void of a lot of creativity.”
Miller’s own strong faith, however, means that there are specific Christian themes overtly placed within her own songs. The new album, for example, includes, “Ever Since Eve,” which decries the fact that, “We’ve been seeking paradise, but we haven’t found it yet,” and the closing track, “Ye Shall Love,” which lifts its lyrics directly from the Book of Deuteronomy in the Bible.
“I don’t leave the more religious songs off, but I don’t want to be seen as just a Christian artist,” Miller says. “I still struggle with that but I’m learning I can do both, people like both, and I just want to strive to write good music, real authentic music.”
Now, if Miller can manage to earn some good, authentic cash to pay off the debt she’s incurred in releasing her good, authentic music to the masses, we might get to hear more from her in the future.