Lisa Miller is acclaimed by critics and fans alike throughout Australia as a sublime songwriter, possessed of a blue-eyed, broken-hearted voice which is utterly distinctive.
The Miller songbook is a wonder. Her songs are at once perceptive and evocative, desperately sad and munificently hopeful, spare and substantial. Miller has never been the sort of songwriter to gatecrash your life, but once invited in, her songs will stay with you, as long as you want them to.
Miller and her four brothers were raised in a setting that was typically suburban, but in a household that was atypically bohemian. Miller's father was a painter, a regarded member of the social realist group, and many of the notable leftist artists of the day passed through the house. Indeed Miller recalls rowdy parties with lots of cheap red wine, folk guitars and the smashing of handmade pottery. Art remains strong in the family - Miller's brother Lewis was a recent Archibald Prize winner. The soundtrack to this upbringing was Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, and, of course, Dylan and The Beatles. "I just wanted to play guitar, I suppose I wanted some mode of expression that wasn't going to compete with my father and brother. I started writing songs at 14, but it was very much a 'behind-closed-doors' thing; apart from a folk duo with my friend Tracey. I played flute, she played guitar and sang, and we wore matching paisley dresses that went to the floor, and played at coffee houses where people drank hot chocolates with marshmallows". Miller visibly shudders at the recollection.
Miller joined her first 'real' band, The Hepelectics, after responding to an ad which read, 'rockabilly singer wanted'. This fit the bill of Miller's musical tastes at the time. "My older brother Paul used to take me to Hound Dogs Bop Shop in North Melbourne, and I was into Gene Vincent and Ronnie Self, as well as early R&B stuff like Lavern Baker, Ann Cole and Smiley Lewis. Then I got into Wanda Jackson, Janis Martin, The Collins Kids, and all those incredible vocalists from the 50s". The rockabilly revival was hot at the time, and Miller was kept busy with rootsy cabaret acts such as The Whole Shebang, The Crummy Cowboys and The Everlovin' O'Shea's, a faux husband-and-wife country duo whose act incorporated onstage domestic scuffles. Then Miller decided to embark on a roots music pilgrimage to America, the highlights of which were included hearing some of the great voices of our time in person - people like George Jones, Al Green and Ray Charles. Meeting Tammy Wynette in Nashville was also, of course, a big thrill.
"That trip was one of the reasons I started seriously writing my own songs" Miller reveals. "I came back from America really intent on making a go of music. I didn't want to pussyfoot around". She gave up her day job, teaching at a western suburbs high school. "Much as I loved it, and still do, I didn't want to play the old-timey stuff so much. I wanted a soulful country band, that rocked." Miller found some kindred spirits, and The Trailblazers were born. Later to evolve into Truckasaurus, this was a band somewhat sadly ahead of it's time, playing 'alternative' country music at a time when country music was widely sneered at. "Every time we played", Miller remembers, "there was always someone who thought it was a joke. In a yee-haw kind of way." But things came to a head one night - "the pedal steel player decided he'd rather be playing in a funk group, and hung a 'For Sale' sign on his instrument during the show". Miller too was getting tired of playing on stages which had been specially decorated with hay bales. The line dancers were moving in, it was time to move out.
Miller set out down the solo path, recording and releasing her debut EPs Do That For You and All Worked Out in 1995. She took up a regular gig at The Standard Hotel in Fitzroy, where more than one ballad per night was actively encouraged. "In fact they would lap up as many sad songs as I could dish out. It was the sort of audience you could only dream up." It was through the growing success of the Sunday night residency that that the offer was made to record an album for the fledgling label which had been set up by the pubs licensees. Quiet Girl With A Credit Card was released in 1996 to rapturous critical acclaim. Several tracks from the album found their ways to wider audiences through television and film soundtracks including Seachange, Good Guys Bad Guys, Stingers and Mullet. "For the first time I felt I was singing with my own voice, and I was beginning to be comfortable with it", Miller says now of her solo debut. "That first album compiled a body of work that in many ways represented my entire career to that point. It's not until you get to your second album that you really have to start from scratch. But that was liberating. I started to see myself more as a songwriter than a singer. I wasn't competing with anyone - you couldn't say I was doing it wrong, because they were my songs!" As Far As A Life Goes , released in 1999, was garlanded with praise for its unsparing lyrical honesty and seductively hook-laden melodies. A recurring theme in reviews for the album suggested that not only only had the 'difficult second album' problem been overcome, it had been knocked off its feet. Miller was nominated that year for an ARIA in the Best Female Artist category, in a field otherwise dominated by former soap-opera starlets.
But despite the critical warmth that greeted that record, the album was poorly handled by what had become a complex and confusing record company structure, and was never given the opportunity to reach the wider audience it deserved. Miller grew increasingly disillusioned with the lack of support she received, and sought to extricate herself from what had become a very unhappy situation. In the meantime she decided to knock off an album of covers - in large part because she could not find the heart to put into her own songs, only to see them squandered.
By 2001 Miller had managed to free herself of all contractual obligations, and at that point the covers project suddenly took on a life of it's own. What had been conceived as a quick and cheap recording blossomed into a labour of love, and by the time that album was complete, more than a year had elapsed since the first session. "After everything soured with the last album I went into a period of self-doubt, a creative black period. But then I started to get really excited about the prospect of going out there with these songs, all of which I really loved, and being able to talk about them, and perform them, without any of the self-consciousness that comes with dealing with my own work." Miller decided to take the route of independence with all the creative control and hard work which comes with that decision. Her partner, Ben Lempriere, set up an indie label as an adjunct to his record shop, Raoul Records, and in May 2002 Car Tape was the debut release, with the appropriate catalogue number WIFECD001.
Car Tape's outstanding success vindicated Miller's decision to go it alone. It earned Miller three ARIA nominations (a second time for Best Female Artist, as well as in the Best Independent and Best Adult Contemporary categories), made it on to many critics best of 2002 lists, and sat on or near the top of the Australian independent charts for close to a year, selling close to 10,000 copies - a remarkable achievement for a self-released work in Australia.
Hitting her stride, Miller started work on Version Originale within months of Car Tape's release. In a way, Version Originale is the album that Car Tape interrupted - and now, it becomes Car Tape's companion. On Version Originale, Miller and producer Shane O'Mara have extended the recording approach taken on Car Tape , putting down the bare bones of each song live and direct, thus capturing the immediacy and truth of Miller's performance. The result is a stunningly accomplished and emotionally moving album which is sure to resonate deeply with Miller's longtime fans, as well as the newly converted.
Version Originale takes pride of place in Lisa Miller's impressive catalogue, in the elite of Australian recording artists, and is sure to do so in the record collections of music lovers everywhere.
post script 2004:
Subsequent to the release of Version Originale , and the by-now familiar critical praise that greeted the new album (see the press & reviews section), Miller was invited to be the opening act for Neil Young on his first Australian tour in many years. This was truly an honour, as she was specifically chosen by Neil Young's 'people' from a short-list of leading Australian artists, and meant that Miller would be following in the footsteps of Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris, both of whom had performed in this capacity on the American leg of Young's tour. And of course because Neil Young is undoubtedly one of Miller's most significant inspirations.
The tour proved to be as exciting and wonderful as had been anticipated, and gave Miller the opportunity to perform on some serious stages. She and the band did not disappoint, and were very warmly received by audiences that could have easily been predisposed to giving short shrift to anyone but Neil Young himself. Miller was also invited to participate on stage - as a dancer! - in the finale of the Greendale show, and was pushed to centre stage right alongside Neil at the behest of the show's choreographer. (See the news section for Lisa's tour diary.) Miller's performances on the tour were recorded by Neil's son Zeke Young, and several songs from these tapes have been recently released on the Pushover EP.
2004 also saw another couple of ARIA nominations for Lisa Miller, including yet another one for Best Female Artist, as well as for Best Adult Contemporary Album for Version Originale. This takes Miller's total nominations to date to seven. Predictably by now, she still remains empty-handed, but takes solace in the fact that, despite multiple nominations, Greta Garbo, Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Astaire, Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Cary Grant and Martin Scorsese have never won Oscars.