New York-based singer/songwriter Chris Mills is back with a superb new album – Alexandria – his first in five years – and a new band, The Distant Stars. I spoke to him about library fires, cities, seas, losing things and finding them again…
Congratulations on your new album Alexandria – your first record in five years. What have you been up to during that time?
Chris Mills: All sorts of things. I got married. I had a daughter. I’ve been travelling, teaching and writing. Growing up in a way, I guess. Finally…
This is the first album you’ve recorded with your new band The Distant Stars. How did the group come about? I’ve heard a tale about a chance encounter in Norway… Can you shed some light on that and how you came to work with musician and producer Christer Knutsen?
CM: Ryan Hembrey (bass player) and I had been travelling through Norway, playing political American songs in the schools over there.
We had been travelling through some of the most rural parts of the country. One night we stopped into a bar to hear a band, and, after talking with the keyboard player for a while, we realised that he actually had a lot of my records at home and that he was pretty familiar with my work. It turned out that the keyboard player was a guy named Christer Knutsen, who is actually an incredibly, well-regarded writer, producer and sideman in his own right.
He and the band just happened to be on tour and they were stopping over in the little town where we were staying. So it was pretty remarkable that we even met. After that, we started to get together whenever we were all in Oslo. The record just started to take shape from there.
How did working with Christer (guitar, piano, organ, backing vocals) affect the sound of the record and the writing & recording process?
CM: The main thing was that it allowed me to step back from the process a little bit. I usually get wrapped up in every aspect of the recording process and sometimes it gets in the way of just concentrating on the performance. Because Christer already knew my previous material so well, I felt like I could really let go of the reins a little bit and trust that things wouldn’t go off the rails.
As far as the sound of the record goes, we both really wanted to trust the writing a little more than I had in the past and showcase the songs themselves, without some of the ‘bells and whistles’ I usually pile on.
So I think we achieved a good balance on the production side that lets the songs speak for themselves.
Can you tell me about the songwriting process for the new album and what the recording sessions were like? It was recorded in Chicago, New York and Oslo. What was that like?
CM: The writing sort of happened in starts and stops. I’ve been so busy with other things over the last few years that it was hard to find time to write.
Also, now that things are a bit more stable in my life, I really had to dig down a bit to find things that I thought would connect with people. I can’t really sabotage my relationship in the name of collecting new material, so I had to find some other way to access those emotional aspects of the writing.
In terms of recording, we would generally demo things when I was in Oslo. If I knew Christer was going to be around, I would finish up whatever I was writing and then send him a quick home recording. We would flesh it out a bit more when we got together.
Once we had enough material, he came to the States and we went into Wall to Wall Recording in Chicago, with Ryan Hembrey (bass) and Konrad Meissner (drums), and laid down the majority of the record in about four days.
After that we just sent files back and forth until we had all the overdubs we needed and then I shipped all the tracks off to Ryan Freeland in L.A. for the final mix.
Over the course of your last few albums, you’ve shed the stripped-down, alt.country troubadour tag and gone for a more widescreen, expansive sound, with arrangements (strings, horns, organ, etc). Why have you moved in this direction?
CM: I honestly just follow whatever interests me. I’m always trying to do something a little different than I did the last time.
For this one, the imagery and themes are a bit more widescreen and cinematic, but the orchestration of the tracks, the amount of actual instruments and the ‘bells and whistles’ are actually more stripped-down than anything I’ve done in years.
I think because things are lyrically more evocative, and because, with Christer’s help, the dynamic range of the record, both sonically and emotionally, is a bit wider, this one feels more expansive.
The new album was released using the crowdsourcing platform Kickstarter, whereby fans pledge money to fund the project and receive ‘rewards’ in return. Why did you go down that route and what were the advantages and disadvantages of doing so? Would you recommend it to other musicians?
CM: I actually had a great experience with Kickstarter. And I did it because, after we tracked everything, I was so happy with what we had done that I really wanted to make sure that the album had the best chance of success that I could give it. And between the mixing, the production, the touring and promotion, I just didn’t have the financial resources to do justice to what I felt we’d accomplished.
As for the advantages of a Kickstarter campaign, I think it’s just another way to connect with fans of your work – if they’re out there. It lets people become a part of the experience in a way that hasn’t really been an option before.
Would I recommend it? It really depends. When I did it, I took pains to make sure that people got value for money, so I didn’t price things in a way that made people feel like they were ‘doing charity’. It was really more of an album pre-sale, with extra things thrown in. So if you got something through Kickstarter, it really didn’t cost that much more than if you were going to just buy the record when it came out. But you were also able to hear it early and get some extra content. I have a pretty personal relationship with a lot of my fans. There are a lot of people that have been coming to my shows for a long time, so I knew that the support was there.
So I think if you know your fan base and you execute the project in such a way that people are getting real value, it can be a rewarding experience. It also lets people feel like they have some ownership of the final product and encourages them to help make it succeed when it goes out to the wider public.
What’s the meaning behind the title Alexandria?
CM: For me, the album is about losing things and finding them again. I’ve always wondered about the library at Alexandria [in Egypt] and what we actually lost when it burned. What kind of languages, science and art?
And for me this record was about recovering a language I hadn’t used in a while. I felt like I had been out in the wilderness a bit, artistically, and so this album was about finding my way back, relearning how to do it, and, hopefully, sharing some of that journey with the listener.
In the lyrics, there’s recurring imagery, such as cities, boats and the sea…
CM: I think cities, boats and the sea are romantic. It’s the same with birds and stars, so those sorts of images always seem to find their way into what I’m doing, one way or another.
Would you agree that this record is an album that finds you trying to come to terms with getting older, settling down and building for the future – you became a father for the first time last year… It also looks back at your past… Basically, it’s where you’ve been and where you’re going to….
CM: Hopefully, everything I do artistically is a translation of whatever is going on with me at the time. We all seem to think that our individual experiences are our own. But in reality, we all go through the same things on some level or other. I always feel that if I can honestly connect with my true self, then I can reach other people as well. It’s not always easy to do, because I’m not always ready to look at the things I do and my experiences honestly. But the more I can do that, the more I feel like I can connect with people. And if I’m not willing to do it honestly, then the songs don’t even have a chance…
How is 2014 shaping up so far? What can we expect from you over the next year?
CM: Touring, writing and more touring. Christer and I have a few ideas for some EPs we’d like to collaborate on. He seems to really like some of the darker, sadder stuff from my early records, and even though I don’t really dwell in those dark places anymore, we’re talking about doing some new things in that vein. And even though I’m not there now, it might be cool to try and to tap into that stuff again from a safe distance and see what happens.
I’ve also been meaning to do an EP of lost songs by The Havenots [UK duo from Leicester] that I think people should hear. Liam Dullaghan is one of my favorite songwriters and I’d like to see what I can do with some of his stuff.
And finally, what music are you currently digging?
CM: I really love the latest Mark Mulcahy record. It’s pretty phenomenal. Other than, I’m really just listening to old reggae and Warren Zevon records.
See Chris Mills on tour in 2014: