From Cat Power to Smog to the Microphones, earnest and confessional solo musicians seemed intent to cloud their emotional exhibitionism behind alter egos. Although he was a fan of many artists who adopted a nom de rock, Fort Worth indie songsmith Joseph Wayne Miller decided he didn’t want to hide behind an alias when he began writing his own songs, though using his full name, he conceded, may be just as misleading.
“It’s really popular to basically be a singer-songwriter but go by a band name,” Miller said. “In high school, I was really into Bright Eyes, like every kid that thought they were artsy or whatever, but I knew I didn’t want to do that. But my name is Joe Miller, so I [felt] I had to use my full name, and now people expect [my music to be like] Robert Earl Keen or something.”
On Friday, Miller will release Tumbleweed, his third LP. And though his name and the album’s title might fool a new listener, Miller’s music is anything but Red Dirt or chicken-fried bluegrass. Tumbleweed contains 11 tracks of hook-driven indie rock that alternates from R.E.M.-style chime to roadhouse blues and soulful folk, everything laced with his dreamy, Beach Boys-inspired falsetto voice.
Tumbleweed is the second album on which Miller has worked with producer/engineer Peter Wierenga (Siberian Traps, Sur Duda, Jake Paleschic), but instead of recording in Cloudland Recording Studio again, the two ventured down to Dripping Springs to collaborate with the 2018 Fort Worth Weekly Music Awards’ Producer of the Year, Taylor Tatsch (Cutthroat Finches, Shadows of Jets, Ansley).
Tatsch was originally going to play only lead guitar on the tracks, but as the recordings progressed, he ended up contributing ideas for vocals, keys, and bass as well, which helped earn him a “co-producer” credit, Miller said.
“It’d only been a year or so since the last record I did with [Wierenga, 2017’s Pacy], so we wanted to do something a little different,” Miller said. “And there was something about these songs that lent themselves to Taylor. We kind of knew what we wanted with the bass and drums, but after that it was kind of, ‘Just let Taylor do his thing.’ ”
To back Miller’s verses and Tatsch’s recognizable atmospheric and lyrical guitarwork, the rhythm instrumentation was provided by bassist Paul Blanchard (Back to Blue, Davenport) with Wierenga on drums, a luxury Miller said he doesn’t take for granted.
“I feel really fortunate for the last two records to have teamed up with Pete,” he said, “because he’s kind of great at everything I’m bad at. He’s a great audio engineer and a great drummer. He’s so much better at the technical side of recording, so I can kind of sit back and be purely creative. It takes a lot of the stress away.”
When Miller speaks, his words are paced and deliberate, with long spaces between the measures, spoken with a charming sort of indifference in his subtle Texas drawl. His has a cherubic face that has more than a passing resemblance to loveable crack up-turned-action-star Chris Pratt, which Miller uses to his advantage with his understated yet amusing performance in the video for Tumbleweed’s first single, the playfully self-deprecating “Spacey.”
“I can’t complain / But I don’t know / It’s getting loud in my head / All confused / I’m keeping up / You know I’m trying my best,” he sings over the chorus as he stares deadpan at nothing in particular, dressed in a stark white suit with Elvis shades and holding a watermelon balloon –– imagery that, like his lyrics, he leaves open to interpretation.
“I definitely don’t write songs that I expect would be very interesting background music,” Miller said. “I’m kind of asking listeners to be involved in it. It would be interesting to me if everyone who listens comes away with something different.”