Alt-Country Hero Rhett Miller Flees New York, Goes Pop

Old 97's singer addresses fears of death, loneliness, love on The Instigator.

Deep, piercing eyes, a perfectly coifed bedhead of brown hair and a collection of songs that chronicle heartbreak and the lonely life of a singer veering away from alt-country roots to classic pop territory.

No, it's not another album from prolific troubadour Ryan Adams, rather The Instigator, due Tuesday, is a solo album from his pal and fellow alt-country refugee Rhett Miller.

For the past decade or so, Miller has steered Dallas-based Old 97's on a path that drove through alt-country on its way to pop smarts. The Instigator proves you can take the boy out of Texas, and, as it turns out, you can take some of the Texas out of the boy.

"It's like being a shark," said Miller, 32, of his album's sharply worded pop songcraft and mostly twang-free licks. "Either you keep swimming or you die. When we did [the Old 97's' 1995 LP] Wreck Your Life, we were playing in sh--ty nightclubs with bands opening for us called Two Hoots and a Holler. People wanted us to skronk it up and be a twangy Texas bar band. But I always loved the Beatles and Kinks and I was in a power pop trio before the 97's, so it's not like the heavily melodic and chimey stuff is that big of a stretch."

Which is why Miller's voice wraps as easily around the highbrow cow punk of "Our Love" — which namechecks German composer Richard Wagner and existentialist author Franz Kafka — as it does around the aching acoustic ballad "World Inside the World." Pressed to describe what made these tracks solo material rather than Old 97's-worthy songs, Miller was unsure of the answer.

"I could split hairs and say the 97's would never do a song in 16th notes like 'Our Love.' We do swingy things, but not the punk, fast pop thing. Mostly it's just weirder and more personal statements than I would feel uncomfortable making in the band."

Miller had been planning the solo album for years, but like most Americans he was thrown into a tailspin by September 11. On September 5 he ordered the ring he was going to give his longtime girlfriend, and two days later he got the blessing from his band to make his solo record while the 97's took a year off. But after the attacks on the World Trade Center — Miller lived two blocks south of the complex — he and his girlfriend were nomads for six weeks.

"I was settling in to finish the songs, and then we were homeless and I didn't have a guitar or my notebooks or anything," Miller said. The months earmarked to finish the album were spent in the basement of his fiancée's parents' home in Ohio. "Then we didn't so much move to California as we fled."

When January rolled around, Miller suddenly had one month to record an album that was scheduled to take nearly six months. He booked a hotel room near his new Los Angeles home and finished more than a dozen songs that were on the brink. But as he looked out the window of the room and thought about his vagabond existence, he ended up writing a batch of new songs, almost all of which made the album and which he called some of the best he's ever written.

"How can that not have an effect on you?" Miller said. "We were made so aware of our mortality, everyone was. It makes you not want to waste the opportunities you have and live life fully." Which isn't to say that Miller wrote a theme album, or that he's been cured of what he calls the "manic-depressive songwriter's curse."

He's still afraid of being alone for the rest of his life ("Come Around"), and sometimes he's just plain afraid. "I try to make your world a better place/ I'd smother you in kisses, I'd give you outer space," he practically yodels in the indignant ballad "Your Nervous Heart." "But you're terrified and it's tearing me apart/ Can I kiss your furrowed brow and calm your nervous heart."

Even in his happy marriage, Miller said he was able to tap into "that version of me that's always going to be sad." It's the part of him that makes up sorrowful stories about the people he passes on the street, living lives of desperate abandon he hopes aren't nearly as bleak as he imagines. What Miller realized while staring out that window was that while he'll probably always be sad, his current joy has helped him be less angry than he was in the early days of the Old 97's.

Miller even got a chance to pay tribute to the man who unwittingly drove him to the wedding chapel, and thus, (partial) happiness. On the rollicking "Point Shirley," — another highbrow pop ditty, this time inspired by a Sylvia Plath poem — he gets to sing and play with famed British rock eccentric Robyn Hitchcock. "I went to a party at Robyn's house a few years ago, and his wife kept saying that [my wife and I] made a lovely couple, but we weren't a couple. We'd just met!" Miller said.

He gets help from another hero, X's John Doe, on the country-fried "The El," an homage to his onetime hometown of Chicago. "Are you kidding? He is my idol," Miller said of Doe. "I got the quirky American and the quirky Brit. To me that makes the record, even for those people who don't read liner notes and know that it's special."

Miller said the Old 97's plan to regroup in the spring of 2003 to work on another album.