"It's like ssssSSSSHHHHhhhh."
We're sitting in the dirty grass beside the Triple Rock. The sky is getting dark and streetlight-pink, it's cold enough in mid-October that you start to notice, and Peter Miller is talking about trains going by.
There's a song he wrote for his solo act, We Are the Willows, called "Norwalk, Iowa." In his sweet and soft tenor, Miller sings about ultimate loss: "You tossed and turned/The family car down the road/My mother froze/Her child eyes were closed." And it's all achingly beautiful and sad. Then, in the middle of the song, the train goes by: ssssSSSSHHHHhhhh.
Miller travelled across Minneapolis searching for noises to incorporate into his new We Are the Willows album, A Collection of Sounds and Something Like the Plague. There's glass breaking, birds chirping, and, of course, the train.
"I tried to reinvent all these things in my surroundings to make them into something different," Miller says. "A train going by doesn't mean anything more than a train going by. But the song it's in, it can be something completely different than what it is. It can be reinvented. So all these sounds, they become something else."
In "Norwalk, Iowa," the train is transformation. It represents that moment when your innocence disappears into the horizon, leaving you with only the first breath of maturity whispering against your skin. And for Miller, it also leaves a lot of questions. When he sings, "Where did you go/Do you even know?" I wonder if he is asking himself.
"I've been trying to understand my worldview falling apart for a long time," Miller says. "I grew up in a really religious family. But somewhere along the way I got this idea about what Christianity is, and I started living that. It was oppressive. So in college I was like, 'I'm done with this. This isn't making me happy.' Then, two years after college, I had been coming to terms with that and understanding what that means. I didn't have any ideological foundation to understand the world and what was happening to me."
A Collection of Sounds is the result of Miller trying to figure out the world: why people hurt other people and themselves, why love is so often intertwined with pain, how birth and beauty can happen in a place so fucked up, how he can be a good man without god. And although Miller delves into dark topics, he leaves listeners feeling strangely uplifted. His approach is not hellfire and brimstone. It's delicate guitar lines and a voice very gentle and disarming and honest. He holds your hand through the maze of contradictions like a tour guide brimming with whatever he calls "soul."
Perhaps he does this so well because, in many ways, Miller himself is a contradiction. A burly guy, he looks more like the type to sport a leather jacket and pick fights than the one who would be the more-informed party in a conversation about classic French novels by Albert Camus. His frame also suggests a baritone, not a tenor.
"People never expect it," Miller says about his upper register. "A lot of people tend to think I sound like a woman."
And then there's his audience. That mid-October evening, Miller was playing the Triple Rock with his other band, Red Fox Grey Fox. It was an early show, all ages. Kids clutching Red Bulls and Diet Cokes pressed against the stage, transfixed. Miller says a large portion of his fan base is teenaged. With song titles like "Nathan Thinks I Accidently Prayed" and "When Bad People Happen to Good Things," Miller speaks keenly about the type of confusion that happens when a boy becomes a man, making his young fans' selection of Miller as a teen idol more inspiring than odd.
Maybe we can't understand Miller and his contradictions or the world and its own. At some point, maybe we need to just open up to acceptance.
Like Miller says, "Who I am is because I live where I live and I lived where I lived and I grew up with who I grew up with." This is true for the world, too. And as for Miller's queries about it, they can be broken down to a collection of sounds, beautiful sounds making up heartfelt questions that just might not have any answers. And maybe that's okay.
We Are the Willows play an all ages CD-release show on SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 21, at THE BEAT COFFEEHOUSE, 612.710.3992, followed by a 21+ CD-release show at THE 331 CLUB, 612.331.1746