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The Leaving: A chronicle of a bad year
Lee Miles works through a tough time with a new album… and finds himself the subject of a documentary
By Jim Fester
Fort Wayne Reader
Songwriter Lee Miles pays a lot of attention to words. There’s hardly a throw away line in his lyrics, no pat phrases chosen just to fit a rhyme scheme or fill a chorus, so it’s probably not surprising that when talking about his new album The Leaving, Miles seems a little self-conscious or hesitant about some of the adjectives Your Humble is throwing his way. Words like “bleak.” And “grim.” And “stark.” Well, actually, he’s perfectly fine with “stark,” and he’s more than willing to concede that the tone of The Leaving is a little dark, but…
“I don’t want it to seem like I’m wallowing here,” he says. “These songs are a response to a bad year, to what I’ve been dealing with. I feel I channeled all this stuff into something worthwhile with this album.”
However you want to characterize the work (and more on that in a bit), one charge Miles the musician is definitely not guilty of is laziness. The Leaving comes quick on the heels of an EP released just last August called Open Your Grievous Heart, and both releases were sort of “side-roads” Miles took while working on a full-length album called Fought & Won.
Except the side-road that resulted in most of the songs on The Leaving is one Miles would have happily avoided. As he alluded to above, 2010 has not been a good year: his boss died of cancer in January; he lost his job when the organization he worked for had its funding cut by the state in April; and he experienced the ugly end of a six-year relationship.
The bulk of the songs on The Leaving came out of those experiences. “Most of these songs didn’t exist five months ago,” Miles says. “I had Fought & Won almost ready to go, but these songs just sort of took over. I felt like the songs were stronger, and they meant more to me at the time (than Fought & Won).”
The 12 tracks on The Leaving tackle themes of betrayal and loss of faith, and are set against often sparse arrangements — acoustic guitars, harmonica, some percussion. The themes are familiar ones in Miles’ work, but for The Leaving he feels the lyrics are more direct. “These songs more closely resemble what I’ve gone through than anything I’ve written before,” he says. “I don’t normally write from a really personal place, but this time I did.”
Miles rates “No You’re Not, You’re Disloyal” as one of his favorite songs on the album. It’s a short, to-the-point acoustic strummer about romantic betrayal that wears its feelings on its sleeve — “How do you sleep in our bed that’s kept warm by my blood?”
Another track, “Sunday Brothers,” is one of the few older songs on the album, but thematically it fits. “It’s a song about feeling alienated,” Miles explains. “I grew up with this group of guys, and I met them through where I used to go to church. We grew up together, and they formed my first band. The band kind of fell apart, and that song is about that, about thinking that you’re close to certain people, and then realizing that whatever that was that meant so much to you at the time, it didn’t translate to them in the long run.”
And as Miles tells it, alienation of a certain sort was another issue that he dealt with while making The Leaving. In addition to all the other events of the past year, Miles says he was hit with what he calls a “crisis of confidence” about his music. It was hardly writer’s block — writing songs is a pretty natural process for him — but he began to wonder if anyone was really listening, and what the point was. “It felt like a waste of time, like a lot of effort for little return,” he says. “I was feeling lost and thinking maybe that music shouldn’t be the thing I’m doing. I feel like what I do hasn’t really found its place in this town.”
That last bit may sound strange to some readers. Miles has been covered many times in these pages and by other journalists; the musicians Miles often plays with — Jon Ross, John Keller, and Kyle Morris are featured on The Leaving — are some of the best in town; and in general, any casual survey among people familiar with the Fort Wayne music scene will tell you his work is very admired.
But the issue might be that Miles’ music — reflective and seemingly somber at times — might not elicit the same kind of response that, say, a “slacker” blues band might get from a beer-quaffing crowd on a Friday night (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Greg Locke, a music journalist and critic, has been a huge champion of Miles’ music, and says what’s great about it isn’t the kind of thing that translates in a noisy bar. “I’ve said in the past that I sort of see Lee as the buried treasure of the Fort Wayne music scene,” Locke says. “I’m a person that really respects words, and here’s a guy who doesn’t really call himself a writer, but he writes some incredible lyrics. The way his brain works, it’s the brain of a writer, and he just has this ability to put songs together.”
Locke is currently filming a documentary about Miles, a project that sort of fell together as Locke gets ready to begin production on his documentary on Fort Wayne music scene (we covered it in FWR #144). “I was kind of using Lee as a guinea pig,” Locke jokes, adding that it began when he was filming Miles’ working process and thought putting something together might make a good sort of “test-run” for the larger documentary. “I thought I was going to have maybe a 30 minute portrait of an artist, but we just kept going, and stuff kept getting better and better.”
Locke continues: “Just the fact that I think he is so good at what he does, I knew that even if what I did sucked, we’d have these great songs.”
The film touches on a lot of Miles’ life and work, and some of the issues he dealt with when making The Leaving. Miles admits it wasn’t something he felt entirely comfortable with. “Having a camera on you… it’s definitely not a natural thing,” he says. But the fact that the documentary “snuck up” on both of them — that Locke didn’t think of doing something more formal with it until after he realized he had shot a lot of good footage — and Miles’ long friendship with Locke made him more open to the idea. “I’m not in a big hurry to share myself with Fort Wayne, but I like Greg and I trust him,” Miles says. “I think it’ll be good to have that document.”
“And maybe somebody will see it and give me some money,” he adds, laughing.
And that’s something else about Miles — for a guy who can write such serious-sounding tunes, in person and conversation he doesn’t come across as especially somber guy. As he said, The Leaving is his way of dealing with a devastating year rather than wallowing in it. “I don’t drink much, but I’ve had several friends go through similar things, and they’re still getting drunk,” he says. “I figured I’d write some songs. And who can’t relate to a good break up album?”
Lee Miles’ CD release party for The Leaving happens at the Brass Rail on January 1 with support from Jon Keller and Church Shoes. $3 or $8 with entry for CD. Greg Locke will be filming part of the show for the documentary. The Leaving will be available on iTunes, CD Baby, and Wooden Nickel after January 1.