Bill Miller is talking about his music, his art. Dark features flashing as he sits in a Nashville restaurant, He tries to relate the emotion that goes into each of his songs... the emotion that has gone into the making of Raven In The Snow, a rock'n'roll surprise on Reprise, released on September 26, 1996.
Miller is a walking tribute to the world of contrast in which we all live. he is of Mohican- German parents, a Native American raised on the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation in Wisconsin, a far cry from the studios that have become his come in Nashville. It has been a tough life for miller, one filled with the racism and abuse that has been so often chronicled. But ironically, his songs are about the love and hope that can be found in each of us, the inner strength that can survive. His songs are also about passage.
And it is passage that allows listeners to catch a different glimpse of Bill Miller as he revels another side of himself. Those familiar with his work may be surprised by the 13 tracks on Raven In the Snow, a roots-driven testimony to the rock'n'roll in Miller's soul, an album that carries the listener across a landscape of crunching guitars, soaring lyrics and primal drums, accented at times by his haunting and powerful flute.
His previous album, The Red Road, was re-released on Warner Western in 1994 and proved to be a folk-laced spiritual snapshot - one he had to record. It was an intense piece of his life, a chapter during which he lost his father. But it was also a chapter in which he began to emerge from professional obscurity. His music was touching people. Eddie Vedder became the unlikely flagbearer after Pearl Jam performed with Miller at an Apache Indian benefit in Mesa Arizona. Then Tori Amos called, and he found himself opening her shows on the Under The Pink tour. It was this unexpected alliance with Amos that helped launch Miller in his new direction.
"Some of the songs I was playing on the Under The Pink tour - "River of Time", "Listen to Me", and "The Eagle Must Be Free" - were getting such an incredible reaction that I couldn't wait to get back and get them on record," says Miller. "I think being with Tori and working with Eddie on a few dates, inspired me to get this side of me out - the rock side, the free spirit. I'm trying to create rock art."
"The last record I made defined me as a Native American artist to a lot of people", Miller says. "Most people still aren't used to native music, or the image of an Indian making music - there are stereotypes that most people still hang on to. The Red Road came out of me naturally. It was a record that I needed to make. Now, Raven In The Snow is the album I needed to make. This album is about honesty, about growing and coming clean. I am saying what I need to say and expressing things I've held back for a long time."
Miller does not hold anything back on Raven In The Snow. the songs rang from the burning rockers found in "River of Time" and "Raven In The Snow" to the tripped-out plaintive "After the Storm", to the ethereal proverb "Listen to Me" and the absolutely sublime grooves found on the Vedder/Hovercraft inspired "Every Corner of The Forest (Parts I-III)."
"River of Time" is the hypnotic opening cut, a personal take on the river of time that takes an angry young man to a point of innocence and the power of forgiveness. "Brave Heart" came out of Miller's life on the road, a life in different motel rooms...one that made him see a tragic world through a TV screen.
"Every Corner of The Forest (Parts I-III)" are what Miller calls his "Forest Jams"-instrumental grooved inspired by a Mike Watt, Eddie Vedder, Foo Fighters, and Hovercraft show he saw in Nashville. Hovercraft (which included Vedder) performed a 30-minute instrumental piece with a film rolling behind them. Miller applied the same technique in the studio, rolling a 90-minute Phillip Glass film in front of himself and his band, recording spontaneously. The mind-blowing results is a three part series. "It was so great to see the actual images coming at us," he says. "It took us away by the moment, as a group. It was just a great way to perform."
"Listen To Me" is the steady and wizened voice of one asking to be heard, imploring the listener not to make the same mistakes, from generation to generation. What will it take for us to listen to the Great Father? "Red Bird, Yellow Sun" is a mesmerizing tribute to South American native flute players. It is a piece Miller has performed on the college circuit, a haunting prayer for the Native South Americans caught in violent government struggles.
"After The Storm" is Miller's promise to his children, that in their weakness he will be strong. An all-out wailing rocker, this song is about the many colors of love. "Pile of Stones" reveals that same bond, a song that was inspired by prayers from his sons for their father as he traveled on the road. Each stone, by tradition, represents a daily prayer.
The profound, deeply moving "This Kind of Love" stirs the coals with a Hammond B-3 purring in the background. Its inspirational message of transcendant love in the midst of the everyday is simply irresistable. Like all of Miller's music, there is a mystical and spiritual incisiveness that cuts through to the very heart. "Eagle Must Fly Free" is about the plight of his American brothers today, as prisoners of their own skin - literally and professional - and the universal need to fly free. "The Final Word" is a Miller poem laid to music, recorded on a eight-track and transferred to disc in its potent rawness. It is a rock commentary about the oppressed who never get a chance to speak. It is they who will have the final word.
But it is the title cut that best delivers the thrust of Miller's message on Raven In The Snow. "What is it that makes us stand out? You can only be what you can be," he says. "I was driving home early this year, leaving my mother at the reservation. There had been fresh snowfall, and thus huge raven flew and landed in front of me, and I knew. I stand out, my mother stands out, my people stand out like ravens in the snow."
It is the sheer naked power of Bill Miller's poetry, the voice of each song, the emotion of each song that weaves the common thread. It compels you to listen.
"All I'm doing now is taking a palette, and I'm using the different colors that I know," Miller says. I have never wanted to limit myself. Maybe I'm comming of age within myself...I don't know. You come to certain points in your life and you say 'Why am I still doing this? Why am I still here?'"
Miller is here because he is a rogue rocker with a twist. One who has as much in common with Johnny Cash as he does with Neil Young. It is why disparate icons Steve Earle and Tori Amos are among his most ardent adnirers. Such contrast are the testament to Miller's multifaced approach to life. Some know of his heritage, some do not. Some know he cut his teeth on rock'n'roll, even fewer know he is an artist skilled with a brush and pen, one who contributes to the artwork on Raven In The Snow. He has all too ofteb been categorized because of one image - his bloodine.
"We need the courage to turn out the lights, so to speak, and not see the color of each other's skin," he says. "As soon as we can just talk and respect each other for what we are, then we can move forward...let our hair down with one another. That's what this album is about."