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How an iPhone clip grabbed a label’s attention and scored Tor Miller a record deal

“I wrote my first proper song when I was about ten or eleven.”

At the encouragement of his piano teacher, Tor Miller’s first song would also be his first experience embracing music in a way that was was based less on structure, and more on creative expression and artistry. A high school band and a slew of shows followed his early start before the native New Yorker began college. Embracing the world and every possibility that might lie in it, Miller fervidly delved into songwriting, honing his craft, and performing at piano bars. Wanting nothing more than to pursue his music fully, Miller balanced the course load of NYU’s prestigious Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music with his burgeoning music career. His ardent, crooning vocals were first captured on his iPhone in a practice room at NYU on his piano-led ballad, Hold the Phone which quickly garnered the attention of Glassnote Records. He signed with the label at the beginning of 2014, joining its roster alongside the likes of Mumford and Sons, CHVRCHES, Phoenix, and Childish Gambino. From there, he quickly set to work recording his EP, Headlights. The result? A strikingly impactful collection of songs previewing something big in the singer-songwriter’s near future.

Now, with everything ahead of him, Tor Miller embarks on his first US tour to promote his new record, American English, due later this month.

“My songs are a lot of storytelling so I like to best figure out how I can enhance my storytelling.”

Miller credits the ballads and sonically eclectic music of the ’70s as an influence on his songwriting. “I always wanted the record to sound a lot like my favorite seventies records, like David Bowie, and a lot of the Elton John albums from that era, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and stuff. I knew I wanted to have strings and horns added to it. What it was going to be exactly, I wasn’t sure. I had the overall vision for what everything should sound like, and I really trusted Eliot [James] and John [Green] who are incredible arrangers and really great musical minds to help me specify all those grand ideas.”

With Headlights, Miller chronicled his time in New York City while attending NYU. Released in February of 2015, it incites relatable feelings of love, loss, and loneliness. With lyrics like, “and my soul reignites in the lonely hour of midnight,” each song acts in part as a love letter to the city, and as a heartfelt epigraph for that chapter of his life. “I tend to start with something conceptual,” explains Miller, offering insight into his songwriting process. “It’s always different. Something will just inspire you. It’ll be something that happens to me in New York that I witness or it’ll be a moment of complete boredom.” This observational aspect of his writing has lead him to setting aside more time to simply be present. “I try not to use my phone anymore. So you can have those moments when you’re a bit vacant and something will just strike you. That’s when I’m writing my most.” A natural born storyteller, Miller goes through an ebb and flow with his writing. “I find with my creative process, I either go through long periods of writing and not so much reading or even listening to music very much, and then it swaps.

Brimming with a rich, soulful arrangement and storytelling that is both earnest and introspective, Miller’s new album is anything but “safe.” With a clear direction in his mind, Tor Miller set to work on his full-length recording ready to take chances. “We took a lot of risks, and it’s really not a record which is timid in any regard. We kind of threw everything and the kitchen sink at it because I think the music industry is in a place where everyone is so safe about everything. And no one is willing to take risks.” With lyrical references to both Johnny Cash and Jeff Buckley, Miller’s music pays homage to a golden age in music.

Tor Miller regularly seeks inspiration from poets, playwrights, and film, which shines through in the form of lyrically potent songwriting. “I read a bit of William Inge and Tennessee Williams,” he explains, “My songs are a lot of storytelling so I like to best figure out how I can enhance my storytelling. It’s always nice to read books and go see shows and watch movies and everything; how things are revealed because all the songs are usually chronological and I write it from the beginning. It’s always a story. I find a lot of influence from books in particular.” The singer-songwriter’s experiences are chronicled with each subsequent verse. In his emotionally-rich song “Now and Again” he sings, “now and again I’ll be thinking about you/ it’ll cross through my head/ there’s nothing I can do,” building to a chorus that is both heartfelt and relatable.

“It speaks to people when someone is good at what they do and show true talent.”

Not one to do things half way, Tor Miller’s predilection for the unfeigned, blues-infused music of decades past extends to the recording process as well. “We put down all the drums on tape. We used a lot of old, analogue synths. A lot of it is very organic and we’re using things from those times which I think will come across in the record.” His deep appreciation for the process is an encomium to the era. “I love the grit and the dirtiness that you get from taped sound. That had to be in there,” he emphasizes.

Believing in the return of honed artistry, Miller credits the importance of raw talent when envisioning the immediate future of popular music. “I think we’re getting away from vibe-oriented music,” says Miller, “and we’re hopefully coming to a place where skill and the craft are becoming much more important again.” He imagines popular music building on the likes of Sam Smith. “It speaks to people when someone is good at what they do and show true talent.”

Tor Miller
Sarah Midkiff/Digital Trends

Tor Miller’s first music video for his single “Carter and Cash” was released in November 2015. Staying true to the upbeat, retro feel of the song, the accompanying music video emotes nostalgia complete with imperfections and distortions of grainy VHS footage. “My manager and I were putting together a mood board, and we kept going back to Freaks and Geeks and Dazed and Confused. We wanted that vibe.” It plays like a hazy, dreamlike ode to youth and young love.

Already thinking ahead to the second record, Tor Miller embraces all opportunities on tour to work on new songs. “I have so many songs that I’ve been working out as we’re on the road,” Miller shares. He credits his band for their ability pick things up quickly and experiment with him, often working out arrangements for new songs during sound checks. “So kind of like trial and error of playing these songs at shows and introducing a song at every show, a new one for this next record.” This process of trial and error has highlighted for him an all-important quality in his music; capturing the electricity of a live performance. “I’ve been thinking now on the road about the second record and I think what I really want to do is record a lot of things live,” Miller hones in on how he wants to approach the future. “I want to have a lot more live components just because there’s a certain way that I sing when I’m just not thinking so much when I can just play it through.”