“The songs just came like I had a radio station on in my head.”
That’s how Julie Miller recalls the process leading up to the creation of her and husband Buddy Miller’s new album, Breakdown on 20th Ave. South, for which she wrote all the songs. The reference in the title is to the Nashville street on which the Millers’ home and studio are located.
“Julie’s had some physical problems that’s kept her from touring,” says Buddy, “and it’s kind of made it difficult for us to work together.” Besides touring with and producing a legion of other artists, Buddy also held down the demanding post of music producer for the Nashville TV series.
“I’ve got a nice home studio where I’ve recorded a lot of people and made a lot of records,” he continues. “But we recorded this one up in a little four-by-four corner of our bedroom because Julie didn’t want to come down [into the main studio]. I didn’t really know we were making a record. I was just recording some of her songs.”
“For some reason, I was psychologically against going into the studio,” Julie adds. “The last time we’d been in the studio, everything had gotten too hard, too much of a big deal. So I just had to do it off the cuff.”
Breakdown on 20th Ave. South is the Millers’ first album together since Written in Chalk in 2009. On the new project, Julie’s songs are wide-ranging, a multi-hued tapestry of isolation and loneliness, thoughts on impermanence and one’s place in the eyes of God, finding purpose in life, confronting indifference in love, feeling unquenchable desire, levying blame and fighting for love. It’s a regular emotional yard sale.
Her images are captivating. In the title song, she compares herself to a paper cup skittering in the wind and a baton waiting to be twirled. Elsewhere, she imagines stardust not just dispersing but coming apart. Trying to extinguish desire, she says, is as futile as “spittin’ on fire.”
One of the most memorable images, however, she credits to Buddy’s nephew, who, when he was four years old, came up with the phrase “storm of kisses.” Julie uses it as the title of a tribute to her horse-loving brother who was killed by lightning: “In a storm of kisses he did fly/on a horse with wings up to the sky.”
“It seems a little easier for me to write songs coming from a sad place,” Julie says. “But it’s usually from a sad place that I’ve already been through and it’s over and I’m looking back at it. When I’m in the middle of something, it usually doesn’t come out in a song.”
She didn’t write and demo these songs, as is common practice. “The only way these songs even exist,” she explains, “is that when I’d be singing them, Buddy would turn around and go, ‘What’s that!?’ and come running with his cell phone and record it. I’d never have remembered them.”
“We didn’t labor over any of the songs — over the production,” Buddy says. “Typically what happened for maybe a third of the record is that she’d wake up and have a song in her and start singing and writing it. While she was finishing it, I’d be working in the corner on putting a track down. On this record, I played pretty much everything. I sent off the tracks for the drummer to play over. But other than that I played everything on it. I love playing with other musicians but I wasn’t going to take them up to our bedroom.”
It’s clear there are autobiographical elements in some of the songs, particularly in the semi-serious, semi-whimsical “Everything Is Your Fault,” which boasts the finger-pointing couplet, “Everything is your fault in the whole wide world/You’re the one who had to have you a crazy girl.” In another song Julie asserts, “You’re gonna love me even when you think you won’t/You’re gonna love me even when you think you don’t.”
“I think the marriage was . . . it wasn’t in jeopardy,” Buddy muses, “but there was a creative tension there [from] my producing records for other people and never working with her.”
For Julie, a bundle of feelings complicated their collaborating. “I have fibromyalgia, which make me feel bad, and Buddy used to be on the road all the time. They were beautiful shows [he did], and he’s so talented and loved doing them. Nevertheless I felt I was being left in isolation. I missed him so much, and I felt guilty for missing him.”
She confesses that she uses songs as a lure to keep her husband nearby. “He’s crazy about songs. He’ll be leaving or something, and I’ll think, ‘Oh, I don’t want him to go,’ and I start making up a song and he’ll stop. [She laughs in an escalating silvery peal.] Some of those made it onto the record. One of them was, ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.’”
Because of Julie’s poor health — she says she also suffers from depression — the Millers won’t tour to support the new album. They did preview it at Nashville’s City Winery in a performance Buddy describes as “the beginning and end of our world tour.”
After years of musical activity, Buddy’s not looking for any more projects apart from being with Julie. “I think I just want to hang with her,” he says.