You know those gem-like books you find when searching the wooden stacks at your favorite shop, the ones that have some paragraph-length vignette short stories, some spritely poetry and one or two stories that tear your heart out? That’s what the music from Seattle songwriter Debbie Miller is like, too. Miller, who recently had one of her songs, “Queen of Hearts,” featured on a PBS Great American Read, writes thoughtful, witty, lyric-driven songs that make you feel you’re wrapped in woven tales born from same place the brothers Grimm learned to write.
To preview Miller’s upcoming Nov. 16th show at the Fremont Abbey, which will celebrate the release of her latest vinyl, we wanted to chat with her about the songs on the new record and premiere one of them, “Persepolis Song.”
The music you write has roots in genres that aren’t always the most recognized. It’s not rock, not jazz, not country. Instead, there are Baltic influences, traditional Americana notes. What makes you gravitate toward these sounds?
I’m not totally sure. I don’t aim to write anything specific when I start. But I was really big into theater when I was younger. So I think my especially lyric-heavy songs have a theatrical influence. I am also classically trained in piano, so that tends to come through in my musicality as well.
Do these sounds and rhythms lend themselves toward telling stories?
I think so. Often on the stage, songs are used to push the story forward. So that’s probably part of it. I also really love the story-telling aspect of folk songs and folk-singers, and always have.
What motivates you to write songs that tell such detailed stories?
Usually, when I write a song, no matter whether it’s based on personal experience or not, I try to latch onto a feeling or an emotion and try to wrap a story around it. So, for “Persepolis Song,” the feeling I was trying to write about was how do you find beauty when your humanity is being taken away from you? I think tying an emotion like that to littler things gets to the crux more clearly. Those little details resonate.
Your performances often include a lot of crowd interaction. What do you get from an audience that laughs with you?
I love it. My favorite thing in the world is a performance with an audience that’s engaged. I’ve thought about it a lot, why I like it. Is it because everyone is looking at me? I think it’s more because I can communicate with people really quickly and reach some place fast through song. It’s more about that connection. It’s not just that I’m up here playing my music and I hope you like it. Interaction is an important part.
How did you develop the morbid, detail-obsessed narrator for “Queen of Hearts”?
She is me! Originally, I had to write this song for the Bushwick Book Club for their Alice in Wonderland show. It was the first time I ever wrote for Bushwick. I read the book, watched the movie. But I didn’t have that feeling I get when I know what it is I want to write about. Then, all of a sudden, I thought, “Oh my god! The Queen of Hearts! Maybe she’s misunderstood and got a bit out of control.” And then I used the rest of the song to say what bothers me in the guise of her voice.
How did it land on PBS?
They found my video on YouTube!
Wow that really happens? It was just discovered?
Yup, it was totally random. The video has a few thousand views – I’m no YouTube star. I don’t know how they found it. But they came out to film me in January. It was super fun!
“Persepolis Song” is such a sad song about loss and death. What parts of yourself did you have to mine to write it?
That was tricky because I know I’ve never been in such traumatic circumstances. That one was inspired by a graphic novel about Persepolis, which takes place during the Iranian Revolution in 1979-80. But also, my family – my dad’s side of the family had family members who died in the Holocaust. I never experienced anything like that myself, but I’ve tried to imagine it so many times, what that must be like to be in that situation where you’re completely out of control of what’s happening. How do you stay human?
What kind of music or musicians inspires you to write?
I love music that, whether I put it on or it’s at a show, makes me feel something and I want to write something, not in response to it – this is super cheesy but sometimes when I’m at a show and I’m really affected by the music, my heart will feel so open and I’ll start to think of lyrics. It must look like I’m texting, but I take up my phone and write something down. It’s a physical sensation. It’s this deep feeling of connection to myself when I feel really inspired. I love music that is emotional and lyrically driven and beautiful with soul and grit.