I was fortunate enough to attend a Lynn Miles show at Irene’s Pub on Bank Street a few weeks ago. Irene’s Pub is an amazing live music venue. Alex Golota, the owner, recently finished some major renovations to the bar’s performance area, and let me tell you, the sound and feel of the venue is incredible! A hearty and sincere thank you to Alex and staff for making the stay so enjoyable!
The show was hosted by CBC’s own Alan Neal, honoring and celebrating the 25th anniversary of Miles’ first cassette release. The mood was definitely celebratory and joyful. Miles’ choice to play a stripped-down acoustic set offered listeners a chance to hear and appreciate a different perspective to her songs – their essence and bare bones, so to speak.
Hearing Miles accompanied solely by her own guitar, or by guitar and mandolin, played by the impeccable Keith Glass of Canada’s own Prairie Oyster, was a real treat. Glass’s tasteful backup vocals and musical accompaniment added a fullness and richness to Miles’ material. And it was obvious listening to them speak to each other between songs that these are two good friends having fun playing music together. Lynn Miles’ voice and material have a timeless, haunting and transformative quality. She has the kind of voice that you easily fall into – urgent, warm, as comforting as running into an old friend, and as welcome and happy-making as a sunny Sunday morning in bed with your significant other and an entire Costco-size sleeve of Oreos.
To say the crowd was captivated by Miles that night at Irene’s is something of an understatement. Miles is an enchanting, captivating, inviting and tender performer. Listening to her music, I’m reminded of artists like Joni Mitchell, Shawn Colvin, Tom Waits, Michael Penn, and Loudon Wainwright III – artists whose sense of narrative, emotion, humor and wit make listening to their material a profound and exhilarating experience. Miles understands how essential a good melody and “hook” are, but she also understands the magic and power of words and deft turns of phrase.
Miles’ most recent release – Black Flowers III– is the third album in a series, a reworking of some of her previous gems. Lines
like “With my heart beneath my duffle coat, and my dreams turning to icicles” from Hockey Night in Canada, she is able to perfectly describe a moment and feeling. Miles has a gift for analogy and crafts her words precisely and intently. In 25 years, she has written 700 songs. Let that sink in for a second. Seven. Hundred. Songs. If you were able to write a song every day, it would take you just over two years to catch up to her, assuming you could actually write a song every day. It’s simply an amazing achievement, considering the continuing consistency, caliber and strength of her catalogue.
Miles’ subject matter revolves around friendship, family, love, loss, celebration, learning – in short, these are songs about life. Myles wears her heart on her sleeve and is proud of it. At one point during the show, she had difficulty remembering the beginning of her Wizard-of-Oz-inspired song Surrender Dorothy. As she tried to remember the verse, she and Glass continued to play, talking, joking the whole time, making the crowd feel like we were a bunch of friends hanging out in their kitchen listening to them play, and it was awesome. Miles’ recovery was charming and funny, and showed how comfortable this artist is in her own skin. As the second set started, CBC Radio One host Alan Neal came to the rescue, having Googled the lyrics to Surrender Dorothy moments earlier. Neal was kind enough to regale the crowd by singing a lovely rendition of the beginning of Surrender Dorothy accompanied by Miles and Glass! Like I said, it was awesome.
The power and strength of Miles’ songs don’t lie in over-production or bombastic arrangements. They are simply songs about the heart. They are vulnerable and open at their core.
“I’ve never been uncomfortable being vulnerable, with expressing my own peccadilloes, problems or issues,” Miles says. “I have always thought that the more we express those things in our society, the more compassionate our society will become, and I want to be a part of that.”
There seem to be two recurring themes in Miles’ work: friendship and loneliness. Miles reveals: “Loneliness has been a theme of my life. It’s something I’ve wrestled with my whole life, so I’ve had to learn how to tame it, to put it into place. And I do believe that loneliness is a big part of the human condition, that it causes a lot of compromises in people’s lives.”
As part of Ottawa’s International Writing Festival, Alan Neal, host of CBC’s All in a Day, has organized a special event, taking place on the evening of Friday, October 26, at Knox Presbyterian Church. Lynn Miles: 25 Years in Song will be a different kind of gig. It will celebrate Miles’ musical achievements. Some lucky winners/songwriters, having previously submitted winning versions of their take on a particular Lynn Miles lyric via CBC Radio’s contest, will join Lynn on stage and perform and discuss the art of writing a song. Most songwriters rarely donate their time and knowledge to such an event, but Miles’ openness and generosity in sharing the tools of her craft, is another thing that marks her as a different kind of songwriter.
“It’s a humbling experience to be asked to be a part of something like this, and I’m really looking forward to it,” Miles said. “I do like talking about songwriting, and I’m interested in the writing process of other songwriters. I think (songwriting) is a muscle I’ve developed just from doing it for so long. I work very hard on my lyrics… they’re the things I care about the most, and I’m very fortunate to have the lifestyle to be able to do it. Though it doesn’t feel like work, it’s a great joy. And every time you write another song, you learn another aspect of songwriting.”
It’s amazing to think that Miles has had a career spanning decades in a business known for its fickleness. And she has the music industry kudos and nominations to further show her lasting impact and importance as a songwriter. One of the reasons for her longevity is her commitment to the honesty of the moment. Miles’ songs are open, vulnerable and wise; it’s as if they are a living breathing journal, one that she opens up and shares with her listeners. They are her own experience set to music and it’s that willingness and unflinching courage to expose her ups and downs, her struggles, her victories, her pains and everything in between that make Lynn Miles a truly superlative songwriter. Miles sums it up best: “With songwriting, I’m interested in truth and honesty. And I think, to be an artist, you have to be fearless. You have to be willing to be vulnerable, to look foolish, and to be human.”
The scheduled release for Lynn Miles’ upcoming album, How to Be Alone, will be available in January 2013.
Tickets for Lynn Miles: 25 Years in Song are available at: http://www.writersfestival.org/events/fall-2012/all-in-a-day-songwriters-circle-once-i-was-animated
Knox Presbyterian Church, 120 Lisgar Avenue, Showtime 8:30pm