Lynn Miles: 25 Years and Counting

An introverted wallflower who performs in front of hundreds of fans, this dedicated, headstrong, hard worker who can make you cry with a single sweet lyric. Singer, songwriter Lynn Miles is a bit of a contradiction, but one hell of a musician.

And 25 years after the release of her very first demo, Miles is still thriving at what she does best. She has multiple Canadian Folk Music Awards and a Juno Award for Roots & Traditional Solo Album of the Year and 10 albums to her name, with two set to be released this year. She has been compared to folk royalty like Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits. She has written over 700 songs.

With such a stellar career, the average person might feel inclined –  even entitled – to take a step back, be a little sentimental and reflect on everything accomplished. But if you haven’t noticed already, Miles is certainly no average person.

“It’s odd to realize I’ve been doing this as long as I have because I don’t think about it that way,” Miles says. “I just take it as it comes.”

For Miles, it all began in Sweetsburg (now part of Cowansville in south-central Quebec). The daughter of a harmonica player and an opera aficionado, her crib was her first stage, the place  where her mother said she would sing herself to sleep. Years later, Miles graduated to a real one, performing at 16 and playing multiple instruments in her school years. From there she went on to Carleton University in Ottawa, but continued her musical ambitions. Miles majored in classical music history and theory, and studied voice with a private teacher, later becoming one herself at the Ottawa Folklore Centre.

Still, she hadn’t given up on her dream of being a recording artist. And with the help of musician friends and a loan from the late Helen Verger of Rasputin’s Folk Café, it became a reality.

“I decided I had enough songs that I wanted to put on a tape. So I went and made a tape,” Miles recalls.

The modest, nine-song, self-titled cassette was released in 1987. A self- professed bibliophile and music lover, Miles says her early songs were inspired by what she surrounded herself with. Years later, things haven’t changed much. From Sufi poetry to Oprah Winfrey, Miles is constantly inspired not only by her own experiences, but by those of others.

“I keep my ears up,” says Miles. “I’m always listening for something. I’m always looking for something. I’m always looking for the next idea that I can explore.”

Her latest release, Black Flowers III, is an example of that. It’s the third installment in an ongoing series of albums that combines reimagined old favourites with previously unreleased songs in a stripped-down acoustic setting.

“I wanted to present them in their essence, as honestly and as bare as possible,” Miles said.

While the bare-bones production style might be a new twist, in a way it seems that it is just her music catching up to what her songwriting has always been: honest and vulnerable. From songs like Love Doesn’t Hurt (about domestic violence), to Drunks and Fools (about a regretful alcoholic), Miles’ songs are more than just pretty tunes – they’re therapy. Miles describes the times when women have approached her after shows, telling her how her songs have helped them through trials like divorce, chemotherapy and even childbirth.

“These are the greatest compliments I could ever receive as a songwriter,” Miles says. “Because it means that I’ve touched somebody emotionally.”

But while Lynn Miles the songwriter could be described as wearing her  heart on her sleeve, it might surprise a few to hear that Lynn Miles the regular person is a little more private with her emotions.

“I’m actually a bit of an introvert,” Miles says. “I’m not really a party girl, and I’m not very social. But I love being onstage.”

Last October, Miles graced a stage just like any other. It was small for someone of her calibre, in a simple pub on Bank Street in Ottawa. The crowd was predictably captivated by her tender, haunting performance. But the occasion was different. This wasn’t just another concert, but a celebration, honouring her career.

Humbled and moved by the outpouring of love and support from old friends and colleagues, Miles said the whole thing was still a little strange for her. She isn’t used to looking back. “I’m not a nostalgic person at all. So I started off the show playing a new song, and feel like I was still moving forward.

n a way, the move was a lot like Miles herself: a contradiction; a living testament to the work she’s done thus far and what’s waiting just beyond the horizon.