Derek Miller: Native dynamo looks for the “Good Ache”

    Photo by Kimberlie Hall

    by Sandra Hale Schulman

    News From Indian Country

    Triple threat singer/songwriter/ musician Miller burst onto the Native music scene with his debut album Music is the Medicine in 2003 and, like a sure bet colt, promptly won the triple crown awards – a Juno, a First Americans in the Arts, and a Nammy.

    Now two years later, Miller is in the studio after extensive touring and songwriting, working on his second as yet untitled record.

    Lanky, loose, and wise beyond his years, the late 20-something Miller was born and raised on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario. He has been perfoming for over 15 years, gleaning influences for his blues based rock from Link Wray, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and even Hank Williams Sr.

    A riveting live act, Derek’s performances strike a contrast between the dark, soul-searching messages in his music and his light hearted enthusiasm and vitality.

    He started with a five song EP called Sketches in 1998 that brought him to the attention of Buffy Sainte-Marie, who hired him to open a series of theatre concerts where he wowed crowds at every stop.

    “Derek is like Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Kris Kristofferson... but better... he’s got a Mohawk heart,” says Buffy.

    In 1999, Sketches won him a Canadian Aboriginal Music Award for Best Male Artist. During the same year, veteran Native rocker Keith Secola saw Derek at one of Buffy’s concerts and asked him to move to Phoenix, Arizona, where he co-produced the Keith Secola and the Wild Band of Indians Fingermonkey release.

    This CD won a Native American Music Award in 2000 for Best Independent Album.

    “Once I had all that under my belt,” says Miller from his recording studio in Toronto, “I went off to do my own record.”

    In the fall of 2002, Music is the Medicine, a collaboration with Juno Award winning Producer Brandon Friesen, was released on Grammy Award winning label Soar Records in the United States and Arbor Records in Canada.

    Music Is The Medicine had already won “Aboriginal Recording of the Year” at the Juno Awards and the “Outstanding Music Achievement Award” from the First American In The Arts.

    Critics heaped praise on Miller saying:

    “Miller is a modern day Link Wray/Pete Townsend power chord rocker with style... “

    C.J. Holley, Get Rhythm Magazine, U.K.

    “Derek Miller’s emotionally charged performance wows.”

    Rosie Levine, Now Magazine, Toronto

    CREEM, America’s prestigious rock ‘n’ roll magazine, ran a feature review of Music is the Medicine, proclaiming the album “an intelligent blues-fuelled amalgamation of Jesse Winchester’s tastefully transcendent tone (Lovesick Blues #49) and Eric Clapton’s sharp surgical style (Jaded Are My Wings), fused with the smooth conceptual fluidity of Jimi Hendrix (The End Of The World) via the soulful spirituality of Exile On Main Street’s uplifting second side.”

    CREEM concluded by stating: “Do yourself a favor and go out of your way to buy a copy of Derek’s debut disc and hear for yourself why Music Is The Medicine is the rock solid foundation of a career that has all the potential to one day rival that of another fellow Native Canadian songwriting guitarist, Robbie Robertson.”

    Derek led the musical tribute to Robbie Robertson’s induction into Canada’s Walk of Fame, playing alongside Tom Cochrane and Sarah Harmer at Roy Thomson Hall last June. The performance was broadcast live on Global Television.

    He hit the road hard, playing a full slate of festivals across Canada and the U.S., winning new fans and renewing old acquaintances all along the way. Derek opened for George Thorogood in Montreal and David Clayton Thomas’ Blood Sweat & Tears at Festival of Friends in Hamilton. Derek kicked off Canada Day at Queen Park and opened the first Toronto Star Bluesfest at Toronto’s CNE. He tore up the Native Stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

    Even his video received play on MuchMoreMusic. It won Best Music Video at Canada’s ImagiNATIVE Film Festival, and was premiered in the U.S.A. at the annual Native American Film & Video Festival at the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City.

    So the question now is how to follow up on that much initial success.

    “I’ve been writing this second record all along,” says Miller. “I have a few good songs already done, particularly Stormy Eyes, Boiled Egg Blues, about a woman having a kid that the guy finds out isn’t his, and Girls – that’s been a real crowd pleaser. We’ve been inviting girls from the audience up onstage to dance while we play that one. It’s been fun but you gotta be careful, it can get a little out of control.”

    At the Electric 49 showcase in Albuquerque in April, a slightly stoned blonde climbed onstage uninvited during another song, dancing suggestively around – and on – Derek’s bass player.

    “Yeah that was pretty funny,” he says laughing “but I got kind of jealous, I mean, hey it’s MY show.”

    Miller has also changed his look since he started, going from long hair, goatee, bandanas and jean jackets to a short choppy shag and a funky mashup of preppy and grunge. His pinstripe suits with cut up argyle sweater vests and odd ties have drawn chuckles from his bandmates.

    “Yeah they make fun of it sometimes,” he says. “I don’t put too much thought into it, I mean it was winter in Toronto and I went to this thrift store and just bought a bunch of sweaters and suits and have been wearing them ever since. If everything looks the same then it’s easier to pack and it always matches.”

    The studio is where Miller is finding his inspiration now.

    “After being on the road so much the past two years, it got to be a bit of a blur,” he says. “At times it’s absolutely euphoric, but all the traveling wipes you out at the same time. Now that I’m in the studio, hanging out with people like renowned producer Daniel Lanois (who produced amazing Grammy winning records for Emmylou Harris and the soundtrack for the Oscar winning film Sling Blade), I’m getting really inspired watching how he works.

    “Daniel has the ‘good ache’ in his sound, that’s what I’m going for. It’s made me really producer conscious, how important that is to the overall sound of the record. The luxury I have now is that I have free studio time to really tinker with the songs, I’m not under any time restrictions and I won’t release this until it’s exactly how I want it to be.

    “I’m considering working with synthesizers and different kinds of instrumentation to get the particular soundscape I want. I’ve got about 13 songs I’m working on, there may be more added. I’m doing all the writing, the muse comes and goes, but I don’t feel the need now to have many co-writers, I’m not lacking inspiration.

    “I want to have really polished recordings but also amp up the force of the live shows. I want to serve both masters, because they’re very different, and it’s a good goal for me. The whole cycle of it interests me for metaphysical reasons. It holds certain passions for me, and it’s not about the money at all.”

    Miller expects the record to come out either later this year or early next year, and then he’ll take his good ache out on the road.


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