Singer/songwriter Sean Miller is able to wear his heart on his sleeve, but that was actually aided by wearing a hat on his head. “I used to think I looked stupid wearing hats,” says the Petoskey-based guitarist/singer, “but my way around to getting comfortable singing in front of people was to pull the bill of my hat down over my eyes so that I didn’t have to see anyone looking back at me.” Miller’s developed an assured poise as a performer over the last five years and has particularly stepped up to another level in terms of bringing some candid, forthright, and even unsparing sentiments to the lyrical side of his craft.
Miller’s been a musician for most of his life; he’s a pianist (with training from a young age), a percussionist (with lots of experience in school bands), and a self-taught guitarist by the age of 14. So the music side of things was always quite natural for him. The capacity to project his voice in front of an audience developed later. And he has a rather striking voice, a mid-range baritone with a rich resonance. You can hear that voice soaring over a composite of rock and Americana-folk ballads on his new solo album.
Miller released Everywhere I Roam on April 1, just before the first peak of the pandemic. It was intended to be a sort of grand arrival for him, particularly as a solo artist. Throughout the late 2010s, Miller established himself around the Michigan music scene with the Real Ingredients, an acoustic duo with saxophonist Traven Michaels. While it certainly was discouraging to have to cancel a formal release show and a subsequent tour around the Great Lakes area, Miller didn’t let quarantine slow him down: he’s released three singles over the last six months, each of which is imbued with varying degrees of responsive catharsis or social commentary. Basically, they are songs that a lot of us need to hear right now.
“I can’t sugarcoat it,” said Miller. “It’s been a really tough year all around for everyone: emotionally, mentally, physically…” Miller knows that, as a local musician, he’s not alone in having to postpone big plans and aspirations. “Everything was canceled. But part of the reasoning for releasing the singles was, firstly, to just stay relevant and show everyone I was still here, still working on music. But particularly with the song ‘I Can’t Breathe…,’ it had just gotten to the point where I just couldn’t not say anything anymore. Whatever platform I have as a songwriter, I wanted to put something out there, and obviously the title quotes George Floyd, and I wanted to just show my support for the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Another single, “By Your Side,” taps into the foreboding anxiety that a lot of us are wrestling with lately. Towards the end, the chorus flips toward the more hopeful side of things. Miller said that songs and lyrics are his way of forging an empathetic connection with an audience. “I’ve been writing lyrics down since middle school. There’s usually always a personal connection to the subject matter; it’s either coming directly from me or it’s a story I’ve made up that’s still inspired by something that’s happened to me. But as a former reporter (covering the arts for the Petoskey News-Review,) my favorite aspect of (that job) was connecting with people, and hearing their stories — just listening. It’s the same as listening to a musician’s stories; it’s just great whenever I can make that connection and an audience can resonate with a lyric or the music.”
Miller and Michaels had worked on a Real Ingredients album from late 2018 into early 2019, recording with local producer Dave Runyan. Once that project was wrapped up, Miller returned to Runyan to get started on what became Everywhere I Roam. “Dave does phenomenal work, and it was a great process; I loved working with him. We wound up wrapping things up in February of this year, and after that, I picked out my release date. But it was largely done over the last year. And I really like the arc that it has; if you break it down to the core of the songs, its got multiple genres. There’s a bit of country and a bit of rock, for sure, but also that singer/songwriter side comes out in the lyrics and the arrangements.”
Miller said that growing up in a rural town meant that that guitar-centric, heartfelt, ballady kind of style, angling on the borders of Americana-folk, was essentially already ingrained in his DNA. And while he counted Elton John and Billy Joel as influences during his younger days when he played the piano, he said he’s drifted to troubadours who have thrived in the rock realm, particularly icons like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty. He also noted more contemporary artists like Donovan Woods and Gregory Alan Isakov for particularly imbuing him with the confidence to pursue a solo career.
And pursue he shall. Miller will continue to be involved in the Michigan music scene in the year ahead, however that might look like. He’s currently a board member for Blissfest and recently performed at the virtual Wheatland Music Festival as part of its Wheatsongs songwriting workshop. Meanwhile, he’s continuing to work on music. He’s developing a batch of recent demos with the hopes of returning to the studio as soon as it’s safely possible, and is eager to finish another album by the end of 2021. You can find his three new singles and Everywhere I Roam on all major platforms.