Maybe you’ve caught MARY MILLER at her recent support slots with Let’s Eat Grandma and Laurel, and have been entranced by her otherworldly sparseness (like we have). Her expansive, ambient soundscapes belie the sparse apparatus on stage: just a computer, guitar and sequencer, cooking up all the melancholy of a moonlit drive-in. It’s these understated leanings which give her music its depth, sweeping the listener into a maelstrom of shadowy pop hooks and haunting vocals. But let’s go easy on the hyperbole. “I’m not really a big vocalist, riffing all over the place or anything like that,” she shrugs.
As it happens, the current style is a relatively recent development. Miller, who is originally from Blackpool, found that her whole creative approach altered after she moved to Liverpool to enrol at LIPA. Inspired by her peers, she began to rethink the way she made music, finding herself involved with a wealth of new projects and collaborations.
“I know it sounds cringey, but the music scene here is like a family,” she notes. “There are so many great bands here, like Pink Kink and Trudy and the Romance. The first time I visited, I didn’t like it that much, but after a year I fell completely in love with the place. I’ve become an adopted Scouser.”
As she says this, a seagull starts having a blue fit in the background. It sounds like Liverpool really is home. What’s changed her outlook while she’s been here?
“I was in a duo back in Blackpool and since coming here I’ve been in a few bands too, but they were more guitar-based. I still like that kind of music, but as I started listening more and more to producers, it made me become more experimental. I no longer wanted to do just guitar stuff on its own.”
So how would she describe the music she’s making right now?
“It’s kind of difficult to label your own sound. It’s dream pop I guess, but a little darker, with more cinematic elements. There are also a lot of jazz, electronic and hip hop influences thrown in there.”
It’s clear that she draws from a diverse pool of musical cues, citing a passion for 1950s guitar bands as well as various hip hop acts when quizzed on her influences. Her track Angling is a complex evocation of different styles, with its plangent guitar effects and eerie, disconnected vocal. Another, Property, experiments with light/dark dynamics and austere synth loops welded to tightly-paced drum samples. Yet, despite the polished veneer of the songs she’s shared so far, Miller admits that it’s taken some time for her to refine her style, and to find the confidence to get her material heard.
“I was always making tracks in the background, but I kept it very quiet. I felt scared to put it out there. The other times I’d made music it was with other people and I’d just been the guitarist, so that was less intimidating.”
But then again, solo projects give you the freedom to forge your own path, to build up a sound from a completely personal catalogue of interests. With this in mind, what is it about the 1950s that intrigues her the most?
“Well, I love singers like Buddy Holly, Ella Fitzgerald and Hank Williams, but if I have to narrow it down, it’s really the shaking, tremolo guitar effect which features on a lot of songs from that era. Or to use a more modern example, when you listen to certain soundtracks like James Bond or Twin Peaks. The use of tremolo and dark chords is really interesting to me, and I think that’s where the influence creeps in. Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) is the perfect example of what I have in mind.”
Central to Miller’s technique is the process of mining through different sources and figuring out how best to repurpose them. And this is where the hip hop element comes in – specifically that of the golden era 90s when artists were lifting fragments all over the place, supplanting the original material with something almost unrecognisable.
“I definitely take a lot of inspiration from acts like Fugees and A Tribe Called Quest. Their beats are always so prominent in the mix, really gritty. I like that a lot. When I made Angling, it was my first time experimenting with drum loops and chopping up samples, and that was what kicked everything off.
“To start with, I usually take an isolated sound and find a way to turn it upside-down. You know, drops of water, clocks ticking, weird stuff like that. You end up with a kind of distorted reality, because you’ve turned the original sound on its head to find a whole new perspective. That’s what I try to do with the samples, anyway.”
The process of constructing a song from so many different elements must be fairly time-intensive. Does she, I wonder, respond to ideas spontaneously, or are the song structures something she tends to map out beforehand?
“I always have something brewing. I hear different sounds in my head and then try to bring them to life as best I can; maybe a beat that I’ll then try to recreate. It never sounds quite the same as I imagined it, but usually I end up liking it anyway because it’s the progression of an idea, rather than mechanically trying to put things together on the spot.
“It’s the same with lyrics. Mine aren’t necessarily poetry – they’re written more instinctively, but lyrics are so important to me. I really admire King Krule, for example. I think he’s an amazing lyricist. The kind of artist that makes you want to go online and read every word of every song.”
As a devoted music fan, then, Miller must have some pretty voracious listening habits. And with her fondness for mining for sounds from the past, I wonder if she prefers to shuffle through boxes of vinyl or neatly-curated Spotify playlists?
“I usually stream music, really. The model does need to be re-evaluated so that artists can benefit more, but at the same time, it’s a two-way thing. I find it amazing that so many more people can get to hear my music online, and that there’s so much I can listen to.”
While there are no immediate plans for a new release, Miller plans to spend the next few months squeezing in as many live shows as possible, as well as putting on her own gigs. It’s a testament to her creativity that, by deconstructing the components of her music in a live setting, she is still finding ways to evolve her songs way beyond the recorded versions.
“It’s been a year since I bought the sampler I’m using, but I didn’t want to perform until it felt like second nature. Now I can really have fun with it. It’s just become more natural to me, like with any instrument.
“I suppose there is a risk of becoming complacent about live shows, because I’m so comfortable in Liverpool now,” she adds. “Maybe if I moved to a different city I’d just find myself dragging my heels. But the best thing about being here is that everybody helps each other out. It pushes you more, because you get the affirmation that what you’re doing is valid.”
Mary Miller plays Focus Wales on 13th May as one of Bido Lito!’s selected artists performing at this year’s festival. Become a Bido Lito! member and get an exclusive downloadable track by Mary Miller as part of our monthly bundle of the best new music – learn more here.