Scott Miller became the master of his own destiny when he left his label not too long ago. Now surveying the state of the music industry as the head of his own tiny indie, F.A.Y. Recordings, he puts on a convincing show of Great Depression-like grimness.
"Money ain't too fucking funny to me, especially going on my own like this," he says. "I've always lived and died by my work, but now I'm really living and dying by it. And I was raised by Depression-era parents, so I just have that sort of mindset of gloom and doom and it's all going to crumble anyway."
It's best to take the Knoxville-based former V-Roys frontman's sobering words with a grain of salt. He's laughing a little even as he insists money isn't funny, and he's wise enough to know that reality goes down easier with a good sense of humor.
Miller laced the rootsy power-pop title track of his new album For Crying Out Loud with puns about being weaker than a weak dollar and too broke to pay attention. His pre- and post-South by Southwest blogs wryly suggested that the outcomes of NCAA basketball games are surer bets than getting your money's worth out of a festival showcase.
Miller also rolled out a scrappy business model. He financed Out Loud by selling hand-packaged guitar-vocal demos and added a low-budget extra feature—a "making of" video during which he, his band, the Commonwealth, and producer Mike Webb do things like answer ridiculous questions, don wigs and drink beer.
A lot of those same demos—all done on a simple Marantz hard-disc recorder—became the basic tracks for Out Loud, which made the whole process quicker and cheaper. "We've got two dogs and a horse at this house," says Miller, partly joking again. "We've got to make some money."
The whole thing could have easily come out sounding Frankensteined, but it didn't. It doesn't matter whether Miller keeps his story songs acoustic or gives them full-blown bar-band treatment; they've got strong hooks and rollicking energy. His softer sentiments find fitting homes in sentimental folk duets, punkish country-blues and scruffy rock-meets-R&B.
"I wouldn't call myself not a musician, but I'm more driven with words and obviously my music's pretty simple," says Miller self-deprecatingly. "Three chords and rock, and the influences are not that huge. I mean, I've listened to enough. But I'm not breaking any ground."
Even so, Miller can transform a historical vignette into a pop song with rock energy (case in point: "Wildcat Whistle"), and there aren't too many others with that skill set.
"I was going to say [Scottish singer-songwriter] Al Stewart, but that it isn't quite so muscular," he says. "And I love early Al Stewart, don't get me wrong."
But one thing Miller's always taken seriously is the money audiences pay to see him put on a good show, alone with his guitar or backed by the Commonwealth.
"I've seen Dylan stare at his shoes the whole time and I've still been blown away," he says. "I mean, you don't have to do something outlandish, but I think you owe them something."