Chris Milam, with Memphis as his home base, has been making waves on the national scene for some time now. American Songwriter said he “invites — and earns — the Paul Simon comparisons.” Paste wrote that he “offers something deeper.” No Depression said of his prior album, Kids These Days, “an atmospheric, dark, and thoughtful collection … highly recommend.”
Now his sophomore album, Meanwhile, due to go live on April 24th, is turning some heads as well, with a new subtlety in his writing and arranging that rewards repeated listenings. I reached out to him to see what he's been up to and where he's headed with the new sound of his latest work.
Memphis Flyer: It seems like you expanded your musical palette for this record.
Chris Milam: I think so. Between Kids These Days and Meanwhile, I think I've definitely evolved as a writer and as a musician. Kids These Days had a lot of strings, a lot of electronic drums. A combination of a really driving, heavy rhythm section and ambient sounds and strings. This time around, the songs are different. The nature of the project is different. So I gave a lot of thought to what sounds we should be using. Toby Vest and I spent a lot of time in pre-production. We really moved quickly in the studio because we came so well-prepared. We listened to a lot of albums from the early ’70s as points of comparison.
This is an album about loss and depression in a lot of ways, and sometimes people take that in the direction of using a lot of electronic sounds, but I wanted it sound as human and vulnerable as possible. So, a lot of warm sounds, a lot of acoustic instruments. Somehow we settled on that combination of trumpet and cello. The blend of those sounds really communicated what I was hoping to communicate. Those are both beautiful and warm instruments, but you're used to hearing them with other instruments. Just hearing them by themselves at different moments of the record, I thought, communicated some kind of loneliness. That's what it evoked in me.
MF: A lot of people come to Memphis to record with horns, hoping to have a Memphis Horns-like sound, but you use the trumpet more in the style of Love's Forever Changes, for example.
CM: I think that's right. Marc Franklin is playing all those parts, and he was tremendous. He has such great taste and a great ear. “Maria, Maria” has that almost Spaghetti Western element, which is very different from Stax! Yeah, he was able to color in the songs with different approaches.
MF: Who helped you make this record?
CM: Toby Vest produced it at High/Low Recording. Pete Matthews co-engineered and then mixed the album. Same setup as the last album, actually. Matt Qualls at Young Avenue Sound mastered it. The band was me on guitars and vocals; Brandon Kinder, Abbye West Pates, and Luke White singing background vocals; Jake Vest, Toby's brother, playing bass; Shawn Zorn on drums; Marc Franklin playing trumpet and flugelhorn; and Rick Steff played keyboards, and Steve Selvidge added some guitar fireworks. Ellen Wroten, my longtime touring partner, is playing cello, and Toby added some noise and a little guitar.
MF: The musicians make this a very Memphis record, but there's a lot of traveling in these songs, giving the album a nomadic feeling. The stories seem to unfold on the road.
CM: Yeah, I think that's a great point. Some of the songs are pretty narrative, and the album does tell a story. It's pretty autobiographical. These songs were written between 2017 and 2019. In 2017, I lived on the road. I toured 200-plus days that year. There are definitely songs from other places. And “In the Blood” tells my dad's story. He and my mom grew up in the Kanawha River Valley, around Charleston, West Virginia, coal mining country. So it's not strictly a Memphis album in that way. But the way the whole album is about bad habits makes it feel like a Memphis album to me [laughs]. And “Lonely Living Right” is a kind of day-in-the-life for me, living here in Memphis, struggling with the angel and the devil on your shoulders, so to speak. But ultimately it's full of a lot of different places and characters.
MF: What would you say the overarching narrative of this album is?
CM: I would say it's about loss. I inadvertently wrote a good album for quarantine, honestly. It's basically 10 different versions of how we deal with loss, or survive being in limbo. The album really begins with the track “Phoenix,” which is about November of 2017. I had just left for a West Coast tour that was gonna last a month. I was in the middle of a break-up. It's suspended in that way. And then on day two of that tour, my dad was rushed to the hospital; on day seven, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
So I spent the rest of that tour just really heartbroken, and desperately missing home for lots of reasons. The next two years were unfortunately about his battle with cancer, which ultimately ended last fall. And the dissolution of that relationship. I spent 2018 away from music because I had a really bad hand injury that took nine months to heal from. It was a time of isolation and anxiety and depression, to be honest. And loss and death. I just noticed when I went back over the songs I wrote over that time, the through line is that these are 10 different ways you just kinda get through the day. With mixed results, to say the least.
MF: Is it cathartic for you to sing these songs now?
CM: It's definitely cathartic, but depending on the day it's also kind of heavy. Even after we finished the mix, I had days where I was just mad at music, and I wouldn't go anywhere near it. There were two songs I wrote after my dad died, “In the Blood,” which starts with his story, and then “Lonely Living Right.” He'd heard everything else I wrote, and he was really excited about those songs. And I feel like he'd be proud of this album. So most days, that's where I land. And that's a really good feeling.
Chris Milam hosts a listening party for Meanwhile on the We Are Memphis Music Instagram page, Thursday, April 23rd, at 8 p.m. CDT. He also performs a live-streamed record release event on his Facebook and Instagram pages, Saturday, April 25th, at 5 p.m. Visit chrismilam.com to download the release.