Author/Songwriter Rhett Miller

Five Rules of Good Composition

Music Features Rhett Miller
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1. Don’t overthink your plot: “I used to pore over every last aspect of my protagonists, but now I don’t think about it so much,” cedes professorial Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller, who’s simultaneously releasing a short story (“Weakest Shade Of Blue,” inspired by a Pernice Brothers song) and his second solo set, The Believer, in late February. “I had a big epiphany,” he says, “wherein I realized that a short story is a lot like a song—you go from vignette to vignette, and each vignette is like a verse, with recurring characters that are sort of like the theme or the melody.”

2. Find inspiration in the commonplace: The “Make up your ma-ma-mind” chorus in Believer’s opening anthem “My Valentine” had its genesis in the pre-verbal babble of Miller’s two-year-old son, Max, and the gentle “Meteor Shower” was a collection of observations made from the singer’s rural Hudson Valley property. “When I sit outside at night,” Miller says, “I see shooting stars all the time—all you’ve gotta do is just look up and try not to blink for a minute.”

3. There’s tragic eloquence in societal misfits: In the Old 97’s, Miller used to hotdog like a brainy brat. Now, he fires off brilliantly understated lines like “She drove a blue car around Bloomington / She was a thin girl, but she had substance.” Whether real or imagined, his subjects, he says, “represent that dichotomy that exists within all of us—real beauty and some really tragic stuff, too, because I never like the cut-and-dried.”

4. The hero doesn’t have to save the world: While briefly attending Sarah Lawrence College, Miller constantly argued with his writing teacher over “this feeling that in the course of a short story, the main character has to go through some life-changing event, and I just never really bought into that. People don’t really change, but maybe they grow a little bit. And that’s the thing I look for, that little bit of growth.”

5. Prepare for your characters to take on a life of their own: Miller conceived “Fireflies,” his duet with Rachael Yamagata, as a breakup postmortem. “But oh my God, what Rachael did with that song!” he says proudly. “I got choked up on the middle break—when she sang ‘I must’ve had a reason for leaving,’ I say, ‘It must’ve been me,’ and then she comes in with, ‘It must’ve been me.’ The girl’s taking responsibility for the breakup—I didn’t expect that when I was writing the song. And she made the last verse so sexy, instead of feeling like the guy’s getting kissed off, you feel that maybe they’re gonna disappear together. At least for the night.”

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