Shaela Miller may have altered styles, but writing remains a big strength

Article content

It was a calculated risk.

As one of 12 finalists for the 2022 country music-focused Project WILD contest, Shaela Miller needed to write a report mapping out her future in the music business for the next couple of years. She was determined to be honest about how her relationship to country music was likely to change in the near future. The development program was in its fifth and final instalment at the time.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Article content

Administered by Alberta Music, it was funded by and named after Calgary’s “new country” station WILD 95.3. The report required the finalists to outline what they would do with the $100,953 prize money should they win but also what they would do if they didn’t win. It was meant to show judges that these artists were serious not only about their music but also about pragmatically pursuing it as a professional career.

Miller may have already seemed like an outlier in Project WILD. She certainly played country music, but it was of a more traditional, outlaw variety that tends to get ignored by new country stations like WILD 95.3. In fact, a radio tracker once told her that her music was “too country” for country radio.

By 2022, Miller already had a vision for her next album. As her online bio suggests, it would require an artistic metamorphosis that would “set aside her Loretta Lynn likeness” in favour of a beautifully desolate synth-rock sound. She called it “dark wave” and it was largely devoid of twang. Half the marks awarded to Project WILD finalists were based on that report and Miller had lengthy discussions with her manager about how much she should reveal about her sonic plans. After all, how supportive would a country music contest be of an artist determined to step even further outside the genre’s accepted parameters?

“There was some hesitance about being as forthcoming about what my plans were for the next record,” she says, in an interview with Postmedia. “But I said to (my manager) that I feel really strong about being honest about what I’m planning to do. It’s put on by Alberta Music – it’s half Alberta Music and half the radio station. I didn’t want my friends in Alberta Music to think that I just grabbed the money and did what I wanted with it. I wanted them to know and back what I was doing. What I heard in my feedback was that they believed so strongly in my report: I already had such a clear vision and I already had demos of what I was doing and I sent them in.”

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

The gamble paid off. On March 26, 2022, Miller took first prize during a final showcase at Calgary’s King Eddy. While she would have likely followed her sonic muse regardless, the $100,953 went a long way in helping her realize her vision for her fifth album, After the Masquerade, which comes out March 22.

Even before releasing her fourth country album, 2021’s Big Hair Small City, she had been toying with the idea of revisiting some of the styles she liked as a young teen rebelling against the country music she had grown up with in southern Alberta. Grunge eventually led her to gloomy new-wave acts such as The Cure, Depeche Mode and Joy Division.

In 2022, she still loved this music but was hardly a studio gearhead, particularly when it came to synthesizers. So she was intrigued when it was suggested she take part of her contest windfall to the National Music Centre and record with in-house engineer Graham Lessard. As a producer, Lessard had experience coaxing similar strains out of bands such as Timber Timbre and Stars. He also has an intimate knowledge of the sprawling and impressive collection of vintage keyboards and synthesizers available to artists who record at the NMC and proved adept at matching the instrument with the music Miller was hearing in her head.

Advertisement 4

Article content

“There are a lot of (different) kinds of new wave, but I like the really dark sh-t,” says Miller, who will begin a tour of Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba on March 22 that ends May 4 at the National Music Centre. “I like guttural, dark (music). I know guttural is a funny word, but it’s what I used all the time. I’d say to Graham: ‘More guttural. More Depeche Mode.’ He’s say ‘I know, I know.’ I call it dark wave. I don’t know if that’s a real genre or I just made it up.”

The opening track, Start a Fire, begins with soaring synths and Miller singing about wanting to “burn it all down.” It’s followed by the beautiful ballad Of Roses and the haunting title track, which mixes menacing synth with Miller’s sad-sweet vocals. Mourning Tonight matches a bouncing synth and bass line with lyrics outlining Miller’s grief after the death of a close friend in 2021. The loss hit Miller hard and she began writing and making demos of songs that leaned towards the synth music she and her friend loved.

“It’s still hard to talk about,” she says. “It’s one of the most tragic losses. I’ve lost other people in my life who were dear to me, including my father. But something happened to me when he died. It took me a really long time to pick myself up again. I wrote the song called Of Roses a few weeks after he passed away. We shared a huge love of Depeche Mode and The Cure and I wanted to write a song and record it with my friends. We wrote that song and recorded it in this way. We had already been messing around for awhile with the synth. Then I wrote Mourning Tonight and we recorded that.

Advertisement 5

Article content

“I was showing some of my friends outside of the band and said ‘I’m going to start a second project with this New Wave thing.’ This was before I was in Project Wild. All my friends who listened to it said ‘Shaela, don’t do that. It’s not such a departure. It’s not like it’s screamo or anything and like a huge change. It’s still your voice, it’s still your songs, it’s still you in every way.’”

Which is presumably something the savvier judges at Project Wild also picked up on. Granted,  Miller’s voice possesses a resonating ache that makes it perfect for country music and she is backed by a band that is just as well-versed at playing stomping honky-tonk numbers and mournful country ballads as they are industrial-edged synth-pop. But the main strength of both Big Hair Small City and After the Masquerade is the well-crafted songs.

“Songwriting to me is the most important thing,” she says. “I love singing, don’t get me wrong. But I teach at a kids songwriting camp (in Lethbridge) because I think songs, for me anyway, are very therapeutic. Even if it’s a different style of writing that is more fun or silly, it’s all therapy and it’s all a creative process to let you deal with whatever madness we are all going through. In terms of the question about the songwriting style, I write songs the way I know how. From listening to so many different types of music, I think that helps have it stand out to different communities of fans.”

After the Masquerade comes out March 22. Shaela Miller plays at The National Music Centre on May 4.

Article content