What's left when the angry young man grows up? In Chris Mills' case, everything. No matter how many records, roads, disappointments and detours, the journey might just be beginning.
A native of Collinsville, Illinois, the self-described army brat began making music at the time of Uncle Tupelo, the Suede Chain and Fragile Porcelain Mice, but his first band from those early teenage years, Vending Machine, barely made it out of high school parties. Mills embarked on a solo career, writing songs and making records that stretched basement rock & roll into chamber pop (before that mini-genre even existed) with his dark but hopeful take on Midwestern twang mostly holding it all together. His records for the now-defunct label Sugar Free — Every Night Fight for Your Life and Kiss It Goodbye — and the self-released The Silver Line in the late '90s and early 2000s are essential for anyone interested in contemporary singer-songwriters who believe in the power of rock and pop music.
Now based in Brooklyn, New York, Mills, who once wrote a song called "Nowhere Town" about the provincialism he couldn't wait to escape, reflects on his Midwestern roots with affection. "In the Midwest you have space," he says. "In the city, you don't have the basement, a place where you can go with your buddies and listen to music and write songs and play drums and do all that."
This month, Mills will release Alexandria, his seventh album and first new collection in five years. The Kickstarter-funded project was inspired by a chance meeting with Christer Knutsen, an Oslo-based musician and songwriter Mills heard playing in a bar in middle-of-nowhere Norway. Knutsen was one of Scandinavia's most proficient Americana and rock musicians, and, it turned out, a longtime fan of Mills' songwriting. The nine songs that form Alexandria, billed as the work of Chris Mills and the Distant Stars, grew out of that unexpected connection and even more unexpected trust.
"I've refocused on singing in the last few years," Mills explains. "And because I had someone like Christer that I knew I could trust, I felt I could let go a little more. I had the final thumbs up or down, but I didn't have to micromanage. And I had someone who I could lean on. He was adamant about trusting the songwriting, to give the songs as much impact as possible without stepping on the heart of what they're about. One of his big caveats was that we didn't have to put acoustic guitar on every track. He helped me realize that I didn't have to pile everything onto the tracks, but the record still sounds full."
The first track, "Wild Places," frames Mills as a messenger, a voice that's returning from the "wild places" with something simple but necessary to say: "Hold on to the ones that love you," he sings. "To your heart always be true." The words ring out because of the way Mills sings them, with untethered emotion, and the way the Distant Stars' voices, percussion, guitar and piano echo all around him.
"When you do what I do for as long as I've been doing it, at the level I've been doing it — and take that however you want — you think about why," Mills says. "This record is about getting back to what I wanted when I started out. I wanted to write songs that made people feel how I felt when I heard a song that spoke to me. Those songs made me feel like someone knew what I was going through. They gave me comfort when I was a kid. No matter how isolated I felt, I knew there was someone else sharing that. We were all alone together. I'm trying to use my experiences as a way to identify with people, to help people not feel so alone."
Mills, who recently became a father, continues to chart a personal journey through music, one that has grown from rock, pop and folk expressions of desperation and restlessness into a sense of belonging, both to others and, finally, to himself.
"On a song like 'Rubicon,'" he says of one of Alexandria's most evocative tracks, "it's the idea of traveling alone together. When you grow up and get married, you're creating this new chapter. You're building something familiar but bringing your own experiences. When you grow up everyone is trying to teach you, but when you start your own family no one is telling you how to do it. You're doing it from your own experiences. It's given me confidence, a feeling that I do have something to say, something to contribute."