I’M SORRY BUT LISA MILLER KNOWS NOTHING. She knew nothing 20 years ago; she knows nothing now.
“I had this thing that came out 20 years ago and I’m thinking [groans a little] I should probably do a show, because people tend to do that,” the Melbourne singer, songwriter, shoe collector and gig institution says. “And then you think, oh God, does anyone want to see anyone 20 years later? Singing the same thing? And I thought, no, no they don’t.”
This “thing” of hers is the album of covers – though that term does absolutely no justice to her interpretive skills and the way many of these relatively obscure songs found a new audience through her – Miller released in 2002 called Car Tape. As in, as depicted in the beautifully hand-scrawled, liquid paper-spotted, scrunched together to fit the small paper insert of your C-60 cassette cover image, that mix tape you’d make for the next road trip, or the boy/girl you wanted to convince.
On it you’ll find tracks like Say You Don’t Mind, once performed by former Zombie, Colin Blunstone, Something’s On Your Mind, as done by Karen Dalton, and Why Not Your Baby?, by the bluegrass/country crossover pairing of Dillard and Clark, alongside songs by Lyle Lovett and Arthur Alexander, Bill Withers and Tim Rogers, Townes Van Zandt and Jean Wells.
Sung in her delicate and yet sinewy voice, refashioned as tracks existing in that sweet spot between country and soul and pop and folk, placing the personal (tenderness, vulnerability, quiet strength, understanding) well in front of the impersonal (production glitz, Idol-showiness), it refreshed her career.
Behind her were two gorgeous but now out of print solo albums, ahead of her at least five more, including a contemporary Australian classic, Morning In The Bowl Of Night, that deserves to be discovered now by fans of Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker and Angel Olsen.
And all from a project she did almost as a contract-ending filler, mostly with just guitarists Sam Lemann and Shane O’Mara (who also was producer), pretty certain no one would pay attention.“At the time people didn’t really do covers albums and the people I was with really didn’t want a covers record,” she says, recalling that there was no money but also no pressure. “I think what you hear is I wasn’t really trying to please anyone and I sound very relaxed, and I think that’s the only time you can really sound like yourself, when you stop trying to please people.”
Yet to this day Miller is still prone to saying things like “the songs carried themselves for the most part and I just went along for the ride”. Not surprisingly, and not for the last time, when the album came out the ever-doubting Miller was proved wrong.
Packed with some stunning songs, yes, but given thoughtful, evocative and in some cases transformative interpretations, Car Tape would be one of the bestselling independent releases of the next couple of years and Miller would earn three ARIA nominations, including best female artist (alongside Kylie Minogue and Kasey Chambers).
“It was really lovely that we did seem to connect with so many people,” she says. “A lot of people tell me that they play We Love Each Other [which she based on Charlie Rich’s version] at their wedding. That song started a little bit ironic but in the end we didn’t play it ironically and it didn’t come off ironically; it took on its own skin.”
Even with all this long-running love for the record, Miller doubted an anniversary show had legs. A regular in another Melbourne institution, a sprawling re-do of Neil Young’s Harvest, Miller finally saw there might be potential in celebrating Car Tape and its 20th anniversary at this weekend’s Americana festival, Out On The Weekend, when the Harvest slot was cancelled.
“I sent [festival organiser Brian Taranto] a text message ‘would you be interested in doing Car Tape: The Album?’,” says Miller, who then does a credible version of Taranto’s deadpan drawl stretching out a “yeah”. The negotiations went back-and-forth – “a very swift gun battle” – as the offer went from small side stage to main stage and a 45-minute set, money agreed, and Taranto declaring “happy days”.
And finally, finally, Miller began to see the light: not just an anniversary show, but for the first time an old school album released on old school vinyl, on the Cheersquad label.
“It seemed like a good idea suddenly that we take a Wally Meanie’s offer of putting the record out on vinyl,” she says, admitting she had initially knocked back that idea as well. Naturally. Doubting there would be interest. Naturally
It has been remastered for vinyl, fussed over mightily by Miller (“there are so many slow songs on the record I thought, my God, if we put them in the wrong order it’s just going to drag”) and will appear in both black and coloured vinyl. It deserves nothing less of course, and may even spark vinyl versions of 2010’s Car Tape 2 and Morning in the Bowl of Night.
“Every now and then your desire to do something overcomes everything else, and so you stop being nervous and you do things that you wouldn’t normally do.”
For once, Lisa Miller is right.
Car Tape on vinyl is released on October 7.
Lisa Miller plays Car Tape at Out On The Weekend, on October 8.