She’s Shayne Carter’s Mum. She used to be a professional singer, before she got in the family way. She’s had a hard life. Her debut album, of songs made famous by Elvis Presley, and featuring her famous son and an alt-superstar supporting cast, was released late 2010. It rocks. Gary Steel interviewed her on the eve of its release, and now publishes the full transcript for the first time. * The Erica Miller Experience – Reconsidered is available through Universal.
Witchdoctor – One of the questions people will be asking is ‘why now?’ Why have you decided to do this now? Right time right place?
Miller –I guess I was a little bit like frustrated musician, and I’ve got a huge tragic dramatic life story of course (laughs). I guess it was when my late former husband Jimmy T. Carter died, and I’d known him since I was 16 years old, and him and I used to do music together many-many years ago. He was really my family, he was everything to me. And when he died we had a benefit concert, and I sang ‘Loveletters’ at his benefit concert. A lot of local Dunedin musicians volunteered and Shayne played and Gary Sullivan backed me and then I was unveiling the headstone and sang another song from Elvis. It was just something… I had been thinking over the last few years I’d like to do an album, then I just put it on the backburner and thought okay, this isn’t going to happen, I’m an old tart. I did mention it about five years before Jimmy died, and it just got tossed around and sat there and meanwhile life went on. I came back to it after Jimmy’s passing… it was something I had to do, it was stuff inside me, it was there. I just needed to do it, that’s the best way I can explain it. I’ve had a lot of hurt throughout my life, a lot of rejection, foster homes, separation from siblings, a lot of losses, and music I guess… it was more for me, you know what I mean? I certainly didn’t expect fame and fortune or anything like that, it was an unfinished business that I need to do. It was an expression of what was within, it was an outlet.
Witchdoctor – And in choosing songs that Elvis has performed, obviously the beginnings of that was what you just said, performing ‘Loveletters’. How did you come up with the idea of doing a whole album of songs that Elvis has sung?
Miller – I’m not a huge music buff, but over the years there was so much of Elvis that I loved, from gospel to his ballads, and I always thought he sang with such expression, no matter how long he was doing it for. Even his last concert in the state he was, that sincerity was still coming forth, and it was the way he delivered it that really touched me, and it was stuff I could really relate to. And when I got to the point where I thought it might happen, I thought well… I believed it was music that a lot of people can actually relate to. I know a lot of the younger people haven’t even heard of Elvis, but deep down in their subconscious they’ve probably heard something, somewhere along the line. And I felt comfortable singing along with his stuff. It touched me, it moved me, and was an expression that I could really relate to.
Witchdoctor – And you’ve chosen songs that you particularly like? I notice you’ve avoided a lot of the big hits.
Miller – I did have concerns. As you know a lot of musicians won’t touch a cover, and I certainly didn’t want to emulate Elvis, but I felt quite safe about that in regards to I’m female (laughs), so I’m not a guy standing trying to sound like Elvis, and I didn’t want to sound like karaoke, and I tried to do more of his obscure stuff. I felt it would be a bit mine. And I fought very long and hard in regard to ‘Loveletters’ about doing that, because that was one of his very well known hits. I thought that might sound cheesy or something, but upon discussion I worked out the format, a simple acoustic in the background. We talked about it and did chop it down quite a lot, so it didn’t go on and on and on. It was a sort of statement and a lovely wrap up at the end of the album, I felt. And it’s quite understated, sung very low, very quiet. And people either love it or hate it. I hadn’t even heard ‘Long Black Limousine’, and it was Shayne that sent it down to me. And I thought ‘oh, I could never do that’. What frightened me about that song was that it could either sound – as I said to Shayne – absolutely marvelous or bloody awful. I can remember when we were recording it and saying to Dale [Cotton, producer/engineer] I want these sort of funeral type bells and get that mood of the funeral procession coming through. I was absolutely stoked how it turned out. That was the one I had the biggest concern about doing, because I thought it’s either going to sound great or sound pathetic. It’s quite a challenging sort of song to do, because it could drone on and on and on. The harmony and the bv’s really bring it up. It surpassed what I thought it would sound like. It was a challenge to do, even vocally it was a challenge to do. I think I did make a conscious decision not to get the big, well known hits.
Witchdoctor – You were saying before that you were conscious of not making a karaoke record and some people look down at that, but when you think about it, back in Elvis’s day, nobody was writing their own songs, everybody was covering other people’s songs.
Miller – Exactly, you’re quite right. Look at Frank Sinatra.
Witchdoctor – It’s about interpretation, isn’t it? About putting yourself into the song.
Miller – Yeah, I don’t sing the songs like Elvis anyway, I put my own interpretation, my own style into it I believe. Surprising enough Gary, that was easy to do, I didn’t have any difficulty with the vocals, it was very comfortable, and very at times emotional to be doing that, because as I said, it was touching things inside me. A lot of anguish and a lot of hurt, and it just became, it was like a tonic really. It was pretty cool.
Witchdoctor – I read that you were singing a lot in your younger days. You were professional or semi-professional for a while in your early 20s.
Miller – Yes.
Witchdoctor – In the last 10 or 15 years, did you keep up any singing at all? You sound like you’ve sung all your life, put it that way.
Miller – Well I was quite surprised about that. No, I have not sung, for a lot of reasons. Bands down here are not interested in old tarts getting up and singing, and the Dunedin scene is very cliquey. It was a bit like putting it on the backburner; it was always there inside, once a musician always a musician, it’s always there, it’s like an artist, if you paint pictures… you have that within you, even if you’re not doing it. Yes, I did, I was a vocalist at quite an upmarket restaurant for about two or three years, La Scala, they used to have cabaret and dine and dances, and I used to do a variety, middle of the road stuff. My first gig was a place called Sunset Strip in Rattray St owned by Eddie Chin, and it was a very upmarket place for all the young mods and rockers and all that. I went along and got the job, absolutely loved it, I can remember taking Shayne along in a pram and going to rehearsals and stuff like that. And it was the in place, and I used to do a lot of Sandy Shore stuff, I loved Sandy Shore. My next stint was with a jazz band, and there were a couple of saxes, clarinets, piano, string bass, drums, and they were really great, and of course they sang all the old jazz standards, and I’d never really sung jazz, and they gave me this lyric sheet. And they were ‘wow, you’ve got a natural laid-back voice’. And I had no idea what they were talking about. They rang up and said ‘you’ve got the job’, and I said ‘aww, I don’t know if I really want that because it’s old-fashioned stuff.’ I always remember that, how dumb I was. I was pretty green. I worked for them for about three years, and they went to Australia, and for family commitments I wasn’t able to go. I used to sing a lot in the pubs down here, I had a stint for about three years in a place called the European, used to do Wednesdays and Saturdays. I did love it, and I used to do things like go to Alexandra or Queenstown and stay in the holiday camps and do gigs in the pubs. But getting back to what you were saying about sounding like I’d always been singing… It quite surprised me too. I was quite concerned that my voice would hold up, but it just sort of all came back. I always found it quite easy when I was singing with bands, because quite often I would have to go onstage and sing with very little practice. I never had a great deal of trouble doing that.
Witchdoctor – So you’re not one of these people who sings in the shower every day?
Miller – No! No I don’t actually. It was like it’s been tucked away in there for years and I just brought it out. That’s what it felt like. I suppose it’s after years of not doing what I should have been doing.
Witchdoctor – What was it like working with your son?
Miller – Aw, I tell you what, it was great, it was an absolutely fantastic experience. Originally I didn’t even know that Shayne was going to produce the vocals, and when we were doing the backing stuff down here, I was going up to Auckland for the Straitjacket Fits’ inauguration into the hall of fame, and Shayne suddenly stood up one day and said to Dale, he said ma’s coming up to Auckland and I’d really like to record and produce the vocals, and the reason I felt so good about that was number one I highly respect Shayne’s artistic ability, I’ve got great respect for that, and I really trusted him with me, I knew he knew where I was coming from, and that was a huge, huge bonus. It was absolutely brilliant, and HE was brilliant, some of the different advice and things, and it was just all so helpful, it wasn’t raving and ranting and carrying on, it was just ‘try this’. He was great, he could have a career as a producer. I remember the first one we did, because I had my younger son Chris there, because he was filming clips. Shayne played the rough copy back full tilt and just about blew us out of the house, and we just sat there looking at each other and got teary eyed, because it sounded so damn good. And later on I said to Shayne well what do you think, and he said ma, I thought you’d be good, but that exceeded my expectations, so that was a great boost to my confidence, in continuing and recording the rest. So we had some laughs, and some tears. It was great. And with Hannah, who did the bv’s, I love the way the bv’s are done, I just think they make the songs, they bring the songs together. I was blown away, because he did those with Hannah after I’d come back here, and when I heard them I got teary eyed again. It was a real special, special time, something I never thought would happen, and I felt very – it sounds corny – but I felt very honoured and very wrapped that Shayne had faith in me, even like what he’s written on MySpace and everything. He’s got a high profile, and he’s putting himself up there, this is my Ma.
Witchdoctor – It’s great, because most kids feel embarrassed about their parents.
Miller – Quite right Gary, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Out of the whole experience the fact that Shayne had faith in me and liked what I did, means more than anything, even if the damn thing falls flat on its face. And it is a reality, you know what people are like, they like a bit of cutting people down and everything, and I think he has put his reputation up there, this is my mum and this record’s great, you know? He’s saying that, and like you said, a lot of kids, when they’re teenagers, they don’t want to walk down the street with their mother kind of thing. You haven’t got that by yourself, all kids are like that. So that to me is huge, absolutely huge, because I don’t think a lot of people would do that, and he’s done everything he can. But he’s got every confidence in me as well, which in turn has made me believe in me. It bolstered me. He asked me one day do you feel nervous about releasing the album, and I said yes, of course you do, like everybody you’ve got nervous anticipation, but in a strange way I’m quietly confident. I don’t feel it’s an in your face record, I’m not trying to be rock’n’roll around the stage with fishnet tights on, so people will either like it or not, but I think it will appeal to a wide spectrum of people, because of the style. I just feel good about what we did, that’s the big thing.
Witchdoctor – When it comes out are you planning to do a tour, or play some live dates?
Miller – I would absolutely love to. It’s been tossed around and Shayne’s made the comment to me, but to me, the live shows would be the icing on the cake, because I love the stage. To me, that would be absolutely amazing. I feed off the people, like most artists do, you feed off the crowd, you know. I’ve never had rotten tomatoes thrown at me. I’d love to do something like that, so I hope that eventuates.
Witchdoctor – So it’s a possibility, but nothing’s worked out yet.
Miller – No.
Witchdoctor – And you’d want some of the same people on board.
Miller – I certainly would. But it’s who’s available.
Witchdoctor – Was it Dale that helped put the musicians together for the record?
Miller – It was. I’m eternally grateful to Dale. I told him what I wanted, and he said about the pianist, and he came up with Ayden, and Marcel from Mother Goose, he’s the drummer, and of course Tom Healy from Auckland, just the amazing talent of these young guys. And Tom put so much effort, he played bass, guitar, harmonica, slide guitar, he was the bandleader type, and then we pulled in this young guy to come and do the sax, and he was amazing as well. I remember we did ‘Reconsider’, it’s got a big sax solo in it, and I said I want you to make this sax solo yours, and he did and it’s great. And he’s only very young as well. It was thanks to Dale, he got hold of these people, and they all said yep, and we did it all in about six days I think, and when I was up in Auckland, it was over a three day period that Shayne and I did the vocals. When you think about it, it’s pretty quick. I said to Dale I don’t want all the bells and whistles, I don’t want any special effects, apart from the normal things you do to make it sound good. I wanted the basic simplicity of the old solid sound, and I think it’s got that, I think it makes it sound out a little bit.
Witchdoctor – Have you done a video?
Miller – No. The one I have done is with Chris for the press release, and he’s interviewed me, and he’s done a very good job of it, put snippets of the various members of the recording doing different things.
Witchdoctor – Are you going to release it on vinyl as well as CD?
Miller – I don’t know Gary. I honestly don’t know. Do they still release stuff on vinyl?
Witchdoctor – Yes, it’s making a bit of a comeback at the moment.
Miller – Is it honestly? Please excuse my ignorance, I didn’t know about that.
Witchdoctor – I imagined you putting your Elvis records on the turntable.
Miller – I haven’t actually got one (laughs). I haven’t got a turntable. But you know it’ll be interesting to see how it goes. I have been interested at the interest shown, you know before any press release has actually gone out. But like I said to you it’s a media dream in a sense, it’s only my opinion… who Shayne is and I happen to be his mother. And I feel also that the style of the record is something that hasn’t been done here before, so that puts us apart as well. You haven’t got a photo I suppose.
Witchdoctor – Yeah, I believe it’s taken by Rebekah [Davies]?
Miller – Yes, she’s a very clever lady. I loved the way she brushed them and made me look about a decade younger. [laughs] I said, oh, should we be doing that? And she said yeah, everybody does that. She did a great job, and that was actually taken in the old Mayfair Playhouse down in Dunedin. It was Rebekah’s idea and it’s got the lovely red curtain drop at the back. We had a lot of fun doing that. She’s a very talented lady, and a lovely lady. So I’ve been very lucky having all these talented people at my disposal, which has certainly made it a lot easier than it would have been for a lot of people.
Witchdoctor – But you don’t get that if there isn’t the talent to begin with.
Miller – That’s true. I wasn’t undermining myself, I am very aware that – you know yourself, the cost involved in doing something like this, and when you’ve got family members that are coming forth and putting in their bit. Like the cover design and artwork is being done by my nephew Jerry, and he’s a talented graphic artist, so it’s great to have the whanau involved, that’s important to me as well, and in my own little humble way I feel it’s my legacy to my kids. When I’m gone they can go good old ma did this, you know? And not all kids have that, so I feel good about that as well. So it’s very exciting now the ball’s rolling, it’s been sitting on the burner for a while and it’s all starting. I find it a wee bit mind-boggling, it’s all really starting to come together now. It’ll be good to sit back and see what happens, and wait nervously for the reviews. As long as I don’t open up a paper and it says that record is bloody awful! It’s a wee bit like you’ve written a novel, you’re handing over your baby, you immediately become vulnerable to all these opinions. I’m pretty broad shouldered, I would not take that personally. As far as I’m concerned I’m happy with it, I like it, and I feel good about what we did. And everybody does have their opinions.
Witchdoctor – I keep on saying to Shayne ‘one of these days I’m going to give one of your albums a bad review; are we still going to be mates’?
Miller – Yeah, it’s an awful position to be in. To me, it sounds like a cliché, but you have to believe in what you’re doing, and if it’s real to you, and you’re singing from your heart, you’ve done the best you can and that’s what you’ve got, what you’ve put out there, and if it goes well that’s great, if it doesn’t… you know what the music game’s like, very fickle.
Witchdoctor – But whatever happens at the end of the day you’ve got your record which exists in time and that’s all that matters.
Miller – It has been quite uplifting, the various people that have heard it on MySpace and commented, it’s pretty reassuring. The thing that helps me along is that people in music, talented musicians, like what they’ve heard, and that’s a great compliment. It’s reassuring, but we’ll see what happens, you never know, I might be driving around in a big Porsche next year. I used to always say to Shayne, when he started in Bored Games, I used to say when you get rich and famous you can buy your Ma an MG, and then as he got older I said actually, I don’t want an MG, I want a Porsche. I’m still waiting! You never know, maybe I’ll buy him one!
* The Erica Miller Experience – Reconsidered is available through Universal.