Solo-act Milam strikes up band
While dog sitting earlier this week for a friend in East Memphis, singer-songwriter Chris Milam decided to use the time to work on recording some ideas for his next record, only to be thwarted by his canine charge.
“It keeps trying to be part of the demo,” says Milam, bemused by the barking pup. “It keeps trying to be a background vocalist.”
Suffice to say Fido won’t be part of the lineup Thursday when Milam debuts his new band with a show at the Hi-tone Café. Instead, the singer and guitarist has recruited a trio of two-legged young musicians from the city’s alternative music scene, including guitarist Seth Hendricks and bassist Keith Pounds, both late of the band Rainy Day Manual, and Visible School graduate Corey Yoder on drums.
For Milam, who became a full-time musician in 2004, the band represents both a return and a departure. For most of his career — which includes two well-reviewed full-length albums and an EP — the Memphis native has made his living touring as a solo act. But as he began to write songs for his third album, Milam began to yearn for a bigger, fuller sound from his youth.
“All the stuff I’m writing right now for this next record just really begs for a band,” says the Houston High School graduate. “Gigging around on the road it was always easier to tour solo, just pack up and go myself, just me and the guitar. I got used to that, but I really missed playing full band. That’s kind of how I grew up, learning instruments, playing with folks in crappy middle school and high school garage bands.”
The son of educators — before moving to Arkansas his father taught English at Rhodes College and his mother at St. Mary’s Episcopal School — Milam didn’t take the idea of a music career seriously until he went away to college at Vanderbilt University. There he threw himself as much into Nashville’s music scene as his studies.
Milam “sprinted to the finish line in college so I could start playing out as much as possible and just get music going full time.” Shortly after graduating, in 2005 he released his debut album, dynamic Americana effort that betrayed the tunesmith’s literary upbringing on tracks like “Memphis Queen.”
“I would love to say that any literary bent to my songwriting is definitely
intentional,” says Milam, who traces his musical development to long, well-programmed car trips with the family. “But really, it’s probably the case that whatever is there has seeped in over the years and maybe my subconscious is trying its best keep up with the brain power in my family.”
Milam spent much of the next two years on the road. Heavily courted by Nashville publishers, he returned in 2008 with the more pop-influenced EP
The next year he retreated to his parents’ Arkansas attic for two months of intense songwriting. With producer Steve Martin, he crafted those songs into 2009’s , an intimate, virtual one-man recording that hammered home the growing number of comparisons to Paul Simon with a postmodern take on the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s “The Boy in the Bubble.”
Following , Milam made a brief relocation to New York City before returning to Memphis two years ago.
“Really, the two cities I’ve always loved are Memphis and New York,” says Milam, who spends up to a third of the year on the road away from wherever it is he calls home. “So when it came to having a cheaper home base for touring, I always knew I wanted to come home to Memphis. It’s a wonderful music town and it’s where friends and family are that I love.”
Understandably, the move is having an impact on Milam’s music. Last year, he released
a two-song EP produced by Jeff Powell at Memphis’ Ardent Studios, that bounced between his ensemble rock and insular songwriter impulses. But with plans to go in the studio in June (he’s still raising money for the project through the online funding site Pledgemusic), Milam says his first Memphis-produced full length will be a more lively affair.
“It’s a little bit of a return home to my Memphis roots. ... I’m definitely excited about just getting in a room with guys and making noise again.”