Deer Scout is the project of singer-songwriter Dena Miller, who is originally from Yonkers, New York and grew up in a family of folk musicians. She first started recording songs under the moniker during her freshman year of college in Philadelphia, releasing the customs EP – which featured her father, Mark Miller, on bass – in 2016. After transferring to Ohio’s Oberlin College, Miller began touring in DIY venues across the US, sharing stages with artists including Waxahatchee and Told Slant. Her first full-length and Carpark Records debut, Woodpecker, released on Friday, was recorded and mixed primarily by Heather Jones in Philly, with bassist Ko Takasugi-Czernowin (who also featured on 2019’s tour stop at all nite diner), cellist Zuzia Weyman, and drummer Madel Rafter, while her father plays guitar on ‘Peace With the Damage’, a cover of a song by his band, Spuyten Duyvil.
Miller’s vocals on ‘Peace With the Damage’ were recorded four years apart, making it feel like a dialogue with her younger self; although she considers the song as somewhat of an outlier on the record, much of Woodpecker feels like a conversation – between musicians, between Miller and the listener, between past and present – that’s both intimate and dreamlike, almost elusive. It’s a captivating album that invites you to make your own connections as Miller sorts through a collage of memories and influences, grappling with fear and confusion even as the music creates a space of comfort and empathy. “I can’t shake a feeling I don’t know the name of,” she sings on opener ‘Cup’, but it still finds a way to ring through.
We caught up with Deer Scout’s Dena Miller for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about growing up in a musical household, her songwriting journey, the making of Woodpecker, and more.
How do you feel about the response to the singles so far?
Something that’s really cool – so, my dad is a songwriter too. My parents were in a band together when I was growing up called Spuyten Duyvil. They don’t do it anymore, they started pretty late in life for musicians. I want to say they started being in a band in their 40s, I think they did it for like 10 years. So while I was a kid to a teenager, they were doing that. My dad was a songwriter, my mom was a singer, there were like seven other people in their band. But my dad’s songs are just so good. He’s just a really wonderful songwriter and never really got a ton of recognition for it. In his life, he’s done music in other ways; he composed soundtracks for video games, and that was his job that he had a little bit more of a career in and got some notoriety in. But I don’t feel like he ever really got recognized as a songwriter, partially because starting a band in your 40s puts you at a real disadvantage, because it’s like music is for young people in a way that’s sort of sad. But so many of his songs have inspired me and affect the way I write songs.
So, the single that just came out [‘Peace With the Damage’] is a cover of a song that he wrote. And I didn’t even think it was going to be on my album because we recorded it as a cover – I was just at my parents’ house and we were like, “Let’s see what it would be like if I was singing the song.” They had already released it on their album. I don’t think it was a single on their album, but it’s a really cool song. We did the cover, that was years and years before I was making my album. Then I was making my album and we ended up cutting a song of mine, and I was like, “Well, should we record something else?” Because then it felt too short. We still had the files on the computer, it was literally just him playing the guitar and me singing. And I was like, “This doesn’t feel totally recent enough to me. I sound like a kid.” But I really wanted to use it, and so I just recorded another vocal on top of the vocal that was already there. It’s the simplest song on the album. I don’t even play any instruments on it.
And Carpark was like, “Let’s release this as a single.” And I was really surprised because it’s an outlier to me. But I was so excited because it’s my dad’s song and a song that I was hoping we’d get some publicity for him. And it got on NPR, which is crazy. I got to send in a little soundbite to All Songs Considered and have Bob Boilen, who I’m a huge fan of, briefly talk about it on the radio. And it made my dad really happy. I was crying, he was crying. It’s a small thing, right? It’s just like two minutes of sound bite, but for me and for him – especially because he doesn’t do music as actively anymore, I really just was so happy that it got some recognition. Because I’m really proud of it, but I also just sing it. The thing that I think is compelling about the song is the lyrics, and those are his.
It’s the kind of song that you listen to for the first time and it feels instantly familiar.
Someone once described to me the whole genre of pop music that way. They’re like, what makes a song pop music is when a song is something that you haven’t heard before, but you think you’ve heard it before? Because it’s a little more accessible and familiar, but also hopefully plays with those tropes. It’s almost like a trick when a song like gets in your head in a way where you’re immediately open to it. Pop music is music where you get attached immediately because of that familiarity. And it’s not a pop song by any means, but my father as a songwriter has an ear for that kind of thing. That’s how I feel about it, too. It’s a song where I’m like, I feel like this is a Fleetwood Mac song or a hit from some prior decade and I’ve heard it, but it isn’t. It’s just a song that came out of his brain, which is so cool. I don’t really write songs like that, and it’s something I’m inspired by in him.
When I talk to an artist who was raised in a musical family, usually I will be the one to bring up that fact. But I can really see your excitement when you talk about your parents. Could you tell me more about how they were an inspiration to you growing up?
Yeah. I think that they were in a band for themselves, but I actually think that a lot of it was them realizing that it was something they always wanted to do. They’d they’d been in bands in college – they went to college together, but they weren’t in a band together in college. But they had both done music in different ways throughout their lives and in their jobs. My dad was doing video games, my mom was doing voiceover ,which is not quite music but sort of related. They got lucky – the other thing is they were financially able to take a huge risk and take a break from their day jobs and do music for a while, which is just a huge privilege and something I think is worth always acknowledging, especially with conversations about the music industry. But they were able to focus on it for a decade. And I think they were doing it for themselves, but I also, in a way, feel like they were doing it for me. They were like, music is so important to us, it’s been such a formative thing in our lives, we want our child to experience it around the house. And instead of I think what might have been a more simple and conventional approach, which is having your child take piano lessons, they were like, we’re gonna be in a band, we’re gonna do this even though we’re middle-aged at this point.
And they started playing folk festivals, they started touring regionally, so they were essentially doing it DIY. They maybe had a booking agent very briefly, but they never had a label or an agent. And they definitely were pretty serious about it, their community also turned into kind of a music community, like friends of theirs that would be around the house when I was growing up with were other musicians. I got to know the children of the other members of their band pretty well, I was friends with them. So I was being exposed to a lot of people who are musicians not entirely full-time, but where being a musician was either part of their job or a big part of their life.
And I always thought it was really cool. What’s actually really funny is that when I was a teenager, there were a couple years where I was just in the mindset that every teenager is in, which is like, I’m going to do the opposite of what my parents are doing. So my perspective was like, that’s not a life that I want for myself, because deciding to do music as a career is a big decision. And when I was a teenager I was really like, I’m going to college, I’m studying law – from high school to college, I thought I was going to be a lawyer, which is really funny to me, since that’s not what I’m doing with my life. But I kind of pushed away from it for a while. I didn’t start writing songs until college, and it felt like something that was their thing and not necessarily my thing. I definitely didn’t start thinking of myself as a musician until I was like 19 or 20. I’m 24 now. My parents had a basement studio in the house, so I had recorded some demos probably when I was 18, but it didn’t really feel like a big part of my life until I was like maybe 19 and thinking about who my people in the world are and what I wanted to be spending time doing.
Now, I look back on it and I’m like, God, my parents were so cool. That was the coolest thing ever, to get to grow up around that and to get to see that you can just drop whatever you’re doing and pursue your dreams at whatever age, after you have a kid, while you’re putting the kid through college. I think the fact that they did that at this point in my life is very inspiring to me. And I also still look back on the body of work that they put out, and some of it is so special to me.
When you were sort of rebelling against music as a lifestyle early on, in your mind was it still something you were passionate about?
Yeah, I have always been passionate about music. The things that I care about in the world, like the bands that I love, I love so much. It’s clearly a way that I experienced the world and an undercurrent of my life, whether I want it to be or not. Being a musician as an identity and as a career, which it still isn’t really a career for me – it’s something that I spend a lot of my life doing but don’t really make most of my money from. I think the career aspect of it, I’ve always felt really conflicted about because I think I’m just someone who doesn’t like to be the face of things. I’m much more comfortable not being the face of things. And so even though I love making music and rehearsing with my band and playing it, it’s scary for me to do things in a way that’s public. I like to perform, but not as much as I actually like making the thing. So I still kind of don’t know how I feel about that aspect of it.
I’m in a place where I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to do this as a job, but it has gotten a lot more important to me. It’s just so weird to think of it as a job or as an identity. But I was literally doing my budgeting for tour before this, and I was like, so much of my time and money and energy is going into music at this point in my life. Like, I might as well start thinking of myself as a musician. [laughs] I don’t know, I’m really hesitant to be like, “This is who I am, this is what I’m pursuing.” I just want to be able to do it in a way that feels good.
When did you start immersing yourself more in the DIY community, and how did that shape your approach to songwriting?
That’s a really interesting question, because I feel like the music that I write is very influenced by contemporary bands in the DIY scene. It’s such a regional thing, because I went to school in Philadelphia for a year and that’s the first place I started playing shows and I had my first band there. And I feel like there’s a specific sound to the music scene that exists in Philly. The bands are all kind of influenced by each other and they’ve come up in the same scene. I started making music in Philly, that’s when I started writing songs. I was going to shows and seeing bands who are all probably influencing each other, and I still think that that’s a big influence for me. It’s hard to exactly pinpoint what the sound is, but I often feel like I hear Philly bands and it sort of sounds like something familiar to me, that I feel like I’m also doing somehow.
When did you realize you were ready to make your debut album?
I definitely didn’t start writing songs thinking I was making an album. Because I never really sit down to write a song – I’m not a prolific songwriter, I write a song every bunch of months, and sometimes then I scrap it. The first songs that are on this album were probably written in 2017, but it’s not like I was spending six years, like, in the writer’s room. But at some point I had more songs that I was like, I feel good enough about all of these that maybe one day they’d be on an album.
I think right before the pandemic, I was like, it’s time for me to start making an album. I had a friend [Heather Jones] who is a recording engineer and mixing engineer, and she’s really good at it. Our bands had played some shows together, she’s also from Philly and part of that world. And I gave her a call and I was like, “Hey, I think I’m gonna start recording an album. Can I record it with you?” And I was living in New York at that point, so it’s a little silly because Philly and New York are not that close, but I was like, I really want to do this with a friend. I don’t want to go into a studio and record with some strangers and have people tell me to do things a certain way. I wanted to have a level of skill that I know that she has and also a level of trust and respect that I could just go in and record stuff as I play it.
I was playing at that point as a duo with a bassist and just guitar, and the album had some drums on it, but I wanted to just capture what we were doing initially. I wanted it to be realistic to how it sounded live as a set that was just the two of us. And I wanted to do it with a friend. And so I called her and I was like, “Hey, I want to do this with you. I want to do it with you in a legit way, we’ll pay for studio time and we’ll use your studio and record it as a real project, but if it doesn’t work out or if it doesn’t really sound like an album, that’s okay. We’re just gonna go see if this is an album.”
And then the pandemic happened. [laughs] And me and my bassist were living in different places, and I had started playing with other people but we had never all played together. Ko [Takasugi-Czernowin], the bassist, at that point was still at college at Oberlin in Ohio and then moved to Vermont, and I was in New York playing with a cellist, Zuzia Weyman, who’s also on the album. And the recording became spread out over the first whole year of 2020, it’s so hard to record an album that year that it took a really long time. And also, it wasn’t what I had wanted it to be, which was just me going into the studio with the people I played with and just playing things live as we play them. It was really bit by bit, one day we can get the cello part, one day we can get the harmonies. I ended up doing a lot more of it at home with my dad, which was really lucky because we recorded overdubs, things like harmonies together. But the bulk of recording was done in Philly with Heather. Some of my favourite sounds on the album were things that we recorded in her room with not very fancy gear and there’s like ice cream truck noise in the background.
Some of the songs on the album revolve around childhood and childhood memories. I was wondering if you were feeling nostalgic while you were recording it.
That’s definitely true, they’re a lot about childhood and a lot about growing up. But I think recording them – honestly, the memory that I have of recording them is just getting to spend time with friends in a way that wasn’t possible for so much of that year. I just remember feeling so grateful for the commitment from everyone. Just the chance to see those people and work on something with them during that year felt so special. And probably a big motivating factor for recording for me was just, this project is one of these nice little things in my life where I get to see my friends. And that’s become this rare, harder thing these days.
And same thing with my parents. Spending time with my family, I was also quarantining for that and being really careful and budgeting time for that, and then to be at my parents’ house and doing harmonies was just a really nice time that I spent with them during that year. Being at your parents’ house always makes you feel like a kid, but the songs are so old that it’s like, I’m not even thinking about the meaning by the time I’m recording them. I’m almost trying to come up with new meanings so that I can get myself to deliver them in a way that feels alive.
You write a song about something a long time ago, and at that point it feels significant, and when you sing it, maybe you’re connecting to that, but then by the time it’s time to record it – I actually remember something really funny, which was that my mom came with me to record vocals, and because she was a voiceover coach for a part of her life, she’s really good at things delivery. And so she came up with a really good strategy, which was, she would give me a different way of thinking of the lyric. One of my favourite things that she did is, we were recording ‘Cowboy’, she was like, “Try to imagine that you’re talking to a child while you sing this.” And that’s not the intention or the meaning behind the song for me, but I guess she had that thought about it because it sounds like maybe a story you’d be telling a kid. And it helped me so much, because then when I was singing it I was connecting to it in a different way. And those takes were the ones that we ended up using because they were the takes where I was the most present.
I love that. I’d never considered that approach.
Me neither. I forgot about that. [laughs] Good job, Mom.
On the song ‘Synesthesia’, you capture this indescribable feeling of being completely captivated by something, which is maybe related to music. Why did synesthesia as a condition feel like an apt metaphor for that? Is it something you’ve experienced yourself?
It’s so cool that that comes across to you. It is a song about a feeling of awe, I feel like. Maybe that’s not even the right word, but like an indescribable feeling. And synesthesia is not a condition I have at all – my girlfriend has it, which is really interesting, because I’m learning more what it actually is because of that. I don’t think when I was writing it I necessarily knew what it was. But the associations that you make without realizing that you’re making them – what sometimes happens to me is, it’s something sort of like déjà vu, where something is happening to me and it feels like a pop song, familiar even though it’s not. And it feels connected to another experience or place or memory, but in kind of an intangible way. It’s a little bit like magic – there are just times in life that feel like they’re cut from the same cloth as other times in life, but there isn’t always like a tangible connection between those things. I don’t really know how to describe this well, but it feels like synesthesia or felt like what I imagined synesthesia would feel like. But instead of concrete things like colours and numbers, it would be more like emotions or memories.
Maybe this is getting too abstract, but something that came to mind as you were talking about these associations is dreams, which is something that runs through the songs as well. Do you feel like dreams are a significant space for you and your songwriting?
I think I’m a very logic-brained person, I like to compartmentalize things and I love structure. I love things to kind of make sense. And I think that sometimes prevents me from having a bigger picture or prevents me from accessing the dimension of the world. And dreams, and that space of the subconscious where your mind isn’t imposing so much logic onto everything and there’s more associative connections that happen, feels like an important space for me to see things more fully. And maybe that’s really vague, but maybe a more straightforward way to put it is, I do think that dreams mean a lot and for me particularly. I learn a lot from the dreams that I have. I have these places that exist in dream world, and there’s something very familiar – I’m always kind of happy when I have a dream about one of the places because it feels like my subconscious brain understands what’s going on in my life and is connecting it to other times in my life and it’s kind of like: This is just part of the flow of the world. This is stressful, but it’s stressful in a way that has happened before and will happen again. I think the subconscious way of expressing that is just more fun and more silly and interesting. And I think that makes it into a lot of the songs.
It’s hard to tell sometimes if songwriting is more in the subconscious or the conscious realm of things. I was thinking about this in relation to the song ‘Kat and Nina’, which I feel is about how being vulnerable can make us create a narrative around certain behaviors, like, “If I’m bad I’m just a kid, If I’m quiet I’m playing dead.” Does writing a song make you feel vulnerable in that way, as if you’re constructing a story around something?
Yeah, what’s really vulnerable about it is that it’s like a dream in the sense that you write something and you don’t know what it means. It’s like your brain is just spitting stuff out at you. I’m not even connecting it to things. I had this experience a month ago, I had my old bandmate Ko, they were visiting from LA, which is now where they live. I was showing them this new song, and I was kind of just like, “Yeah, the song is really nonsense. I need to figure out better lyrics for this part because it doesn’t make sense. It feels really disjointed.” And they listened to it and nailed it. They were like, “Oh, isn’t this about…?” And I was like, “God, it is, but I hadn’t even realized that.” That kind of thing feels really vulnerable because I think when I’m writing songs, I’m not consciously trying to tell a story or trying to say something. I’m really just doing a thing that feels more like dreaming.
How do you feel about people listening to Woodpecker and not realizing ‘Peace With the Damage’ is a cover?
I mean, in a way that’s less vulnerable than thinking about people listening to the album and really listening to the lyrics and knowing things that feel personal. That’s something I’m much more scared of. Obviously, anywhere that that song is public I want to give credit because it’s important, even though my dad’s not actively trying to do music anymore. I just want him to get the recognition for it. And if it were to blow up, I would want it to blow up with his name on it. I wouldn’t want it to blow up as if it were my song. Once you put music out in the world, people are going to see things about it and post it in ways that you don’t have control over, so it’s a situation that would be a bummer for me.
It is a really dark song, the lyrics are kind of sad and depressing. And I guess maybe someone could listen to it and be like, “Wow, this is really mature, upsetting content for you.” My songs are less bold in how they say things, and that song, he didn’t write it from the “I” perspective. I think he wrote it about an amalgamation of people that were close to him, but kind of combining them all as a character. And his songwriting style is a lot more straightforward, it feels a lot more like someone is telling you something about themselves. Hopefully it’s clear enough that it’s not first person, but I mean, in the abstract sense, I’m a person who’s very prone to guilt and regret. It’s not literally about me, but it’s certainly something I relate to and identify with. And yeah, that wouldn’t be the worst thing. And certainly wouldn’t be as bad as the fear that I do have that is just, people will listen to the songs that I did write that are about me [laughs] and know, and be like, “Oh, that’s what’s going on inside your subconscious brain.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.