Bailey Miller is a producer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio. She released her first EP, Sensitivity, in 2018, a 4-track collection that set her gently lilting voice against ethereal yet driving electronic soundscapes. Her debut full-length, Still Water, released on Friday via Whited Sepulchre Records, is a leap of sorts: clocking in at just over an hour, the record feels like both an extension and unveiling of the core that grounds Miller’s work. It was crafted over a period of three years, during which time Miller lived in five different homes, through SSRI withdrawal and multiple career changes, joined and left an intentional community, and grappled with her own spirituality. Interweaving layers of violin, banjo, harp, and synths alongside her reverb-drenched vocals, Still Water delicately drifts between quiet surrender and deep questioning, tender intimacy and stark directness, embracing the tension, darkness, and longing that bleeds through the empty space. “Through the clouds/ An opening I didn’t see coming,” Miller sings on the striking ‘You, Softly’, “Unfurling/ A swirling/ And something growing/ Over and over again.”
We caught up with Bailey Miller for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her songwriting process, the changes that informed Still Water, spirituality, and more.
Do you mind sharing some of your earliest memories relating to music?
I think my earliest memory was, when I was a kid, I would dance around a lot with my sister. We had a few CDs and the main one we listened to is the Titanic soundtrack. [laughs] We always danced around to ‘My Heart Will Go On’, and that was my favourite song growing up. And then playing music, I took piano a little bit when I was like nine, but I didn’t really go far into that. That was my earliest playing music experience.
When did music start to serve a similar purpose for you as it does now?
I think when I started playing violin when I was 16, that was one phase of taking lessons. And then in college, I picked up harp, taking lessons on that and playing a lot of classical music, trying to get technique good. And then I think there’s a different phase that started when I was a few years after college, when I made Sensitivity, my first EP, which was kind of a bridge between, how do I make something good technically that people want to listen to that’s also interesting. And then after that, I kind of lost the ability to just be interested in technical skill, especially coming out of playing a lot of classical music. So I kind of like was like, “I’m just gonna make music that feels very core or from a more raw place.” Just being interested in whatever happens, being more experimental. I feel like it’s kind of those three phases, and now I’m in a phase of, still, with this album, this feeling of wanting to be coming from a very raw place and just letting there be mistakes, letting there be breadth and spaciousness within all of it. And then wondering what’s next, wanting to explore new genres and new kinds of approaches, because that’s always shifting.
What was it like actually putting that rawer approach into practice?
It felt like a big practice in trying to be more intimate with myself. I think it comes from a lot of spiritual practices, too, of just recognizing that, yeah, I can have a will for this body of work, I can want it to be cool and for people to like it, but that’s not where anything should start from for me. It felt like letting go of what any result could be and just feeling intense closeness with the process of writing itself. And kind of needing those songs to get me through certain periods and feeling like they taught me things that I probably couldn’t do if I was focused on just making something good. It felt like a lot of surrender, I suppose.
If you were to compare that process to how it was before, in terms of where you would often start, how would you describe it?
Yeah, I think that’s a good question because I think that’s a lot of what’s changed. I think in the first EP, I would start on my computer, in my DAW – I use Ableton – and I would find some cool synths and some cool sounds or record a loop of something and start there. So it was very much rooted in what interesting sounds can I find, how can I combine them and make layers of stuff. It was production first. And then with this album, maybe one or two songs were like that. But most of the songs came from sitting on the floor with an instrument, more like a singer-songwriter situation. Or journaling for months at a time, fragmented phrases that later would weave into something that made sense. Every song started in a different place, it seems like. One song I wrote on my autoharp, and it only has one chord that happens to work on it, and everything else is broken – starting from a constraint like that. Or I picked up banjo – learning new instruments has always kind of been a catalyst for me. But I think most of the songs when I listened back, I was surprised by some unconsciousness that would form things under the radar of my conscious brain. Whereas the first EP felt more conscious, like, “I know what I’m doing.” There’s not a whole lot of space for mystery.
I know that the songs on Still Water came together during a three-year period, which was also a period of major upheaval for you. How did the changes you went through affect not just the songs themselves, but your songwriting approach more generally?
The years of making this album were really intense transition periods for me. Towards the end of it, there was a lot of health stuff that came up for me that kind of taught me to see music in a certain way, as a very therapeutic tool that must be protected and must be not used as a means to an end, but as a practice of returning to self and love and spirituality for me. That’s definitely been confirmed in the last few years, and as I’m putting it out, it feels like I need to return to that place again, of seeing music in that way. Because I think it’s hard, as you’re trying to finish a work and trying to get the mixes right and get all the press stuff out and get people aware that it’s coming out, that’s switching into a different mode. I’m reflecting a lot on the role of music in my life right now, because it’s switched so much in the last year, for different phases and different needs. I definitely feel a conviction that music, for me, needs to be this place of refuge.
When specifically in the process of making these songs did that switch happen, when you feel like you started seeing music in a therapeutic way?
I think it was in 2018. The old EP came out, and I was kind of just like, “What the heck am I gonna do next?” I felt this pressure for a long time, like I need to compete with myself or come out with something better. And that just never was fruitful, this feeling of trying to do the same thing again or just make something cool. It just didn’t inspire. And it was also overlapping with a lot of changes in my life. Like, I was working a nine-to-five job that was really great, but I got really burnt out on it and had this huge turning point and decided to quit it and volunteer for a while and pursue different spiritual paths. I feel like around the same time, I was convicted that I need to, like, sell my belongings, I need to live simply, I need to in some way and get real about life. And what it means to, I guess, be in touch with the stillness. Because I felt like at that time, it was three years of living this pretty stable young adult life. And then I was kind of like, “I don’t think this is the dream.” Like I need to – not shake things up on purpose, but listen more and be like, “What is being asked of me?” Instead of, “What am I trying to ask of life?”
That was reflected in every part of my life during that year, and I think that with music, I also felt kind of empty, like I don’t have any ideas. But then stepping back and just listening is what kind of formed this album, because I didn’t feel capable in a way. That kind of turning stuff on its head, that’s what this album felt like – turning music in on its head along with all my life.
You’re talking about feeling empty in relation to music, but in a way that emptiness is reflected on the album in a beautiful way. It kind of sounds like you’re listening to the emptiness.
Yeah, for sure. It’s cool to hear you say that back. Just how much you can tell from the album just listening to it and not having known me as a person, it’s kind of crazy to hear.
What else do you feel like you were listening to?
I mean, emptiness is the main thing. Silence. Just trying to hear God and trying to hear myself more clearly, trying to hear others more clearly. I think a veil fell away around around that time and everything I thought that was the world kind off fell away, and I just felt like everything felt more vulnerable than I could even imagine. So I feel like I was just listening to just like the deafening silence of that. But it was also a lot of fear, intense fear; I was listening to intense suffering and emotion.
How do feel like you saw yourself having come out the other side of that?
I went through a lot of phases with that, feeling like my concept of self really changed. I was more interested in what I couldn’t know about myself, and seeing that more as myself. There’s always going to be so much that is unknowable about ourselves, and maybe that part, beyond the ego and what I think I am and what I’m for, is more central and more core. Before all of this happened, I felt like I knew who I was, and I just needed to figure out the surface of what that meant. And then I started to be like, the truest part of myself is a deeper place that I can’t always touch and know.
You described that place earlier as a place of surrender. What do you feel gives it that distinct weight, that maybe “quiet” or “stillness” doesn’t quite hold?
I don’t know, I think that’s the way that life wants to be lived for me, and what I learned during this time, of not always feeling like I need to have big plans or big awareness of what my life is going to do. But instead, I’m listening to what I don’t know about it. I think surrender just came from just going through a lot of hard shit and feeling like that was the only option, unless I wanted to really suffer and resist everything that was happening.
Was that something you brought to some of the darker, more dissonant songs towards the middle of the album, like ‘Wilt’ and ‘Then Holes’? Was that an intentional choice?
I don’t think it was intentional. There wasn’t much intention brought into things like that. I think from the beginning, it was more of an idea of, I know the textures I want there to be on this, I want it to be sparser and more weaved together. But as far as making darker and more eerie stuff, I think that’s just always what spoken to me, that’s just what I tend to do. And as far as the album sequence, it’s a mix of chronological and symbolic – most of it’s chronological, except for ones that I moved around to be an intro track or an outro track, or to reframe a narrative of looking back how I see my life. I think the tracklist is more based on the lyrics than maybe the sounds.
Looking back now, how do you see that time in your life reflected in a way that you maybe weren’t entirely aware of when you were actually making it?
Maybe it’s hard to feel that more recently because I’ve been listening back to it for so long, even before we were mixing it and mastering it. Even before that process, I did a lot of reflection. And so I feel like maybe I hit that point more maybe six months ago, of being like, “This is so interesting, how this is paralleling with certain things in my life, or how there was a thread or pattern through some of this that I didn’t see in the moment.” I know there were times maybe six months ago when I listened to the whole album and felt that kind of curiosity, but I think it was more on a song-to-song basis. Like, after I’d finished the song, I’d be like, “Oh, that’s how I felt about it” or “That’s what happened.” And I’m really interested in that sense of narrative shaping your memory and shaping your meaning of things, because things aren’t just this literal thing that happened, but also the sphere of meaning and relationships and narrative that we put over them. I think I definitely learned that through this album and giving it more space to kind of breathe and be unconscious.
Can you think of an example?
I don’t know if this is the right one, but when I wrote ‘Then Holes’, it was kind of random fragments of stuff that I was writing from a really raw place. And then I put it all together, I recorded it, and then I listened back and realized that it was this whole metaphor thing that I did not realize. And it felt almost like a dream of like, this is something that I put together and it made intuitive sense in this way. But then I realized, like, “Oh, this is a whole metaphor that my brain made. This is so helpful, thank you.” [laughs]
And it makes me think a lot about, like, what is it to be a human being? There’s more to it than just our logic and our conscious brain; there’s so much mystery and other senses to put to use than the striving that we feel like we have to have in art to make something compelling. If we kind of like step back from that, it will be compelling just by way of tuning in, I think.
What are you tuning into at the moment? What’s inspiring you?
I definitely feel a yearning right now to get back into visual art. But musically, I have a group of acoustic songs that I think would be fun to put out, playing with tape recording textures. That’s one body of work that I think I want to work on. And then I have another possible album one day that I’ve been working on that’s kind of based around, like, the idea of the body and what it means. Some of it is heavier, and I really think I’d love to make heavy music in some way. I just got to a Rat distortion pedal, so we’ll see what happens. But I think I want every project to be a different world. Maybe I’ll make a country album, I don’t know. I just want to go crazy and see what happens. But next I think is this acoustic stuff and heavy stuff.
That sounds exciting – I love the combination of acoustic and heavier textures on a song like ‘Then Holes’. You mentioned spirituality before, so I’m wondering in that realm, too, what you feel like you’re trying to get more in touch with.
It’s kind of funny, because I think another spiral that I’m experiencing is probably just trying to integrate some of the really tender convictions I had at the beginning of the album. It was very easy for me at that point to be like, “I don’t know, I’ll move, I’ll sell everything, I just want to be spiritually aligned.” But I think that wasn’t sustainable for a long time, to not think, too, about maybe how to integrate that with longevity. Maybe not so much that – it’s probably more just that I got disappointed by certain things in my life and felt like, “Oh, this isn’t as simple as just, like, surrendering and then everything works out great.” And I got really disappointed and kind of lazy with a lot of things during COVID, I think it was just supreme confusion for a while. So I think right now I’m just trying to not return directly to the spiritual place I was at the beginning of the album, but to remember a lot of that, and to remember the practices that grounded that time in my life – just return to a lot of silence and spaciousness.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.