[INTERVIEW] Miles Calder

New Zealand has given us Streets of Laredo, Lorde, Broods, and now, Miles Calder & The Rumours. The band released their debut EP, The Crossing Over, just last year and is currently finishing production on their first full-length album due out sometime in 2015. Having recently moved to New York City, the folk singer/songwriter, who often draws influence from the Americana music scene, has been finding himself inspired by the historic yet excitingly new city streets.

Wellington wailer Miles Calder left the engineering world, where he was an environmental scientist, to pursue a career in music and his passion for songwriting. With honorable mentions for ‘The Avenue’ in the International Songwriting Competition and for ‘The Crossing Over’ in The John Lennon Songwriting Contest, the decision to change career paths seems pretty obvious. The combination of Miles’ truthful lyrics and raw talent is an undeniable force that will soon be heard sailing from one island to another.

After a chance encounter with Miles in between L trains at the Union Square station, presumably due to fate, Joonbug.com sat down with him in a cold and rainy coffee shop backyard in Williamsburg to discuss the band’s first album, living in New York City for the first time, and protecting a woman with his guitar in the subway.

You’re currently living in New York to finish production on the band’s first album – have you found that being in a foreign place has inspired you more in your songwriting, or maybe given you a bit of writer’s block?

Well it’s a bit of both in a way. Not writer’s block, but it’s almost too inspiring. At the base you’ve got the fact that suddenly all these songs that I’ve heard in my life just slot in and make sense. The sort of music that I’ve always been drawn to is full of references to New York streets. Also, it’s just such an interesting city, with so much character and stuff happening all the time. There’s a lot of different aspects of humanity here, so I find that sort of endlessly inspiring, and kind of overwhelming. So my writing has been completely scattered: lots of different ideas, and really eclectic stuff rather than really focused narrow writing, so that’s been kind of a funny change. I’m trying to reign it all in and get a studio space and focus. It’s also really inspiring just listening to the different bands and sounds that are around here. In terms of how we’re recording our album at the moment, we’ll soon be looking at mixing and production a bit more, so it’s interesting to have all this new inspiration.

What would you say is the greatest difference when songwriting and creating music in New York and New Zealand?

It’s really different. I suppose it’s all based on the fact that it’s just a way bigger monster here, so there’s more people and there are more bands. The level of talent over here is so high.

But there’s also a lot of talent coming out of New Zealand as well.

There is a lot of talent coming out of New Zealand, it’s really positive. There’s been guys who have been going for ages like The Phoenix Foundation and they’re just constantly killing it. So it’s not definitely better, but it’s just a really energetic, thriving scene here. Also here you can always find people who are going to be into your stuff. The market is way bigger. It’s kind of scary, but you just have to embrace it and find your spot. I think it’s really eclectic, but there is a little niche you can find, and that’s really fun. It’s been cool because I’ve met up with some other New Zealanders and locals in the scene here, like the guys from Streets of Laredo and Bird Courage who are based in Brooklyn and making waves here. It’s cool to get to talk to people who have been here for a few years.

Have you been to any shows since you’ve been here?

Yeah, I’ve been able to see some acts that’ve never come to New Zealand, which is a big difference. I’ve been to Ryan Adams at Carnegie Hall, who I saw in New Zealand, but it was wicked. I saw Ray Lamontagne at the Beacon Theater, which was great. I saw First Aid Kit. Oh, The Black Keys at Barclay’s Center. I was in these mountain high seats. The Felice Brothers too. I’ve been a massive fan of theirs since I found their self-titled album, and it was a real big influence on me. They have this really raw vibe so it was wicked to see them live. I saw them at Brooklyn Bowl, which is a bowling alley too, which was really cool. I wanna actually go and bowl, and then watch a show after. I saw Conor Oberst… Just all these heroes, so it’s really cool to see people like that. I’m really excited to see Damien Jurado open for Jason Isbell. I like Jason Isbell, but Damien Jurado has been a massive influence on me. It’s crazy, I can’t keep up. I got an app that is only dedicated to telling you who’s playing in NYC.

Do you find it difficult to be here and work on your music with the rest of your band members being in New Zealand?

I mean, it’s pretty amazing how much you can communicate. Time difference is the only major thing. It’s working pretty well since there’s so many tools that we can use for organization. Usually I write by myself, and then for recording or something I’ll send the demos through to them and we’ll arrange something together.  For the album that we’re in the process of making, there are songs that we’ve had since we started playing, so most of it is quite established, and I’m working on stuff that we’ll either do for the next record, or I might even do in the meantime. It’s cool, there are a lot of ideas, and it’s great to just bounce stuff back to one of them, or a couple of the guys, or other people.

Photo Credit: Leah Marks

Photo Credit: Leah Marks

Did they give you any advice before you came to New York?

Yeah, to come back (laughs). I basically got the opportunity to live here through my girlfriend, who’s studying at NYU. Since we’re in the middle of making an album, I’ve recorded basically all my bits, so we’re just doing over-dubs at the moment – piano, organ, all that stuff I can’t play as well as other people. So we pretty much know what we want, and that’s easy to coordinate, but it’s great for the band that I have access to people over here who are really good musicians or mixing engineers and that kind of thing.

We were going to take until about mid-2015 to make the album and release anyway, because we sort of want to make sure we were doing it right and not rushing it out. The time frame worked and it was an opportunity to meet some really cool people to work with, and potentially some important people.

So are you doing any recording in the studio right now?

I’m not at the moment, basically just writing. Back in New Zealand, we as a band, but especially our guitarist Andy, have a really good collection of recording gear, so we’re actually doing a lot of the over-dub ourselves at home, which is cool because it affords you the time and it’s cost efficient.

And you can wear your pajamas.

Yeah, definitely. Before I came here, we were doing all my vocals for about a month and Andy and I definitely had some pajama days. It was very intensive because we’ve been working on about 16 songs we have recorded, and we’re going to cut it down I suppose, but yeah, some days you didn’t need to get dressed really because you weren’t going anywhere.

So you’re in the finishing stages of the album production?

Pretty much, yeah. I mean mixing is a massive part, which we haven’t really done, we’ve just been recording, so I suppose over the next couple of months we’ll be scheduling people to get  piano, some old school organ, maybe some steel guitar, but also, I think it’ll be great to play around with different sounds since we have the time, and just shoot ideas back and forth to get an album that sounds really interesting.

Are you going to include any of the songs off your EP in the album?

We actually aren’t going to include any of them at the moment. I’ve been considering potentially re-producing some of them, but that’s sort of up in the air. We’ve got a lot of songs ready to record, so we sort of had that attitude of, “Well, those tunes are already out there in some form, so let’s just get different songs out there.”

Would you say they’re more or less going to be the same sound as those songs on the EP?

I’d say it’s progressed a little. We did the EP as more traditional folk and country arrangements. Out of all our songs, those are the ones we thought would really match the way we recorded the EP, which was very quickly and all live in a room. So we were like, let’s do acoustic guitar, double bass, small drum kit, and that kind of vibe. We wanted to make one little collection of songs, and it would sound really acoustic and warm so they fit that vibe, but we have a different range of sounds on this album. I suppose it has more of a folk rock sound to it, like more back beat drums and I think just a wider sound. Within each song, it’s a bit richer sounding, especially with keys and strings and that kind of thing. It all has the same core of what the EP would have, in terms of acoustic guitar and our general setup, but with the over-dubs there’s going to be quite a few different sounds on top.

I was going to ask you if ‘The Avenue’ was written about New York City, but now that I know it’s your first time here, is it safe to assume it’s not?

Yeah, it’s really a funny thing. It’s kind of a collection of ideas and not directly autobiographical. I was sort of playing around in my head with lots of ideas of the urban versus the rural existence, and the pull between both. Also in New Zealand, you have this thing of the OE, the Overseas Experience, and it’s really like this small town kind of thing and you’d expect a young person to go out to leave at some point and in the end come back. So when you’re in your 20s, you get people moving away and you just have to deal with that, a lot of my friends, you know. So the EP was sort of communicating how a place affects relationships and the distance between people. And ‘The Avenue’ is just a general idea of that. But it’s really funny that you mention that you thought it would be about New York. There’s this thing, because I play kind of country and folk influenced stuff, like really American-based and -rooted music, and there’s always been this draw towards America. I love anything Americana, the whole aesthetic, the history, the music obviously, and the films, but landing here made all these songs lock in and the lyrics make more sense than I could ever think they would. There’s a lyric in ‘Waiting for You’ where I say something about an east river breeze, and that wasn’t even specifically about the East River in New York, and it’s crazy how it all slotted in so comfortably. Even just singing my songs here, a lot of it has really locked in and made sense. It’s cool how everyone gets a different meaning from the same song and creates their own meaning, but especially for yourself for the meaning to change a lot, it’s really cool.

Before you pursued a career in music, you were an environmental scientist in an engineering firm. Do you ever regret it?

No. I mean like, it was cool, it was a job and I didn’t mind it. I went to university and just studied stuff I was good at in school, and I always had that vague thing of not really knowing. I think that’s a generational thing; that we’re just sent to university thinking “Career, career, career”, and you’re like “I don’t know though, I don’t know.” But I don’t regret it, it was really interesting. I started writing songs when I was at university, so that started becoming more and more of a factor.

So music was something you always wanted to pursue?

Yeah, I think when I started writing my own stuff though, and over the few years I started playing with a band, it’s been just growing and growing and became more of a serious thing. I think the timing just aligned and I thought, “Well, this is the time I should really go for it.” I think I would regret it if I didn’t put a lot of effort into it at some point in my life.

Do you miss anything at all about being scientist?

The business card was good. The money was also good. It’s kind of fun being free though, like if someone said “Hey, come to this cool thing over here!”, and I can now just be open to opportunities. Mainly with the job, it was kind of cool to go to cool places sometimes. Part of my job was doing field work, and I would go out to some place, and sometimes they were terrible places but sometimes it was cool, and I always found it quite inspiring. I think especially in my early writing, some of this album and definitely the EP, the natural landscape has always been a great inspiration for me. Like our EP cover is actually a photo I took on a field trip when I was at university of these mountains in New Zealand. One thing I miss, more about studying than working, was learning about natural environments, the processes that shape these things. At one point in my job, I got to fly a lot regionally, and just in that time by myself I wrote a lot of songs, which was cool. There’s a whole song on our new record based on that perspective flying and looking down at the ground gives you. It’s just all about that and diminishing all our little shitty day-to-day problems that you get so wound up about.

So we found you playing in the subway. How did that come about?

Some guys I know were doing it, and for me, it’s a really good practice space. It’s got really good acoustics and it’s cool to just meet people as well. I really find it cool playing to people who have no reason, or need, to like you at all, and kind of winning them over and just connecting with people. I think that’s my base motivation for music. It sounds cheesy but it’s true, that thing where I’ll be satisfied if just one person is like “that one song that you wrote is really meaningful to me”.

Any strange experiences playing in the subway yet?

The other day I was playing, and this girl comes and stands right beside me, half a foot away. And I was like, “You alright?” as I was playing, and she was just standing there. So I looked around where she was looking, and there was this crazy guy who was sort of just going like (rambling). So I was like, “Oh, are you hiding?” and she was just kind of using me as a human shield. I kind of protected her with my guitar until the train came. She said he was all up in her hair or something like that, smelling it.

Photo Credit: Leah Marks

Photo Credit: Leah Marks

Are you hoping that after your album comes out, you can come back to New York to tour venues rather than subway stops?

Yeah, definitely. That’s kind of one of my goals here, to get enough contacts and meet people that I can hopefully get a buzz going. The potential here is really big. There’s just so many people to connect with and play to. If you get all your ducks in a row, there’s no reason why you can’t put together a successful tour over here. You just kind of have to have a plan