Interview: Lynn Miles

by Gabe Pollock

Lynn Miles is one of one of Canada’s most accomplished singer/songwriters. With twelve studio albums to her name, Miles is a true songwriter’s songwriter, exploring heartbreak, loss, and joy with sensitivity and evocative poetry. It’s earned her multiple Canadian Folk Music Awards and a 2003 Juno Award for Roots and Traditional Solo Album of the Year. Now 56 years old, Lynn Miles is just as active as ever. We had a lovely, laid-back conversation about her career, her music, and philosophy – but when I asked her what she was doing later that day, she casually mentioned she had a flight in two hours to go play some shows in Denmark. 

GP: It seems like you’re always moving.
LM: Yeah.
GP: That’s actually something that comes up a lot on Downpour. Even the first track, “More,” is about always pushing yourself, always wanting more experiences. Is that something that drives you?
LM: Yeah I think of myself as a songwriter more than anything, so I’m always looking for something to write about. Also, as you get older, there’s a tendency to get a little bit comfortable and not want to push. I fight against that. It’s harder to tour than it was when I was 20, absolutely. I get tired. When I go to Denmark, am I going to have the energy to go out and see things I haven’t seen before, or am I just going to stay in my hotel room? I don’t want that. I want to go to new places and meet people. All those activities lead to songwriting!
GP: Do you still enjoy going on the road?
LM: I do. I promised myself if I stopped loving it, I would stop. There’s no point getting up on stage if you’re unhappy with your life, if you’re not 100% thrilled to be there and thrilled there’s an audience waiting to hear what you have to say. But the road is bittersweet. I love the freedom of what I do, but then again the exhaustion thing comes in. And, you know, I miss birthdays back home, or funerals. It’s always a push and pull. I think the album has a lot of that in it: me trying to figure out if this is still what I want to do. And at the end of the day, I think I figured out that yeah, it is.
GP: The other project you’ve been doing recently has been the Black Flowers volumes, which feature stripped-down acoustic versions of your songs. What inspired that project?
LM: I have about 800 or 900 songs at this point. I have 12 records, so that’s only 120 songs being used. I like to say: I want to put all my children out in the world, even the ugly ones. The songs on Black Flowers are presented how I write them: I sit in a room with a guitar and sing, or a piano and sing, and I write the songs.
GP: This process is taking you back to some older material. How does that feel?
LM: It’s interesting, getting to see what I was thinking about 20 years ago, see if I’ve actually learned anything, see what my writing was like, whether it stands up. If I think it’s strong, and I think it’s got a message to deliver, I put it out there. I have this sort of core base of fans that seem to really love those records, and so I’m going to keep making them.
GP: In September, you’re playing in Peterborough. What can we expect from that show?
LM: I’m bringing my guitar player Keith Glass. He’s an award-winning guitar and mandolin player, and we’ve been touring for about 12 years, so it’s a pretty solid little show. I’ll be playing some new songs, some old songs. A mixed bag. A little laugh, a little cry. I’m excited to do the show with Ian Tamblyn too! He’s a local hero – well, he’s a Canadian hero. He’s from Ottawa, and he’s someone that when I was starting out, I’d go watch him play shows. He’s an amazing songwriter, so that’s pretty cool.
GP: And what about after that? What’s coming up for you?
LM: I’m going to be doing some shows around Christmas time with a project I did last year at the National Arts Centre. I wrote 13 songs about winter, and a couple secular Christmas songs. The last couple winters have been so hard, but incredibly evocative at the same time – lonely, and you can’t go outside, so you might as well stay inside and write songs.
GP: It seems like loneliness is another recurring theme in your music. There’s a fair bit of loss and heartbreak on Downpour.
LM: Yeah there’s a lot of that. It’s evocative, something I’m interested in, something I feel. It’s one of my demons I’ve had to wrestle with, so I write about it a lot.
GP: It doesn’t seem to defeat you, though. All these songs about getting out there and having new experiences, finding your joy.
LM: The song “Lesson in Everything”, that to me is the centre of the record. You can go through something, even something really hard, but if your ears are up and you’re paying attention, you’ll learn something about yourself and perhaps you’ll grow as a human being. So I think the record to me is about becoming a grown-up, accepting that there are something things that are going to happen.
GP: At the age of 56, finally becoming a grown-up.
LM: [laughs] Well let’s not go that far! Not yet, but soon. But it’s also about growing up with a sense of wonder. Not getting stuck, not thinking, “OK, this is it. I’m not going to learn anymore, not going to the art gallery anymore because I’ve seen art.” It’s about more. It’s about keep wanting more. That’s the key.