Talent, drive, a passion for perfection, and a carefree, devil may care persona. Derek Miller is a mass of contradictions and a bluesman like no other. On stage he’s a cool drink of water in a pinstriped suit and a confident swagger. He pounds on his guitars and sizzles with a slide looking like he’s channeling every great bluesman to ever put a finger to a string. He’s got wit, humour, a slightly devilish gleam in his eyes, and a smile that could charm all the birds out of their trees. Yet he’s also about as genuine, easygoing, and self-effacing a person as you could ever hope to meet.
Career-wise, the past few years have been almost ludicrously busy. The 1999 Sketches EP earned him the Canadian Aboriginal Music Award which he followed by helping produce 2000’s Fingermonkey with Keith Sceola and The Wild Band of Indians. In 2002 he won his first Juno with his soulful CD Music is the Medicine and of course most recently released the smoking hot The Dirty Looks.
Miller has crisscrossed North America playing everything from bar gigs to festivals and even leading the musical tribute to Robbie Robertson at Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto last June. Along the countless road trips he has picked up several awards, accolades, and well deserved nods and kudos, including Year’s Best from New York’s Village Voice, Top Ten of the Year in the Detroit Metro Times critic’s poll, and Best Blues/Jazz Recording at the 2003 Native American Music Award. To put the cherry on his ice cream, on the heels of re-releasing The Dirty Looks with EMI, Miller added Juno number two to the awards shelf (or vault or hallway closet… wherever it is artists keep their shiny baubles).
Somewhere in that hectic schedule he also found time to head to Austin, Texas to record a new CD with the legendary Double Trouble, not to mention have one of his songs feature the old outlaw himself, Willie Nelson. “Pretty cool to hear him sing some words I wrote … Willie is the coolest dude.” Followed by a film crew since January, the entire Austin experience was recorded for a documentary about his life and his music.
To look down at his journey as the crow flies, Miller seems a charmed soul walking down streets paved in gold CDs. But Miller’s road has been anything but straight and narrow. He’s had to climb a desert mountain filled with the land mines and personal demons of failed relationships, drugs, and alcohol. “I did the whole rock star lifestyle long before I was a rock star” he jokes. But in a serious tone he adds, “Damn I’m glad I don’t do that anymore.”
Derek has allowed me to write a book about his struggle with addiction which will offer no embellishments, excuses, or false pleas for forgiveness, but rather an honest account of a difficult period in his life. “My life is an open book,” he tells me over lunch. “I’ll lay it all out there. Ask me anything.” I’ve barely scratched the surface of getting to know him but I believe his sincerity. I can see it in his eyes. He has no doubts or fears about opening his soul to the world and letting us all peer inside. He hopes that if any good can come from his battle with substance abuse, it will be to serve as an inspiration to anyone struggling to find their way.
For my part, I’m just happy he figured it out and got himself into rehab before all that spectacular talent was wasted. We are all so much the better for it now that he is focusing his energy on what he does best — making music. After all, like the man said — music is the medicine.
Derek has been clean for two years now and is more creative, productive, and passionate than ever. Leaving his self-destructive chains at the crossroads, he can move freely with open eyes and a light spirit. The road ahead is long but clear, the sky is bright, and the sun is shining on this humble and larger than life guitar man. Derek Miller can now truly appreciate the journey.