NEW SIGNING – Tor Miller
There are any number of singers who can turn in a pitch-perfect performance, who can hold a note, shape a phrase, and project their voices to the back of the hall. Talent shows across the globe are full of them, singing for their supper, hoping for that lucky break. And then there is that select band of vocalists who can take a song to the next level, burrow deep beneath its skin, and pin you to your seat as they do so. Anyone lucky enough to hear the demo version of Tor Miller’s song Headlights 18 months ago would have instantly added the name of the 20-year-old native New Yorker to the latter list. I was sent it under cover of anonymity, and immediately felt compelled to work out the singer’s identity. Who was this musician singing – in a sandpapered voice rich with vibrato and hoarse with emotion – as if his life depended on it, hurling himself off the precipice, wrestling the song to the floor, as the piano pounded and the melody, as it hit the final chorus, slipped its moorings and soared skywards? And how come, I thought, so few singers do this? Occupy a song, tear the lyric from their chest, sing with such passion and recklessness that they seem to be locked in mortal combat with the darkest corners of their heart and their soul.
Tor is endearingly vague when asked to explain the source of that singing voice. He grew up, he says, with a dad “who was part of the Glee Club at university, and he’d sing all the time at home, all these old college drinking songs. But my mum can’t sing to save her life. My parents always say that I would sing around the house all the time, too, but I don’t remember that. I do know that they would go to parent evenings and ask my teachers about my participation in music, and the teachers would go: ‘What? He never contributes.’ My mum and I would take these long trips out to Jersey, where she would ride horses, and I’d sing along to the radio. But I never thought anything of it.” (I’ve lost count of the great singers I’ve encountered who will give pretty much the identical answer when quizzed about their talent. How cool must it be to be able to sort of just shrug in explanation. You know: oh, the singing? I never thought anything of it.)
As Tor tells it, it took a major upheaval in his life to kickstart his conviction and self-belief, and turn him from someone who would “sing around the house all the time” into an artist on a mission. When he was 12, his parents moved from Manhattan out to New Jersey and, six months later, Tor enrolled in a new school near his new home. It was those six months, and the two years that followed, that would shape him both as a singer and as a writer. Put simply, he channelled his grief for his old life, and his alienation from his new one, into music. But first, that six-month period when, Tor says, each weekday he and his mother would do “a 90-minute commute. She would drop me off and I’d sit for about half an hour, waiting for school to open, listening to the music she had given me – Ziggy Stardust, Elton John’s greatest hits, Fleetwood Mac – on my iPod. I listened to those records pretty much nonstop, up and back. And that was the point when I started writing my own songs.”
As is so often the case, a great teacher proved another catalyst. “I had this piano teacher at the new school who would just let me play what I wanted to, so I’d play him these songs and sing along really quietly, and one lesson he said: ‘You have a really good voice. Next week, instead of just working on the piano part, we’ll learn the vocal as well. And the week after, we can try writing something.’ So it really all just sort of happened that way, and it was all thanks to that one teacher.”
The music lessons aside, Tor’s new school was, for a long time, not a place he was happy to attend. “I was a complete outcast; I didn’t talk to anyone for about two years. But I was getting confident in lessons, and wrote my first couple of songs, so I decided to perform at the eighth-grade talent show – and remember, at that point, no one had really ever heard me even speak. I was so mad to have had to move schools and leave all my friends, so I didn’t participate in anything. But I got up there and performed a cover version, and a song I had just written, and immediately after, people suddenly wanted to talk to me, I got all this attention – especially from girls! And it propelled me to keep going, and I started booking shows, open-mic nights in places such as The Stone Pony in Asbury Park. I worked at that, and then I went to high school, and joined the jazz band there, and some of the guys in that joined my band, and we just carried on playing shows. But it all came from that one performance in eighth grade.”
The songs “began to pour out, most of them about isolation and loneliness,” Tor says with a wry laugh. “I felt that I’d been taken out of the city and away from a life I loved, and thrown out on a horse farm in New Jersey. I had no idea what to do with myself, I was really angsty. And here, suddenly, was something I liked – and I didn’t like anything at the time.” The bug had bitten him and, when he took up a place studying music at NYU, Tor dived right in. “The moment when it felt properly real was in my first semester at college, when I was writing all these songs. There was this room in the basement of my dorm building, right next to the laundry room, it could reach 100 degrees in there, but I’d be in there three or four hours every day, writing away, skipping class, and I really felt that I was coming into my own. My attitude was, ‘No, fuck the classes, you need to be working on your music’. I almost felt like this radical, rebel dude; everyone looked at me like I was absolutely crazy.” And was he? “Oh, definitely. I was a bit of a madman during that period. I’d stay up super late, I’d show up late to class, I was writing and working, working and writing, and there was nothing else I wanted to do. There’s one photograph from that time that my buddy took of me, and I’m just completely withered away, huge bags under my eyes, and I’d lost all this weight. I look insane. So I guess that’s the moment when it got serious for me, when it was real and I knew it was what I had to be doing. And I was absolutely miserable at the time! But it’s an incredibly intoxicating state to be in. I was having panic attacks every day. I would go down to that room, I’d literally just be in my jeans, barefoot, and hope that no one would walk in. But it was the only time in that whole year when I could find peace. I was going a bit crazy and partying, doing all the things a fresher does, but I was also working incredibly hard. I’ll never forget that period.”
Glassnote Records – home to artists such as Mumford & Sons, Phoenix, Childish Gambino and Chvrches – picked up on the buzz that was rapidly building about Tor, and last year, he signed to the label. Which led, he admits, to a slightly tense family summit with his mum and dad. “Basically, I’m supposed to be on this two-year leave from college at the moment, and I think my parents both fully expect that I’ll be going back there at the end of it. It was an incredibly awkward conversation when the deal came about. I had to say: ‘Because of this, I don’t think I’ll be going back to college next year.’ That was pretty nerve-wracking. I put it off for a couple of days; it was the most difficult conversation of my life.”
Headlights is now the title track of Tor’s new EP, which also includes Hold the Phone, a song from Tor’s dorm-basement days that he recorded on his i-Phone, and which first gained traction when Zane Lowe named it as the Next Hype on his R1 show. Now and Again, meanwhile, has a swagger Ziggy would have approved of, and a sonic eclecticism that recalls Lindsay Buckingham’s multilayered production mastery. But it is Midnight that most captures Tor’s impassioned musicianship – and his abiding, imperishable love for the city he was forced to abandon temporarily as a teen. Its hymnal cadences are a clear trademark. “I think that’s something that’s been hard-wired into me,” Tor agrees, “although I only tend to recognise it after that fact. So I never think, ‘I’m going to write something spiritual sounding’. It just happens when it happens. I’ve always been a huge R&B and gospel fan; I used to listen to Ray Charles and Otis Redding all the time. Most of the people who have influenced me as a singer were balls-to-the-wall artists, never holding back, just really letting go. You listen to Ray Charles and it’s just blood-curdling, and the same goes for Otis Redding, for Donny Hathaway. I got really obsessed with their ballads – the yearning for something more that they embodied. It wasn’t just ‘something’ that they wrote.”
Now working on his debut album at London’s Eastcote studios with the producer Eliot James (Noah and the Whale, Two Door Cinema Club, Plan B, Bloc Party), Tor describes the recording environment as “a bit dilapidated, which is exactly how I like it. And Eliot is a producer who really drives the recordings, and captures the grit in a song. It’s a huge relief to finally find the right match.” He’s determined not to play it safe, he says, or smooth off the rough edges in his songs. “Risk-taking is rare in music. When I wrote some of these songs, I’d listen to some of the lyrics and think, ‘Fuck – do I really want to be saying that? Do I really want to let everyone know how I feel?’ But I think that’s something you have to do if you want to produce work that is honest.”
The key moment in Midnight is when, with the backing vocals rising to a tumult behind him, Tor sings “Calling out, calling out for something true.” The most thrilling thing about Tor Miller – and I’m not sure he’s quite realised this yet – is that he’s found it.