Music has always been a part of my life. Growing up through the 90s country-pop crossover movement exposed me early on to a lot of different sounds, perspectives, and stories. The very first song I ever remember loving was “She’s in Love With the Boy” by Trisha Yearwood, released the same year I was born. However, it would be “One Way Ticket (Because I Can)” by LeAnne Rimes and “Down Came a Blackbird” by Lila McCann that pulled me in a little deeper. In fact, my very first CD was Lila McCann’s self-titled album for my birthday. Unfortunately, I got it, before I even had a CD Player. Luckily, my mom played it quite often for me on hers.
Country music told rich stories that I found fascinating. Growing up in the suburbs of Oregon in a family that wasn’t particularly religious, I didn’t always relate to every lyric but the melodies hit hard. Acts like Faith Hill, The Chicks, Tim McGraw, Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn, Martina McBride, and more stayed in frequent rotation on our home stereo. The way I could picture the whole story in my mind in excellent detail from just a few lyrics, however, captivated me the most. As I grew up and music on the radio began to change, I noticed a unique pattern that pulled me into music even further. If it was a song I could dance to, I was especially into it.
The Bubblegum Pop explosion toward the end of the decade pulled me in like gravity much faster than country music did. The way it could change its sound and move between other genres that were traditionally fragmented off from one another was fascinating. Pop had a unique ability to morph into a country song or a rock song. It could even ascend into dance music or hip-hop! Something about it felt different.
*NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera were the first artists in this Pop world that really took my breath away. They of course, were immediately followed by TLC, B*Witched, Ricky Martin, Brandy, Spice Girls, and Celine Dion as well as a multitude of others. If a pop act act came on the radio or my TV screen -nothing else was important to me. Their choreography, cascading riffs, white or silver colored outfits paired with rich, vibrant colors captured my attention. The “digital bubble” aesthetic as I called it felt futuristic and forward-thinking as a kid, a stark contrast to the everyday feel of country music. The internet was in its infancy too but growing exponentially fast. Everything started to have an outer-space feel to it that kept my interest and wonder. The former members of the Mickey Mouse Club took my breath away, but one of them in particular held my attention a little longer.
Britney Spears was everywhere in the 90s. The mall? Britney. The toy store? Britney. The Disney Channel? Britney. The 17 year old phenomenon came out with the iconic “…Baby One More Time” album that was given to me one Christmas by my grandmother. A single woman at the time, my grandma splurged that year and bought all of her grandchildren a boom box and Britney’s debut album. As we eagerly opened our gifts, I thought it was strange how the physical CD I found on the inside was colored pink whilst all of my siblings and cousins’ albums were blue. Maybe it was random luck or perhaps my grandma knew something I didn’t back then but either way it was unique. Soon, all of my cousins busted out our new CD players and began playing them all at once. Funny how my first official listen through a CD that I, myself, owned ended up being an eclectic mashup consisting of all of the songs on it at once.
Britney spoke to me. She could dance, she could sing, she made great music. Still to this day, nothing sounds more 90s to me than the “…Baby One More Time” album. I would listen to it repeatedly and use it as the soundtrack for my made up Power Rangers TV episodes, playing the right song at the exact climactic moment to capture the feeling. I shook every wall in my house dancing alone in my bedroom on “stage” to a sold-out crowd. Britney Spears opened the door for me to a new level of imagination.
I liked this fictional feeling of “performing.” Quiet and shy, I dared not to breathe a word of my desire to sing and dance to anyone. Pop music was cool to me but it definitely was considered “girly” and “uncool” sometimes. Even so, pop music shook my bones and took me to another realm of existence. Britney Spears WAS pop music and inspired me in so many ways.
She was also unfailingly kind. She created a whole summer camp to inspire young artists to pursue their dreams. She drove through her hometown and gave every single person $100 for Christmas to give back a piece of what she was lucky enough to have gained. Pop stars were often criticized for being shallow but Britney demonstrated the importance of being humble as a star. She was the definition of a true artist who, little did I know, would awaken the artist within me the moment I opened that pink CD.
Something was magical about the feeling I had dancing alone. I felt like the lyrics were coming true on my imaginary stage and all of the audience members could feel the electricity as well. Music could say what I couldn’t. It was magnetic to me and took hold of me like magic.
I became interested in who was writing these mystical words and through the booklets often included with my CDs, I discovered what were called “track credits.” As the millennium turned I began to notice repeated names in most of my music booklets. Kara DioGuardi, Charlie Midnight, Andreas Carlsson, Rami Yacoub, John Shanks, Matthew Gerrard, and especially someone named Max Martin all became names that lived in my head alongside the artists who were singing these songs. It got to the point where I would scan these track credits before listening to a new album, specifically looking for one or more of these names because if they showed up, I knew I was going to love that song. I couldn’t wait to see what it would sound like and what story or emotion was going to come forth. If they wrote it, I felt it. However, what began to really fascinate me was when artists wrote their own music.
Something just clicked on those songs. It felt like I was talking directly to the artist, one-on-one. I could hear their thoughts, feelings, and emotions in their own words. It was like I was in a room alone with them and listening to their truth and viewpoints that resonated with my own. It struck me so much that one day in 2004 while home on Christmas break, I had an epiphany to try writing a song of my own.
I was very familiar with song structures, (it’s like poetry right?) I studied Max Martin and Kara DioGuardi’s music -there was no way I couldn’t do this, I told myself. I had no concept of how someone could create a melody nobody had already written and I had no clue how to play any instrument, but I knew I could write words pretty well. I sang alone at home when no one was around so maybe I could just make up a melody? I remembered an interview I had seen on TV where I heard someone say “write what you know” and so my 7th grade brain said “let’s try it.” I got out some loose leaf paper from my binder, laid down on my bed and got to work. 15 minutes later I had done just that.
“My World” became the very first song I had ever written. I had no idea where it came from but it appropriately described what I saw through my 13 year old eyes. It was simply a melody I pulled out of thin air and the lyrics I had written down on paper. It wasn’t the best song (“Your eyes sparkle like a crystal” is a little embarrassing of a lyric to me now) but nevertheless, it was mine. I was proud of it. Writing lyrics felt different. It wasn’t a school essay. It wasn’t a poem for an English assignment that I didn’t really understand the rules to. I was a teenager with all these emotions and writing them down in this lyrical format seemed to click a special gear into place within me like a puzzle piece fitting perfectly into its slot.
Soon enough, one song became two. Then three, then four and two months later became 32. In my own little imaginary world, I split these 32 loose-leaf songs into made up albums (I had enough material, after all.) My first “album” was appropriately titled “My World” in honor of my first song and was quickly followed by its successors, “Me” and “What Happens Now?” Three albums of lyrics and melodies, each one growing in sound every 10 songs or so. However, this was getting out of hand. I wanted to keep writing but I needed to be even more organized. So, I got paper protector sleeves and put each one of my special 32 original songs in its own. I then compiled them into my “Southern Island Collection” Pokemon Binder to keep them all together before moving on to a yellow spiral notebook.
Quickly that spiral notebook became 18 spiral notebooks and my 3 made up albums grew to over 50 -all with unique melodies, lyrics and perspectives of a growing teenager that I still remember to this day. Hundreds of songs fell out of my pencil as the years ticked on. I couldn’t stop. They came from somewhere within me that I didn’t dare question. Some days I would write 1 song, others I’d write 10. I would get an idea for a song from anywhere, too! In the middle of science class, a strange word I would hear on my vocabulary lists, from current events, right when I woke up, a phrase someone would say in conversations, it didn’t matter. I leaned into this ability to hear something in the nothingness and turn it into a song. It felt like a superpower. When I was writing my songs, nothing else mattered to me.
Songwriting was special. It was simple. It was my history, my present and future, my truth, and my journal.
Songwriting also helped me understand one emotion in particular. Something that I didn’t quite comprehend in most of the songs I would listen to from other artists. A concept that I couldn’t really connect with unless the artist was specifically a woman. There was something in their music I innately understood that I didn’t know yet how to verbalize. A feeling that began to work its way out of my brain and into my lyrics. Something private I kept to myself that most people saw right through but I tried hiding regardless with every fiber of my being because slipping up meant total destruction of everything I knew.
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