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Chris Mills and The Distant Stars
It’s been 17 years since Chris Mills released his first EP, “Chris Mills Plays And Sings.” That record’s plainspoken title laid out the disarmingly simple tone for his career; the development of his craft since then has resulted in sharper songwriting, more musical ornamentation, and tours with the likes of Andrew Bird and Califone. Now, with ALEXANDRIA, Mills has increased his band’s numbers (bass player Ryan Hembrey, pianist Christer Knutsen, and drummer Konrad Meissener) and geographic scope—the Brooklyn-based troubadour’s sixth studio album was largely conceived in Scandinavia, and recorded at Chicago’s Wall To Wall Studios. (Grammy-winning engineer Ryan Freeland mixed the album.) At once intensely personal and incredibly ambitious, ALEXANDRIA is a leap forward for Mills, yet it retains the wit and keen eye for human behavior that have defined his records up to this point.
The seeds for this record, Mills’s first since 2008’s LIVING IN THE AFTERMATH, were sown by his own maturing. “There was a lot of personal upheaval and renewal going on throughout the entire writing process,” Mills recalls. “I got married; I went through some rough times and pulled myself out of them. I began to refocus on how I thought about music and art, and playing and recording. This album looks backwards and forwards at the same time.”
As such, the characters populating Mills’s have weathered life’s storms, but are by no means swept away by their tumult; instead, they look for salvation in the world around them. The loneliness precisely described on “The Sweet Hereafter” is tempered by the knowledge that there’s “magic in the mountains,” while “Castaways”—a sea shanty turned rave-up—looks for redemption in the water.
“I spent a lot of time in Scandanavia when I was writing the songs and when Christer, Ryan and I were working on the demos, and I definitely feel like that informed some of the tracks. I feel like there’s a bit of desolation in a lot of the lyrics, and a sort of ‘no man’s land’ vibe, which reflects where we were at times in the Norwegian countryside. There’s a stillness at night when you get into the mountains over there, or above the Arctic Circle, and a little loneliness that I think crept into some of the songs.”
Mills’s newest collaborator, who hails from Norway, is also a part of his history—although he didn’t realize it until they met. One night in 2009, Mills and Hembry were out in a remote town three hours south of Oslo when they heard music coming from a bar. “The band was good,” Mills recalls, “though what struck me most was this lanky piano and lap steel player over in the corner. He was amazing!”
That player was Knutsen, who—in a stroke of luck—turned out to be a longtime fan of Mills’s music, and the ideal collaborator for a a record where Mills wanted to continue his musical development while remaining true to his roots. Mills, Hembry, and Knutsen collaborated across the Atlantic, sending demos back and forth and working on music together whenever they happened to be on the same soil. But the stop-start nature proved frustrating, and so Knutsen and Mills flew out to Chicago with Meissener, and laid down the record in a few days at Mills’s old haunt Wall To Wall Studios.
“Christer has a better handle on many of the things I’ve done than I do,” Mills notes. “And he was uncompromising in his efforts to make this record something that we could both be proud of. He knew when I was getting lazy and just doing something out of habit, or when I was missing something that was key in some of my earlier work. He also pushed me to try new things, but because he was so versed in the context of my other work, it always felt like progression or refinement.”Take the buoyant “Helpless Bells,” which splits the difference between New Wave (darting synths underscore the jangling guitars) and New Americana and which is a particular testament to the way Knutsen helped deepen Mills’s sound. The harmonies are straight out of a barn-raising, yet the song is flung into the current pop moment by the subtle keyboards humming underneath.
“We’re both pop fiends, even though we both tend to write on the earthier end of the spectrum. He has an amazing ear for harmonies,” Mills recalls. “We also wanted to keep the few ‘rootsy’ tunes on the record from feeling too trad, so we added the harmonies and some space keyboards to keep things interesting and sort of otherworldly.”
ALEXANDRIA’s opening track “Wild Places” opens with Mills singing, simply, “I have wandered in the wild places/ and I’ve brought a message back for you”; that sentiment sets the tone for this expansive, exploratory album, which is full of heartfelt words set to indelible melodies.