The cover of American singer-songwriter Chris Mills’ new retrospective, Heavy Years: 2000-2010, bears a stylized and stark black and white photo and hand-drawn lettering – conveying the artistry to be found inside. With five LPs under his belt – Every Night Fight for Your Life (1998), Kiss it Goodbye (2000), The Silver Line (2002), The Wall to Wall Sessions (2005) and Living in the Aftermath (2008) – Mills has been making emotionally dense music for more than a decade – and this collection serves as an engaging introduction for those who aren’t familiar with his music. Having played countless live shows with the likes of Steve Earle, Wilco, Neko Case, and My Morning Jacket, Mills is a musician who respects his craft and has succeeded in creating genuine, appealing music that – as this retrospective shows – stands the test of time
How have you managed to make music for so long?
Well, I really enjoy it; that’s the first thing. I’ve just been really lucky to have labels put out my records and clubs that are willing to let me play and really great musicians to play with. So, luck – and really loving what I do.
When did you know first know that’s what you would do?
I think it was in high school. I played in a lot of bands. Then when I got into college, I really started to get into songwriting and I felt like I had something to say. I mean, when I looked at all the things I could do – and do well – music seemed liked it would be the thing that would matter the most.
Has making music always come easily?
Anything you do for a long time has its ups and downs, and with anything creative you’re gong to struggle with things that aren’t working or have problems producing. People don’t always respond in the way you want them to and it can be unnerving. You have to be really committed and believe in what you’re doing.
How did you select the songs for this retrospective?
I wanted it to be a nice mix of songs that people have responded to the most, and the songs that I really enjoy playing and that I feel represent turning points for me.
Why call it Heavy Years?
(laughs) Well, it’s the name of one of my songs, but it’s more of inside joke. It’s a play on words, too: ‘light years’ vs. ‘heavy years.’ It just seemed to fit. And I guess you could say it’s emotionally heavy… I tend to lean towards the dark side of things when I’m writing about relationships or the human condition. A long journey can put a lot of physical weight on you, too (laughs).
What do you hear when you listen to your older songs?
I hear somebody that’s learning how to make records and learning how to write songs. I hear an evolution in the writing and the production. I also hear the people that I was playing with at that time or the things that I was going through.
By evolution, do you mean that your songs are better or somehow more interesting now?
I’ve spent a lot of time writing songs and I think I’ve gotten a lot better at it. Musically – because I’ve been exposed to so much over the years and played so often – I think I’m able to experiment more, come up with more, and make more interesting songs, definitely.
What makes a classic song?
Um… honesty. I think when you approach something honestly then it’s something that everyone can relate to and get something out of. The songs that I like are the ones that I feel really hit that emotional center. I think when you’re writing, you really try to connect with people. It can be really personal but at the same time, it’s universal enough that it means something to someone else.
Do you experiment when you’re on the road?
I use a different lineup all the time; the instrumentation changes from show to show. In New York, I’ll use a piano player, violin player and a three-piece rock outfit and when I play in Chicago I’ll use a full string section and horn section. It sometimes has to change depending on who shows up to the gig, basically.
In a band you always know who’ll show up to play – so would you say then that solo artists face challenges that bands don’t?
I think the challenges are different, yeah. When you’re in a band you have to figure out how to get along long term and when you’re a solo artist, you get to pick and choose who you want to play with. At the same time, your name is the only name on the door and you’re the one who’s responsible if things rise or fall.
Can we expect another retrospective in 2021?
(laughs) Oh, I have no idea. I didn’t expect to get this far, so who knows what’ll happen in another 10 years. I try not to make predictions.