+ By Dylan Roche + photography by Alison Harbaugh
Connection. It’s a continual, consistent theme throughout Angie Miller’s music career, whether she’s playing alongside a fellow musician and friend, organizing a songwriters night to bring the community together, or simply captivating an audience by herself. She always speaks of connection as if it’s something that sustains her. It’s one of the reasons she loves the Annapolis music community so much: because it’s so supportive, and there’s such a vibrant network of talent.
“I’ve gone on vacation, gone to other towns and gone out to hear music, and it’s not like it is here,” she says. “When you walk around Annapolis, you hear different styles and a really high level of musicianship, high level of songwriting. It’s supportive. That’s one of the beautiful things about Annapolis and being an artist working in the area.”
An accomplished songwriter with years of performing behind her, Miller wasn’t always an artist who felt supported, at least not in the early days of her music career. She almost gave it up after a gig that went badly in college. Up until then, she’d played guitar with friends and taken music lessons in high school, occasionally making appearances, sharing songs she’d written, at a coffeehouse that one of her teachers organized. Her first professional performance during her college years was a success, but her second was the fateful one that almost undid her. “The crowd was not nice, and I was heartbroken, thinking, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t stand it, this is too hard,’” she recalls. “So, I quit playing professionally.”
Fortunately for Miller, and all of those who have fallen in love with her music over the years, she didn’t stay out of it for too long. After college, she and a friend—Maryland-based singer-songwriter Jennifer Ferguson Smith—began performing in Baltimore. “We started playing at a bar in Fells Point,” she says, “and then we started picking up other gigs, slowly realizing that we could quit our day jobs and just play music instead.” They were in their twenties at the time and were primed for taking a chance at living the dream, so they started booking up their calendars.
Thus began an accomplished and varied music career. “Thirty-some years later, I’m still doing it,” says Miller. “I thought I would just do it for fun for a couple of years, and it just kept going and going.”
Miller describes her style as “coming out of the Joni Mitchell tradition,” meaning her songs have strong folk music roots while often veering from that into jazz and rock. Overall, her work reflects many different influences, and this fluidity of her ability as a performer helped her establish a name for herself, particularly in the Annapolis community, which she discovered early in her career when she was playing a regular gig at Middleton Tavern twice a week. “That’s when [John] Van Dyke and [David] Glaser were playing downtown, and Craig Carr and that whole crew,” she says, reminiscing about the local music scene in the 1990s.
Over the years, she’s played in venues throughout Annapolis, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, sometimes playing with bands or as part of a duo (often with longtime friend and collaborator Meg Murray) but in recent years mostly as a solo artist. Today, she teaches middle school in addition to gigging, but for the better part of her career, she only performed. Though she did it successfully, it wasn’t without struggles or moments of doubt. “For 25 years, it was my only job, and there were days where I would just sit down and cry because I had a gig that got canceled that was my regular weekly gig,” she says. “I would think, ‘I knew it. It’s all going to fall apart. This is it.’ Then something would happen, and I would get a different gig that would fill in the hole in the calendar.”
Miller always seeks out new and different projects. Her current undertaking is a collaboration with local songwriter Tony Denikos—whom she describes as one of her favorites—inspired by a collection of her father’s autobiographical stories. “He had all these stories that he wrote about growing up in Louisiana,” she says, “and I went to Tony with these and said, ‘Let’s write some songs based on these stories.’” They are preparing for a show during which her father will read selections from his stories and Miller and Denikos will perform the songs. She describes the song “Dancing with Preacher,” inspired by the story of how her father’s parents met at a dance hall, and delves at times into darker aspects of their relationship, which she and Denikos interpreted musically as “something of a waltz, old-timey,” reminiscent of Hank Williams. “Each song is written in a slightly different style,” she says, “but they’re all within the Americana roots category.”
Collaborating with Denikos is rewarding for Miller, who says that when she’s writing by herself, she doesn’t have a specific process. “One time, I decided I wanted to write a song about one brief moment in time, and I got the idea that I could write about a photograph—about what was happening in that snapshot,” she says. “The idea came to me in the shower, and the song ‘A Picture of You’ was finished before my hair was dry.” Other times, it’s a struggle—she spends time playing around on the guitar until she finds a melody, then starts vocalizing on it. “And then words kind of pop out, and at some point, some phrase comes out, and I think, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s cool—that’s where I want to go with this,’” she says. “Then everything gets built around it. Like when Tony and I were writing that first song . . . we had the idea that the opening lines of the chorus would be ‘Dancing with preacher, it’s a waltz on a razor,’ and everything else sort of flowed out of that.”
Local music fans who want to experience Miller’s love of music for themselves can check out the monthly songwriters showcase that she hosts on the second Monday of every month at 49 West Coffeehouse, Winebar & Gallery. She has been spearheading the event for the past decade. “It keeps me really connected with the songwriting community,” she says. “I love doing it because I can bring together artists who I love to listen to. . . . I’m meeting young people who are just getting into the business. I’m playing with people who have been doing it longer than me. I get people from out of town on the bill. I get locals on the bill. And having that kind of mix has been awesome.”
Anyone who goes out to see Miller perform can see the way she’s able to connect with an audience. “I think, as a musician, you feel it when it’s happening,” she says of that connection. “And you’re not self-conscious in that way that we often are. Then there’s nothing that gets in between the artist and the audience.” █
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