by Susan Galbraith
– The Capitol Hill Times –
Freshly twenty-one years old, just starting out, and new to Seattle, Eric Miller nervously made his musical debut at one of Seattle’s most historic open mic nights at the Hopvine Pub. Little did he know that nine years later, he’d end up being the one in charge. While his first experience wasn’t as encouraging as he would’ve hoped, he’s come a long way from his Grass Valley, California roots.
As a Capitol Hill resident for the past ten years, Miller has become an essential player in encouraging and guiding the up and coming musical talent in the neighborhood and beyond.
“It felt like a gift to take it over,” says Miller, who started working in the pub on Wednesday nights and saw that “there was definitely a community happening.” When the hosting position became available, he jumped at the chance, and has stayed there for the last five years.
Miller’s genuine and welcoming persona definitely comes through in his music. His most recent album, “City Lights” (2012), casts a much wider net than what the traditional Americana or Folk genre often conveys. There’s a nostalgic feel even to his more upbeat or whimsical tunes. His poetic lyrics tell a story, taking you somewhere in the past, like a calming memory.
I spoke with Miller about the impact that the open mic has had on his and others’ lives.
Tell me about the Hopvine. What is it that you like about being there?
When I was working at the pub, I used to love serving on open mic nights. You get to watch people come in, meet each other, and really form this thick as thieves’ community. What I love about running the open mic is getting to be in a position of encouragement, because I find that people, especially if they’re very new, are in a really tough spot and desperately need encouragement. They’re just starting to put their creations out into the world and I get to be the guy that says, “I really enjoyed this” or “You’ve got a really special thing you do with your voice.” I get to be the one to see their development and tell them to come back anytime.
I’ve heard from a lot of local musicians that your support has been instrumental in their own music careers. Do you hear that a lot?
That’s helpful for me to hear because I don’t often feel like I have an impact, but people will come back and say “Hey man, if you didn’t say this, I wouldn’t be in a band,” which is crazy for me to hear.
That seems like a pretty powerful role. Is that how you like to engage with the Capitol Hill community?
I guess! I just really liked it and it’s turned into this thing where people feel safe there. I feel honored to be in this position. I don’t know that I set out thinking, “What’s my role in the community?” This just happens to be something I was given the gift of.
What do you want your music to say?
I don’t think that I have a large overarching message; I take more of a song to song approach. Some of my favorite writers are Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Dylan… Newman was really big for me because he writes character songs. Instead of going, “This is this story about my childhood,” it’s more like, “Here’s this weird character and how does he see the world?” That was really freeing for me as a writer.
What makes you want to pursue music?
I don’t think I could ever get tired of it. There are things that I do that I approach with sort of an “Ugh, I gotta do this” attitude, but music never feels like that. Music feels like I want to do it until I die.
Do you consider yourself more of a songwriter or a performer?
Gosh, I don’t know. I might be the wrong person to ask! I like them both. They’re both great and different. They feed different parts of me.
Do you have a songwriting process?
Usually the lyrics and the music kind of inform each other. Sometimes, I’ll just have a line. I had a good friend going through a relationship split and he said something about how he goes home and everything’s the same, but it’s just me. So I wrote a song out of that.
After a standing monthly gig for five years, and doing your first open mic there, the Hopvine must have a special place in your heart.
It feels like a hub. I can’t walk anywhere within a five-block radius of the Hopvine without running into somebody.
Miller continues to hold down Open Mic at the Hopvine on 15th Avenue every Wednesday at 8 p.m. Both new and old musicians often pop in for a great night of local talent, and you may just get the encouragement you need to move forward.