In January, Rhett Miller had a brainstorm in an unusual place, when his brainy Dallas cowpunk combo Old 97s played a posh private gig for a wealthy benefactor in Boston.
“Everybody was sooo sick of Christmas music,” says Miller, who appears with his band in The City this week. “But it was already in my brain, because I’d gone through the holiday season thinking, ‘I could write a better song than that!’ So I went to the guys in the dressing room in Boston and said, ‘What if we make a Christmas album? The fans will like it and — God forbid! — we might make a little money off of it.”
The rollicking result is the nearly all-original “Love the Holidays,” released Nov. 16, alongside Miller’s conversely dark solo effort “The Messenger.” His eighth solo album, with stoic tracks “Broken,” “Total Disaster ”and “The Human Condition,” analyzes the depression that led to his suicide attempt at 14 — a fact he began openly discussing two years ago as part of the Okay to Say mental health initiative.
To tap into both decidedly different discs, Old 97s’ upcoming concerts promise to be riveting, if schizophrenic, performances, combining solo Miller’s material with cheerful Yuletide warmth from “Holidays.” Its tunes include the twangy neo-traditional “Snow Angels,” “Rudolph Was Blue” and “Gotta Love Being a Kid (Merry Christmas)” with the droll couplet “Wrapping paper, big old bows/ I hope I don’t get no clothes.”
Miller, 48 — with his wife Erica and their kids Max and Soleil — live in New York’s woodsy Hudson Valley. Their house, now blanketed in eight inches of snow, is a five-minute drive, in any direction, from a cut-your-own-Christmas-tree farm, and the family insists on a real tree every year.
“When I get to be with my kids during the holidays, you really see the magic of Christmas,” he says. “So I like it when a song can be useful, and Christmas songs have a built in utility, because every single year you have to play Christmas music. So wouldn’t it be nice if it wasn’t all ‘Last Christmas’ by George Michael? That song is the bane of my existence.”
As a kid, Miller would tear downstairs at 6 a.m. and have every last present opened by 6:05 Christmas morning. Now, he and his wife make the children wait two extra hours while cinnamon rolls, coffee, then a full breakfast are prepared.
“But even as an adult, presents are tricky,” he says. “They’re the physical manifestation of other people’s appreciation of you, but if you don’t get that dopamine hit that you feel you deserve, then you feel unloved.”