Long before he released his Billy Joel-evocative debut EP “Headlights” last year, fans, friends and family were dubbing New York City keyboardist Tor Miller an old soul, a musician who seemed far more mature than his 21 years would suggest. He doesn’t really see it, though.
“I’ve just had this same determination from a super-young age, ever since I started performing live at 14,” he says. “I mean, I would have my band rehearse five times a week, then we’d play a show on the weekend. I was dedicated to making this music thing happen for me,” says Miller, who plays San Francisco this week, premiering songs from his upcoming album for Glassnote.
Yet Miller has lived a lifetime in seven years.
He started out on the New Jersey shore circuit, then graduated to once-a-month residencies at Big Apple nightclubs like the Rockwood Music Hall and the burlesque joint The Slipper Room. His defiantly all-original sets made it difficult to build a following.
At the Rockwood, Miller often found himself playing to just the bar staff alone; audiences wanted to hear cover songs, which he’d tired of doing.
But The Slipper Room had perks, including an open bar for artists, even though the clientele was interested in the dancers, not live music.
“I was getting pretty trashed, and I would just be out of sorts at my piano, and I hardly could play, and I’d be getting into it with the audience,” Miller says. “So needless to say, they got rid of me. And that’s why I don’t drink before shows anymore.”
The composer kept refining his material, until he arrived at his soulful “Piano Man” style, a la the EP track “Midnight” and its keenly-observed lyrics, gleaned from the time when he regularly get off work: “Jeff Buckley’s “Grace” was playing loud as hell in the back of an old dive bar/ So I step outside and light a cigarette, take in the fumes of the passing cars.”
Miller, an insomniac who often goes walking aimlessly through New York at night, says, “My music touches on that isolation in the late hours, and there’s a lot to write about in those moments.”
His new songs include “Baby Blue” and “Crust Punk Queen,” about moneyed Connecticut brats living like squatters for kicks in New York.
Ultimately, Miller blames his maturity on moving with his mother from Brooklyn to New Jersey when his lawyer parents temporarily separated.
For two years, he shut himself off, barely speaking to anyone. “But that’s when I discovered that I enjoyed playing piano, which I never had enjoyed previously,” he says. “And now I carry that isolation around with me everywhere I go.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell St., S.F.
When: 9 p.m. Feb. 5
Tickets: $13 to $15
Contact: (415) 861-2011, www.snagtickets.com