Cathy Miller: Living For The Stars
by Jan Vanderhorst
All right, exactly why are we buried six feet under when we die? Why not four or five feet? Does it make that much of a difference? That's a question singer-songwriter Cathy Miller had to answer awhile ago on a radio program. Since 1993 this Calgary-based performer has written songs for the CBC Radio show "That's A Good Question". Listeners write in for answers to life's oddities and conundrums and occasionally Cathy would write songs that would answer some of these questions. "God Bless The Backhoe"is one such song.
England was inspired, though it made grave diggers tired
To dig the hole four feet by eight by six
So the husband could be buried atop the wife that he had married
With two feet left to plant the crucifix.
"God Bless the Backhoe" can be found on Cathy's new CD "Living For The Stars".
"This is the first time I've ever recorded any of the light-hearted stuff I do on stage", says Cathy, "people know me in performances as being quite eclectic. There's jazz, there's folk 'angst', there's humour, there's a cappella, there's everything. I've got it all on this album."
The new recording, on her own Sealed With A Kiss label, is Cathy's fourth release. It's also a piece of work specifically arranged with her audience in mind.
"The CD was designed so that when people took it home from my live performances, they'd hear pretty much hear the same (treatment of the songs). On this album I go back to my acoustic roots. It's a very sparse album featuring me and maybe two other people on each track. (As a result) you can hear the center core of my voice and my guitar playing much more clearly."
Although Cathy's musical roots stem from folk music, her love of jazz has been evident for a number of years now. "My second album, done in 1988, was very jazzy. I had a full jazz band and it was really great to sing with a band like that. But what I found was, it was quite difficult to sell the album because I wasn't touring with that band."
With "Living For The Stars", Cathy approaches her jazz leanings from the perspective of a folkie. "I'm finding that fun to do right now", she says, "and it's very challenging to do. I've dipped into some of the classic, standard repertoire. 'My Funny Valentine' I've been performing on stage for years, (but I) never got around to recording it, because I didn't want it overshadowed by a band. What I found really worked (in performing the song) was just me, the guitar and the song. So I wanted to keep that acoustic edge to the jazz, so that it was acceptable to my audience, but still challenging for me."
The challenge of writing a song on demand, on a specific topic, was something Cathy faced at a 1989 folk festival. The artistic director asked four songwriters at the beginning of the festival to each write a song about whirlpools, which they would then perform at the closing of the festival. Cathy's contribution was "Whirlpool Of Love".
"I guess I call it fluff stuff, very light-hearted and fun. I'm moving away from the angst-ridden days of my youth", she says with a laugh. Songs of a serious nature though, are the mainstay of Cathy Miller's repertoire. "Cumberland" looks back at a shameful episode of Canada's history.
"(It's about) how we treated Chinese coal miners just before and during the Great Depression. The Chinese coal miners were intrinsic and deeply important to the coal mining on Vancouver Island. When jobs started getting tight, they were turfed. (The song) is really about the glory days of Cumberland, which now is pretty much a ghost town."
Now you won't hear Chinese fireworks on New Year's Eve
Or see two hundred pigs herded down Main Street
No orchestra, no theatre, no smoky gambling halls
Just some faded photographs on museum walls.
The album "Living For The Stars" was produced by David K, one of Cathy's cohorts in "Trilogy", which also includes Eileen McGann. Trilogy tours through late November and well into December with a show they call "Two Thousand Years Of Christmas". The show highlights various aspects of the Christmas celebration, using both traditional and original songs. Their CD, also called "Two Thousand Years Of Christmas, runs the gamut from 15th and 16th century carols to "You're A Mean One Mr. Grinch". Original songs include Cathy's "Tonight Is For Christmas" and Eileen's "Turn It Around". If that wasn't enough to keep her busy, Cathy runs a bed and breakfast business in Calgary with her husband John.
"We hope when we get back from touring in mid-June", she says, "we'll be full (with guests) all summer."
For more information on Cathy Miller, check out her website at nucleus.com/~cmiller.
For information on Trilogy, check out candisc.com/trilogy.
Jan Vanderhorst can be reached at Jan@hyperpeople.com