SOUTH BEND — A single set of ears — and group texts — can change the course of a creative’s career.
Thirty-three-year-old Micki Miller, a South Bend-born and -based songwriter, musician and producer, can attest.
Making music since age 6, Miller was steered from her church’s drum kit to keyboard early on by her older brother, a pastor and Grammy-nominated gospel artist.
“I actually started on drums, and as I got older, my brother’s like, ‘You need to learn how to play keys.’ And I was so mad because I wanted to be a drummer,” she said from her recording studio and rehearsal space on the city’s west side, citing her influential brother Jonanthan “YPJ” Miller as “the foundation of what we’re doing right now.” “And now we joke about it, like, ‘I’m grateful you made me play the keyboard because it expanded my creative process so much, to be able to play multiple instruments.’”
Miller’s music caught the ear of industry luminaries in a pinball-style passing mention, with lights and unlocked levels to follow, including 2016’s “Summertime Chi” (reaching No. 10 on the iTunes R&B and Soul chart) and work in London, Cameroon and the Philippines.
YPJ was touring alongside notable R&B singers Eric Roberson and Dave Hollister as a spiritual leader and performer, she explained.
“He had been telling Eric Roberson, ‘Yo, you need to hear my sister’s album.’ You know how it is — ‘You need to hear this.’ People say that all the time,” Miller, a full-time musician, recalled.
“Eric was just like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m going to check her out.’ And Eric never got a chance to check it out. And he was on tour and his bandmates were listening to my music on tour while they were driving, and Eric was like, ‘Who is this?’ And they said my name, and, of course, Miller registered. So he texted my brother, like, ‘Hey, man. Micki Miller’s your sister?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, man. That’s what I was telling you you need to listen to.’”
Roberson then texted DJ Jazzy Jeff, producer, DJ and actor best known for his work with actor-musician Will Smith.
“And from there, everything went crazy because Jeff, like, group texted all these legends, like, Questlove and James Poyser (both of The Roots and “The Tonight Show” band) and Jimmy Jam (collaborator with Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, TLC, Usher, Prince, Aretha Franklin) and all these people, my album,” Miller said.
“He group texted. One person. It’s crazy how one person can make that connection for you.”
The exposure led to Miller’s invitation (2017 and 2018) to Jazz’s now-annual retreat, The Playlist, where producers, musicians, emcees, turntablists and other creatives convene in Delaware for a multi-day exchange of group talent, a “Top 3 experience of my life,” she said.
“We go and spend a few days at DJ Jazzy Jeff’s house, and he has an amazing compound. We go, and they rent RVs. They basically bring us there for the point of collaboration. I’ve always been an introvert, so the first year for me, it wasn’t that I was uncomfortable, but I had to learn. It’s cool because he’s pushing us to be out of our shells,” she said.
“A lot of the people that are there, that I’ve become friends with, we’re all kind of, like, alphas; we’re the type where we can come into the studio and make a whole song by ourselves and we can create an album or project by ourselves. So he’s pulling us out of our shells creatively to come together and actually realize sometimes it’s dope to have another mind on what you’re trying to do because they might think of something you didn’t think of. And you don’t really know how important it is to have other minds in the room, sometimes, creating.”
THE COME UP
Miller’s most recent mixtape, “The Nightcap,” features emcee Heyzeus over original neo-soul/R&B/soul/jazz grooves and covers such as Outkast’s “Prototype.” In most situations, Miller employs the talent of her band, including local players Reggie “Wally” Norris (drums), Derrick “Dirk” Hines (bass) and Turrell “Deuce” O’Neal (keyboard). Notable outside collaborators include bassist MonoNeon, Cleon Edwards (drummer for Erykah Badu) and Dwayne “DW” Wright (bassist for Jill Scott).
The band, Miller and Heyzeus will perform together Jan. 6 at the Warner Theatre in South Bend, the city Miller not only calls home, but her “balance.”
“Every time I travel, people say, ‘When are you gonna move to L.A? When are you gonna move to New York?’ Like, people constantly ask me, ‘Are you ever gonna move?’ Probably not. Like, I don’t have any interest in moving, not just because it’s a comfortable place for me, but my family is here, my parents have built their churches here,” she said. “... It doesn’t matter where I go in the world, there’s nothing like being here and being able to go to Frankie’s or Linden Grill or go to Meijer and see people I know, because I have to see unfamiliar faces all the time traveling.”
Operating Faith Apostolic Ministries are Miller’s parents. The setting served as a proving ground for a young Miller, one in which the budding musician had to be ready for left turns at a moment’s notice.
“I started off playing by ear. Because of church, in the black community, it’s kind of like when you grow up as a musician in church, you don’t really learn theory first; you just kinda learn to play by ear. I think church has really been probably the biggest influence in terms of genre, like gospel, in terms of my music because you kind of have to be — in my opinion, it’s one of the most difficult things to play at church because you don’t know, a lady could come get on the mic and just start singing, and you gotta know how to follow,” she said. “You gotta know how to play in every key. You gotta know how to be able to perform on the spot. I think that’s what makes everything else I’m doing kind of easy. I always say, If you can play in church, for the most part, you can handle situations that are a lot of pressure.”
There was no cutting corners in Miller’s musical growth. She smiled, recalling how her mother wouldn’t allow her to hit the transpose button on her keyboard; she was expected to learn to perform (and stumble) within each musical key.
“My mom played. My grandmother. Everyone on my mom’s side for the most part, with the exception of very few, did music,” she said. “ So I was kind of around it, and my mom was, like, even with my daughter, she influences us a lot with music because she’s always been involved with music. She’ll play the piano and different things and sit us on her lap.”
With daughters Kaitlyn, Zoe and Ayanna, Miller’s developed a regimen: she drops her daughters off at school and heads to her studio to create. The habit, she explained, fosters productivity (she’s prepping a new album to be released in spring 2019) and conditions herself for the next level.
“Even if I come for a few hours, it’s just to kinda get myself in a routine,” she said. “I wanna take it serious, so when it is more serious than it already is, it’s not hard for me to actually be professional.”
Should she continue climbing, Miller insists the tracing of her trajectory will be clear.
“It means so much to go places and people are, like, singing my songs and stuff, but to be able to, at the end of the day, come back to South Bend and know I have family, friends here who genuinely love me and care for me, and it’s a solid foundation that I’ve built here, that’s super important to me,” she said. “... I just want people in the city to know we’re here and we love the city. I rep South Bend wherever I go. I’m never gonna forget where I came from because the city has been so influential in everything I do. Every part of me shows.”
For more on Micki Miller, including tracks from “The Nightcap,” visit mickimillermusic.com.
Geoff Lesar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 307.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Micki Miller wsg KO
WHEN: 7:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 6
WHERE: Warner Theatre, 403 N. Main St., South Bend
COST: $12 in advance, $15 at the door, $8 for students
Artist "Terrible Tony" Hilliard's work will be on display, with food available from The Beard & The Boss and drinks from South Bend Brew Werks. To purchase tickets, visit sbct.showare.com or call 574-234-1112.