- 21 Sep 22
The Millar's Tales
“He’s a national treasure. There, I said it!” Stevo declared when he saw a picture of the good doctor, Seán Millar, standing beside yours truly, and he’s right too. Seán’s been on the road since the well-remembered Cute Hoors first sat into the back of a van in the late eighties and has, more recently, been quite rightly lauded for his theatre collaborations and his highly commendable community group work. It is as a song writer, however, that Millar will be remembered after we bury his body or throw it into the sea. He’s proving his worth again with a brand-new album, Ruining Everything, so we thought we’d ask him to pick a few songs from his oeuvre and tell us what they mean to him.
Unsurprisingly, we start with ‘These Days’ from his first solo album, 1995’s The Bitter Lie, a song that Paolo Nutini – a man who also knows his way around a middle eight – recently selected for Hot Press as one that changed his life.
“That means a lot to me personally,” says Seán, over a lunchtime pint in The International. “Nutini came across as a really good guy in the few things I’ve seen and the fact that he found something in my work that spoke to him about his own experiences is really moving. To read that an expression of my life could reach out across all that time, to a different place and a different life experience, was profoundly affecting.”
“I’m very lucky, in some ways. From the time I started in my early twenties, I got a lot of praise – not a lot of money, but a lot of praise – so I take it with a grain of salt, but that doesn’t mean I’m not glad of it. It’s what you live and work for; that people hear what you do and relate to it in some way, so it was touching and lovely.”
With lyrics like “so much pain inside, the actions of a man I hardly recognise”, it would appear to record a period of Seán’s life – those twenties – that he doesn’t recall with any great fondness.
“At the time, it did feel like that, but now it’s different, it’s a bit rose-tinted,” he says, rubbing his chin. “It’s a mixture. I made friends that are still friends now, and the London post-punk scene was endless fun and excitement. I signed a publishing deal with Complete Music and I had a nice flat in Shepherd’s Bush. It was about three years of things being pretty good, and then they just crashed through the floor.”
Three years of expectations that didn’t come to pass.
“That’s literally what happened. I went to meetings with all these labels, and they’d come to my gigs, but it’s called show business, not show friends, although even after they’d pass on me, they’d still come to my gigs.”
I like this, but I can’t sell it.
“I used to keep rejection letters and two thirds of them said, ‘I personally really like this music, but…’ The thing is you can just be an artist. You don’t need their support or their money or their acclamation. You don’t need them telling you what you can and can’t do. You can just make records and play gigs, and that’s what I did.”
All You Need Is Love
Always Coming Home, with its beautiful title track, was released in 2002 and is, as Seán himself says, “the one they always want to hear at gigs.”
“It’s about lying awake,” he explains. “I was an insomniac for most of my life – I sleep now, which is great – and I’d lay awake with crippling anxiety. My mother has a really positive worldview –‘It’s better to travel in hope than to arrive’. When my daughter was born, she used to sleep in with Pom [the wife] and I. I’d be lying awake like I always was but these two would be asleep beside me and it just wasn’t as bad anymore. I felt surrounded by their love, and protected by it, and that’s basically what the song is about.”
Love makes everything all right.
“I really believe that. It’s what I believe about love and what I believe about music. I think music is the great thing, the healing thing. Music is more important than even we think it is, and we think it’s pretty fucking important. Music is always an expression of love, even when it’s expressing hate, even when it’s expressing anger. It’s an expression of love and of healing, and that’s what I was feeling, completely loved and accepted, maybe for the first time in my life, when I met Pom and we had the children. I understood my mother’s perspective more, and that’s what the song is about. I was always thinking ‘why can I never get home?’, ‘why can I never belong?’. That’s what an awful lot of my stuff is about, being alienated, but ‘Always Coming Home’ is about accepting that desire to want to be home.”
Home is where the heart is?
“Home is where the heart is.”
The Third Phase
If Seán was perhaps being a bit too hard on himself back in ‘These Days’ then ‘Look What She Threw Away’, the marvellous song featuring Donal Lunny’s bouzouki that opens Ruining Everything, may signal some self-reconciliation. The lyric wonders what we were all so worried about when we were young, when we should have been celebrating how amazing and beautiful we all were.
“That’s what it’s about,” the writer confirms, then points an accusatory finger at the interviewer. “You were gorgeous, I’ve seen photographs of you!”
Seán obviously meant ‘are’ instead of ‘were’ in that sentence, but he seems to be suffering from a temporary fit of the vapours, brought on by the close proximity. He composes himself and continues.
“I’ve worked with loads of beautiful men and women – dancers, actors, singers – and maybe two of them thought that about themselves. We’re all so judgmental and hard on ourselves about our decline. I wanted a song that embraced everybody and just said ‘you’re amazing!’ It’s also advising young people to own it, just live your life. I would say that young people, since about the mid-seventies, are made to feel morally bad about all the things that are great about being young; looking good, getting off your head, having sex, dancing. A new type of puritanism has come in, it’s replaced the old one, and it’s made it terrible for people to do that.”
“Enjoy your life right now. I thought I was going to die earlier this year [a health scare Seán doesn’t wish to harp on about because he’s old school]. I didn’t, I’m still here, so I’m going to tour and bring out a new album. Enjoy it now, because when you’re dead you can’t.”
Ruining Everything is Millar’s lockdown album and he’s justifiably delighted with it.
“I had to keep taking breaks because of lockdown and my illness, but what I tried to do was make a record that’s rough and raw and really folky. The producer Les Keye brought in Donal Lunny. Planxty and The Velvet Underground are my two favourite bands so to have Donal was amazing, and we had Bill ‘Banjo’ Whelan and Liam Ó Maonlaí. Even though I came out of the post-punk era, I am a folk musician and I wanted to embrace who I am. I'm this guy heading into the third phase. I've played music and written songs since I was fourteen, I've played all over the world with all kinds of people; that's who I am. If I'm playing in your bar to five people, I'm still that guy. I love it. Seriously, I love my life.”