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Fatherhood Inspires Experimental Musician Ashley Miller

Alex Smith

To a lot of local music fans, Ashley Miller’s new music might bring a shock. Not because it’s noisy or avant garde, but because it’s not.

Usually one of Kansas City’s most experimental musicians, Miller has a new band and a new recording delivering bright, African-inspired grooves with spiritually-themed lyrics. Ashley Miller says that recently becoming a father has changed not just his music but the way he thinks about art.

For years, musician and composer Ashley Miller has challenged listeners with songs like “Teacake at the Top” by his band The Golden Calves. Jerky, disjointed and chaotic, Miller’s music has seemed liked a puzzle that may or may not have an answer. His live performances could be funny, freaky or scary, depending on his mood. Miller had the reputation of being one of Kansas City’s most far out musicians.

But about a year and a half ago, Miller’s work took a surprising change of course: he decided he wanted to make music that would make people happy.

“With this, it’s been really intentional what emotions are cultivated,” Ashley Miller explains. “Where before, it was maybe I was greedy, or I just wanted to seduce people or something. Now it’s more like this is a responsibility. I need to wield this with – on purpose and try to cultivate love and delight and joy.”

Ashley Miller traces his artistic change to another big change in his life. In the summer of 2011, his daughter Iko was born, and Ashley felt a special responsibility to this newest listener.

“I knew for the first time that the way that I was feeling would be shown directly back to me by someone else,” Miller says. “I know that she is going to hear what I make, because that’s what I’m doing all the time. And I know that there is no way to hide it – hide where it’s really coming from, because children just have that nature to reveal things as they actually are. So if it’s coming from the sort of like dark emotions or the lower centers of gravity, you know, it’s gonna be revealed.”

On a recent weekday afternoon, Ashley Miller sat behind the giant mixing board of his home studio and offered a preview of his upcoming recording, Metatone, by his new band by the same name. Out of the big twin speakers bounce chirpy guitars and chattering beats, influenced by the pop music of Kenya and Nigeria.

“I’m really inspired by African music. Deeply, deeply,” says Miller. “Just the vibe, and they just have this incredible ability to deal with the most complicated, heavy content, but it’s all ecstatic musically, which is really appealing to me. And it’s just unrelentingly groovy too.”

Lots of musicians find their comfort zone away from the edges and extremes. Miller, on the other hand, says taking the middle road and making accessible sounds is a lot harder for him than his usual surreal music.

“It’s funny. It’s more on the edge for me cause I’m really safe it those place, because you can just disappear into mayhem,” Ashley Miller explains. “It’s really easy. So this has been – to me it’s more risky because it’s very vulnerable to stay right in the middle and hold the center. And that to me is really noisy, actually. That to me is really edgy and noisy is to filter out all of the other ideas that are really exotic or really heavy.”

The spiritual lyrics of Metatone can be equally heavy or glib, even irreverent. They hint at Christianity one minute, Buddhism the next, and New Age after that. The songs reflect what Ashley calls “internet spirituality,” borrowing from whatever faiths or philosophies grab his attention.

While Miller has been involved in numerous bands and countless projects, he plans on sticking with Metatone for a while. And the new perspective that’s come being a father is likely to have a long-lasting effect on his music.

“It’s deeply influenced it in the most profound way possible,” Miller explains. “I feel like I have a one-to-one connection with my own purpose. And it’s a very humbling thing to just be a human being and understand that you have a very, very, very limited skill set. And you just kind of have to say yes to yourself.”

Ashley Miller’s new band and their new recording are called “Metatone.”

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KCCurrents podcast.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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