Formerly of the band ‘We Raise Bears’, Conor Miley‘s debut solo record ‘Thousand Yard Stare’ is a spectacularly personal record, one devoted to an unexpected road to fatherhood and a love of his son. Riddled with emotion, Miley’s album has deep highs and lows, and draws in a collection of his friends in attempting to summarise his feelings and experiences.
Miley himself confesses this might be something of a one time album, a product of circumstance. However those circumstances felt, the album is beautiful. Below, Conor tells me the stories behind it…
First of all, congratulations on Thousand Yard Stare. I understand it’s close to your heart. Can you tell me the story behind the record?
Thank you. The album came directly out of what was happening in my life at the time. My previous band, We Raise Bears, had ended and I was in a new relationship. This ended and I found out I was to be a father a month later. I won’t go into the specifics of what happened out of respect for my son’s mum but it was a very emotional time. I wrote the lyrics and the basic tunes over about a four or five month period. Lockdown then hit. I set up the house I was living in as a recording studio and went about recording and arranging the tunes in painstaking detail.
I moved in with my cousin and finished the job there. It’s an album directly about a breakup with someone you still loved but knew it couldn’t work. It was written at a time when I knew I was to be a father and recorded after he was born.
There’s a lot of hope in it, trying to take the lessons of heartbreak and all the pain that it brings and be appreciative of the result of it – a beautiful boy who has made everything worthwhile.
It must have been particularly difficult to create the record given parental responsibilities. How long has it taken and what were the main challenges?
From start to finish the record took the best part of 3 years. If lockdown hadn’t happened I’m not sure where I would have gotten the time to get it done. My son was a baby and living with his mum a good distance away. I didn’t see him for a couple of months and just recorded to keep me sane. I recorded when I could.
When I took paternity leave from my job as a teacher I hired a cottage near where he was. When I wasn’t spending time with him I just recorded.
The cost of producing an album was another challenge. I got some equipment and did it nearly entirely by myself mainly for this reason, but also the independence that it brings. I then wrote all the string and trumpet parts. The drums and strings were recorded in Monique Studios with Christian Best who does Mick Flannery’s stuff. I recorded the trumpets myself with Paul Kiernan, one of the guys from Booka Brass Band. I regard the parental responsibilities as my only important priority. Everything else is just stuff. Everything – gigs, recording, promotion – is fitted in around that.
Which tracks stand out to you as containing the core message of your music on this album?
There are many facets in the album. ‘Lost Honeybee’ would be the best representation of heartbreak and trying to make sense of it all after a breakup. ‘Thousand Yard Stare’, ‘Getaway’ and ‘In the Undertow’ would be quite introspective and about figuring out things in a time and space of turmoil. ‘Father’s Day’ would be quite an angry reflection on the role and place of single fathers in Ireland. It’s something I could speak at length about but the realization of the reality of the situation and being in the middle of it came out in that song.
At the end of it all there is a hopeful thread that comes out in songs like ‘Dreamer You’, ‘Slowly’, ‘I Return’, ‘From the Ashes’ and ‘Paean’ – that these things that happen to us are lessons and that there is a wealth of love and support out there if we choose to take it.
There are recordings of your son on the album. Did deciding to include those help conclude the message for you?
I wanted him on there in some physical way considering he influenced so much of it. I had the idea for introducing the final song with a conversation between the pair of us – he was 2 at the time. It didn’t really work so I swapped it with two recordings – one a voice mail his mum sent me when he was a baby and the other a recording I made on the sly while we were making lego boats and putting them in a basin.
I finished that song with a distant recording of us talking and me showing him the main piano figure of the tune. I thought it was a perfect way to end the album – an audio recording of us as I sing “It’s a paean to the story of our love” over it. It represented the album perfectly for me. That line was written for his mum and our son is the product of what we had – he is the paean in some metaphorical way!
‘Slowly I Return’ of course has far more different voices. What was the concept there, and how did you make it work in practise?
I really wanted something beautiful to start the album. This is a song of hope. It’s about somebody having been through something and coming out the other side. We generally have to do these things by ourselves but we have people to help us along the way. I wanted a line – “It’s time for you to come home, you’ve been out there too long” – to be said by my friends and family. It made it more personal and gave it a different slant and edge.
I sent a message to about one hundred friends and family and nearly all got back with the Whatsapp voice message. I took these from my phone and downloaded them onto my computer, put them into a sampler and played them with a midi keyboard and edited it a little afterwards. The product was something quite emotional and exactly what I was looking for. I kept one voice to the end of the song – it’s underneath the strings and voices and organs. I won’t say who it is – you’d also be doing well to pick it out!
How difficult do you think this album will be to play live, given the emotional depth of its content and the extras that you’ve added in?
This is something I’m grappling with right now. Due to the level of detail in each song it is quite challenging to play live. If I had a 6 or 7 piece band it would be grand, but economics dictate and this is unfortunately not possible at the moment. The plan for now is to play with just a drummer. I may get one other person in on bass and low end duties.
I am using Ableton Live and doing a lot of looping to flesh out the tunes and it has started to come together. It is extremely demanding and there is no room for error but, so far, the rehearsals have been very rewarding. To me the emotional depth of the album is not really a factor – I’ve always played and sung with my heart on my sleeve.
Is your son old enough to express an opinion on the album? What did he say if so?
He is 4 and everything his daddy does is great! He does request “your music” when we’re in the car sometimes, but a story will soon be requested after. His mum and her family are fantastic musicians so it’s something I hope he gets into in his own time. I will have more albums and I hope I can talk to him about them when he’s a lot older.
How much does your classical background play into your sound on the record?
I grew up playing classical piano but I would never have called myself a classical musician. It’s something I want to get back to as it’s great for technique. I studied music in college and some of the 20th Century ideas went into a number of the songs. I used dissonance and cluster chords in particular to create drama. These were subtle things hidden in vocal, organ and synth parts. Due to recording at home on my own I didn’t have cymbals and the like to saturate the frequencies and provide the musical climax I was looking for.
I had to improvise and saturated the vocal and synth parts with clusters and dissonances to provide what the song needed.
This is quite different to ‘We Raise Bears’. Do the two projects represent different sides of you?
I think it’s just an evolution. I learned an awful lot in We Raise Bears and was able to take what I learned and record an album with it. I think this album can be seen thematically in isolation as a reflection of a particular time in my life. You couldn’t record only albums like this – you would go insane! The We Raise Bears stuff was more observational and less personal I guess. My next album may go down that route more than this one.
What are your hopes for the record?
I want this album to hopefully give me a starting point to enable me to bring out more albums in the coming years. I’m stretching out the release as I’m not looking at it as a one shot thing. The digital release will be followed by a physical CD release and launch gig in the Bello Bar. I’ll bring out the vinyls in the new year. I really just hope that some people will listen to it, like it and see and feel what went into it. If I can get a few people on board maybe they’ll also like what I’ll produce in the future.
A huge amount of everything – time, money, emotion, pain – went into it. It would be nice to get some of the financials back but we’ll see how it goes. Overall, I just would like people to feel it and enjoy it.
Conor Miley’s ‘Thousand Yard Stare’ is out now.