The 21-year-old singer and keyboardist Tor Miller is rapidly finding his way to a personable, Billy Joel-style storytelling sound. You can hear it on last year's autobiographical Headlights EP, as well as on "Carter & Cash," the country name-checking single from his as-yet-untitled full-length debut, which is due out in April on Glassnote Records.
But the smoothness of Miller's soulful delivery belies a hardscrabble past that began when he started performing live in his early teens on an unforgiving New Jersey shore bar circuit. He learned how to please an audience the hard way, by playing only originals, not requested covers. And he still shudders recalling his worst gig, ever.
"We played The Aztec, a popular bar in Seaside, which is where the TV show Jersey Shore was filmed, and it was a bar they frequented," says the singer. "We played at 2 in the morning, we got paid in condoms, and I was playing to practically just the bar staff. And there was an elderly couple in, I'd say, their late 60s, and he was fingering his wife right in front of my face, up on a bar stool." He sighs. "That's all I had in my line of vision. It was pretty grim. And I was about 16, at an age when you're usually uncomfortable just breathing."
But Miller had an unflagging, nearly obsessive devotion to his craft that dated back to his pre-teens. After his New York-based lawyer parents temporarily separated, he moved with his mother to New Jersey. During car commutes to his school back in the city, she would play classic pop albums like Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, Elton John's greatest hits, and David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, which particularly inspired him. "There was just something about that one Bowie record that changed my life completely," he says.
Miller did not adapt well to his Garden State surroundings. "I think something really changed in me — I didn't talk to anyone or have any friends for a couple of years, just because I wasn't willing to acclimate to my Jersey environment, or assimilate. But that's when I discovered that I enjoyed playing piano, which I never had enjoyed previously."
Given lessons by a retired wedding singer, he learned his instrument so quickly that he soon formed a band. From there, he went on to land once-a-month residencies at New York nightspots like The Rockwood Music Hall and the burlesque joint The Slipper Room, where the silence was often deafening.
But all the while, Miller was developing keen observational skills that proved valuable when composing ballads like the EP's leadoff track "Midnight," which captures the feeling of getting off work in the middle of the night and strolling out into a still-bustling Manhattan evening.
Miller admits that he still carries his teenage isolation with him, wherever he goes. Unfortunately, this affected his recent two-year romance that just imploded. "Having to run things by people, and having to have consideration for another's feelings about things that you really want to do? That's something that just wasn't going to fly with me, and I've found that I've had that in every relationship I've ever been in," he says, in businesslike tones. "So I'm really enjoying this time now, just touring across the States. I feel like I'm getting back in touch with myself."