Diane Miller needs no introduction. As a talented singer, rapper, musician, and writer, she’s a bit of an enigma in her ability to slide between art forms and genres, which made her an obvious choice for an artist study. We tagged along to a band rehearsal and to their show later that night.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Diane Miller. I’m a musician. I’m a writer. I’m a songwriter. I do a lot of things. I beatbox, I sing, I rap, I’m a band leader of a seven piece hip hop band called DMills and the Thrills. I play banjo. I play keyboards. I play guitar.
How did you get into music?
My mom had this really old school classic karaoke machine, like a tape deck and 8 track player, and she always sang around the house. My dad liked really good music, too. He’s the one that got me into Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, George Jones, and the Makaha twins because I used to live in Hawaii for a little bit. And my mom really loved Connie Francis and Shirley Bassey and the Carpenters (laughs)... so yeah my parents were both big music fans.
My mom grew up as a folk dancer in the Philippines, and she was a performer. But when she moved here she didn’t really perform. She just kind of did it at home. It was her way of being relaxed. I always loved my mother’s singing voice. It always calmed me, soothed me, because I was an anxious child.
In middle school I started a group called ‘Banana Soup’. It was me and this one other girl. She was also Filippina. It was just stupid middle school girl music. We both played acoustic guitar and we wrote stupid, weird songs because we were weird.
We could relate because we both had Filipino parents. And then she played guitar and I was like “oooh I want that.” So my parents gave me a guitar for Christmas. I’m mostly self taught but I observed her. We performed concerts in our basement… just a couple of them (laughs). We thought we were so cool.
But then in high school I found athletics -- track and cross country -- and then that sorta took over. I focused more on sports. And I was just a closet musician. I liked to blog about music rather than do my homework in high school. I listened to tons of music. I wouldn’t want to do anything else but blog about it on my Xanga page. It was awesome.
I was really really really shy as a kid so it was hard for me to perform. It was hard for me to convince myself that I was good. I often convinced myself that I wasn’t good enough.
When did you gain the confidence to perform?
There were enough moments where I realized, “I am decent at this.” It’ll come in waves. And the more you do it, the better you’ll get. You’ll just grow and grow and grow.
And sometimes I would be like “I’m quitting. I’m terrible at this,” because my confidence was so low, and then for some reason I couldn’t help it. I’d just keep coming back to it. And so I’d force myself to do open mics at MSUM. I would always score so low. But I dunno. I just kept at it and kept at it and kept at it.
Do you consider yourself outgoing now?
Yeah! It’s crazy. Now I don’t mind being the center of attention. I don’t mind chatting with strangers. I’m not shy about it.
Describe what performing is like.
Well, it can depend. Especially when it’s going over really well, and the audience is relating to it, it’s the most extraordinary feeling on the planet. When you’re performing, and you can feel the crowd loves it, and you’re just in the moment, feeling the music, all your inhibitions are gone. That, for me, is the absolute quintessential feeling in the world. Nothing like it.
It also can be scary as f*ck, you know, because when you really put yourself out there in an artform, people are so opinionated. Just like with owning a restaurant is super scary. Because people are so opinionated about food. Nobody likes to be judged negatively.
[That fear] is something I’ve been able to get over, but I can sometimes get neurotic on stage. Especially as a band leader, when you’re dealing with other people on the stage and you wanna keep them happy, you wanna make sure the crowd is having a good time. I’m the type of person who wants everyone to be happy. But I mean that’s why anyone gets scared.
What’s the process of writing songs like?
Sometimes you’ll be in a car and get the idea for a song. Or you’ll even just think of a lyric. I’ve been in a coffee shop just listening to a song and I like how it sounds so I interpret it differently.
The most important thing is that you actually do it though. Even if in the moment of you saying that you don’t feel like doing it, you force yourself to anyway, you can come up with the best ideas.
For me it’s always better when I’m by myself. I don’t like writing in front of people. Because for me to write, I have to be as relaxed as possible. And I do that much better when I’m by myself.
What’s the reason for all the tributes and covers?
One reason I like doing tributes is that it pushes me as a performer and a songwriter to actually learn someone else’s music and do it exactly how they do it. It challenges you. And even just memorizing helps you with your brain capacity. I think it increases your skill level.
And I always want to pay homage or respect to the artist that does it. Because if it wasn’t for them, for their brilliance… (trails off)
I want to look at different types of music so I don’t become too much like [one band].
How do you think your music has changed in the last ten years?
It’s gotten way better just because my confidence has gotten better. And that’s such a huge part of playing music. Because the more you play, it’s just natural for you to get better at it.
What are your goals going forward?
Just to make more, be more prolific. I’ve become a better singer, too, so I definitely wanna reach out and not stay in like a box of simple major and minor melodies, to be able to throw in some dissonance in there. And the better of an ear you get, the easier it is to make music in a way that sounds good, but doesn’t always fit in a template.
Is your music writing fantastical, autobiographical, or both?
Combination. Totally a combination. There are times when it reflects my life, when I go back and read some of my lyrics and it’s like “oh yeah” (laughs). A lot of times it’s just my subconscious coming out. I don’t often think a lot when I write. And a lot of it is anxiety based, because I tend to write when there’s so much going on in my brain. You can definitely tell that it’s from me. My life comes out in it for sure, but it can be fantasy based. It’s also gonna be its own weird freakish world.
Music is the one thing that’s always spoken to me. It’s always made sense to me. It’s natural. I can lose my mind to it. I will just freak out to a song sometimes because it moves me so hard.
What’s on your playlist right now?
I’m so obsessed right now with Sarah Jarosz. (whispers) She’s amazing. She has this awesome rendition of Bob Dylan’s ‘Ring Them Bells’. There was this one time when I just listened to it on repeat for hours.
Art is beautiful. It needs to be created. It just does. For other people to consume. For me to consume. To even just reflect the times, too. It can almost document where you were at in a beautiful way.
What do you hope that people take away from your music?
It can be whatever so long as it’s a positive experience. If they grow from it, or if they are entertained by it, hell yeah. I want them to take it and use it in whatever way that they might need it.
What influences you outside of music?
People people people people.
I like laughing from other people, at other people. Sharing stories with other people, listening to other people’s stories. Connecting with other people that’s not artificial.
I love people. I really do. Of course there are people that I can’t stand. Just like everyone, there are people that annoy the sh*t out of me. But I really respond to people who are kind, polite, and just a little bit outside of the box.
Are there things you need to have when you’re rehearsing or performing?
I do better when I’m with people that I trust or when I’m with other people who are relaxed. The most important thing to feel is that there’s good energy.
What advice do you have for other artists?
Practice. Yeah. That’s seriously so... yeah... Practice practice practice. If you didn’t practice, don’t waste people’s time. Or don’t torture yourself thinking that you aren’t good enough if you went onstage and didn’t rehearse for a show. For these shows, they’re some of the best shows of my life because I rehearsed my ass off for them. If you really wanna do it, do it up to your full potential and practice.