Speaking to Ohio alternative weekly newspaper, The Cleveland Scene, in 2001, Chicago-based, alt-country singer-songwriter Chris Mills said of his second album, ‘Kiss It Goodbye’: “It’s about departures and things breaking down – relationships and things like that. Emotional decay and self-deception are themes that run through it.”
In 2000, the year ‘Kiss It Goodbye’ was released, Mills was in his mid-twenties and I was a 26-year-old, emotionally unstable single man. I won’t go into details, but this album, along with Ryan Adams’s ‘Heartbreaker’, which came out the same year, became a soundtrack to my life. Both of them are two of the greatest break-up records of all time – if you don’t agree, meet me in a bar at the dark end of the street and we’ll argue the toss over a bottle of whiskey.
The first time I heard anything by Chris Mills was when I listened to a compilation CD of new music that came with an issue of Uncut magazine, in 2000. The album was called ‘Unconditionally Guaranteed 2000.7’ and the last track on it was the astonishing and atmospheric ‘Signal/Noise’, which is also the final song on ‘Kiss It Goodbye.’
On this epic, melancholy, ‘50s/‘60s-style ballad, which, with its ‘sha-la-la-la’ female backing vocals, horns, strings and twinkling keyboards, sounds like a lo-fi Phil Spector production, Mills asks the question: “Does it make you happy to see me so sad?” I was hooked and wanted to find out more. Why was he so sad and what did his other songs sound like?
I hastily bought ‘Kiss It Goodbye’ on CD and listened to it on repeat. To be fair, ‘Signal/Noise’ wasn’t typical of the rest of the album – well, its mood was, but, musically, it stuck out like a sore thumb. Most of the record was more alt-country and Americana-sounding, but, damn, I loved it.
Sure, it was miserable – the brutal and unsettling ‘Napkin In A Wine Glass’ deals with domestic violence; on ‘Crooked Vein’, a pedal steel-laced cover of a song by Herman Jolly, Mills says: “I’m gonna stick a straight razor in my crooked vein”, and on the painfully honest and aching country of ‘Watch Chain’ he reveals: “I have changed the locks on my heart since you were here” – but underneath all the darkness there was black humour and a glimmer of hope.
On the yearning and maudlin ‘Tooth and Nail’, accompanied by piano, cello and violin, he sings: “I don’t mind drinking myself to sleep, as long as I’m sleeping in your arms”, and on ‘Lips Are Like Poison’, he tells someone: “Your good luck charms have all run out of luck, ‘cause even if you wanted me, I’m too drunk to fuck.”
Opener, ‘Brand New Day’, is anthemic and defiant power-pop – a rousing wake-up call, which sees Mills leaving behind a failed relationship. Although he sings: “I’m still fucking up,” he adds: “I’ve made up my mind – it’s gonna be a brand new day.”
Twenty years on from the release of ‘Kiss It Goodbye’, AMUK spoke to Mills, who is now based in New York, to find out what his memories are of making the record.
“Mostly foggy – it was so long ago,” he says. “Writing-wise, I do remember trying to push myself from an arranging standpoint. I was never a very good guitar player, so even little things, like learning how to play a major seventh chord, seemed liked big discoveries at the time. Creating songs with different sections felt really revolutionary to me for some reason, because I never had a clue how things were done. Even the most rudimentary compositional stuff seemed like a giant leap.”
On the sound of the album, he says: “I was really excited by the studio and I wanted to do something that felt different and authentic, and that pushed around the edges of the things I was associated with. I didn’t want to just do a rootsy, folk-rock record –I wanted to make something big and raw and romantic and sad. Sonically, I wanted the songs to be like little movies, so that each one was its own little world – at least on the tracks I did with [co-producer] Brian Deck.”
It’s not an easy record to listen to and it certainly wasn’t an easy record to make, as Mills explains: “The recording process was long and arduous. I finished the whole record with Brian and my touring band, Rob Lloyd [drums] and Kari McGlinnen [bass], all of whom were brilliant and incredibly patient – probably more than they should have been. I spent all the money the label, Sugar Free Records, had given me, and I’d turned the record in, but it still wasn’t right.
“It had taken months to record and mix, mostly because I was terrible at making decisions. I remember having terrible insomnia after it was done, because I knew it wasn’t how I wanted it. I was waking up at four in the morning and just staring at the ceiling, or sitting on the front steps of my friend Sheila’s building, chain smoking as the sun came up. I was filled with an incredible amount of anxiety and dread, because I felt like I had created a total disaster.”
So what happened? “I called the label and asked them to put everything on hold and I went back in the studio for four days with a new band, Ryan Hembrey [bass] and Gerald Dowd [drums], who I would continue to play with off and on for the next 20 years, and I asked Jon Langford [The Mekons] to produce, and paid for it myself.
“We cut ‘All You Ever Do’, ‘Fall’, ‘Crooked Vein’ and ‘Lips Are Like Poison’ and then threw those in with the best tracks from the other sessions and it somehow all came together. The whole process was excruciating, but mostly just from the anxiety of not getting it entirely right the first time. The sessions themselves were great, but the writing on some of the tracks wasn’t up to snuff and I knew I needed to do better. Luckily, I think it all worked out in the end.”
Reflecting on the dark nature of the songs, Mills tells AMUK: “Lyrically, a lot of it was a reflection of where I was in my head at the time, in terms of my relationships with myself and other people, aside from ‘Napkin In A Wine Glass’, which was maybe one of my first attempts at writing a character. I was very “woe is me” and very dark. There was very much a clash between “please love me” and “if you love me there must be something wrong with you.”
He adds: “My twenties were a terrible mix of alcohol, anxiety and low self-esteem. It worked for the writing to some degree, I guess, but it could be pretty awful for the people around me. I think a lot of the songs are a pretty accurate reflection of that.”
Does he have a favourite song on the album? “‘Signal/Noise’ is still one of my favourite things I’ve ever done. I really like the writing and it’s the first thing I ever did where I had a grand concept and followed it from start to finish. I think it’s really beautiful all the way around and Kelly Hogan [backing vocals] just takes the whole thing to another level.
“I’ve been really lucky to work with so many amazing people over the years, but Kelly is an incredibly special person to sing with, and her voice on that song just kills me.”
‘Kiss It Goodbye’ was released in the US on Chicago’s Sugar Free Records, but in the UK it came out via a licensing deal with independent label Loose. Tom Bridgewater, owner/ managing director of Loose, takes up the story: “It was in the early days of Loose – we hadn’t a clue what we were doing really! How times have changed – ha-ha! However, when we heard the songs that Chris had ready to go for the follow-up to ‘Every Night Fight For Your Life’ [his 1998 debut] we were sold.
“In early 2000, we put ‘Tooth and Nail’ on the second ‘Loose: New Sounds of the Old West’ compilation and shortly afterwards released the glorious ‘Kiss It Goodbye’ album.”
He adds: “We’d heard about Chris via our contact with Sugar Free Records and, around that time, he was often seen sharing stages in Chicago with The Handsome Family and Neko Case, who were singing his praises too. After the release of ‘Kiss It Goodbye’, Loose promoted a show at the Union Chapel with Chris, The Handsome Family and Neko Case. What a night that was!”
I would’ve loved to have been at that gig, but in 2000, I was living on the South Coast, in Brighton, and was immersing myself in the city’s gig scene – particularly the regular Americana shows that were taking place in venues like the basement bar of the Sanctuary café – where, in the summer of 2001, I first saw Mills play a stunning solo acoustic set, and The Lift, which was above a pub not far from the train station. A short while after that, I saw Mills and his backing band, The Miserable Bastards, at The Lift – it was great and I was a miserable bastard, so I felt right at home.
At that Sanctuary gig, I also came across a brilliant UK singer-songwriter called Matt Hill – aka Quiet Loner – who was supporting Mills. He soon became one of my favourite British Americana artists.
I owe a lot to Mills and to ‘Kiss It Goodbye.’ I’ve changed the locks on my heart since 2000, but there will always be a place in it for this album.