Singer-songwriter Matthew Milia returns to school for his solo debut

Matthew Milia.
Matthew Milia. Noah Elliott Morrison

When Matthew Milia pulls liquor store-bought worms, fishing hooks from Meijer, two bottles of Miller High Life, and a single sheet of paper towel from his limited-edition New Yorker tote, he knows exactly how he looks. Replace the beer with some sherry, and the worms with imported caviar, and you might have a neurotic scene from Frasier. But here, on a brisk afternoon along the Detroit River in Southwest, Milia is days away from the release of Alone at St. Hugo, his debut solo record nearly three years in the making, and is taking a moment to revel in finally having achieved the domestic bliss he has spent years dreaming — and writing — about.

"I'm well aware that this guy holding a fish is like a Tinder pic cliche," he says with the pole on the ground, hip jutting out. "I feel like now that I'm engaged, so happily engaged, it's like I can get away with it because now I'm prepping for, like, fun dad mode."

Like many millennials, Milia talks about himself as if he is much older than he is. Though at 33, he may be far from a skilled angler (he admits to having caught a catfish once and being pretty freaked out by the whole thing), Milia finds that he is willingly leaning into the lapping waves of the next phase of life and everything that comes with it, including a newfound appreciation for arch support, staying off the internet, a therapy habit, and not taking shit so personally.

"I was in therapy for most of the last year to talk about my professional woes. And my therapist, all she ever did was just tell me, look at all the stuff you've accomplished already," he says. "I'm so happy that I've been disillusioned. There's such a neutralizing comfort that comes with knowing that everyone's career is going to have its own arc, slow decay. The things that happened or don't happen for you, you stop taking it personally and you're just happy for anyone that's having ... a moment or ... doing what they love."

Since the release 2017's Enter the Kingdom, the fifth with Frontier Ruckus, his longstanding band of 11 years, Milia's stopped touring almost entirely. Partially because he's tired, and even after 10 years of touring internationally, he still doesn't fully identify as a performer.

"It's the writing part that I still wake up every day and want to do," he says. "I love playing music with my friends and bandmates. I never really felt like a performer. When I was younger, maybe, I had more energy," he laughs. "I mean, I'm only 33."

When reflecting on Frontier Ruckus' success, Milia still doesn't quite understand how it all happened so quickly. After starting the band with singer-songwriter Anna Burch and soon after winning Michigan State University's battle of the bands, Frontier Ruckus released its first record, The Orion Songbook, landed a booking agent, and signed onto playing hundreds of shows a year.

"We started pre-Twitter, we were the Myspace generation," he says. "You know, right when Fleet Foxes happened we were lumped into the Mumford & Sons and Avett Brothers thing because we had a banjo, which kind of helped us. Weirdly, it's like some of those fans are still with us because they like banjo and we had beards back then. I just liked writing songs about metro Detroit suburbs, and I have no idea why anyone cared."

Written and recorded over the past three years from a folder full of material that had been shelved for not sounding "Frontier Ruckus-y enough," Milia teamed up with producer and musician Ben Collins to indulge in Alone at St. Hugo's shimmering '90s power-pop sound he and Collins have had a longstanding affection for.

"He's nauseatingly talented," Milia says of Collins, who recorded and mixed the bedroom-fi record in his Ypsilanti home studio using a Tascam 388 reel-to-reel tape machine. All the album's guitar, drums, mellotron, pedal steel, organ, cello, mandolin, horns, harmonies, and handclaps are the product of just two people.

Alone at St. Hugo reads as a yearbook of Milia's lifetimes, each one pieced together with glue and popsicle sticks, and the emotional remnants of nearly 10 years of loneliness as a touring artist and an ongoing fascination with the intricacies of familial closeness. This wistful approach is but par for the course when it comes to Milia's songwriting, which has always been rooted in Michigan's suburbia and hyper-specificity, something he says becomes a bit of a puzzle when plugging in imagery into song form.

"It becomes metaphorical just by its own merit, and everyone injects their own symbolic meaning to it," Milia says of his observational lyricism. "Somehow you can speak the most universally the more specific you get, there's some potency about that."

The record retraces his life all the way back to his time at St. Hugo — the album's namesake Catholic school in Bloomfield Hills where Milia, who grew up in Pontiac, attended until high school. From his experiences in competitive soccer (another frequent topic of his therapy sessions) to the buzz of strip mall neon, soliciting a stranger to buy him cigarettes and beer as a kid, and obsessing over apologies that should have been made in the sixth grade, Milia packs his debut with more than just nostalgia-heavy observations — it's an internal conversation between his inner child and his budding domestic adult self who still has a shitload of questions.

"My mom's like, 'You mentioned me in literally every one of these songs on this new album," he laughs, noting that his mother makes an appearance in the video for the album's first single, "Congratulations Honey."

"I'm an only child," he says. "My parents are my muse. I've written about domestic life and my parents more than I have about love. It's just so interesting. The hereditary dynamics and, like, the things you love about yourself and wish you could change that you've inherited. Your modes of expression and communication with other people, like the reasons why you're bad or good at it. I spent a lot of time thinking about my parents at my age in Keego Harbor in the '80s."

"Born in the same hospital, four years apart" is, surprisingly, not a lyric from the album's opener "Alive at the Same Time," where Milia details feeling lucky to have found love and the flurry of uncertainties that come with it. Instead, it's one of the details about his relationship with his fiancée, Lauren, which he so proudly and poetically peppers into conversation.

"A bunch of those songs I wrote before I met her," Milia says of the record. "I had already written my bitter breakup record, like my Blood on the Tracks, and even I was bored with myself being angsty so I was starting to write love songs about some love that didn't even exist yet. It was my way of pretending that I knew what it felt like, and then it ended up feeling a lot like I thought."

He remembers the moment he met his future wife, Lauren, because he tweeted about it. Lauren, however, does not remember this night at all.

"There's a girl at the bar wearing a Frasier T-shirt and Tevas — should I ask her to marry me or just cry in the bathroom?" he says. "I actually said should I ask her to marry me."

Milia, who identifies more with Frasier Crane than with his brother, Niles, due to the self-inflicted domino-effect style comedy of errors that follows him episode to episode, has one-upped the relentless bachelorhood of his sitcom self. Lauren said yes when Milia proposed in London, a feat that the overachieving Frasier himself only ever dreamt of over the course of 11 seasons.

By the end of our conversation, Milia has not caught any fish. While he continues to work toward financial solvency as an artist, catching fish is no longer the goal.

Following the release of the record — which he purposely only pressed 300 copies of so that he won't be haunted by boxes of unsold records in his basement, though he admits that internalized failure would make good fodder for a song — he and Lauren will continue their wedding planning. And Milia will embark on the shortest possible tour because, as he puts it, "touring was more fun when I was not in love with someone in Michigan."

Matthew Milia will perform with Anna Burch and Career Club at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 3 at the Loving Touch; 22634 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-820-5596; Tickets are $10.

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