Native New Yorker Tor Miller is endearingly vague when asked to explain the source of his singing voice. He grew up, he says, with a dad “who was part of the Glee Club at university, and he’d sing all the time at home, all these old college drinking songs. But my mum can’t sing to save her life. My parents always say that I would sing around the house all the time, too, but I don’t remember that. I do know that they would go to parent evenings and ask my teachers about my participation in music, and the teachers would go: ‘What? He never contributes.’ I’d sing along to the radio, but I never thought anything of it.” (one can easily lose count of the great singers who will give a similar answer when quizzed about their talent. How cool must it be to be able to shrug in explanation -oh, the singing? I never thought anything of it.)
As Tor tells it, it took a major upheaval in his life to kickstart his conviction and self-belief, and turn him from someone who would “sing around the house all the time” into an artist on a mission. When he was 12, his parents moved from Manhattan out to New Jersey and six months later, Tor enrolled in a new school. It was those six months, and the two years that followed, that would shape him both as a singer and as a songwriter. Each weekday he and his mother would do “a 90-minute commute. She would drop me off and I’d sit for about half an hour, waiting for school to open, listening to the music she had given me – Ziggy Stardust, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac. I listened to those records pretty much nonstop, up and back. And that was the point when I started writing my own songs.”
As is so often the case, a great teacher proved another catalyst. “I had this piano teacher at the new school who would just let me play what I wanted to, so I’d play him these songs and sing along really quietly, and one lesson he said: ‘You have a really good voice. Next week, instead of just working on the piano part, we’ll learn the vocal as well. And the week after, we can try writing something.’ So it was all thanks to that one teacher.”
The music lessons aside, Tor’s new school was, for a long time, not a place he was happy to attend. “I was a complete outcast; I didn’t talk to anyone for about two years. But I was getting confident in my music, and wrote my first couple of songs, so I decided to perform at the eighth-grade talent show – and at that point, no one had really ever heard me even speak. I was so mad about moving schools and leaving all my friends, so I hadn’t participated in anything, but I got up there and performed a song I had just written, and immediately after, people suddenly wanted to talk to me, I got all this attention – especially from girls! It propelled me to keep going, and I started booking shows, open-mic nights in places like The Stone Pony in Asbury Park. I went to high school, and joined a jazz band there, and some of the guys in that joined my band, and we just carried on playing shows. But it all came from that first performance in eighth grade.”
The songs “began to pour out, most of them about isolation and loneliness,” Tor says with a wry laugh. “I felt that I’d been taken out of the city and away from a life I loved, and thrown out on a horse farm in New Jersey. And here, suddenly, was something I liked – and I didn’t like anything at the time.” The bug had bitten him and, when he took up a place studying music at NYU, Tor dived right in. “The moment when it felt properly real was in my first semester at college, when I was writing all these songs. There was this room in the basement of my dorm building, next to the laundry room, it could reach 100 degrees in there, but I’d be in there three or four hours every day, writing away, skipping class, and I really felt that I was coming into my own. My attitude was, ‘No, fuck the classes, you need to be working on your music’.
Glassnote Records – home to artists such as Mumford & Sons, Phoenix, Childish Gambino and CHVRCHES – picked up on the buzz about Tor, and last year, he signed to the label. Which led, he admits, to a slightly tense family summit with his mum and dad. “I’m supposed to be on this two-year leave from college at the moment, and I think my parents both fully expect that I’ll be going back there at the end of it. It was an incredibly awkward conversation when the deal came about. I had to say: ‘Because of this, I don’t think I’ll be going back to college next year.’ That was pretty nerve-wracking."
Headlights, the title track of Tor’s EP released in February 2015, includes Hold the Phone, a song from Tor’s dorm-basement days that he recorded on his i-Phone, and which first gained traction when Zane Lowe named it as the Next Hype on his R1 show and Now and Again which has a swagger Ziggy would have approved of, and a sonic eclecticism that recalls Lindsay Buckingham’s multilayered production mastery. But it is Midnight that most captures Tor’s impassioned musicianship – and his abiding, imperishable love for the city he was forced to abandon temporarily as a teen.
In the midst of the release of his new single Carter & Cash, Tor is working to complete his debut album at London’s Eastcote studios with the producer Eliot James (Noah and the Whale, Two Door Cinema Club, Plan B, Bloc Party). Tor describes the recording environment as “a bit dilapidated, which is exactly how I like it. And Eliot is a producer who really drives the recordings, and captures the grit in a song. It’s a huge relief to finally find the right match.” He’s determined not to play it safe, he says, or smooth off the rough edges in his songs. “Risk-taking is rare in music. When I wrote some of these songs, I’d listen to some of the lyrics and think, ‘Fuck – do I really want to be saying that? Do I really want to let everyone know how I feel?’ But I think that’s something you have to do if you want to produce work that is honest.”
The key moment in Midnight is when with the backing vocals rising to a tumult behind him, Tor sings “Calling out, calling out for something true.” The most thrilling thing about Tor Miller – though he may not have realized this yet – is that he’s found it.