After the Masquerade recorded at the National Music Center

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It was a calculated risk.

As one of 12 finalists in the 2022 Project WILD contest focused on country music, Shaela Miller needed to write a report mapping out her future in the music business for the coming years. She was determined to be honest about how her relationship with country music would likely change in the near future. The development program was in its fifth and final installment at the time.

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Managed by Alberta Music, it was funded and named after Calgary’s “new country” station WILD 95.3. The report asked finalists to describe what they would do with the $100,953 prize money if they won, but also what they would do if they didn’t win. Their goal was to show the judges that these artists were serious not only about their music but also about their pragmatic professional careers.

Miller may have already seemed like an outlier on Project WILD. He certainly played country music, but it was of a more traditional, outlaw variety that tends to be ignored by new country stations like WILD 95.3. In fact, a radio scout once told him that his music was “too country” for country radio.

For 2022, Miller already had a vision for his next album. As her online biography suggests, it would require an artistic metamorphosis that would “let go of Loretta Lynn’s image of her” in favor of a beautifully desolate synth-rock sound. She called it “dark wave” and it was largely accentless. Half of the ratings given to Project WILD finalists were based on that report, and Miller had lengthy discussions with her manager about how much she should reveal about her sonic plans. After all, to what extent would she support a country music contest for an artist determined to step even further beyond the accepted parameters of the genre?

“There was some hesitation about being so forthcoming about what my plans were for the next record,” he says in an interview with Postmedia. “But I told (my manager) that I feel very strong about being honest about what I plan to do. It’s brought to you by Alberta Music – it’s half Alberta Music and half radio station. I didn’t want my friends at Alberta Music to think I just took the money and did what I wanted with it. I wanted them to know and support what I was doing. What I heard in my comments was that they believed strongly in my report – I already had a very clear vision and I already had demos of what I was doing and I sent them off.”

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The bet paid off. On March 26, 2022, Miller took first prize during a final performance at Calgary’s King Eddy. While she probably would have followed her sonic muse anyway, the $100,953 went a long way toward helping her realize her vision for her fifth album, After the Masquerade, out on the 22nd. of March.

Even before releasing her fourth country album, 2021’s Big Hair Small City, she’d been toying with the idea of ​​revisiting some of the styles she liked as a teenager rebelling against the country music she’d grown up with in the South. of Alberta. Grunge eventually led her to somber new wave acts like The Cure, Depeche Mode and Joy Division.

In 2022, I still loved this music, but I wasn’t a fan of the studios, especially when it came to synths. So she was intrigued when it was suggested that she take some of the contest’s windfall to the National Music Center and record with in-house engineer Graham Lessard. As a producer, Lessard had experience getting similar styles from bands like Timber Timbre and Stars. He also has intimate knowledge of the extensive and impressive collection of vintage keyboards and synthesizers available to artists recording at the NMC and proved adept at matching the instrument to the music Miller was hearing in his head.

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“There’s a lot of (different) types of new wave, but I like really dark shit,” says Miller, who will begin a tour of Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba on March 22 that will end May 4 at the National Music Center. “I like guttural, dark (music). I know guttural is a funny word, but it’s the one I use all the time. I would say to Graham: ‘More guttural. More Depeche Mode.’ He says, ‘I know, I know.’ I call it dark wave. “I don’t know if it’s a real genre or I just made it up.”

The opening track, Start a Fire, begins with soaring synths and Miller singing about wanting to “burn it all down.” It’s followed by the beautiful ballad Of Roses and the haunting title track, which mixes menacing synth with Miller’s sad, sweet vocals. Mourning Tonight combines a bouncing bass and synth line with lyrics describing Miller’s grief after the death of a close friend in 2021. The loss hit Miller hard and he began writing and demoing songs that leaned toward synth music that she and her friend loved.

“It’s still hard to talk about,” he says. “It is one of the most tragic losses. I have lost other people in my life who were dear to me, including my father. But something happened to me when he died. It took me a long time to recover. I wrote the song called Of Roses a few weeks after he passed away. We shared a great love for Depeche Mode and The Cure and I wanted to write a song and record it with my friends. We wrote that song and recorded it this way. We had been messing around with the synthesizer for a while. Then I wrote Mourning Tonight and we recorded it.

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“I was showing some of my friends outside the band and I said ‘I’m going to start a second project with this New Wave thing.’ This was before I was in Project Wild. All my friends who heard it were like, ‘Shaela, don’t do that.’ It’s not a change like that. It’s not like it’s a scream or anything and it’s like a big change. You are still your voice, you are still your songs, you are still you in every way.’”

Which is presumably something Project Wild’s more knowledgeable judges picked up on as well. Of course, Miller’s voice has a resonant pain that makes it perfect for country music, and she’s backed by a band that’s as well-versed in playing honky-tonk tunes and mournful country ballads as they are in industrial-tinged synth-pop. But the main strength of Big Hair Small City and After the Masquerade are the well-crafted songs.

“For me, writing songs is the most important thing,” he says. “I love singing, don’t get me wrong. But I teach at a children’s songwriting camp (in Lethbridge) because I think songs, at least for me, are very therapeutic. Even if it’s a different style of writing that’s funnier or sillier, it’s all therapy and it’s a creative process that allows you to deal with whatever craziness we’re all going through. As for the question about songwriting style, I write songs the way I know how. Listening to so many different types of music I think that helps it stand out to different fan communities.”

After the Masquerade premieres March 22. Shaela Miller plays at the National Music Center on May 4.

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