Since relocating to Nashville from Round Hill in 2019, things have been moving pretty quickly for 21-year-old pop musician Maggie Miles, who released her debut full-length record, “Am I Drowning or Am I Just Learning to Swim,” Wednesday.
Miles — whose musical repertoire includes vocals, piano, percussion, guitar, banjo and mandolin, among several other instruments — has lived as a full-time songwriter and performer since she signed to Tennessee-based Warehouse West Entertainment last year.
Though she’s now in a city and a business that pushes for nonstop creativity and content, Miles has worked to maintain her usual, more naturalistic creative process, by which she hopes to preserve the integrity she believes makes music special.
“In Nashville, the way you do it is you wake up and you have to write every single day, and you work with different people every single day, and I just don’t work that way. If I was to do that, I would not be making good art, because I would be forcing it,” she told the Times-Mirror. “Writing is such a vulnerable thing, and if I’m going to share that with somebody, then I want to trust them.”
By March of this year, she and her collaborators had finished most of their work on the new album beside mixing and mastering, meaning the COVID-19 health crisis did little to slow the process of putting the record’s finishing touches in place.
Miles said her production style tends to align with an alternative music subgenre called bedroom pop, in which musicians often record and produce their material with a low-fidelity sensibility and minimal equipment that could easily fit into … well, a bedroom.
“I think out of the 12 songs [on the album], two of them were done in a big studio,” she said.
But while many artists who fall under the bedroom-pop umbrella are characterized by a minimalistic, understated sound, Miles’s songs are anything but, boasting vehement power destined to fill every corner of an arena, much less an eight-by-ten-foot bedchamber.
“As cool as bedroom pop is, I feel like [my music] doesn’t really fit into that category,” she said. “I feel like mine can sound a little bit wider, and you wouldn’t think it’s bedroom-type production.”
If the music on “Am I Drowning” is overpowering, it’s only because the emotions and experiences that fueled its creation were even more so. Miles had written eight of the album’s tracks by last October, following what was a turbulent yet formative period in her life.
“The year leading up to me moving from Virginia was very difficult,” she said. “I experienced really horrible heartbreak, I experienced really traumatic change in my family, weird instances where who I am as a person, my faith, everything was being challenged and questioned, and it was all crashing down at once. I was in this rut and not really processing anything.”
That built-up frustration is evident in the album’s ending track, “Sanitized Things,” which Miles said was the first song she wrote for the album. Not only do the lyrics lament subverted expectations and self-doubt, but the instrumentals are inescapably yet beautifully harsh, the guitars wailing and drums pounding almost violently.
Miles claims she didn’t really know she was writing an album until she penned “Swim,” a line from the chorus of which lends the record its title. While each song carries a clear sense of melancholy and emotional toil, the album’s name seems to imply a sense of hope amid the struggle, an inkling that adversity might ultimately lead to growth.
“I just had this awakening when I wrote the chorus to ‘Swim,’ where I was just like, ‘This seems to encapsulate thematically what I’ve been jotting down the past couple months,’” she said. “Sonically, [the songs] are all pretty diverse from one another, but they’re kind of telling the same story, and I think that’s because they’re all pulling from me processing events in the past.”
While the ongoing pandemic has hampered Miles’ opportunity to tour and thus promote the album, she has taken creative lengths to get the word out, including a grassroots-style campaign in which she mailed posters to college campuses and downtown areas in cities where Spotify said her music was most popular.
Still, the adrenaline Miles gets from playing live is something to which she continually looks forward, even when she’s not the headlining act.
“You’re like, ‘Alright, I’ve got to win this crowd over.’ It’s like a challenge. You need to go out there and make the show memorable because you were opening it,” she said.
The weeks before the health crisis began in the U.S. saw her in the throes of a particularly exciting leg of touring, during which she played at New York City’s Mercury Lounge, a launching pad for many popular alternative bands such as The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
“It was just, like, the coolest show. There was not even that many people in the crowd, but it was such a memorable thing,” Miles recalled. “We had to park so far away … we walked for, like, nine blocks, and it was so cold and rainy, and I felt like a rock star. I was like, ‘This is sick. This is the life.’”“Am I Drowning or Am I Just Learning to Swim” is available to purchase or stream on major music platforms. Miles will also perform a live-streamed online show to promote the album Aug. 28 at 9 p.m. More information is available at bandsintown.com/e/102332944.