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As Jacob Miller tickled the ivories in the NBC studio, he couldn't help but look at the screen hanging above him. There was a fair-size crowd gathered to watch him. One audience member, he noted, was a giant anthropomorphic moth. Another was an exuberant woman in a pink boa, who suddenly began dancing atop his piano. Finally Miller looked down. He wasn't even touching the keys. He was banging away at the air, and still the music was somehow coming forth.
The musician was totally sober; the gig was actually in Second Life, a sprawling multiplayer online game that is a psychedelic version of the real world, complete with real estate and media. The concert was held in a venue belonging to Virtual NBC (www.virtualnbc.com), an in-game version of the broadcasting giant.
"I played in a studio and they filmed me and the band," says Miller, age 22, in his clear, chesty speaking voice. "But I was also animated as an avatar; I looked like a PlayStation character.... There were people actually watching me online in Second Life, and we had a live studio audience where I was, too, so I was performing from all these different angles."
It was just another typical atypical gig for Miller, a homegrown singer-songwriter who graduated in 2003 from the high school program at New World School of the Arts. A pensive, eloquent guy with piercing dark eyes and a shock of dark brown curly hair, he's following the lead of the great American songsmiths. But, as his virtual concert would attest, his rise through the indie ranks has been anything but orthodox.
Who We Are, Miller's debut album, was released last year on Dogleg Music, a local indie label run by Richard Serota, a Miami-based producer who's been Miller's mentor since they met in a recording studio more than 10 years ago. That's right — if any word describes Miller, it's precocious.
"The first job I ever did professionally as a singer was in [Serota's] studio when I was 11; I sang for this Euro Disney peace summit anthem," Miller says. "Then when I first started writing songs, maybe he felt like he found my potential. He sort of took me under his wing, and we did a lot of work together, made a lot of demos."
Actually Miller had already been playing piano for years at that point, thanks to an abundance of instruments in his family home in Miami Shores. Every Saturday after watching cartoons, he'd sit at the piano bench and plunk out the show's theme songs by ear. He recalls writing his first song around age seven, after a lesson from his older brother in making the bed.
"It was pretty cheesy. It was a little love song," Miller says. "My brother kept saying, 'All you gotta do is put the covers on like this; all you gotta do is put the pillows over here.' So that turned into a song, repeating the words 'All you gotta do is love me forever.'"
Like any true musical maverick, though, Miller preferred to teach himself. He ran through a series of piano teachers. At New World, he entered the musical theater program. But he still wasn't around much. "I never took well to actual instruction, in music or in school," he says. "I actually got voted Most Absent my senior year." This was at least partially because he was already gigging, at places like the Luna Star Café and Churchill's, though he was too young to buy a drink.
A stint in a songwriting program at Boston's Berklee College of Music was also short-lived. "You focus so much on getting work done and actually doing homework for music, which was kind of strange at first. For the first two years I hardly wrote at all," he says. "At that point I was just sort of someone who thrives on freedom, and I was ready to burst. I had to get away from it to write."
After returning home, he dove into composing much of what would become Who We Are. A band of hired guns from Nashville fleshed out its polished, intimate, but expansive sound (they also perform with Miller at select live gigs). But anchoring it all is Miller's piano, which sounds rollicking but subdued, played for meaty tones. Miller's surprisingly deep voice and literate lyrics U-turn everything away from John Mayer-style whiny white-boy milquetoast pap. Check "You Can't Go Home Again," hands down the album's standout track. Rooted in an almost drinking-song-style sensibility, it pushes forward and rolls back, teased to a final chorus punctured by an amazingly poignant harmonica breakdown. It's truly Dylanesque.
Here and there, too, are dabs of reggae, strains of soul, for which Miller credits his hometown. "Miami influences me in every way. I can't pinpoint exactly where it shows up, except that it shows up in a complete and whole way," he insists. "It's just the sights and sounds and the smell and the sky. It's so home to me, and it's where I'm centered, and because of that, every lyric, every note of my work, comes from some sort of homage to this city."