Music

How hiking across America shaped this N.J. singer’s ‘vagabond’ folk

For years, Joseph Alton Miller has embraced the life of a wayfarer.

Whether it was hiking up Mount Katahdin in Maine or backpacking through Yosemite National Park in California, his “abandonment from society,” as he calls it, has always allowed him time to reflect and pen his folk tunes.

Such an untethered lifestyle was the primary muse for his latest work, “Songs of Travel for the Vagabond,” a striking new EP released in May. It’s a work that deserves to introduce him to a much wider audience.

His sound is reminiscent of a modern-day Woody Guthrie — perhaps unsurprisingly, Miller names the genre luminary as one of his influences, and he included a cover of Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” on his new record.

But there’s an extra layer to the 30-year-old songwriter. While the word “folk” is tattooed onto his left forearm, his right arm reads “hip hop.”

The mix of influences is most apparent when listening to Philly blues artist Kuf Knotz rap over Miller’s twangy guitar riff in “Dude, Where’s My Whiskey?”

In the autobiographical tune, he sings about New Jersey — his newly found home state, after growing up in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

“When I first moved to Jersey, I was very alone and acting like a bit of a recluse — drinking often, sleeping with way too many women and just not being the best me that I knew I could be,” the Hazlet resident said, in a recent interview. “I was … thinking about my life, knowing it might be finally time to grow up. I wrote the song a couple of years after that trip.”

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Miller’s songs are influenced by the many states he has visited across the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Alton Miller)

“Songs of Travel for the Vagabond” is Miller’s first release under under his full name. While Miller built a fan base of a few thousand through playing local shows over the years as “Joe Miller,” he said it was difficult to market himself with such a common name. He’s wiped the Internet clean of his four previous records and aimed for a fresh start.

Part of that fresh start is his lovely evocation of his “vagabond” existence, which you hear throughout the new EP.

In “American Crow,” he serenades in his smooth low-tone voice, “I’m making a friend with an American crow… Let me fly to another destination.” Miller plucks away a groovy guitar riff while New Jersey blues musician Sandy Mack’s old-timey harmonica quivers in the background.

“The American crow is a species that can be found in every area of North America — adapting to all types of places and climates,” Miller said. “I think we humans should be able to do the same thing — leaving home every once in a while to experience what our planet has to offer.”

Though more sedentary days seem to be on the horizon as Miller settles into the role of a new father. He and his wife Jarysel welcomed daughter Gabriela into the world June 11, just a week or so after the release of his new record.

Miller wrote in an Instagram post announcing Gabriela’s birth that his daughter is “the reason I was ever put on Earth.” Still, he admits it’s difficult to promote a new album with a newborn baby in the house.

“Normally, I’d like to head out on the road and tour around to try to promote an album,” he said, noting he wouldn’t have even been able to finish the project with an infant to command most of his time. But he was able to release the EP via his own label, Worn Out Joke Records.

“I wanted my daughter to see what her papa could do under pressure. I want to bring her up knowing that hard work pays off.”

Miller will promote his new record with a July 16 show at the Asbury Hotel in Asbury Park. He plans to embark on mini tours throughout the Northeast later in the year, to share the stories he has eloquently woven into songs and tromp along more trails in pursuit of musical inspiration.

And he always remembers a bit of advice a professor and mentor once gave him.

“(He) told me to get out and see what I can before I die,” he said, “and I plan to summit many more mountains before that day comes.”

*This story was originally published on NJ.com.

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