"I had fun that night, actually," Mills says of the show at Fado, where he returns on January 14. "At first it was a little disconcerting, but by the end of it, I was getting into it. You learn to handle those things. It's part of what I do."
Has he led that rough a life, as his music suggests, or is he just a wise-beyond-his-years kinda guy?
"Maybe a little of both," laughs Mills. "But I don't think you'll find anything in the songs that your average person hasn't gone through or heard about. I don't know, maybe I just have a darker way of looking at things. None of this is brought on by any sort of serious trauma. Maybe I just take things a little too hard. I definitely extrapolate on things in my life. They're all written in first-person, but they're not all things that have happened to me. But there's a little bit of truth in all of them. There's a lot of fictionalizing that goes on to protect the innocent."
Kiss It Goodbye, Mills's second album, features such self-pitying lines as "I'm still fucking up" and "I'm gonna stick a straight razor in my crooked vein." Co-produced by Mekon and Waco Brother Jon Langford, it also features strings, a horn section, pedal steel, and even a dobro on one track. But Mills isn't as easy to categorize as all that might lead one to believe. He's a singer-songwriter consumed by truth, who just happens to get there via instruments of his native West Virginia. And just a little bit of self-flagellation.
"The album is about departures and things breaking down, relationships and things like that," he says. "Emotional decay and self-deception are themes that run through it."
Still, Mills considers himself a romantic at heart. And Kiss It Goodbye is underlined by an optimism, albeit one that views hope from the depths of despair.
"Things wouldn't look so bleak, if you weren't looking for something else to start out with," he explains. "I'm definitely a romantic who buys into all of it, and then when things don't work out, it's even more disappointing, the more you believe in it. There's definitely a heart to the music, a wishful romanticism. It's like what happens when your dreams don't work out or the things you really believe in come up a little short."
Also, he adds, "You've got to have a sense of humor about it." (Despite the often-gloomy nature of Mills's songs, they are just as often funny.) His debut, 1998's Every Night Fight for Your Life, crams in a lifetime's worth of influences. From Phil Spector's Wall of Sound to modern, meditative singer-songwriter tics, Mills found a home for his vision of urban Americana. Kiss It Goodbye ups the charge, beginning with the ringing hopefulness of "Brand New Day" before crumbling into the sprawling, forlorn, radio-scratched closer, "Signal/Noise."
"We took a lot more time in the studio with this one," Mills says. "We tried to add that sense of melodrama, because I think the songs are really melodramatic. They're not entirely literal in a lot of ways. They sound kind of literal, but the range of emotions can get so dark at times. But it can't be reality, because nothing is ever that bad. So, Brian Deck [Kiss It Goodbye co-producer and drummer for Chicago indie rockers Red Red Meat] and I tried to capture that sort of thing.
"And I think the writing is better," he continues. "The beats are fatter, and the rhymes are more thoughtful. I took a little more time writing this time and rewriting, which is something I don't normally do. I really didn't let myself get away with things I would have in the past."
One of the unfortunate side effects of today's pop music market is that everything comes with a label. Teen pop, rap metal, alt-country. Mills has been tagged as a member of the latter group, although the scope of Kiss It Goodbye can't be constrained by that wide-ranging, twangy genre. "It's a little boring for me to read it all the time," he says. "I think writers are either lazy and don't want to be bothered to think of anything else to say, or haven't seriously listened to the record, or just aren't knowledgeable enough to have any other sort of frame of reference other than what has gone on the past couple of years. There's pedal steel on three tracks, so I'm a country artist.
"If Exile on Main Street came out today, the Rolling Stones would be an alt-country band," he says. "I think there's so much music out right now, and we've come so far in the past 50 years, that it's hard for people to not put things in a niche. I just write songs. I write rock songs and folk songs and country songs and whatever."
Mills, who fronts a band on his records and generally plays with the same group of guys at shows back home in Chicago, has been doing solo mini-tours lately, "due to financial restraints." His solo performances, just Mills and an acoustic guitar, make you pay attention to the songs, but they occasionally fail to convey the often Springsteen-like urgency of his songs. Mills agrees: "I love playing solo, but if I had the money, I would rather play with a band. It enables me to do more, and it's always fun to have your friends around."
Another part of what Mills does well is connect with his listeners. Kiss It Goodbye allows its characters, be they Mills or not, to live a life that doesn't sound all that different from the average person's. There are ups, downs, rebounds, and fits of depression. Ultimately, though, there is hope that things really aren't as bad as they seem. And if they actually are that wretched, you can take comfort in knowing that misery loves company.
"I'd like to think my songs help in a way," Mills admits. "Sometimes, I talk about things in a way that a lot of other writers might not. I think I'm a little more honest. I do it because it helps to connect with people and not feel as isolated about the sorts of issues that I'm talking about. Hopefully, people will be able to get that same sort of feeling -- like they're not the only one to go through that sort of thing. A lot of times when you're going through really horrible personal stuff, people feel like they're the only ones who have ever been through it, or nobody's going to understand or whatever.
"If I can write songs that mean something to somebody on that level, then I've done my job."
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