At 21, Maggie Miles is breaking the music industry mold
Not all poets go to college.
In a hyper-competitive DC suburb, Maggie Miles knew she wasn’t college bound. But things are turning out just fine for the 21-year-old recording artist and songwriter.
Miles released her new indie album, “Am I Drowning or Am I Just Learning How to Swim,” in August, just a year after she left home for Nashville. With her confident, versatile voice and witty lyrics, Miles is low key but clearly aiming high. Her pop tunes with a splash of neo-soul just seem destined for radio play and stadium shows.
Miles writes all of her own material. And at just 21, having solid content for a full album — and then some — is an accomplishment in itself. For Miles, the new record means moving out of bedroom singer/songwriter mode and onto something much bigger.
“I’ve always dreamt of having enough written to make a record…For me in Virginia, writing was so much more of a hobby and an outlet and a necessity for me.”
She recorded “Am I Drowning” in a small studio space in Nashville. The result is a record that’s both big and intimate with plenty of exciting dynamics, both within and among the tracks. It’s full of the kind of GenZ honesty that young artists like Billie Eilish are famous for, as a generation raised on social media seeks authenticity. But Miles has a voice all her own.
“I guess I’ve sort of grown exhausted from all of the noise, of people saying, ‘This is who I am’ rather than just showing it and being it,” Miles said.
Maggie Miles on Fighting Stage Fright
This week, Maggie Miles returns to her hometown in Northern Virginia to kick off the Loudoun Arts Film Festival, sponsored by Artistic Fuel. The music scene in the region, known as DC’s Wine Country, was booming pre-COVID thanks to an explosion of wineries and breweries and visitors hungry for live music. That live music scene has slowly rebounded this summer, as outdoor venues allowed for socially distanced shows. With drive-in screenings of anticipated new films and a top-notch live music line-up, the outdoor film festival is a cultural highlight of the season, with Miles as its opening night headliner.
“I was very flattered, and I love playing in my hometown,” Miles said.
Miles grew up in a small town near Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. She was a theater kid with a bad case of stage fright, and a kid who routinely got detention for showing up late to class. In her high-income, high-achieving DC suburb, she was aware early on that college wasn’t in the cards.
“I always tended to take a little bit of a weirder path growing up,” she said. “I struggled in school, and didn’t get good grades.”
She felt at home in high school theater, but ironically, she avoided musicals.
“I had really bad stage fright,” she said. “I have an ear, had pitch control and could generally hit notes. But I didn’t think I sounded nice, so I just never did it.”
It took encouragement from friends during her senior year of high school to find her voice. Miles was playing keyboard for her church’s youth worship team, when a friend asked her to fill in singing harmonies.
“I ran to the bathroom and puked, I was so nervous,” she said. “And then I came back and I sang harmonies, and I was like, ‘That was horrifying but it wasn’t that bad. Nobody booed.’”
At 18, Miles was also getting into poetry and songwriting. Her boyfriend at the time was a drummer, and with his support, she got up the courage to perform an original song at a school talent show. It was her first time putting herself out there in that way — and a breakthrough.
“It was really scary, and we didn’t win. But it ended up being kind of a catalyst for me,” she said.
In the summer of 2018, Maggie Miles played her first real gig at the beloved Northern Virginia venue Jammin’ Java. That led to more shows around the DC area while Miles worked as a barista and cranking out songs.
A rep for Warehouse West Entertainment spotted her last year during a show at DC’s Pearl Street Warehouse. Within a few weeks, she had signed an artist development and management deal with Warehouse West and moved to Nashville. Recording in a big-city music mecca wasn’t exactly what she expected, but in many ways was even better. Recording “Am I Drowning” in a small studio with her producer allowed her to open up in just the right way.
“Honestly, it surprised me…When I moved here I thought everything I’m going to record is going to be in these big studios, and it’s going to be super intense. And that just wasn’t the deal for me,” she said. “I’m capable of being vulnerable when I’m in a smaller space.”
‘Still Able to Create’
Maggie Miles hit a big milestone last week, when Washington’s alt rock radio station DC 101 played her song “Split” on its “New at 2” segment. It was a big deal for a young artist who grew up so close to the Nation’s Capital. Miles wrote every song on the new album, which oozes both pop and alternative radio potential.
When the single “Whatdoisay,” described by one critic as “glowing,” was released in February, Miles got things rolling with a more than respectable East Coast tour. That included a stop at New York City’s Mercury Lounge. With COVID wreaking havoc on touring schedules, releasing a debut album during a pandemic isn’t ideal. But Miles is hoping to get an opening slot for a national touring artist, whenever touring is once again a thing. Eventually, her goal is to sign with a label to get access to the kind of venues and audiences her music seems cut out for.
“As an indie artist, it’s the only time I’ve ever made a record. So I don’t have anything to compare it to. But I am curious if, Lord willing, I’m able to sign with a label or do something that would help level up the platform or accessibility of my music…I’m curious what that would look like as far as the production and everything that goes into making a record.”
And for now, she’ll just keep writing.
“Even though touring has a massive role in my career, it isn’t the only thing…I can still write songs which is the main thing I’m doing,” she said. “I’m really grateful that I’m still able to create.”
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Jan Mercker is a freelance journalist, wine lover and arts enthusiast. A former public relations pro and lifelong Francophile, she helped French Champagne houses navigate the U.S. media landscape leading up to Y2K and ran the wine and spirits department at the French Embassy Trade Office in New York before moving into a writing career. She’s an underachieving but enthusiastic tennis player and parent of teens.