Editors note: This semester, Limelight is featuring the talents of Iowa State students and local artists in Ames. We’ll be profiling bands, musicians, visual artists, authors, designers and more. If you or someone you know would be interested in being featured for this series contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Minus a couple of inconspicuous piercings, Jonah Miller seems no different from you and me at first glance. He spends his days working part-time at a food service gig, participating in the occasional political protest and driving an old car that doesn’t quite cut it. He moves through life one day at a time with an Iowa-geniality and a mild-mannered temperament that can only be forged through the fire of working in customer service, and above all else, he loves his mom.
But when the 22-year-old Ames native walks onstage, we see a side of him that breaks the mold. Formerly of the local punk group Underdog Story and currently of the band Redcoat, Miller, a self-taught singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, isn’t quite like the rest of us — he’s not afraid to get personal.
“When you reach the summit, above the clouds you will see how far you’ve come to get here and who you used to be,” is a lyric from his song “Summit,” a deeply personal track written about his parent’s battle with depression. Despite the sensitivity of the subject, Miller sings songs such as this in front of strangers all the time, unfazed.
“The song is just kind of about how [depression] changes you, but it’s always going to be there, so you just have to fight it, and it’s an uphill battle,” Miller said. “There’s no easy way out.”
When it comes to pouring his heart and soul into his music, Miller is definitely not one to shy away.
“It starts out as just me doing what I need to do to be happy but then giving it back to everybody else for them to use as a tool against their own depression and their own feelings,” Miller said. “I’ll write a song, and it will almost bring tears to my eyes because it’s so raw and honest.”
It’s taken Miller years to get to the point of putting metaphorical blood, sweat and literal tears into his work. Although born and mostly raised in Ames, Miller grew many of his roots in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas during his early childhood. Growing up as a choir kid with a parent who worked in the entertainment industry, the prevalence of professional, musically-talented adults in his life triggered his own curiosity.
“I was like, ‘how could I ever get to that point?’” Miller said.
It was thanks to some close family friends that Miller wrote his first song at age 12. His parents’ friend handled the arrangement and instrumentals, while then-12-year-old Miller took over the vocals and lyrics.
“Its hilarious because the music is really well-done, and the singer sounds like he’s either a really young girl or a really young boy who just sounds like a girl,” Miller said with a laugh. “That really sparked my interest and made me feel like I can do this, you know?”
It wasn’t until high school that Miller eventually fell back into creating music with the formation of his first band, The Noise. In true early-high-school-fashion, the group drew much of their early inspiration from pop-punk powerhouses like Green Day and My Chemical Romance.
As The Noise slowly found their footing, strayed away from covers and began collaboratively writing their own material, they changed their name to Underdog Story and played their first show in 2013. It’s been an adventure of self-discovery for Miller ever since.
“It was a slow transition,” Miller said. “We were literally underdogs. That’s how we felt.”
Practicing as much as possible and as often as possible was the only thing a group of kids who didn’t feel like they “belonged” anywhere could do, and all the hard work quickly paid off. Underdog Story started booking gigs left and right, and Miller was in the middle of all of it, singing, playing guitar and sharing his personal story to audiences all across the Midwest.
“Definitely, at first it's very selfish because I write music as a therapy session,” Miller said. “At first it’s selfish, but then you start playing your shows, and you start giving back to people by sharing your own stories and your own therapy sessions, and it becomes their therapy session.”
With topics ranging from heartbreak to mental illness, Miller’s songs are consistently introspective and brutally raw to the core. From the very beginning, Miller has used music as a way to talk about the things that aren’t easy to talk about. He compares the act of songwriting to a “think tank.”
“There’s, what, seven billion people in the world?” Miller said. “Talking about yourself, you’re pretty much talking about, chances are, a billion other people. It just takes a lot to be that honest with yourself.”
The progression through Underdog Story’s material gives a view into how Miller has matured as a songwriter over the years. The band’s first EPs drew inspiration directly from Green Day and were filled to the brim with naive teenage angst, while their unreleased third EP covered much more personal topics, such as his parents’ divorce.
“I was trying to share something just a little bit deeper rather than just writing angsty songs, even though that’s kind of the market that we were trying to sell to,” Miller said. “I felt like that was something that a lot of people could relate to because everybody in the band had divorced parents. I was as honest as I could be with myself.”
Miller said songwriting has helped him to better understand himself and “grow up,” in a sense.
“I wanted to be a musician because I wanted to have a purpose in life, and I feel like you owe the world something for being born, I suppose,” Miller said. “You just have to be the best version of yourself and that’s it. You don’t have to be successful, per say, in life, but you have to be yourself, and you have to be genuine.”
Between recording issues and low group morale, Underdog Story eventually came to an end while recording their third EP.
Old friends converged to create something new, and that something new was Redcoat. Fronted by former Underdog Story guitarist Jared Coleman, Redcoat is Miller’s current musical project, where he plays bass and takes a step back from writing and vocals to allow Coleman to shine.
“Sunlit,” Redcoat’s latest single, is about Coleman’s battle with depression and recovery from a scathing breakup. With lyrics such as “a grave dug beneath my bed ready for my body to shed the skin you touched,” it’s clear that Jared’s songwriting skills are an effectual goldmine.
“Being in a band where I’m not writing is kind of intrusive,” Miller laughed. “I feel like I’m taking on a persona. That’s kind of how it is when you listen to any music. When I listened to My Chemical Romance, I dyed my hair black, wore skinny jeans and black leather, but I was still in Ames Children’s Choir.”
Whether he’s writing and fronting for his band or playing an instrument somewhere in the background, to Miller, making music is all about being a part of something and sending an important message.
Miller said that the feeling he gets when he performs isn’t a feeling that can be described in a sentence.
“It’s that feeling that you get when you go to a show full of people that you connect with, unlike when I was in high school and I walked through the halls just looking down,” Miller said. “That feeling that you’re not alone, and you’re not weird, you’re not crazy, I’m just like you. I really want to leave a positive mark, whether it’s through telling people that they’re not alone or talking about something that can be sad and twisting it into a happy story.”
Miller’s current plans include one thing: pushing the envelope. Miller and Coleman have recently become roommates, and they are considering voyaging back to Los Angeles to receive higher education in music. In the meantime, they continue to create content for Redcoat while Miller simultaneously prepares his upcoming solo project, Jonah Dean.
Jonah Miller added that despite having regrets with Underdog Story, including letting down their cult-following and missing out on opportunities to grow even more, he is determined to make up for lost time.
“Everything that I’m about to do is all the things that I’ve ever wanted to do,” Miller said. “I just feel like 2020 is going to be a really good year because all those things I’ve been working hard on are going to start to bloom.”
Redcoat’s debut EP and new music from Miller’s solo venture are expected to drop sometime early this year, and Redcoat has an upcoming show at 6 p.m. on Feb. 2 at the Record Mill in Ames.