A moment of stealth helped Taryn Miller discover that music performance was her true love.
Miller was then a sophomore in high school in Winfield, Kan., where she played two sports. Music was a hobby then; sports were a more important endeavor.
“I was a serious athlete,” she said. “And that’s where my focus was: looking at what college I could go to play soccer or basketball.”
In spring semester of that year, Miller had study hall in the room next to where the student choir was rehearsing for “Vikings on Broadway,” a musical revue named after the school’s mascot.
“I heard it every day, and I inadvertently learned the show,” she said. “I was totally in love with it.”
She loved it so much she attended all the dress rehearsals and every performance.
“During the intermission of the last performance, I was talking to my friends in the show,” she said. “One of them said to me, ‘You just want to do the last part of the show with us? You know all the parts.’ ”
So she did.
“It was a big ensemble, so I was kind of lost in it,” she said.
Kind of, but not. The performance was recorded for a souvenir DVD, which is where the choir director noticed the interloper who had sneaked in from backstage.
“He was like, ‘You know this means you have to audition now,’ ” Miller said.
So she auditioned, made the choir and hasn’t been the same since.
“I started feeling, ‘Nothing else makes me feel like this,’ ” she said. “I had a real passion for it. It would give me the chills. It wasn’t some second thought or a hobby. My focus shifted to how I could get into a school to do it.”
Music has since become her mission, one she is trying to turn into a career. Thursday night, Miller, who performs as Your Friend, will celebrate the release of “Gumption,” her debut full-length on Domino, an independent record label whose roster includes Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors and Neutral Milk Hotel.
It has been a quick but heady ride from local obscurity to national attention for someone who turned seriously to music only a few years ago and who gave it up temporarily to focus on school. You could say the dominoes fell swiftly and led to all the right places.
Go for the peanut butter shake
After high school, Miller attended Cowley County Community College in Arkansas City, Kan., where she earned an associate degree in music. She had decided against a four-year school so she could enroll in a wider variety of classes.
“In the more elevated programs, you focus on one instrument,” she said. “Cowley gave me more freedom and the chance to be in more ensembles and learn more in a shorter period of time.”
She studied concert percussion and performed with the concert band. She played in the jazz band, sang in the choir, took piano and vocal lessons and played guitar in the guitar ensemble.
After completing her degree at Cowley, she contemplated studying composition at Wichita State University. But she was swayed to change her mind. Lawrence was calling, it turned out.
“I’d been to Lawrence a lot, to visit friends and go to shows,” she said. “I was (in Lawrence) one day helping a friend move there. Later I was walking around campus with another friend and she said, ‘Why aren’t you here? Why don’t you just go here?’ I hadn’t really thought about it.
“Then here’s a funny story: She and I went to a Planet Sub so she could get a sandwich. After she came out, she said, ‘(Beep) I should have gotten a peanut butter shake. Why didn’t I get a peanut butter shake?’ Then she turned to me and said, ‘Don’t wish you would have ordered the peanut butter shake. Just go here.’ So I went to admissions that day.”
Miller took up the trumpet again, knowing she’d have to audition on one instrument to get into music school, but she realized that wasn’t a realistic option. “There was no way I could get ready in time,” she said, “so I chose another major.”
That major was linguistics, a rigorous program that forced Miller to put music aside for a while. “It’s so intense,” she said. “The homework assignments took hours and hours. It was really eye-opening, though, how it influences your social interactions. It’s almost mathematical sometimes, but really rewarding.”
In 2012, at the start of her senior year, Miller returned to music.
“I was miserable without it,” she said. “Some friends were having a house concert, and it was really low-key. I had a handful of songs, and I asked if it would be OK if I played to open the show.”
It went well, so well her friend Jordan Geiger of the band Hospital Ships invited her to play a much bigger show at the Lawrence Arts Center.
“He wanted me to open for (the band) Mount Eerie,” she said. “It blew my mind. I hadn’t been playing out much, and he (band leader Phil Elverum) is someone I really respect and had influenced what I did. Things were happening so quickly. It was a whirlwind.”
“Do it for your own sake”
Things were happening faster than she realized.
Miller grew up listening to her father’s favorite music, bands like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and the Zombies. “I’m a huge Zombies fan,” she said. She started writing songs in high school, when she started listening to “the canon of indie bands, like Modest Mouse and Neutral Milk Hotel.”
Her songwriting style changed about the time she moved to Lawrence. “I stopped overthinking it,” she said. “I was like, ‘Do it for your own sake. Just enjoy it.’ It wasn’t a calculated approach.”
Not long after the Mount Eerie show, Miller started working on her debut EP, “Jekyll/Hyde,” which Geiger produced, and playing live shows more frequently. After placing second in the annual Farmers Ball, a battle-of-the-bands sponsored by KJHK (90.7 FM), the campus radio station at KU, Miller spent her prize money pressing 500 copies of the EP. And the station started playing it.
While walking across campus during finals week of her final semester at KU, she got an email from Domino.
“They have a couple of people who have lived in Lawrence, so they kind of peek in on it every once in a while to see what’s happening,” she said. One of those people is Kris Gillespie, who was a DJ and music director at KJHK in the early 1990s and is now general manager at Domino.
“He was listening to KJHK, heard one of my songs and started paying attention and investigating what I was doing,” she said.
In early 2014, she officially signed with Domino, which re-released her EP in February of that year. A month later she performed a showcase at the South by Southwest Music Conference and set off on a touring schedule that included opening gigs for Courtney Barnett. She and the EP were getting wide acclaim.
Spin magazine named her one of the month’s best new artists in April 2014, saying “Jekyll/Hyde” “starts as a hazy sketch, one that eventually fills itself in and opens itself up, layering Miller’s pensive vocals with parceled-out guitars, keyboards, bass, drums and warm ambiance. These are faded photographs rendered as songs.”
In the winter of 2015, she started recording “Gumption.” The album was produced by Nicolas Vernhes at the Rare Book Room in Brooklyn. Vernhes has worked on albums by Animal Collective, Deerhunter, the War on Drugs, Dirty Projectors and Spoon.
“He saw us play in New York and approached me after the show,” Miller said. “I think the label kind of facilitated the meeting. He told me later on that he wanted to work on the album, which was a huge honor.”
The experience was revelatory. “It was unlike anything I’d done before,” she said. “It changed the way I’m going to look at making a record. The possibilities of things you can do when you work with someone with a similar aesthetic approach is huge.
“We communicated on that level. If I wasn’t happy with something, he already wasn’t, too. It was very organic.”
The track “Come Back From It” exemplifies how their aesthetics meshed. Both agreed that something was missing; he figured out how to get Miller to flesh out what was missing. He had her listen to the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes.”
“It was a moment where it was necessary … to sit me down to recenter,” she said. “I think it was meant to be an exercise in listening and to pay attention to a true songwriter and the idea of song structure. This song needed a chorus at that point, and this was a means of getting me to arrive there. I think what caught me off-guard was that he had specifically picked that track out of the enormous library he had.”
“Gumption” differs from the stripped-down “Jekyll/Hyde” in several ways. “I zeroed in on texture and sound, rather than just songwriting,” she said. “Like everything I write, a lot is based on melody, but songs are dictated by what I want to accomplish sonically.
“And I’ve been exploring ways to sing now, and it’s pretty evident. People say I sound more mature.”
Thursday she and her band (Nicholas Stahl, Christopher Luxem, Joel Martin and Kyle Stringer) will perform at Liberty Hall in Lawrence to celebrate the release of “Gumption.” Later they will embark on a 30-show, cross-country tour that starts March 9 at the Rock and Roll Hotel in Washington, D.C., and ends April 15 at the Bowery Ballroom in New York.
“It’s going to be the longest tour I’ve ever done,” she said. “It’s going to be interesting.”
And satisfying, too, no doubt, for someone who discovered her true purpose and reached her due prominence by sneaking in through the back door.
Your Friend performs Thursday night at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St. in Lawrence. Showtime is 8 p.m. Major Games opens. Tickets are $7 and are available through Ticketmaster and at the box office (cash only).