For Matthew Milia, Keego Harbor represents a nostalgic, metro Detroit road trip from youth to adulthood and back again.
The Detroit indie folk singer-songwriter and Frontier Ruckus frontman eloquently drifts through deep childhood recollections, gritty suburban landmarks and dichotomous neighborhood adventures on his well-crafted second solo album.
“This has been a lifelong obsession, especially with the suburban world. It’s inspired by the fact that the suburban experience is not monolithic. It’s all these mingling beautiful dualities and contradictions of the human experience that live in this space,” said Milia, who grew up in Keego Harbor.
“I’m juxtaposing Pontiac and Bloomfield Hills because those places are contiguous, and they couldn’t be more different. That’s a hard thing for people that don’t live in this area to understand. My endless personal quest is to give as much vivid description and detail of these contradictions that I’ve experienced.”
Throughout Keego Harbor, Milia intricately constructs snapshots of mundane Michigan experiences – junk mail, rotten mulch and phone chargers – and static places – party stores, drive-thru lanes and nail salons – across 10 introspective tracks to capture a beautiful legacy of life unchanged.
“I think this record is a bit more about generational inheritance. My parents met in Keego Harbor at a place called the Back Seat Saloon that’s no longer there, and the first placed they lived together was in a little loft above a house. The age I am now is when they were doing all that. It’s a bit of time travel while seeing myself as my parents and all the things that entails,” he said.
While much of Keego Harbor remains in the rear-view mirror of the mind’s eye, another portion welcomes the uncertain future with outstretched arms. It’s a matter of looking toward the past to better understand who you’ve become and where you’re headed, whether that’s in a city or a suburb.
“I’m also thinking on another level about my experience in the music industry. It’s such a weird commerce to toil in, and my life since 2006 has been writing these songs and making these records with my friends and putting them out into the world and seeing where they take me,” Milia said.
“I think that a major trope of this record is the recalibration of one’s dreams and expectations. And knowing that immense beauty and surprise can be hiding there. Once you recalibrate what you think you wanted or were working toward, you might just find something even more rewarding.”
Grandparents and Hometowns
Milia finds past reflections rewarding on the album’s thoughtful opener, “Salad Bars,” as lustrous piano, wistful pedal steel, calm drums, ruminative acoustic strums, hopeful electric guitars and forlorn bass whisk through familial birthplaces and destinations.
He recalls, “So do you see the danger?/And don’t you be a stranger/Yeah, that’s what your mom said/And it broke your heart apart/And then it sent you to the start of it again.”
“I started that song in Ogdensburg, New York, where my grandparents met. My dad’s side of the family comes from upstate New York on the St. Lawrence River, and we have a cottage there that we go to every summer and fall. Ogdensburg is a depressing town, and its main sources of revenue and commerce have long since left or collapsed,” said Milia, who recently released a lyric video for the track.
“What I find beautiful about ‘Salad Bars’ is the morose undercurrent to that song. The lyrics are not uplifting, but the really grave, heavy subject matter finds a way against all odds to have a little bit of hope. I wrote it in upstate New York, but about Michigan places.”
Milia relishes finding additional hope on “Me and My Sweetheart,” which fuses radiant pedal steel, optimistic acoustic strums, smooth drums and bouncy bass. The warm, content track celebrates Milia’s recent marriage to his wife Lauren as he reveals, “It doesn’t have to feel that way/We’ll find the place where the good things stay/When the Dairy Queen of the quarantine reopens.”
“There are subplots going on in that song. The verses are about sad guys in their 30s hanging out at high school reunions and suburban banquet halls, and people being stuck in traffic leaving a Lions game,” said Milia, who sings harmonies with Lauren on the track.
“The juxtaposition I was going for is the banality of adult life punctuated with these uplifting, hopeful choruses where ‘Me and My Sweetheart’ kind of transcend all of that monotony. Love is the way to transcend all the drudgery of adulthood.”
In June, Milia dropped a heartfelt lyric video for “Me and My Sweetheart” filled with photos of fall-themed, suburban memories of Keego Harbor and new Detroit city experiences with Lauren (and their black cat) to showcase their new life together.
“I inherited my dad’s 35mm camera, and I’m always taking photos and getting them developed at Woodward Camera. The photos just by their nature perfectly reflect the domestic comfort and warmth in which I live. It was very natural and genuine,” he said.
“I’ve lived in Detroit for about a decade, and it’s represented a whole new world of experiencing horizons and possibilities. I really see Detroit and the suburbs as being connected, and I wished more people realized that it’s two parts of one organism. There should be more of a shared sense in this together.”
Milia also preserves that togetherness while celebrating the pleasant familiarity and timeless landscape of his hometown on the contemplative “Keego Harbor,” which blends solemn pedal steel, pensive piano, tranquil acoustic strums, delicate drums, crisp cymbals, intermittent electric guitars and buoyant whistles.
He shares, “But I kept the sacred place safe inside of me/I kept it safe through all of the foreign things I tried to be/Like the robin’s nest nestled in the letter C/In the mini-mall sign for Nail City.”
“It made me gravitate towards it as a metaphor for a place teeming with pathos. There’s something about it being nestled in all these inland lakes in the summer splendor with wakeboarding and tubing on your rich friend’s boat,” Milia said.
“You walk by the trailer park with your ice cream cone dripping down your arm, and you look at the bar adjacent to the trailer park and seeing people getting drunk at 2 p.m. There’s this complexity; none of it is really to be taken at face value. It’s the complexity of adulthood that you didn’t quite see as a kid, but once you reach adulthood yourself you can see in the cracks.”
Along with its references to times past, Keego Harbor also functions as a reflection of the present day and marks Milia’s continued songwriting prowess. He co-produced the project with Minihorse’s Ben Collins with each playing a host of instruments (including a Mellotron and glockenspiel) while recording the album at Collins’ home studio.
“Every track starts with him playing drums and me playing guitar together, so there’s that nice bit of organic chemistry that everything kind of hinges off of. From there, we both go into Beatles worlds and do overdubs for days with as much fun as we can have,” Milia said.
Milia also invited Pete Ballad to play pedal steel and help bring a “bittersweet, alt country kind of vibe” to Keego Harbor. He idolized Ballard’s playing for nearly a decade and performed with him at past Frontier Ruckus shows. Meanwhile, Milia’s wife Lauren provides sweet, lush harmonies on the album’s tracks while Ryan Hay adds piano.
“Lauren completes the equation and gives balance to the melodies and the emotions residing within each lyric. This album is really about love saving you from hard times and confusing ages of life and the surprising appearance of love when you need it most, but expect it the least,” said Milia, who married Lauren right before the pandemic.
“Ryan played piano on the first few Frontier Ruckus albums, and he’s an old college friend. I gave him carte blanche to arrange his own parts, and he recorded his parts remotely in Grand Rapids. We have a telepathic kind of connection, and when he hears a song, everything he plays is in service of it.”
Frontier Ruckus and Beyond
Milia not only revisited the past for Keego Harbor, but he also recently unearthed two tracks from the Frontier Ruckus vault. In 2014, the band recorded “June is Our Mother’s Name” and “Dark Autumn Hour” for a 7-inch vinyl to accompany a Dark Autumn Hour Ale that was never released.
“They’re slightly updated versions from some of the earliest Frontier Ruckus songs. ‘June is Our Mother’s Name’ is a song that was never properly released, but a lot fans really loved it,” he said.
In addition, Frontier Ruckus will release a new album next year as a follow-up to 2017’s Enter the Kingdom. It will feature the rhythm section of Connor Dodson and Evan Eklund along with David Jones, Zachary Nichols and Milia.
“Dave and Zach shine on it. Zach has tons of beautiful horn parts and Dave’s banjo playing is the best he’s ever done with Frontier Ruckus,” Milia said.
In the meantime, Milia plans to celebrate the release of Keego Harbor with an upcoming live show. Right now, it’s a matter of waiting for the new vinyl copies to arrive.
“Vinyl manufacturing is all backed up due to the pandemic, and I’m waiting to see exactly when I’m going to have product in hand. I don’t want to have a release show and not have any records, so hopefully by the end of the summer I’ll be able to do an album release show for Keego Harbor,” he said.