ONLY THE KILLER WOULD KNOW
2. Field of Flowers
3. Home of the Brave
4. Not for Nothin
5. Only the Killer
7. Pearl Choker
8. Welcome to Lonesome
9. Your Own Well
On her first new album in five years, Valorie Miller writes about one of the most beautiful pieces of land near Asheville, North Carolina – but not in a way one would expect. The narrative of Only the Killer Would Know emerged after Miller discovered that her acre of land in Swannanoa sat adjacent to, if not in the middle of, a hazardous waste area overseen by the government.
Dealing with health issues and eventually leaving the property, Miller finally figured out the connection years later by talking to her former neighbors and independently researching the superfund site, so named because of the massive cost necessary to clean up the mess left by irresponsible corporations – in this case, a company called Chemtronics that manufactured weaponry and explosives.
“It’s a big, scary, horrible subject, and a lot of these songs grew out of that,” she says. “There’s not much you can do about those places. They will be toxic for our lifetime and for lifetimes to come. Writing a song is always how I’ve addressed things in my life, but I’ve never had an inspiration quite like this.”
Recorded in Asheville with rising producer Kayla Zuskin, the album begins with “Apocalachia,” with wrenching lyrics that confront the situation head-on. “Field of Flowers” then offers a poignant message about growth and accountability, especially when it comes to how we treat the earth.
“I think that the record definitely embodies a relationship between people and nature, whether it’s a toxic one or a healthy one,” she says. “I’ve been forced to become an environmentalist because of Chemtronics, but I’ve always loved nature and I’ve done a lot of camping and living in places that were very rural. But I’ve never had any kind of activist history, and I don’t consider myself an activist now, unless it’s through my art and talking about this subject.”
Miller lifted a phrase from the national anthem for “Home of the Brave,” a song about personal fortitude that she wrote in anticipation of a local show around the Fourth of July. “Here in the mountains so green, it’s deceiving / You’d almost believe it’s a Garden of Eden,” she sings. “Somebody sold you thoughts that you’re thinking / And left a trace in the water you’re drinking.” Sharing her truth in the music video for “Home of the Brave,” she sits at her kitchen table with a massive document about the Chemtronics site, along with articles, maps, and graphs that she acquired through research. It’s a fitting visual, considering the album title.
“You hear that term in detective shows, when somebody has insider information,” she says. “With Only the Killer Would Know, the ‘killer’ refers to the people who dump that stuff in the ground. And by researching all of that, I'm the detective,” she says. “To help find the killer, or the person responsible, the investigator has to know certain details that no one else could possibly know. In this case, the information is readily available, but nobody's looking except for me. I know all of this weird stuff about that place. Meanwhile, in this entire community, practically nobody is even aware that that place is there.”
Miller has lived in Asheville for decades now. Growing up in Durham, she learned to play guitar around third grade, using a guidebook while immobilized in leg casts after knee surgery. After college in Colorado, she kicked around the state for a few years, living in her truck or in shacks with no electricity or running water. In time, she returned to North Carolina and took a job at a camp near Asheville for juvenile delinquents. When she later married, she moved to a 60-acre farm in nearby Madison County.
One day, a friend visiting the farm heard Miller playing guitar and singing, then persistently encouraged her to pursue an emerging artist grant from the state. Much to her surprise, Miller received the grant. “And when I got it, I was actually kind of horrified, like, ‘Oh no, now what do I do?’” she recalls. “So, the whole thing developed on a whim. But that grant was enough to shoe me into a life in music, then I just kept going.”
Leaving the farm and the marriage, Miller moved to downtown Asheville and started playing songwriter nights in the ‘90s. She made her first album, on cassette, at 29 years old. Although she could already sing harmony, Miller taught herself to play bass and toured the country with her boyfriend at the time, Malcolm Holcomb. However, they broke up just before Miller moved to her property in the Swannanoa.
“The very first night that I stayed alone in the trailer, on that little acre, I had a dream that the earth was a very thin layer of dirt on top of a giant trash pile and that the trash was sentient. It knew I was there, and it was evil. The next day, I woke up and I was like, ‘Something is weird about this place. Something is bad.’ People always tell me I'm kind of a mystic because I have an unconscious connection with the land around me.”
Some of that eerie, dreamlike vibe seeps into the later songs on Only the Killer Would Know, due to the innovative Asheville musicians that Zuskin brought into the sessions. In the studio with a female producer for the first time, Miller describes the whole experience as not just smooth, but “shockingly relaxing.”
“Before this album, I’ve always gone in the studio and tried to figure it out with barely any money. That can hold you back in certain ways, especially if you’re nervous and unsure about the people you’re working with,” she says. “It’s a huge relief to make this album. I've always wanted to make a record that I really like from start to finish, and I’m so glad that it happened. I'm a late bloomer, I think. I feel like, moving forward, I could make even more music this way.”