It took time for Erin Miller, who writes and performs under the name Surly, to find her voice.
“I didn’t write music until I was 17,” she said. “I had a really hard time finding the right combination of good things.”
Miller started playing guitar at 12, when her dad taught her how to form three chords—C, E minor and G. Everything else—including guitar, voice and recording—she taught herself, beginning in the summer following elementary school.
“I would start playing guitar at three in the afternoon and wouldn’t stop until three in the morning,” said Miller.
Miller’s bathroom became a makeshift studio that would play home to a growing obsession with self-recording.
“It was mostly through trial and error, and internet research, and not doing my schoolwork,” she said.
Approaching the end of high school, Miller started using the bedrock of skills she had developed to express herself. On a trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan, she realized there was a song stuck in her head. It was one of her own.
“I think it ended up being called ’I Hate College Apps,’” said Miller. “People really responded to it, which was very wild.”
When she returned home after that trip, many things had changed. An influential teacher and mentor to Miller was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, which soon claimed her life. On top of that, Miller’s family relocated from a trailer park to the suburbs, further causing her to feel alienated from her surroundings.
“It was all very overwhelming,” she said. The changes were galvanizing for Miller, who was just beginning to see how her own written material had the potential to connect her to people around her. That’s when she wrote her first Surly song, “Nothing But An Idealistic Chump” inspired by Carmen, her teacher who died.
“Since then, I’ve been practicing honing in on whatever it was that allowed that potential to be realized in the first place,” said Miller.
Surly, who began performing under the name Sundries, came to be after another series of trials and errors, this time with Miller’s first forays into live performance. The Holland Project provided a stage for Surly to come into her own.
“It took me a really long time to be able to play a show without crying afterwards,” said Miller. “Holland was really important for imagining a future with live music that wasn’t like ’fuck this!’”
She self-recorded her first EP, About That, in the summer of 2016. In four songs, she explores themes of friendship, love, uncertainty about the past and future, longing and self-doubt. The EP’s final track, “Summer Song” opens with the lyrics “Keep having dreams of my teeth falling out / I am rotting from the inside.” It’s one of the EP’s most memorable songs, capturing Miller’s often painful introspective pull, as well as her ability to break through to creative catharsis.
Currently, Miller is recording a follow-up to About That. Though there have been some difficult setbacks, she feels hopeful that the EP, which focuses on the love she feels for the people around her, will come together. It’s in perseverance, doubt and battling embarrassment that a Surly release comes to fruition. It’s a process Miller identified upon recently revisiting her first EP.
“When I put it out, I listened to it obsessively, then I stopped listening to it because I was really embarrassed of it. I didn’t want anyone to hear it—I wanted to take it down,” said Miller. “But I actually re-listened to it a few days ago. It’s OK!”