It's 9:30 on a recent Thursday night at the Riot Room. The crowd is sparse, but the few people in attendance seem to know one another. A verse of "Roads" by Portishead fades from the overhead speakers as the evening's first act, Y[our] Fri[end], takes the stage. Most of those in attendance appear to be there for Max Justus, who will later perform an electronic set. But when Y[our] Fri[end] starts playing, people quickly shut up and listen.
Y[our] Fri[end] is principally the project of Taryn Blake Miller, a 22-year-old University of Kansas linguistics major. With her camouflage-rim glasses, minimalist hoop nose ring and calculator watch, Miller scans slightly more bohemian than the majority of the Riot Room crowd — no small feat. She has the words impossible and soul tattooed on either wrist, a nod to the 25-minute Sufjan Stevens song of that name. A replica of Carl Rungius' moose watercolor painting is on her right inner arm.
Miller works with a revolving cast of musicians. In April, Y[our] Fri[end] was a quartet when it won second place and $1,000 at KJHK's 2013 Farmer's Ball. Tonight, it's just Miller and drummer Nicholas Stahl. She's quiet, bordering on shy, between songs during the 30-minute set. But after a few songs, she tells the audience, "I've been working on a record for my entire life, it seems like, but I think I'm finally going to release it."
As far as performing, though, Miller has been around the scene for only about a year. She grew up in Winfield, Kansas (home to the popular Walnut Valley Festival), and picked up the guitar as an adolescent. She played in "a more hardcore band," influenced by the sound of groups like As I Lay Dying.
"It actually helped me play the guitar because I was playing faster things and more complicated riffs," Miller says, taking a drag from an American Spirit on the Riot Room patio with Stahl. "It's just necessary to have good coordination to play music like that, I've noticed. I'm not as good as I was then. It's been a goal of mine to get back to that."
She took up songwriting later in high school and gradually moved toward less aggressive music.
"I wanted to do something that I could play in a coffee shop or play in someone's home and not disturb anyone," she says.
Miller's first major public performance took place last September at the Lawrence Arts Center. Jordan Geiger, leader of the band Hospital Ships, put together the show featuring psych-folk act Mount Eerie. He had seen Miller play at a small house show in Lawrence and thought she would make a good opener. (His instincts were correct; Mount Eerie frontman Phil Elverum, formerly of the Microphones, was already an idol of Miller's, she says.) "That was your first show?" Stahl chimes in, a bit floored. "Wow. Congratulations."
Now she and Geiger are occasional collaborators; her debut album, Jekyll/Hyde, was recorded at Geiger's Lawrence home. She considers Geiger a mentor of sorts. "Aesthetically, there was chemistry between us, and it worked really quickly," Miller says.
"Taryn has a really genuine talent for songwriting," Geiger says. "Her songs are emotionally evocative without being maudlin or sentimental, and they are absolutely without affect or irony. She is unafraid to be honest, which I find to be rare."
On Miller's record — its release will be celebrated later this month at Love Garden Sounds — the songs veer toward the atmospheric, with vocal effects somewhere in the Bon Iver–Justin Vernon range. The songs sound a bit like the soundtrack to a summer drive through the Upper Midwest or a lazy day at the lake with a book.
Miller says her music, though often described as ambient, isn't meant to sound especially so; she gathers most of her influence from other Lawrence musicians. She has worked part time at Love Garden for a year and says, "I listen to everything — I soak it all in."
Her songs evolve from single lines that she has written, usually inspired by specific moments or conversations. There's an ethereal quality to the music, too: Miller won't disclose the lyrics of her soaring, almost jammy track "Tame One," not just because of its personal nature but also because its lyrics tend to vary from show to show.
"I'm told that there is a lot of risk in my live performances," Miller says. "I've had shows where I've called a neighbor across the street and said, 'Hey, do you feel like playing a show tonight?' I mean, I'll give him the gist of it, but there's something really nice about letting the song play itself."
It's an approach that appeals to Stahl. "It was refreshing for me to be so spontaneous with music, since I've been lacking that a lot lately in projects," he says. "I've always wanted to play in a two-piece because I feel like communication between just two musicians onstage is what makes songs so interesting each time."
"Once other people get involved, it can be positive or negative," Miller adds. "It can really go a lot of ways."
Miller is set to graduate this winter. For now, her plan is to stay in Lawrence, which suggests she wants to continue growing in what she calls "a flourishing scene." She's also an aspiring guitar builder and is eager to get busy crafting something.
"I've seen her work so hard over the past x amount of months," says Stahl, himself a former member of Hospital Ships who also plays with Lawrence's doo-wop rock group Dean Monkey & the Dropouts. "I've seen her play three shows a week and go to school and work at Love Garden, which is a demanding job. I see so many people talking about how they deserve things. But nobody actually does anything. That's all it takes — just doing it. ... I'm just really happy to see Taryn getting attention when it's a deserved kind of deal."