There are any number of singers who can turn in a pitch-perfect performance, who can hold a note, shape a phrase, and project their voices to the back of the hall. Talent shows across the globe are full of them, singing for their supper, hoping for that lucky break. And then there is that select band of vocalists who can take a song to the next level, burrow deep beneath its skin, and pin you to your seat as they do so. Anyone lucky enough to hear the demo version of Tor Miller's song Headlights 18 months ago would have instantly added the name of the 20-year-old native New Yorker to the latter list, immediately felt compelled to work out the singer's identity. Who was this musician singing – in a sandpapered voice rich with vibrato and hoarse with emotion – as if his life depended on it, hurling himself off the precipice, wrestling the song to the floor, as the piano pounded and the melody, as it hit the final chorus, slipped its moorings and soared skywards? And how come so few singers do this? Occupy a song, tear the lyric from their chest, sing with such passion and recklessness that they seem to be locked in mortal combat with the darkest corners of their heart and their soul.
Tor is endearingly vague when asked to explain the source of that singing voice. He grew up, he says, with a dad “who was part of the Glee Club at university, and he'd sing all the time at home, all these old college drinking songs. But my mum can't sing to save her life. My parents always say that I would sing around the house all the time, too, but I don't remember that. I do know that they would go to parent evenings and ask my teachers about my participation in music, and the teachers would go: 'What? He never contributes.' My mum and I would take these long trips out to Jersey, where she would ride horses, and I'd sing along to the radio. But I never thought anything of it."
As Tor tells it, it took a major upheaval in his life to kickstart his conviction and self-belief, and turn him from someone who would “sing around the house all the time" into an artist on a mission. When he was 12, his parents moved from Manhattan out to New Jersey and, six months later, Tor enrolled in a new school near his new home. It was those six months, and the two years that followed, that would shape him both as a singer and as a writer. Put simply, he channelled his grief for his old life, and his alienation from his new one, into music. But first, that six-month period when, Tor says, each weekday he and his mother would do “a 90-minute commute. She would drop me off and I'd sit for about half an hour, waiting for school to open, listening to the music she had given me – Ziggy Stardust, Elton John's greatest hits, Fleetwood Mac – on my iPod. I listened to those records pretty much nonstop, up and back. And that was the point when I started writing my own songs."
Music lessons aside, Tor's new school was, for a long time, not a place he was happy to attend. “I was a complete outcast; I didn't talk to anyone for about two years. But I was getting confident in lessons, and wrote my first couple of songs, so I decided to perform at the eighth-grade talent show – and remember, at that point, no one had really ever heard me even speak. I was so mad to have had to move schools and leave all my friends, so I didn't participate in anything. But I got up there and performed a cover version, and a song I had just written, and immediately after, people suddenly wanted to talk to me, I got all this attention – especially from girls! And it propelled me to keep going, and I started booking shows, open-mic nights in places such as The Stone Pony in Asbury Park. I worked at that, and then I went to high school, and joined the jazz band there, and some of the guys in that joined my band, and we just carried on playing shows. But it all came from that one performance in eighth grade."
The songs “began to pour out, most of them about isolation and loneliness," Tor says with a wry laugh. “I felt that I'd been taken out of the city and away from a life I loved, and thrown out on a horse farm in New Jersey. I had no idea what to do with myself, I was really angsty. And here, suddenly, was something I liked – and I didn't like anything at the time." The bug had bitten him and, when he took up a place studying music at NYU, Tor dived right in.
Glassnote Records – home to artists such as Mumford & Sons, Phoenix, Childish Gambino and Chvrches – picked up on the buzz that was rapidly building about Tor, and last year, he signed to the label. Which led, he admits, to a slightly tense family summit with his mum and dad. “Basically, I'm supposed to be on this two-year leave from college at the moment, and I think my parents both fully expect that I'll be going back there at the end of it. It was an incredibly awkward conversation when the deal came about. I had to say: 'Because of this, I don't think I'll be going back to college next year.' That was pretty nerve-wracking. I put it off for a couple of days; it was the most difficult conversation of my life."
Now working on his debut album at London's Eastcote studios with the producer Eliot James (Noah and the Whale, Two Door Cinema Club, Plan B, Bloc Party), Tor describes the recording environment as “a bit dilapidated, which is exactly how I like it. And Eliot is a producer who really drives the recordings, and captures the grit in a song. It's a huge relief to finally find the right match." He's determined not to play it safe, he says, or smooth off the rough edges in his songs.