Growing up, Nick Miller never really listened to dance music. Now he’s one of the genre’s most prolific stars, better known as Illenium – and celebrating a GRAMMY nomination as a result.
Illenium’s fourth album, 2021 fallen embersis in the running for Best Dance/Electronic Music Album at 2022 GRAMMY Awards. It’s a pivotal moment for Miller, who became “obsessed” with the electronic music world in 2009, launched his career with a self-released EP in 2013, then made his major label debut in 2016.
Since then, Illenium has released three more albums and countless singles, teaming up with fellow dance titans like Gryffin and the Chain smokersas well as a variety of singers, from Georgia Ku to Jon Bellion. His versatility is perhaps most apparent on fallen emberswhich includes Tori Kelly, iann dior and Thirty Seconds to Mars, among others.
Although he is already tease new music – who will debut on Illenium’s set at the Ultra Music Festival in Miami on March 26 – the producer/DJ believes the next chapter of his career really began with fallen embers. With a GRAMMY nomination to validate her new direction, this may really just be the start.
GRAMMY.com sat down with Illenium to discuss the importance of fallen embershow he went from crowd to stage and the role music played in changing – and saving – his life.
What made you realize in the first place that you were interested in producing – and that you were pretty good at it?
I started messing around in GarageBand in high school, and it introduced me to the idea of spending time creating something – even though that stuff at the time was really bad. I moved to Colorado and had some life-changing moments, and I started putting a lot of my time into it. A lot of the encouragement I got from friends, even if it was just mediocre music, was really exciting.
I was writing for music blogs and I loved the whole electronic music scene at that time. I was trying to create what my idols did and trying to learn how they did it. I became obsessed, passionate and excited. I got addicted to trying to make songs. The feeling of doing it yourself and being able to control every aspect of it was really addicting.
I went to a Red Rocks show in 2012 and saw that community, especially in Colorado – the Denver-based music scene is really tight-knit and communal, and it’s really authentic. It was really special. It was an experience that really made me want to succeed.
Was dance music your #1 genre growing up?
No not at all. I didn’t listen to much dance music until 2009. I started when I was living in San Francisco. I really liked a lot of house and trance stuff and then once I moved to Colorado it became the bass music scene.
I grew up listening to a lot of pop-punk and rock, and my family listens to a lot of country. Lots of hip hop [too]. So I was everywhere in college and high school.
That’s pretty much all I listen to now. I listen to a little pop, and a little hip-hop, but it’s almost exclusively rock and pop-punk.
Considering you were a teenager during the mid-2000s pop-punk explosion, that makes sense.
Totally. I feel like there’s so much emotion and – it’s not even aggression, but it’s like intensity, in this kind of music, where it can be really very melodic or lyrical, but the instrumental stuff behind it is like hits. It touches me more than a lot of electronic music these days. So I think that’s why I transfer it into my kind of thing.
fallen embers is the first album that does not start with “A”, but its title still fits into the general theme that Ashes, Awake and To go up gift. What’s the story behind it?
My logo is a phoenix, [because] the imagery behind the phoenix really relates to me and the music I make, and why I make music in the first place. So my first three albums were sort of this whole phoenix birth cycle. They all started with “A”, it was a trilogy of this cycle. So fallen embers was kind of my take on the pieces that were left – the embers that fell from the phoenix throughout this journey.
I did this album when I wasn’t on tour, and it’s the first album I’ve done in a long time. [that] I wasn’t on tour, because I toured like crazy. It turned out to be much calmer and much more like a refill album to me. Lyrically, he [details] the ebbs and flows of a relationship – it doesn’t have to be a relationship, just finding yourself and forgiving yourself for making mistakes and moving on.
Sonically, fallen embers has more rock elements. It’s definitely quieter than To go up. I like emotional music, so my music will always have an emotional aspect. This will not change. But I don’t wanna keep repeating and chasing [the same sound]so now i’m moving very – like, totally – different, post-fallen embers. fallen embers, for me, it was like a farewell, almost. I just wanted to be very clear that this was a trilogy, and now we’re off.
When you announced fallen embers, you said it was “the start of a new chapter”. So is that kind of what you were talking about?
Yeah. I’ve been in LA for five of the last six months to start from scratch and write rock songs and aggressive shit because I feel like I took a break and made music instead calm. Now I [going] a bit more aggressive and adding some metallic aspects.
There’s this happy medium between electronic, rock and metal that can be really cool. And I feel like there are a lot of people doing similar things, but the songs can be really authentic and healing for people – right now, especially.
You also said that this album was “an incredibly personal journey for me”. Since it was so personal to you, did you see an even more significant impact from those songs?
Yeah. I mean, the last two years have been really tough for a lot of people, myself included. Especially since the shows have returned, you can definitely see the excitement in people to get some release. And to [just] enjoy – it’s hard after a long period of people just going with the flow.
Especially in the electronic music scene, many of these people use these shows and the music for their healing and escapism. And it’s really important to them. So to be able to give them a show and also give them new music, and see how that music has been their kind of crutch for the last year, has been really wonderful to me.
You had everyone from Tori Kelly ecstatic and airwaves on fallen embers. What happens to find the right singer for a track?
It’s a mix. Much of it is based on availability. When I first work on a song, especially if it’s a demo, I was like, “Who would sound good on that? The “Blame Myself” demo had Emily Warren, who has a truly amazing voice, and a very unique tone. It is therefore difficult to fill it.
You get this thing called “demoitis”, where you’re so used to the demo that it’s hard to part with it. But you just have to find the right singer who will bring his own attitude or attitude. And you kind of have to sit down for a second because you’re so obsessed with the first version.
It’s not necessarily the ability to sing. That’s a lot of tone. Sonically, how you do an entire song, and you have a voice in there, you need someone that fits in the exact same place. And that can be really difficult.
For “Paper Thin” with Tom and Angels and Airwaves, it was just a to-do list [thing] for me, I always wanted to work with him. When we sent it to him, we thought, “They’re probably not going to do that.” Same with Jared [Leto, Thirty Seconds to Mars’ frontman]. I’m the biggest fan of all the people I’ve collaborated with, so it was really special.
I feel like a lot of people who aren’t as familiar with the dance music scene might assume that producers like you, who aren’t on their tracks vocally, might not write them. But you, and people like Kygo and Zedd — all those big names in the producer world — have proven that wrong. Do you think this is a common misconception?
I think there will always be a misconception of a DJ/producer type thing. I don’t think there is a way around it, unfortunately. But at the end of the day, it’s fine. People [who like] different music has a whole different perspective.
When people see “DJ,” they’re like, “Oh, like, Vegas DJ. Organize a party! They have no idea of the complexities behind this. There are producers who can do crazy things. It’s hard to even begin to describe this. There are songs where we start with a guitar, and we write from scratch. It’s just about having an ear for what will succeed, and also having an ear for what you love.
In 2018, you shared a very personal story of how music changed your life. Was it a certain song, album or artist that did this for you? Or was it being able to use the music you created as an outlet? Or a combination of both?
It’s definitely a mix of the two. When I changed my life from that time, it was a mix of curiosity about music production, but I was also obsessed with music — I was like, “How do these producers create these things?”
This little thought aroused so much curiosity in me, and [I] I wanted to understand how to implement my love for music and my love for different genres. For it to change my life, it had to have all of these aspects — being obsessed with music, liking other people’s music, and want to create my own.
Doing an action in one of these phases every day is what moved me forward and brought me onto the scene and into my career. But also [made me] confident with myself and feel like I have a purpose. It was really a healing process for me, because I was kind of like a show before that. I needed something to put all my energy into, and something that my family supported, and I had friends who supported me. So that was really cool.
When I was so low, I had no self-confidence. You just have no confidence, and you’re pretty broken. So that you even have an idea of ”I could be good at something” or “I could get good at something if I work hard enough at it and I love it”, so it’s just full speed ahead.
How does 2012’s Nick at Red Rocks feel about 2022’s Nick being a GRAMMY-nominated producer?
It’s just breathtaking. You know, I thought to myself when I saw the Red Rocks concert in 2012, I thought, “Maybe in 10 years I can play the Red Rocks.” I wasn’t even saying a title or anything, just playing Red Rocks. I apparently set myself a very low goal. [Laughs.]
Constantly setting goals and achieving them throughout my career has been amazing, but it’s crazy to think about being a GRAMMY nominated artist. It’s a whole other world that I never would have thought of – I just got into bass music and EDM, you know? To think about this transition is crazy.
We are probably on an irreversible trajectory towards the metaverse. What role will music play in it?