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Artist of the Month: Members of The Extra Miles find joy through songs with heartfelt messages

by on February 28, 2020 2:43 PM

The Extra Miles is an acoustic trio from the State College area that combines introspective storytelling with tight vocal harmonies.

The trio’s sound could easily be categorized as Americana or folk, but it is much more than that. Their clever interpretations of classic covers show their willingness to take chances. Their original songs share true passion and timely messages, addressing heart-touching issues such as lost love and domestic abuse.

Andrea Miles, Patty McKenna, and Ruth Williamson try to make a difference with every song. With powerful lyrics and just the right amount of accompanying guitar, these musicians bring home their message loud and clear.

Originally from Coalport, Andrea is the songwriter and a singer in the band. Patty, whose hometown is Verona, New Jersey, handles guitar and vocal duties. Ruth, who grew up in Clearfield, is the newest member of the group and plays guitar and banjo.

All are very talented individuals who together create a very special group.

I was pleased to have an opportunity to sit down with all three to discuss their music.

Bernie: Let’s start by discussing the origins of the band. How did The Extra Miles come about?

Patty: Andrea wrote a song and said, “Hey, I wrote a song. Can you figure out how to play it on the guitar?” And I said, “No.” But she's so persuasive. She had me come over with my guitar and sure enough, we figured it out. Then we just started playing. Two other people were playing with us at that time and it was really fun. But then one day while we were rehearsing a new song, all of a sudden Andrea broke into harmony. I was astounded. I just thought, wow, this is really special. Our sound is different. She's good. And it just escalated from there.

Ruth: And then Andrea wrote more songs. This past August, she wrote a song about Pennsylvania called “Days Like These.” She asked me, “Ruth, can you play the banjo?” out of the blue. And I said, “No.” And she said, “But you can play it right?” And I said, “Maybe three chords.” And just as Patty said, she's very persuasive. And here we are.

So, I learned how to play the banjo for a song. And they kept picking me up to play more songs. And that's how I am a part of The Extra Miles. I'm the extra, Extra Miles.

Bernie: Andrea, when did the group start playing out live?

Andrea: I would say about two years ago. We started with an open mic night in at Otto's. We played five songs, I believe. It just took off from there.

Bernie: When and how did you become interested in music?

Patty: Sister Mary Francis taught me how to play guitar in fifth grade, but she only taught us religious songs and John Denver songs. I also used to play in church when I was little, but I put my guitar away years and years ago, until Andrea convinced me to pick it back up again.

Ruth: My story is similar, even though we are not a church or a religious group. I had my start in fifth grade with Rita McConnell, who was the music teacher at my Catholic school. My parents were always very supportive of me, especially as a girl, as I always wanted to play the instruments that none of the girls really played, which happened to be the guitar at that time. And at my local church, the pastor played guitar, and he was really good.

So, they encouraged me to take lessons from him, and instead of having to pay for them, he encouraged me to donate to world hunger, and then share the music that I've learned from him with others. So, from a very young age, I was taught about the gift of music and how important it is to play and to share with others. I have been playing guitar since I was 11.

I also always wanted to play the banjo thanks to the Dixie Chicks. My parents bought me a banjo for Christmas when I was 16. I took lessons from a coworker of my dad, who was in a local bluegrass band. Then, I went to college and the banjo was packed away. I just rediscovered it this past spring, when Andrea asked me to play for her new original song, “Days Like These.”

Andrea: For me, I really wish I played an instrument. I was more of a songwriter. I wrote my first song when I was 11 years old, just after learning that love wasn’t perfect. I sang it in the shower for decades and never put an instrument to it. I wrote my second song 30 years later, after again witnessing that love wasn’t perfect. Within three years, I wrote 12 songs and finally put instruments to my first song. Just a few weeks ago, I finished writing a song called “Nearly Perfect,” which is a funny little reminder that love isn’t perfect and that’s OK.

As a kid I played church hymns on the harmonica. And that's pretty much the extent of it. Being part of a group is all kind of new for me. I never imagined being in a band, but it's been a lot of fun.

Bernie: I have heard you perform on several occasions. Your sets include a nice mix of cover songs and original material. Tell me how you choose your covers. Are there certain artists that you really like or songs that you simply enjoy playing?

Patty: Well, we sometimes start with a song that we love, but then Andrea listens to it and says, “I don't know how we could harmonize to that.” Since we utilize strong vocal harmonies as part of the band’s sound, we usually only pick songs that will sound good with vocal harmony. So, there are songs that we would love to play that but if we're not going to harmonize in it, then we're not going to play it. Neither one of us wants to sing alone.

Andrea: I think we've done a really good job of trying to pick different genres and different eras. We cover songs from the 1960s to today. We recently covered a newly released song by Little Big Town called “Daughters” that was just released a few weeks ago. So that's been fun. We're trying to hit different genres and just play songs that everybody's going to like.

Ruth: I think we keep an ear out for songs that tell a story and songs that we can blend our own sounds together to tell that story. We are always listening to friends and family members who make special requests.

Bernie: Let’s discuss your original material. Tell me about your creative process. Do you write lyrics first and then add instruments, or is it worked out on instruments first, then placing lyrics to fit the music? Or, does it all come about at the same time?

Andrea: So far, I've written all the songs. And as of today, we have 14 originals. I think they're special; I think we play them better than anything. Because we just have our own touch on the song. They're all meaningful. They've come from either a story of my own or a loved one or friend that they've shared with me. So, there's a definite truth and meaning behind each song that we've written. We've tried to write about a lot of hard topics, including domestic abuse. We try to bring awareness from the survivor’s perspective.

Bernie: Andrea, whenever you write a new song, how do you present it to the other members of the group? What's the process on getting everybody on board to learn the song? How do you share your vision?

Andrea: It's very nerve-racking at first, but I usually present it by sitting and just singing it a cappella to them, with the melody, and then we pick up the guitars and try to write the chords around it as we go.

Bernie: And how is that from the instrumental standpoint? How does that work for the two who are playing guitar and banjo? Is it smooth or is it a struggle with finding the chords or developing the riffs?

Ruth: I think for me, I feel like I'm witnessing a gift and then I get to be a part of helping to put the wrapping on and figure out how we can bring it to life. So, it doesn't seem like a scary process. We work it through together.

Patty: Andrea makes it easy for us. She'll sing me the song. Then I'll sing it back and she'll harmonize with it. Then I'll take the guitar out and try to develop the chords. And it just flows. It's just natural. As soon as we started playing together, I thought we have something special and Andrea noticed it too. The lyrics and the music come together effortlessly.

Bernie: When it comes to new and original material, is there a timetable that you follow? Are you trying to build up a catalog of original songs? Do you make time to create or does it just happen organically?  

Andrea: So far, it's just been very organic. It usually comes about through inspiration.

Patty: Oftentimes, I'll tell Andrea stories about my life and before you know it, she's got a song with that story in it. She really listens and she's able to take your experiences and put them to music and they are so universal. People are always coming up to us and saying that a song really spoke to them. Sometimes I can barely even play a song without crying because she talks about loss and grief and violence. But, it brings people together. These are the universal themes that she writes about and she's just really good at listening to people's experiences and putting it down into the song.

Bernie: As far as instrumentation goes, who is responsible for the music behind the lyrics?

Patty: In addition to writing the lyrics, Andrea sings, plays percussion, and harmonica. Ruth plays acoustic guitar, banjo, djembe and cajon. I sing and play acoustic guitar. Our sound is really about the vocal harmonies and that lifts the storytelling.

Bernie: What brands of instrument do you use?

Ruth: Andrea plays a Hohner Echo Harp C/G Harmonica that her father purchased in Germany during the Korean War era. Patty plays Taylor guitars and I play Martin guitars. My banjo is a Hondo II.

Bernie: What instrument, if any, that you cannot play, do you wish you could play?

Andrea: Acoustic guitar.

Patty: Mandolin.

Ruth: Drum kit.

Bernie: What is your process for introducing new songs or even new instruments to the public? Is it planned out on a set list or is it sometimes spontaneous?

Patty: Andrea just sang a new song to me this morning that I never heard before. And she said, “I think we can play this on Sunday.” So as soon as it comes out of her mouth, we want to share it with people.

Ruth: I think we have a lot of really supportive friends, family members, and people who are always willing to offer their ear and sometimes some very truthful feedback. So that sometimes is our first run-through, in public. We’ll just decide to play it. It’s not always perfect, but we’ll try to improve every time we play.

Bernie: Tell me about some of the local venues you have played.

Andrea: I would say for the first two years, we really tried to focus as a band to be there for the community and to participate in community events that have trouble financing live entertainment. We've participated in a lot of farmers markets and First Fridays. We also did a winter tour of senior adult and elder care facilities in the region. These shows have been some of our favorite gigs.

Patty: They are great, really the most rewarding. A lot of people have come up to us after those performances and said, “We don't usually hear your kind of music here.” They really give us positive feedback when we go and play there. And it makes it so fun for us and so meaningful for us when people come up to us and express how much they loved it. Sometimes they cry. They make requests of songs that we need to start learning by Elvis Presley and The Beatles. It makes your heart feel good to walk away knowing that you've cheered people up, even if only for two hours.

Andrea: We have also played at Webster’s, 3 Dots, and the Williamspint Beer and Music Festival. I enjoy playing live to share the art of telling a story and witnessing people in the audience connecting while hearing a song. For instance, “Stream of Lies” is a song that I wrote about domestic abuse from a survivor’s perspective. I’ve lost count of how many meaningful conversations we have had after a show with people we have never met before, feeling inspired to share their story with us.

Bernie: I understand you are recording a CD. How is that experience?

Andrea: We did record a CD, but there were some unfortunate technical difficulties that are forcing us to do it again, which we're rescheduling. We are just waiting on a studio date later this year.

Patty: We are very anxious to get our originals onto a CD. However, Andrea keeps writing more originals. And we keep saying, “Well, I'm glad we didn't record it yet because we want that song on the CD.” But we will be thrilled once we have all of our originals on one CD.

Bernie: What original songs are you most excited about or proud of?

Andrea: “Galaxy” and “Stream of Lies.”

Bernie: You recently performed in Nashville. Tell me about that experience.

Patty: Yes, at The Bluebird Cafe and Douglas Corner Cafe. That was extremely nerve-racking for me. To be on a stage where the greats have been and know that you have one chance. It was exhilarating and terrifying and I mean, when it was all over, we felt such amazing things. A woman was sitting in the front row, crying while we were playing “Stream of Lies,” which is our domestic abuse song and her fiancé approached and said that song just described his fiancée’s last relationship. So, it was worth all the terror because then you realize that no matter how nervous you are, and even if you made a mistake, you're connecting with people. And that is really what it's all about for us. It was really fun and very special to be in Nashville.

Bernie: Who are some of your musical influences? Which bands or artists did you identify with during your formative years as a musician?

Andrea: Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks, Heart, and Little Big Town. I love bands that have such a different sound, like Fleetwood Mac. They will have one song that sounds country and one song that sounds pop and one minute you have a female vocalist and then Lindsey Buckingham is singing and I just really appreciate bands that don't get set in one particular style. So, I think we've been trying to do much the same when we play with The Extra Miles. We don't want to be locked into one thing. We want to be able to do a Tom Petty song and then do a Crosby, Stills & Nash song.

Patty: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and REM. Growing up in New Jersey, these were my influences. One thing I want to say about when I did start out, three of my sisters played in church with me. So, for me to play with these girls really brings back the joy of playing with people that you love. I don't know how my early influences are influencing what I play now, but what I have always loved are songs that tell stories.

Ruth: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dixie Chicks, Ani DiFranco, and my fifth-grade music teacher. She was the first woman I ever saw play the guitar and she gave me my first guitar lessons. I've always been drawn to anything with an acoustic sound and a rhythmic drive that tells a story. So, as a kid growing up in the 1990s, the Goo Goo Dolls were popular, so they were always an influence. I was also always drawn to female guitarists of any kind. In my era, there was Jewel and similar artists. That acoustic sound has always been something that really reflects the sound of my heart. I am so glad to be able to express myself with The Extra Miles.

Bernie: While I know each of you does not do this full-time, it is an important part of who you are. What’s the best part about being a musician?

Andrea: Music has such a positive effect on a person’s brain; it helps reduce anxiety, blood pressure, pain, as well as improve sleep and memory. For older adults, the benefits of music are crucial. Our band has devoted a great deal of time performing for older adults in our community. To be in a room with individuals suffering from progressive memory loss and impairment and witness them joyfully singing along with us has been one of the greatest joys of my life.

Patty: Playing with Andrea and Ruth. I used to play my guitar alone, but it’s so much more fun with them. We laugh so hard during band practice.

Ruth: You can communicate through music and not always have to figure out how to use words.

Bernie: Is there anything special I should know about you as an artist?

Andrea: So far, every original song I’ve written has been influenced by a true and meaningful life event. Many personal, others are life stories shared with me by loved ones.

Ruth: Music has always been an important way for me to connect and also make a difference. The guitar got me connected to others in college, it took me on all kinds of adventures, and I was grateful to even teach guitar lessons to young girls on reservations; in churches where I served; and at camps. Usually as the only female playing the guitar in every group setting, I would be humbled and amazed when moms all over the country would thank me for playing the guitar so their daughters could see they don’t just have to play the clarinet or flute.

The guitar got me connected to awesome, giving people here in State College who share the gift of music with others. I’m super-pumped to play with The Extra Miles, who write songs with deep meaning and tell stories, and who are committed to sharing the connecting and empowering gift of music with others.

Patty: I played guitar in church until I was in eighth grade. I played at the subway station in Boston once. Then, I put down the guitar for years and never played in public again until Andrea wrote what ended up being our band’s first song, “Found,” and she asked me if I could play it on the guitar for her.

Bernie: When you’re not playing music, what are you doing?

Andrea: Fussing over my honeybees, writing, and spending time with family and friends.

Ruth: Exercising, writing poetry, and my day job.

Patty: Reading, hiking, cooking, and spending time with family and friends.

Bernie: You've been together for about two years and you're currently recording your first CD of original material, which is really exciting. What are the the short-term and long-term goals of the group?

Andrea: In the short term, we plan to keep doing this as long as it's fun and we're making a difference. In the long term, we really want our performances to be meaningful. And we really try to find places to play and share our music that we're able to do that.

Bernie: Do you have any final words of advice to aspiring or veteran musicians in our area?

Andrea: It's never too late. I wrote a song when I was 11 based on something I witnessed in my family. You know, realizing that love wasn't always perfect. And never in my life had I imagined being a songwriter. I just had to put it somewhere. And 30 years later, I did that again, and it's been very healing.

For some of us in the band, we're kind of getting a late start into our music career, but it's never too late. It's never too late to pick up an instrument or to write a song. And more importantly, it's never too late to share your story. It really brings people together. And that's been a beautiful experience. That's what I've got out of the band.

Patty: I hadn't played my guitar in a while and I had moved to this town; I was kind of broken. This music has brought me joy. Even though it looks like I'm sad and I’m crying a little, I am very happy to be part of something special. Andrea’s songs just speak to me. It's helped me to feel joy and express it through singing, which I used to do. So, it's meant a lot to me.

Ruth: When I think about being a part of The Extra Miles, I think about how many of the song lyrics speak to me. These words can be part of a healing process, by sharing stories together. It's been incredible to be a part of this band because you get to be with others who really embody the gift that music gives you. It can bring people together and it can bring people back to life. And I feel like I'm back in life again, through the struggles, through the loss, through the grief, through the trials. And the music keeps rolling and I think that there's great spirit and inspiration that rolls through these two amazing ladies, so I'm a great grateful to be a part of it.

Bernie: Thank you for spending some time with me, sharing stories about your lives and your music.

 

For more information, visit theextramilesband.com, facebook.com/TheExtraMilesBand, or theextramilesband on Instagram.

Bernard A. Oravec is publisher of Town&Gown.

 

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