Though his music career and buttoned-up aesthetic might suggest otherwise, Detroit-based singer-songwriter Matthew Milia —the Frontier Ruckus frontman who released his second solo album, Keego Harbor, last fall — was not a band kid.
Milia remembers telling his fifth-grade band teacher that he was quitting the trumpet to learn guitar. “He pulled me out of class, into the hallway, and told me I was making a mistake,” Milia says. “I started taking guitar lessons at Pontiac Music and Sound in a strip mall in Keego Harbor from a rad dude in a leather jacket who smelled like cigarettes and taught me insanely hard Rush songs right off the bat. And I felt so cool, I knew I hadn’t made a mistake at all.”
This shift in musical ambitions happened after Milia found an old Epiphone jumbo guitar in a closet in his parents’ Sylvan Lake home. A chord book with Eagles and Bob Seger songs offered an instructional starting point, and a well-received singing performance in a talent show and a starring role in an eighth-grade production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat pushed Milia further down the path.
“That was all my ego needed to usher me into a career in the arts, or thinking I could make it,” he says. “Then I started writing my own songs, and I fell in love with that — finding my own voice.”
That voice has always been unapologetically rooted in Detroit’s suburbs, referencing things like I-75, the Franklin Cider Mill, and northbound Lions traffic (to the Silverdome) in his lyrics. Though most people consider these outlying areas — with their strip malls and fast food corridors — blandly interchangeable, Milia mines their poetic complexity.
“People see Oakland County as a monolithic culture, but it’s not,” Milia says. “That’s why this record’s called Keego Harbor. It’s flanked by Bloomfield Hills and Pontiac. There are all these municipalities that mingle and clash in strange ways.”
Milia grew up admiring singer-songwriters who crafted albums as cohesive works of art — like Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Neil Young’s Harvest, Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde — and his own folksy, maximalist lyrical style, paired with a chill musical vibe, demands (and rewards) close listening. But it also offers something new within Detroit’s rich, Aretha-to-Eminem musical landscape.
“I take pride in that, actually,” Milia says. “Like I’m adding something to the musical output — and it’s so rich already. Techno, and Motown, and Iggy Pop, and ICP [Insane Clown Posse], and Jack White. I’m the folky bluegrass guy.”
In addition to his solo work, Milia recently recorded a new album with Frontier Ruckus that will be released later this year. The seed for the band was planted when Milia met banjo player David Jones while attending Brother Rice High School, and though the two geographically parted ways for college — Milia attended Michigan State University, while Jones went to the University of Michigan — Frontier Ruckus won the Michigan State Battle of the Bands in 2006, and in 2008, when Milia graduated, the band released its first full album with a label and started what would become a decade of nearly constant touring, including sets at marquee festivals like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza.
In a strange bit of fortuitous timing, though, the touring started winding down in 2019. Milia had planned to marry his wife, Lauren, in early 2020, so he thought, at age 34, it was time to get a “real job.” He applied for a summer internship — alongside young 20-somethings just out of school — at a Southfield-based advertising agency.
“When I went in for the interview, the creative director was holding a copy of the Metro Times, and I had just released Alone at St. Hugo [Milia’s first solo record], so I said, ‘Oh, there’s a whole page spread on me in there,’ and they opened it up, and that was the whole interview,” Milia says. “I looked really cool — like, cooler than I actually am. … Then the pandemic hit a half year later, and all my musician friends were totally screwed, and if I hadn’t gotten this stable, gainful employment, I would’ve been really screwed, too.”
Milia’s now a senior copywriter, but he’s also still dedicated to operating as the unofficial musical poet laureate of Detroit’s suburbs, both with Frontier Ruckus and in his solo work.
“I recalibrated drastically my ambitions in life, and I’m so much happier for it,” Milia says. “I’d bought into that showbiz dream where if I’m not selling out a theater, I’m a failure. So I felt like a failure for a long time, even when I was writing some great work.”
Now he’s content to simply stay true to his voice and his sound, and he doesn’t miss the grind of touring. “During the pandemic, I flew out to LA to shoot a Chrysler Pacifica spot and stayed in a beautiful hotel room in Santa Monica,” Milia says. “It was the first time I’ve stayed in LA not sleeping on a friend’s floor or couch.”