By Ariana West
Photos by Lindsey Byrnes
Addiction is all-consuming. Nicholas D. Miller, known to the world as Illenium, experienced just how dire heroin addiction can be when he overdosed back in 2012. But at absolute rock bottom he found his life’s purpose—music.
“I was trying to find something, not even knowingly,” Miller says. “I already had an obsession with finding music and specifically dissecting everything that’s happening in a song. As I started learning more about electronic music, I took that obsession and started using it to produce music. It was just one step at a time of trying to get as good as the people I looked up to. It was very helpful to me spiritually and in life, because it became my career.”
Miller got sober while living in Colorado, and there he discovered electronic music. Sobriety gave him the time to dive into this new passion; he dedicated himself to going to shows, discovering new artists and learning everything he possibly could. When the time was right, he started making music of his own. “I started making music and, for the first three years it was really bad, but I just kept loving it,” Miller says. “Then I moved to Denver and met my now-manager as well as some awesome roommates. We’ve made music together almost every day since.
“I was drawn to electronic music because every aspect of the sound can be manipulated—it’s like unlimited creativity,” he continues. “When you’re in a band, you are one element of many. But with electronic music, you can really do anything you want.”
Miller immersed himself in electronic music at a time when EDM was dominating the charts. The once-niche genre became mainstream almost overnight, with scores of fans building a thriving community around the music they loved. “It was also such a cool scene when I was coming up,” he recalls. “The bass music scene in Colorado was really starting to pop off and you could see the community it was building. It was very easy for me to fit myself into it and feel comfortable. Which was not normal for me, because I always felt out of my skin. But electronic music became this awesome mixture of creativity and a really cool community of people.”
Miller began releasing music through his own method of trial and error. Over the first few years, he produced a steady stream of singles and EPs through SoundCloud in the hopes of getting his work noticed by the EDM community. He soon became hooked on the feeling of sharing new music with his friends and strived to be as good as the big DJs in the scene. The way Miller strove for greatness was monumental in shaping his now-signature sound.
“I think any musician is really just a combination of influences,” Miller says. “Claiming you created a genre out of thin air is pretty abnormal. Everyone has influences and that’s what your sound becomes. When you take this and that from different artists, it sounds different and it’s exciting. I think that’s naturally what happened at first and I was making everything—trap, dubstep, melodic bass music, etc. It started to form into this more specific category that still allows me to go all over the place.”
Miller’s efforts paid off as he began gaining momentum in the EDM scene and released his first album, “Ashes,” in 2016. “Ashes” put Miller on the map, peaking at No. 6 on Billboard’s Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart. He quickly followed up with his second album, “Awake,” in 2017. The success of those two albums led to Miller joining the Astralwerks label for his 2019 record “Ascend,” which earned him his first No. 1 spot on the Dance/Electronic Albums chart and peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard 200 Chart.
The response to “Ascend” shot Miller’s career into the stratosphere in 2019, but it came to a grinding halt in early 2020, as it did for all touring musicians. While disappointing, the disruption may have been the opportunity for reflection Miller was needing. “I feel like we took things for granted when it was normal,” Miller says. “Going into my big tour in 2019 and doing bigger venues like Madison Square Garden and Staples [Center], it felt like we were on this rocketship and it was really exciting. Then the pandemic hit and I kept asking myself, ‘Do I need to be doing more? Do I need to be doing less?’ Then to come out of the pandemic and do the stadium show in Las Vegas, that was the highest high ever.”
It was at that Las Vegas show where Miller first played music off of his soon-to-be-released fourth album, “Fallen Embers.” The record showed just how far Miller had come in the past decade, earning him one of his biggest achievements to date—a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album.
“[‘Ashes’] was not even close to where ‘Fallen Embers’ is production-wise,” Miller says. “I’ve obviously learned a lot since then and I can do things faster. ‘Ashes’ happened one song at a time and nowadays I make 30 to 50 songs at a time, then I’ll narrow them down to my favorites. Making ‘Ashes’ was definitely an amazing experience and a lot of my fans think it’s my best album. I definitely disagree hardcore, but a lot of people have their favorite song or favorite album because of the place they were in at that time.”
Miller is currently in the process of working on his next big project. Whether that will be an EP or an album is currently unknown, but he plans to showcase his work on his biggest headlining show to date. In June 2023 Miller will be playing “Trilogy: Colorado,” which will consist of three performances at Denver’s Empower Field at Mile High. This showcase is a full-circle moment for Miller and a way for him to thank the community that supported him from day one.
Unless you were familiar with his story, which he only shared publicly in 2018 through his single “Take You Down,” you’d be shocked to learn where his career began. Miller intends to stand as a beacon of hope for those struggling with addiction and hopes his music can provide an escape. This is a sentiment he not only promotes through his music, but a message he wears on his body each and every day.
“My sleeve is probably my favorite tattoo. It’s a lot of sacred geometry mixed with the stuff I love—the outdoors, the seed of life going into the flower of life, and then a phoenix,” Miller says. “It’s all about rebirth and finding yourself. The tattoo signifies my journey from addiction to finding my purpose in life. My purpose is not only music creation, but sharing my story and letting people who are struggling with addiction or mental health know it’s achievable to not be in the depths all of the time. There’s an out, and a lot of people go through it.”
You often never know a person’s struggles just by looking at them, but their tattoos can reveal their inner workings. Looking at everything Nicholas D. Miller has accomplished, you’d never guess that he almost went down a very different path. But through his tattoos, he’s able to wear his story on his sleeve and show the world he’s proud of how far he’s come.