Catch up with singer-songwriter MILCK, watch the video for her single "Quiet", and join her and The Pussyhat Project at the Women's March in Washington, DC on January 21st to see her perform the new single with 25 other female singers.
What first got you interested in music and in songwriting?
MILCK: I started singing when I was really young, maybe 3 or so, and my dad - even though he wanted me to pursue something more traditional like medicine or law - he thought, "if she's going to be singing all the time, she should sing correctly". So he put me in these classical voice lessons and classical piano lessons, which was amazing because I learned a lot of foundational techniques there and then I started joining choirs; the only things in school that I felt I could really excel in were stuff with singing and I just had this natural inclination towards it. And then I started getting into dance team and, while I was on dance team, there's so much attention on how we look and I was dancing in front of a mirror with my team all the time so I developed anorexia. It was also just a crazy time. I was 14, you know, [laughs] when you're 14, there's so many hormones. I fell into an abusive relationship with a boyfriend - I think he was almost 18 at the time - and I just really felt like my world was spinning out of control and the only thing that really helped me was writing music. I started sitting at the piano in high school and approaching it with more pop and writing; rather than reading music, I was just making music from my mind and that's how it all started. I think, once I wrote my first pop song at 16 or so, things just changed and that became my love and I remember I would tell myself, "this is my thing". But I was really afraid, because I wasn't supposed to have that as my thing, I was supposed to go to a really good school and follow my father and my sister's footsteps and be a doctor. I ended up going to UC Berkeley, studying pre-med and pre-law - 'pre' every Asian American immigrant appropriate major - and eventually just graduated and decided to do music. During my senior year, I remember calling my dad and breaking the news to him and I had known for a year already, I was just trying to figure out how to tell him, so that was its own upheaval and a lot of tension in the family. [Music] was the only place where I felt like I could say what I wanted to say without getting punished or in trouble for it. I grew up in this American culture and my mind understands the ways of how a progressive culture is and I always clashed with my family; no matter how much we love each other, even today, we work with it a lot better now, but there's still moments of tension. I realized that, from age 16 to age 25, I was using music to say what I really thought because, in real life, I didn't have my voice yet. It wasn't until age 25 where I started searching for my voice because I think not having a voice also inhibited me from writing music that I felt was free. So, music's been a big part of my life and a big source of comfort and energy for a long time.
Do you remember what that pop song you wrote at 16 was about?
[Laughs] Yeah, it was called "Every Breath" and it was about being suffocated. And it's kind of interesting because it's almost like the same concept as "Quiet". I think the chorus was like, "the thought that's staying with you, it creeps" [laughs] and it was basically singing about my parents, like, 'I need to be free and every breath just seems so difficult to take'. I remember performing that at high school, super shy, and I was a big student council nerd and I wasn't known to sing original songs but I remember that being a big moment because it felt like my body was electrified and I was like, "oh, this is, I think, what it feels like to be doing something that's bigger than oneself," so I'm always chasing that feeling.
Which musicians have you been influenced by?
For classical music, when I was playing piano and singing, the one composer that I just gravitated towards was Chopin. His music is very, very emotional and his lines aren't necessarily complicated, but his melodies are just very emotive and to the point; his songs rely on dynamics, playing really softly or really loudly at certain points, and I could just feel his spirit and I felt comforted by it. He just made sense to me above all the other composers. Growing up, I was exposed to Jewel and Sarah McLachlan and my sister had CDs and I would listen to those and then, once I heard the Garden State soundtrack, I heard Imogen Heap, I heard Sia, and I was just such a Sia fan since then; I've been following her trajectory because she's really allowed herself to grow. Even Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye, a lot of that soulful music was really influential to me; Marvin Gaye's songwriting was amazing and he was saying important things. Jack Johnson, too; really simple music, in a sense, but his lyrics and his messages are all very powerful. I think he's the first time, when I heard his song "Taylor", that's when I was like, "oh, this is how I can write music"; you can mask really, really intense concepts and deliver that through story and that was really cool to me, so that song, specifically, made me want to write more. Now, man, there's so many different artists, but I hold onto Massive Attack and Portishead, the trip hop music, I hold onto that pretty dearly. The Matrix soundtrack [laughs] I love that movie and their music is really cinematic and energizing and that's the sound I want to explore and meld it with the pop influence that I have with the singer-songwriter influence and just having those come together, that's the journey I'm on right now. Sleeping At Last is a band that I really love, it's actually just one guy, but I'm really gravitating towards cinematic music and so there's a lot of drama and a lot of emotion in it - and I'm very emotional - so it's a nice outlet.
If you were to pick one female artist to add to a playlist for female empowerment, who would it be?
The first one that comes to mind is Regina Spektor, she has this one song called "Eet" and I used to play that song on repeat. I eat up all of Tori Amos' stuff. Oh, you know who's really great, Emeli Sandé; I really love her and her music, it's very strong and she's done a duet with Labrinth and, all across the board, all her work is really, really great.
How would you describe your sound to someone who had never heard your music?
The more that I strive for, and I think what I'm starting to get across, is empowering and healing. I think that it's definitely cinematic and dramatic, as well. There's dark textures but there's a hopeful tone with it, so there's a good mix of dark and light in there. The other word that keeps ringing in my head lately is deep; I've tried to write non-deep songs and I don't write that really well. Songs that are more frivolous or fun, I feel like my strength doesn't lie there [laughs], my stuff is a little more in-depth and emotional.
What were your inspirations behind the single and new video for "Quiet"?
I went through some violence in my youth and I still have nightmares about it. I was scheduled to do a writing session and the night before the writing session I had this nightmare that I was getting hit and I was on the floor and the person was hitting me and it was very theatrical; there was a spotlight and there were two people on each side of me, and the abuser. They were standing and watching me being hit and they were looking down and I was looking up at them and I said, "you should do something, you should say something, this isn't right," and one of the observers was like, "just be quiet, it'll be over soon," and then I said, "well I can't keep quiet anymore". I remember telling my producer that - because I was haunted by the dream - and I told her the story and she was like, "oh, that's your chorus," and I got these goosebumps and I was like, "yeah, I think you're right," so then we started writing from there. My goal has been to write a song that I can play right after a situation where somebody judges me for being this docile, obedient, Asian American who doesn't know what she wants; in the industry, I feel like there's a lot of judgement when that happens and I'm really smart - which is not a bad thing - but they're like, "oh you're really smart, you might not know what you want, you're very influenced by your parents," or something like that. There's a lot of eliminating stereotypes. I wanted a song that I could play after those situations and feel release, I wanted to play it after my nightmares, and I wanted to play it in those moments of my childhood when I wanted to speak up and was punished for it. For a few years I was trying to write this song and I had different concepts, like, my dad used to say "don't cry, don't cry," not to hurt me, but because it's hard for him to watch me cry but, at that time when I was younger it was really stifling because I just needed to cry and I was always told not to do what I needed to do. I tried to write a song like "Let Me Cry" and all these different titles and we finally came up with it that day.
The video is an interesting concept because I was about to commit to another director and then last minute I thought to reach out to this one director, Sammi Cohen, who ended up doing the video. Last minute I was like, "I'm just going to see what she thinks about the song and if she has any ideas," and I was going to go with the director that my management at the time had recommended, but it didn't feel 100% right. I talked to Sammi, I sent her the song, and she called me back and her voice was cracking and she had her own personal story for the video from her childhood so she pitched me some ideas and one of her ideas was the idea that we ended up using. Coincidentally, two days before, I had been asking the director that I was going to work with, "hey, can we have me in a box, like, what if I scream and this glass box shatters?" and he was like, "no, that's not possible, it's too expensive and too dangerous," but then Sammi came up with this idea of water and glass and the glass breaking and I was like, "oh, you think we can do this?" and she was like, "oh definitely". Her attitude is amazing and I just felt like, this is it, this is the idea that feels 100% right. There's such a difference between an idea that's 95% right and an idea that's fully true. A lot of people pitched ideas of doing dance with the video and I think dance is beautiful but for this video, I really wanted it to be very raw and focused on that feeling and not about movement but just about that feeling of being suffocated and feeling trapped when we're not able to voice ourselves, so this concept felt right to me. That's how it was born and I think this song and this video are products of following intuition and my heart and not compromising at all. I could have committed to that first director - 'cause he's very talented - but the concept just wasn't right and there was this little voice in me that said, "uhh, you should keep looking". In my younger artist days, sometimes I would not acknowledge that voice and I'd be like, "let's just make it work," but I think we are rewarded when we believe in abundance in the world and know that the right thing is out there. It's easy for me to just be like, "this is what I have so I have to work with this," but I think expecting more from the world and the people around me has rewarded me with stuff that is bigger than myself. The video I couldn't have done without Sammi and her passion, so everything was meant to be.
Would you mind telling our readers more about your #ICANTKEEPQUIET campaign?
Yeah, I was brainstorming with Krista Suh - she started the Pussyhat movement - and we were just talking about how we can make an impact at the march and I was like, "well, I can make an a cappella version of the song and bring it to the march and perform it," and then, as we brainstormed and riffed off each other we were like, "okay, let's flash mobs," and then she was like, "you should have a huge choir," and I was like, "okay, well, I'll try". At first it was 14 girls and then last minute it became 25 girls, so the choir did happen. So what I thought was, I can make the music sheet for the a cappella version public for people - and I have every part recorded separately - and what I'd like to do is have anybody and any organizations that sing, they can download this material and they can make it their own and perform it in their own cities; there's an effort to organize an Olympia choir and they're trying to get permission. My hope is that people can use the music to give themselves a literal and figurative voice and I'm thinking of starting a Los Angeles choir once I'm done with the DC one and continuing with it 'cause it's really fun and I think it's a powerful way to meet other people who believe in this type of positive message, so it would be healing for people to meet, as well. The logo is designed by this guy named Henry Ammaan and it's really simple but it has the female symbol with the Q and I'm so proud of it. I'm developing merchandise so that the proceeds will go to this organization called Step Up that provides mentorship and after school programs for girls, ages 13-18, who are at risk of becoming pregnant earlier or they have to work outside of school or their parents aren't around, and I thought it was such a cool program that empowers young girls to continue their education, go to college if they want, and pursue whatever they want in a healthy context. I really craved that when I was younger so I want to give that back. Right now, #ICANTKEEPQUIET is going to be three forks, it's going to be 1) merchandise, 2) the different choirs that pop up wherever they decide to pop up, and 3) I'm basically interviewing a bunch of inspirational women who have spoken up against something that was oppressing them or something that felt really scary and I'm going to collect those stories, write about them, and post them on the site. My project with that is taking those stories and writing new music from those stories, so it'll kind of keep cycling within itself. From there, I have no idea. Maybe that will be the project or it could grow, I'm not quite sure yet, but we'll just feel it out.
You'll be joining The Pussyhat Project for Saturday's march but, for our readers who can't make it to DC, how can they help or donate to #ICANTKEEPQUIET or The Pussyhat Project?
They can make their own hats! If they go to pussyhatproject.com there's a template to make hats and I think, even after the march, it still would be wonderful to have an exchange of hats between women and I think it brings people together. In terms of the #ICANTKEEPQUIET movement, if they want to share stories and post the #icantkeepquiet, I just would love to see the hashtag organically grow and have people share whatever they want. We just had a female football player post with #icantkeepquiet because she was one of the first female football players on a varsity team in California and, for many years before she got on the team, everyone was saying she couldn't play football. Different stories like that are so inspiring and uplifting, especially when our news is addicted to negativity, I think the internet is a great place for people to start restructuring our story and frame of mind so we can think in abundance and love and positivity. That's my effort in doing that and I know a lot of other people are starting to do that as well, so it's really inspiring. It's a scary time, but I also think it's a very helpful time.
Do you have plans to release an album?
Yeah, I'm thinking what I'm going to do is release a few more singles separately, and then have them culminate into an album. I'm thinking of letting "Quiet" grow for a little bit and, while it's growing, prep for the next single, which I'm thinking of releasing in Spring or Summer, depending on the movement of "Quiet", and then I have a song planned for Fall and Winter, two separate songs. We'll see how everything works out but I could even be releasing an EP at the end of this year or the beginning of next year just depending on what happens.
What do you hope listeners are able to take away from your music?
I just hope that it makes them feel less alone and it makes them feel like they're heard and seen. That's my goal, because music did that for me. It really healed me and comforted me and made me feel like I could move forward despite whatever obstacles I had. I wanted to empower people to feel like they can step out of stereotypes of these constrictions promoted by mass media and to just speak up for whatever they want, even on both sides. I have a couple of fans who are more on the conservative side and they're like, "well, are you not wanting women who are against abortion to play this song," and I'm like, well, no, I think it's just about allowing everyone to freely be who they want to be, so my response to her was, "I want those women too to feel safe and to feel heard". It's not about being divisive, it's just saying "this is my story," so if I amplify my story, I hope other people will amplify their stories because that's how the world becomes a healthier space. When people restrict themselves and force themselves to live behind someone else's story, that's when fear happens and that's when pain doesn't heal and people start blaming things. I just want a healthy processing so people can be kind to one another.