Lily Milo writes what you may call ‘softer’ music, but she can really let loose with her voice. We don’t usually acquaint words like exhilarating with folk music, but to behold the six songs on the Ann Arbor based singer/songwriter’s new EP can sometimes manifest moments of a candle’s delicate flicker going to a bonfire roar! With the spare but decorous jangle of her guitar, she strums along while singing some breathy, lullaby-ish verses that curl with graceful vibrato until those flourishes she imbues, those mighty vocal flourishes, sound like the paler glow of moonlight suddenly becoming polychromatic!
Milo is actually pretty modest about the subtle brilliance of her voice (she touts the vital efficiency generated from vocal warm-ups, of course). Yet beyond that, she said that those melodic escalations and swooning fanfares are extensions of the emotions and sentiments contained within the lyrics and the song itself. “Some feelings can be sparse, some can be dense, and sometimes this is just how I want the words and vocals to go here…” She describes it as almost supernatural, as though it’s almost something she doesn’t have conscious control over, at least in the writing process.
Two key notes: there’s no familial relationship between the featured artist and this Current reporter, this is just a coincidence. Secondly, and most noteworthy, Lily Milo worked with Fred Thomas, one of the Ann Arbor area’s favorite contemporary indie-rock artists. “I’ve known (Fred) for a long time,” said Milo, “and I’d asked if he’d be interested in helping (record these songs). It was great to get to know him even more through this process.”
Now, as hinted at in the intro, Lily Milo is very mindful of the power music holds. Maybe ‘power’ is too strong (or too cliche) of a word to use. But suffice to say, she values the exchange between artist and listener. Most of us discount the daring it takes to write out words conveying raw thoughts and sometimes even rawer emotions and give them permanence by recording them in song form. It’s a kind of contract of great significance when an artist appeals for the time and attention of a listener, and Milo appreciates this.
“It’s amazing when you get to hear real thoughts, real feelings, tender feelings, and experience it through someone’s music,” Milo said. “When artists are really putting it out there, and a listener hears it and can work through a feeling by hearing a song? It’s amazing! A song can take you on a journey, and it’s so impressive to me when listening to other artists who can do that.”
Lily Milo was born and raised in Ann Arbor and the Stars Go Out EP is her formal debut as a singer/songwriter. She was exposed to the piano through the regimen of lessons at an early age and she at least learned her scales, but admits she didn’t quite take to the instrument in her youth. “Growing up, though, I feel like I always wanted to find a musical path,” she said. “And I always felt like I had a lot of music in me. It just took me a little longer to actually delve into (songwriting).”
Her early influences were a mixture of jazz auteurs (Duke Ellington) and poetic stylists (Leonard Cohen, Neil Young), but later on she fell under the spell of ambient folk mavens like Vashti Bunyan Sibyelle Baier and Karen Dalton. “One day I was talking to a friend and said ‘I don’t know what path I want to go in, but it feels very important for me to write an album! I know that is a life goal, it’s something that feels like it needs to happen.’ And she said, ‘Alright, just sit down and write!’” I said ‘…that was good advice, and also really hard for me to do…’”
But she did it. She finally located that path. A little over a decade ago, she made the resolution to fix-up her mom’s old guitar and a lock into daily practice sessions (usually at dawn) to teach herself guitar. Later on, she started working with fellow Ann Arborite singer/composer Estar Cohen on vocal techniques, and she began putting pen to paper to capture ideas for lyrics.
While a few of these songs came together over the course of the last year or so, one of them has been “trying to get finished” for the better part of a decade. “And that’s just because I had to get comfortable being open and vulnerable with sharing these feelings.” Which brings us back to the power that music (and words) can carry. When it came time to record, she found herself pausing to ask: “….can I even sing a word like ‘love?’ Is that too obvious of a word, or too obvious of a feeling?” But then she soon realized that “…while these are also my feelings, they can be universal feelings.”
Any of us might overanalyze the words we choose — but the songs of Milo become breathtaking when she lets that voice take over. It’s one of the purest sources of power to propel the words of any of her choruses. Of that voice of hers, she says, “…I guess that’s the thing I was really ready to share. I sang in choir when I was younger but I’ve always had that range. So, when I decided to be more serious (about songwriting), I worked with Estar because I knew that was something I wanted to strengthen.” And beyond that, regarding the exercise of singing, she said, “…it’s just fun!”
Milo’s EP is a subtly dazzling mixture of folk and blue-eyed soul; it feels like a cinematic accompaniment to some contemplative moon-gazing for those darker, Michigan winter evenings. The musical accompaniment is perhaps spare by comparison to other albums, but if you haven’t gotten the point of this article yet, let’s reiterate that it’s her voice and the emotional ebullience behind it that particularly shines on these songs.
“Getting to a place where I can share (these feelings) is definitely an evolving moment for myself. And recording (in a studio) was both fun and scary…, and I think it will always be that way.” But she is extremely grateful to everyone who helped, who encouraged, or who would even just take a listen. Along with Fred on production for Stars Go Out, there were instrumental contributions from guitarist/songwriter Dyaln Stryzinski.
And Milo added that one bright spot of 2020 is that she was able to perform one show in late February (right before lockdown); her one and only show. And, of course, questions flooded her mind in the week leading up to it: “…can I do this? Can I chatter with an audience? How awkward am I going to be? How forgiving of myself am I gonna be?” As it turned out, the intimate gathering of the audience and fellow-artists was “…such a good time,” she says. “Such a lovely feeling. It’s a new world we’re living in today, but at least I can remember (that night).”
Stars Go Out is available now. And if you’d like to hear more music from Milo, she’s also part of another band: Cautious Hearts.