SOUND OFF: MILCK
Oct 15, 2020
The Los Angeles based singer known as MILCK first made waves with her global anthem “Quiet” which went viral at the inaugural Women’s March, eventually becoming the sonic parallel to the #MeToo movement and being named Billboard’s #1 protest song of the year. This time around the artist is back with another social justice charged anthem entitled Somebody’s Beloved sparked by the current protests and injustices surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement in collaboration with Bipolar Sunshine.
“When Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop, and George Floyd’s murders sparked a global uprising, I faced the harsh reality that as an Asian American woman, I am both a beneficiary of white privilege, and victim of systemic racism. To understand how I could be a more active part of the US’ healing from racial injustices, I started to do more research about systemic racism. As I researched Tamika Palmer and listened to her talk about the memory of her daughter, “Somebody’s Beloved” started coming through me. “Somebody’s Beloved” is a delicate yet powerful song that we hope can at least soften the vitriol that is prevalent in today’s polarized culture.”, penned about the song.
It seems only fitting that the songstress’ staple would be and anthemic tracks as her song “Quiet” went viral during the 2017 Women’s March as the song heard around the world. Since then, MILCK has made many strides in her career including performing alongside of the legendary Yoko Ono, releasing her sophomore EP Into Gold, and recently following up her 2018 performance on NPR Tiny Desk as well as earning almost a quarter million monthly listeners on Spotify with over 20 million career streams.
Ahead of the release for ‘Somebody’s Beloved’, MILCK talk to Popular TV about the song’s origins, being an Asian American in music right now, and her history in creating music.
Was there a specific moment or was it just this overall movement that sparked the creation of the song?
The movement just really stopped me, and I’m sure a lot of us, in our tracks and some of us, it’s no surprise to them. For me, I grew up as a pretty privileged Asian American woman. I spent a lot of my life climbing the societal ladders of our dominant culture, and that pressure to succeed in the culture that my parents moved to because they sacrificed so much to move here really created a context where I spent a lot of time chasing the dominant culture, which in our country is the white culture. When all of this happened, I started really being like, “Wow, I feel like there’s a whole other side to history of this country that I’m just not aware of.” I went to a school where it was like, “And then the ‘60s happened. MLK happened and racism ended.” I had to recenter myself and then, I started doing a lot of research and I came across a video of Tamika Palmer talking about her daughter, Breonna Taylor. And I just started balling, just like this… because it’d been like a few weeks of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery. It was just like all the tension was building and just watching her speak about her daughter and talk about how her daughter tried really hard to be a good friend and was really, really passionate about her dreams. And then, I had a conversation earlier the night before with my partner and he was like, “Man, George was somebody’s father. He’s somebody’s son.”
As a person of color right now, as an Asian American, do you ever feel that a responsibility falls on you when you’re writing and creating music?
That’s a really good question. I feel like I have this side of me that’s really excited to show what’s possible. So it doesn’t feel too much like a weight. It feels like this really cool experiment to see what I can accomplish to help in the music industry. In the States, there’s a very small group of us that are identified with Asian and American. I grew up listening to predominantly white and black music, American music and finding my place, because I grew up as an American, I identify as one, finding my place in American music has been a very interesting journey and acknowledging that there isn’t an Asian American type of music.
What I do think is possible for a unique Asian American expression are two things: what I choose to sing about and what kind of lyrics I’m writing about them. Because I do think that there is this really deep poetry. Chinese poetry is freaking deep. It’s like six characters that you read, it’s six words. But it says like a thousand words worth of meaning. And I feel like I have that in my blood, and I try to bring that into my songwriting because it’s also interesting.
You mentioned what it was like growing up with that “American sound” and that we really don’t have a specific voice for Asian Americans right now. How did you go about developing your sound in a place that doesn’t really have a nod to your culture?
I think that it’s personality. I think I’ve been always kind of a headache for my parents. I know they love me, but I’m just always… I feel so much, I’m very emotional and it’s like, if you hang out with me for an hour, it’s like you’re going to go on, you’re going to feel all the colors of all the feelings. And I think that I’m not good at doing what I don’t want to do, but I’m good at doing what I want to do, if that makes sense.
I think that I just follow what feels good and it’s also been hard. And sometimes I’m like, “I wish I wasn’t passionate about this because it’s difficult and I don’t have any reference point and I feel really alone. And I don’t know if it’s possible.” Literally, in 2014, I had people in the business in America look at me and say, without any flinch, “Hey, we don’t know how to break a Chinese American artist. You should go back to China.” And I would laugh, I’d be like, “Go back? I started here.”
Growing up here, what kind of media and characters, did you really kind of see yourself in, if any?
Great question. I was able to see myself in Bruce Springsteen’s melodies and in Tori Amos’s piano playing and her lyrics. And I could see myself in their art, but I couldn’t see myself in any of the images of humans. So I felt very other, I felt very invisible. I remember when I was in middle school, I wanted to learn how to put on eyeshadow and so, I “borrowed” one of my older sisters’ eyeshadow palettes and I was really excited to figure out how to do eye shadow on my eyes.
I remember looking for an example and that’s when it hit me. I was like, “Oh, I’m going to have to figure this out on my own because there’s no eyelid that looks like mine.” I remember deciding that day, I was maybe 11 or 12, I was like, “Okay, well I don’t have to get upset. I can just be that reference point for future girls.” So I remember making a promise to myself is that I would, if I couldn’t find it, I would become it.
Is there a different way that you approach situations that have particularly happened to you versus writing from an outside perspective?
I love that question because as a songwriter, I’ve been approached by people like, “Can you write the anthem for this movement?” And I’m like, “Oh, I just, I don’t know if I will write anything of value for you because it might sound a little cheesy because I’m not sitting in it.” And I think, because I have started to heal my own insecurities and this need to prove myself, that I’m starting to be more present.
It’s not about me anymore as much. When I’m sitting in rooms, I’m not worried about like, “How am I going to survive? How am I going to make it? How am I going to like… Me, me, me, me, me.” But as I’ve gotten older, it’s been like, “Okay, I am enough and this is fine. Whatever comes out, I want to be grateful for.” I’m proud of what I’ve done, and what I’ve conquered. But I’m also just me. It doesn’t matter. And part of this desire and hunger to prove ourselves is part of the stickiness of our dominant culture. We’re just commodified as human beings from social media numbers, to our grades, to our salaries. We’re just valued by things that are not truly our value. And so, now that I’ve sunken into a more heart-centered place, I can sit and watch the television and watch Tamika Palmer speak about Brianna and it’s happening to me too. Her loss is my loss and people who get harmed, I’m also harmed.
When do you feel most present?
I remember being young, like in middle school, and realizing the times that… Or high school, I remember, I was like, “The only times I feel present are when my heart is broken or when I’m making art.” When our hearts are broken, we feel that pain. We’re in that moment, whether we like it or not, but we are present with that. And then, making art, I feel like I’m just there. I’m not thinking about my worries. It’s just, I’m being really, really centered. And I feel really present when I’m good with myself and when I take time to meditate and that can be different for different types of people, whether it’s meditations through movement and dance, or through sitting and breathing or doodling or whatever.
In terms of action, I feel really, really, really present when I’m playing piano and singing at the same time. Something about pushing the keys and singing, it just forces me. There’s no space for me to think about anything else. It’s just exuding peace. Another thing that I’ve just found is traversing rocks actually, like almost rock climbing, because I’m like, “I don’t want to fall.” So there’s literally nothing else I can think about when I’m on rocks. And so I try to be around rocks as much as possible.
This release isn’t actually your first kind of song that has been dedicated or has been used within a movement either with the release of Quiet in 2017. Is pushing the boundaries with your music something you see yourself doing continuously with throughout your career?
I think so. I just started writing love songs a few years ago. I was like, “Oh, we can do this too. Oh yeah. Okay.” But I like to write about the things that perplex me the most, that are the most difficult, because I was shy, and it didn’t feel safe to speak up when I was younger. I processed all the things that troubled me the most through my songs. So I always joke, I don’t really make light summer jams, probably the music you play after you go to the summer concerts. Cry by yourself.
As an artist, how do you protect your art that you put into the world?
Protecting my art is a really… It’s an ongoing process. There’s been times that I have let my music down. And I think it’s part of the process of growing, and because my thing is like, I’ve just had a lot of trouble speaking up my whole life. And sometimes I hate that about myself and then, sometimes I’m like, “You know what, but that’s what helped me write Quiet because I spent so many years keeping quiet and it just bubbled to a point.” So, now I’m learning, I’m finding my own style of speaking up for myself.
I have to armor myself with just techniques to protect myself. There’s a book called Empath’s Guide to Survival and it helps people who feel a lot because I’ll walk by someone and I can feel what they’re feeling. I can feel the tension and it goes into my body and it’s very intense. So there are techniques to helping a person who’s super sensitive survive in the world. And I think that’s helping me find my music too and trying to find the tools to do it.
I wanted to know a little bit about your history of creating. What initially pushed you to start creating music?
I felt really… I think I grew up as a depressed and anxious child. I remember I reunited with my sixth grade art teacher from school and she was like, “You were a depressed kid.” And, I wasn’t surprised. I think I had a lot of anxiety and I didn’t know how to express myself. And so, art was a really great way of just healing and processing things. And it was like, “Sports? You want me to go on a field, and have a big marquee tell me how I’m losing? Assigning numbers to my skillset. Jeez.” I was like, “No, thank you. I’m going to go over here and do something that you cannot score.”
There’s no score music in that way. I didn’t know how to talk to my parents, for better or worse. And so I would hide and write all the things I wish I knew how to say to them in my lyrics. And then, eventually as I grew into a young adult, as I started realizing I can’t live life this way, because I was creating almost like an avatar, where she was really strong, very confident, very outspoken. But in my real life, it was like I was just quiet, you know? And so nobody really truly knew who I was because I was like shape shifting to please other people. And I didn’t even know who I was. I think music was my way of holding onto my sense of identity.
How did you go from creating when you were at UC Berkeley to where you are now?
I was part of an acapella group called the California Golden Overtones. We’d perform every Friday on campus at 1:00 PM. And there’d be a little crowd of our fans that come crowd around and we sing cover songs. That’s where I learned to craft harmony and to write in choral arrangements and that’s a really big part of my work. There’s nothing more powerful to me than a bunch of people singing in harmony in a room. Feeling the vibrations and hearing the tones, it’s like a massage. It’s a sound bath basically, but made from human voices, which makes it so, so powerful.
So, then I started really writing songs between classes. I just felt like I wasn’t really majoring in anything. I first was pre-med and I hated it. So I switched to pre-business and hated that and then switched to pre-law. And then my parents were like, “Oh my gosh, what the hell happened?” And then, I had an investment banking internship of all things, the summer after my third year, I think. And I remember sitting in the cubicle of the internship and I don’t know what I was doing, but I was on an Excel sheet. I literally don’t remember what I was doing, but I was looking at an Excel sheet for eight hours, 10 hours at a time. And I remember the first day I sat down, I was trying to make friends with the person “Hey, how’s it going? Okay, we’re going to connect and we’re going to really share stories.” And he’s like, “Hey.” And just kind of turned his computer. I was like, “Oh, maybe he’s upset. And maybe hard day. So I’ll try tomorrow.” And then, eventually by day four, I was like, “This is just how it is.”
And so I decided like, “Yeah, no.” So then I call my parents and I’m sure they were thrilled. And I was like, “I’m going to quit this internship and then write music for the rest of the summer.” And that’s when they thought I lost it. I was in Berkeley and learning how to smoke weed as an ambitious Asian kid, I was like, “Oh my God, is this what relaxation feels like? This is amazing.”
I just started writing and then really allowing myself to consider the idea of being a professional musician. The reason why I got that confidence was there’s a couple of things that came up in my acapella group. There’s a contest, a competition, kind of like pitch perfect. It’s literally like that. It’s so nerdy. I love it. And so, I won best soloist of the region and I had never had anyone really tell me that I was good.
Mentioning you grew up a shy kid, did you ever have issues with stage fright when you started?
Yeah, and I still get pretty nervous. I do deep breathing and breathing is super important. My third-grade teacher told me, “Just if you’re ever scared, take three deep breaths and things will feel better.” And literally, that has changed my life and I still do it. I remember I went to go speak with Michael Moore at his Broadway show and I was so nervous.
Do you ever have moments on stage where you feel like that persona of the confidence kind of takes over and you’re more comfortable?
Once I’m on stage, everything clears. Once I’m on stage, everything becomes common, makes sense. I’m like, “Okay, let’s do this.” Because then, I’m in the service industry because then it’s about my audience and I’m like, “Okay, it’s game on, time to make everyone feel good.” You know? So it’s just the part right before.
Where did your stage name come from?
Milck is my last name backwards and my first two initials. It’s a symbolic take back of the life I was given. I was like, “Okay, cool. I love my family, but I need to make this work for me.” So yeah, it was scrambling around and then, I like that it also is what women provide to nourish and fortify the next generation and I think I want my music to do that.
Of all your current releases, is there a song that you think best represents you as an artist right now?
I would say Somebody’s Beloved. I produced the track, and the song kind of was born through me and then, I handpicked who was part of it and kind of took back power. Being signed to a label there’s so many amazing opportunities to work with just the most talented people and I just decided to do it on my own and it felt really good. It felt really good to just take agency, and I think that’s where I’m at too. The concept of Somebody’s Beloved, I’m just really trying to ground myself in why we fight for the world we fight for. And it’s really for our beloved and because we are beloved.
Final Question: beyond music and activism, what are you passionate about?
I love nature, I love hiking, I love my friends. I have a few really close girlfriends and I’m really passionate about just building authentic friendships, where sometimes it’s not easy. I love being in the mountains and like I said, around rocks and stuff, I like being out there and I’m back in LA right now and it’s easy to be disconnected from nature so, it’s an ongoing dance. I love, speaking of dance, I love dancing as well. I used to dance on dance team in high school and I did a little bit in college and I haven’t really trained in that way. So now, it’s just like living room dancing and I’m really passionate about that as well because it’s one of the best ways to snap out of any anxieties that have.
Keep up with MILCK on all platforms @milckmusic and be sure to stream her most popular releases below.
We also want to take time to recognize another section of the artist’s activism.
MILCK has launched the Somebody’s Beloved Fund to directly benefit seven organizations. The primarily Southern-based organizations include BEAM: Black Emotional And Mental Health Collective, Black Mamas Matter Alliance, One Family Memphis, Dignity for Incarcerated Women, Freedom, Inc., SONG: Southerners on New Ground, and City Kicks—a partnership between City in the Community & Families Against Violence. Mostly founded by Black women-identified individuals, these organizations are based in principles of community and healing, and are building power around areas of racial justice, feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, criminal justice reform, and mental health. (All of the links above are also clickable.)
- Photographer Eric Williams