Erena Shingade meets Auckland-based singer and producer Miloux, who recently released her second EP of languid electronica.
It’s a Thursday in New Zealand Music Month and pedestrians are glancing through the tinted glass of Morningside bar Flight 605. Haunting synths shimmer from a three-piece electronic set, bass notes vibrating the 1930s led-light windows. This is the live band of Auckland singer and producer Miloux, whose beats-driven ambient electronica made a local splash last year with the release of her first EP.
“Melt into fire / There is only one thing that I / truly desire / Ice and cold and solace from the / light and the lighter” she sings. Occasional latecomers squeeze awkwardly in front of the singer, wafting cold draughts onto the band. The trio play ‘Beaches’, a track which feels like walking through the prism of a dream, its languid textures lacing the walls.
In the time since she first performed three years ago in a carpeted office space, Miloux – also known as Rebecca Melrose – has honed her electronic set into something impossibly absorbing. The synth-driven tracks are ethereal, floating complex harmonic progressions over effortlessly catchy beats. It’s a hallowed, quasi-religious aura that never loses sight of its groove, like a rave in a cathedral. R&B, trip-hop and neo-soul influences weave together to create what a Madrid-based magazine has described as “electrónica elegante”.
For a relatively new independent artist, Miloux has done remarkably well. Only a few months after being released in April last year, EP1 was nominated for the Best Independent Debut award at the Taite Music Prize, and the single ‘Pocket’ secured a spot on the longlist for AMCOS APRA’s Silver Scroll award. EP1 came in at #14 on the New Zealand album charts and Miloux was invited to open for Grammy nominated artist James Bay at Auckland Town Hall. EP1 gathered international attention from unexpected sources. Oprah’s TV series Queen Sugar picked up the song ‘Beaches’, and fashion label Elie Saab featured the single ‘Pocket’ on a short film for its Autumn Winter collection. The luxurious, slow shots of bejewelled Elie Saab couture had a strangely similar style to the original music video Miloux released, foregrounding the track’s otherworldly quality.
Halfway through her set at Flight 605, Miloux tells us that the vocal loop pedal hasn’t been working all night. Neither she nor the crowd seems fazed by the announcement and the set proceeds. Perhaps this is the confidence that you get when you have spent years training in improvised music. Before beginning a career in electronic music, Melrose earned her living as a jazz singer. Her first solo performance was aged 15 when, accompanied by her mum and vocal teacher, she brought an original composition to a band of local jazz musicians at Rakinos on High Street. Going onto a bachelor’s degree in jazz at the University of Auckland, Melrose emerged as one of the country’s most accomplished vocalists and improvisers. Her success in the field saw her representing New Zealand in 2015 at the Shure Jazz Vocal Competition at Montreux Jazz Festival.
It was this training in working with live bands that elicited an invitation to compose and perform with Fly My Pretties. The 14-strong band has been running for over 13 years and boasts some of New Zealand’s most-loved musicians; they recruited Melrose last year for their String Theory tour. Playing multiple nights in Auckland and Wellington, Melrose had the chance to compose and perform two original pieces with the band, which were ultimately recorded and released as part of the String Theory album.
Moving into electronic music provided Melrose with a new set of challenges. Independent pop artists not only have to compose and perform their music, but also create a style and a brand for themselves. Those who want artistic autonomy need to know the ropes of sound production so that they come into the studio with knowledge of what they want and how to create it. Learning production was a necessity for Melrose, who wanted to maintain the same level of control over her electronic music as she could with a live band.
In August, Miloux released EP1 Remixes, a collection of EP1 remixes that foregrounded the collaborative and experimental aspect of electronic music. The playful distortions, effects, cuts and repetitions bring Miloux’s music away from the structure of a “song” at times, and at other times unfold the most sumptuous pop tracks. Jono Das’ remix of ‘Pocket’, for example, brings together the fluttering piccolos and sweeping strings of an orchestra with the rhythms of a post-funk slow jam. The result is something along the lines of Canadian band badbadnotgood, whose music seamlessly takes influence from cinematic orchestral jazz to contemporary hip hop.
In an industry where women represent just 5% of all producers, becoming a producer was also a very real form of empowerment for Melrose. “When I started [making electronic music], I really didn’t want to emphasise my vocals,” she tells me. “I wanted to push the point that I was producing stuff.” Constantly fending off the question “who produced your song?”, Melrose is well aware that people assume there is a man behind the scenes pulling the strings. Being posed that question on a regular basis is both annoying and insulting, she says. Given public perceptions of female pop artists as all surface and no substance, Melrose’s position as both the creator behind the scenes and the “product” itself is politically important.
Melrose says her decision to become a producer was inspired, in part, by the Canadian electronic musician Grimes. The most prominent female producer-performer of her time, Grimes is seen by many as a heroine of artistic vision. Her fiercely-guarded independence affords her control over all aspects of her output, including directing music videos and designing album art. Grimes’ breakthrough album Visions was composed entirely by her on GarageBand, and live shows are entirely performed by the artist herself on samplers, synths, loop pedals, and vocals. In April 2013, she posted a manifesto on her Tumblr called “I don’t want to have to compromise my morals in order to make a living,” which soon went viral.
The DIY aesthetic of Grimes’ music and its disregard for conventions of genre has given a whole new licence to artists like Miloux. Grimes restores faith in the possibility that pop artists can create music that is self-made, atypical, wildly popular and critically acclaimed – a set of successes that any big record label would love to achieve but would never risk dishing out the funding for. And as a music engineer, Grimes reminds the public that creating popular music is a serious endeavour that requires serious skills.
Melrose, for her part, broods over the production process. She finds herself “listening to a finished instrumental track on repeat for days/weeks/months without the vocals, and tweaking it ’til it’s perfect.” “This is how I know I love a track,” she says, “and if I don’t, it will never be released.”
But she doesn’t want to be an independent artist forever. Working alone most of the time with high hopes for the future can become isolating. “You need to be quite emotionally stable,” she tells me, “it’s easy to doubt yourself.” Young musicians who are picked up by labels early on in their career, like New Zealand’s Kimbra, go into a two-year artist development programme through which they hone their music, style and brand. From day one, they are working with the backing of a team. But signing with a record label can be a scary prospect too. Stories abound of artists accepting record deals with big multinationals only to find themselves “shelved”: the record companies decide not to release their music, and the artist can’t legally perform the songs they had written and recorded. It’s a forced absence from the music industry that can take years off a young artist’s career.
Grimes’ success story is perhaps most alluring for up and coming artists like Miloux. Without million dollar investments from a record label, she managed to get picked up by fans and followers on the internet to the point of a critical mass. Traditional media outlets and award ceremonies caught on, making her an “accidental” celebrity, and her huge popularity has helped her maintain her artistic autonomy even after signing with record label 4AD and Jay-Z’s RocNation management.
As for Miloux, it’s likely that the New Zealand Music Month showcase back in May will be the last time we’ll see her in such close proximity for some time. Although she tells me that New Zealand musicians are very supportive of each other, and although New Zealand is one of the only countries in the world whose government provides them with funding, leaving home is still a necessity. Establishing an international audience, as well as international networks of collaborators, is vital today’s a saturated market.
The promises of fame are certainly alluring: for Miloux, it would mean making music videos on big budgets, travelling the world, dancing with a troupe of professionals, collaborating with people who she would never have access to otherwise… in short, having a team working alongside her. But “things can take years and years to take off completely,” she tells me. “Grimes took seven or eight years to get where she is now; I did the recordings for my first EP a year and a half before it was released.” Given the many circumstances that need to align, “it’s so easy just to wake up and think that what you’re doing is crazy: you’re just you, you’re not going to be a pop star…but at the end of the day, when I’m on tour or getting to fly to Dubai, it’s all worth it in the end. There’s just a lot of time in between.”
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