All Things Told
Hearsay #19 / 1998 / Email interview with Neil and Pete

"Girls seem to come at music privately.When you play by yourself for years, you begin as a different kind of songwriter."

The Sundays' loss was Mila Drumke's gain: when the producers of celebrated indie flick Go Fish failed to get the rights to Here's Where the Story Ends, Mila stepped in with her breezy song Someone. Several months later, audiences worldwide stepped out of the film singing it over and over to themselves. A mini album (Gathering My Name) followed and last year [1997] saw the release of her first full-length release Illinois. Both fulfil a fluid vision both artistic (childhood dreamscapes, with folk and jazz accents) and practical (they're on Mila's own label LittlePro, in order to retain complete control and because as we know most established majors don't seem to understand music). Neil and Pete asked Mila about her work and she kindly replied in kind...

HEARSAY: How do you feel Illinois differs from your first release, Gathering My Name?
MILA DRUMKE: With Gathering My Name, the songs all preceded the band. I was performing on my own, so I tried to fill up all the space with my voice and guitar. To me, some of those early songs seem verbose and stuffed with sound. When I first performed with a band it felt like firecrackers were going off behind me. I wasn't used to all that sound. With Illinois, I was learning to write for my band; to leave space for the music. Also, the songs have more range, stylistically.

Tell us about the band which plays on Illinois and the arrangements they provide. There seems to be much more personality coming through in the playing than you'd get from a bunch of anonymous session musicians, say. Are they all close friends?
My bandmates at the time were Lyris Hung (violin), Mark Sacco (drums) and Tony Shanahan (bass). We have a new bass player, Elissa Moser, because Tony started working with Patti Smith in the midst of our making
Illinois. He did finish the record, though. I've always written on my own because I'm slow at it and don't really know how to write with anyone. I once tried to write a film song with the guys who wrote that Dirty Dancing song, I've Had the Time of My Life. I took their song, put it in one of my bizarre tunings and changed the words. They hated it and hated me because I accidentally cracked the guy's guitar. He was nice about it, but I was horrified.

As for arranging, we do it as a band. I'd never work with session musicians because I think you have to perform songs for a while before recording them. It's the only way they come into their own. Little Pro was originally three different songs I was working on. It was Mark's idea to jam them together. It took me a long time to write a vocal line that worked. The basso nova rhythm on Hip To Hip was Lyris's idea. I'm lucky because they've all got sensitive ears, small egos and they're good friends.

What subjects compel you to write about them?
I'm interested in small, ordinary moments because I think life-altering revelations don't occur in the midst of high drama. It's when you're doing something quiet, like the dishes. You suddenly speak out loud to no one, then you put the plates down, turn off the tap, and everything looks different.

There's a sense of childhood and the suburbs on Illinois very reminiscent of Karen Peris. What do you remember of working with Karen and Don [of the innocence mission]? Can you confirm or deny the rumour that they 'will work for food'? [Mila has said she paid them in deli sandwiches!]
Karen Peris inspired me to write the song Motorboat. She writes like no one else I know. And she gets childhood, how it's both melancholy and heavy with sleep and the want of protection. Karen and Don are, in fact, the nicest people in the whole world. And I can confirm that [all] my band will work for food. It's our great motivating force. One of our favourite gigs was at a culinary college that fed us a seven-course meal as part of our payment.

Your cover of Under The Ivy is completely arresting. What do you think of when you think of Kate Bush? And which of your current peers do you identify with?
Thanks. I do love that song. A friend gave me a very scratchy recording of it years ago and I've been singing it since. Hounds of Love is a timeless record that stands outside all category. As for influences, I've been listening to Radiohead a lot. Their records make me want to write. They make music mysterious again.

Is jazz an influence? There's a heady improvisation to some of your work which also reminds us of the late, great Jeff Buckley. It's that 12/8 rhythm with implied swing. Not a rock beat but sounds great when it is.
The 3/4 thing is my rut. I can't seem to write a straightforward 4/4 rock song. I'm forcing myself to do it right now, but everything keeps making its way back to 3/4.1 know what you mean about the songs on Grace. Some of them are driving, but they swing, too. I did do a show of jazz standards for Valentine's Day that was a blast.

Tell us about running your own label. If a major came running to you with a contract and an unwieldy cheque, how easy would it be to say 'yes' or 'no'?
Running Little Pro requires incredible amounts of patience, discipline, drive and money. It's great to have complete artistic control, but the biggest drawback is that the business takes a lot of time away from the songwriting. I put my first record out in 1994 because I was ready to make a record and no one seemed ready to put it out for me. I've re-pressed Gathering My Name five times now, and just sold out of the first pressing of
Illinois. Over the years, I've gotten calls from A&R guys at practically every major label in the States, and I used to do the whole thing: send CDs, call, fax invitations to shows. Maybe two of them listened to the record or came to a show. And the feedback we got was inane. It wore me out. So I focus on things I have control over.

Our approach at Little Pro is very basic: the way to sell CDs is to perform often and everywhere. Ani DiFranco's approach was the same. She was on the road by herself for many years. Her manager's advice to me was to ditch the band and drive around the country for three years, playing everywhere. He's got a point; taking a band on tour costs a lot of money. But my music is a different beast than Ani's. We've developed a sound as a band, and that sound dictates everything.

So... a major label with an unwieldy cheque? Seems like it would be hard to say no because the lack of money is a huge setback. Still, I'm very headstrong, but practical. So I'm always going to choose what's best for the music, my band and myself. Right now, Little Pro is growing steadily. My ultimate goal for the label is to develop to the point where everyone in the band can make a living doing this.

How well do you feel you fit into the music scene in the US? Is the media's attention on the Lilith Fair shenanigans a help or a hindrance? We've read you think of yourself as a songwriter first and a female songwriter second but do you think issues of gender come into your work at all?
I don't know how to compare what we're doing to other bands. I don't get a chance to listen to much of what's out there. I have been told that I don't write radio hits. The media surrounding Lilith Fair has had a trickle-down effect. A few people have asked if our music is 'Lilith Music'. What the hell is Lilith Music? That hasn't helped. The stereotype will come and go though, and those women will continue to do their work.

Gender and music? Generally, many more boys than girls grow up playing in bands. They take it for granted. In seventh grade I was in a band with three eighth-grade boys. We did Who and Led Zeppelin covers and called ourselves Piece of the Action. They kicked me out after a month because they didn't want a girl singer. I had freckles and braces and wore a pink mini skirt and pink plastic bracelets. So, fair enough. But I was devastated. .

Girls seem to come at music privately. I did. The band thing often comes later. I was really shy about songwriting, but I was even more shy about playing the guitar. In fact, I didn't pick up a guitar or start singing until I went to college. When you play by yourself for years, you begin as a different kind of songwriter.

We have only one boy in our band. It just worked out that way and I never think about it unless we're playing out of town. A lot of bands in other cities watch us set up and assume we're going to be a novelty girl band. Elissa likes to watch their faces when they realise we're making real music.

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