Interview: Amelia Robinson of Mil’s Trills

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…Most hurt and pain that culminates in violence or mistreatment stems from people not having the confidence or support that they needed as a child. It all starts with the children and giving them the love that they need to succeed in life.

Amelia Robinson aka Mil’s Trills is a Brooklyn-based singer with a long list of artistic roles such as songwriter, producer, composer, and educator whose dedication to creating a musical landscape in which everyone, regardless of race religion or anything else that deviates from “the norm,” can be a part of is admirable.

September 23, 2015 marks the official release of the second Mil’s Trills album, Now That We’re Friends…, which delivers a barrel of authentic, down home musical goodness filled with encouraging messages founded upon the notion that we are all part of the same community. We are all friends. It’s delightful and that is in no small part due to Robinson’s integrity as a musician and her dedication to providing the most meaningful experience for her audience. What comes through most clearly is Robinson’s infectious energy and positivity.

In honor of the release of Now That We’re Friends…, I am so pleased to share the following interview with you. Throughout her life, Robinson has been influenced and inspired by her surroundings. Born and raised in Brooklyn, there has been no shortage of variety from which to draw inspiration from. Robinson has also spent time traveling the globe, further feeding her artistic, creative soul.

One of the many things I really love about this interview is Robinson’s candid, honest responses. Just like her music, she presents herself unabashedly and wholeheartedly. Robinson shares about her international roots, the origin of the name “Mil’s Trills,” her time in Saudi Arabia with her ukulele, the meaning behind the “I’m in the Band” stickers she gives out at her live shows, how a tragic event and the healing power of family helped kick off the creation of Now That We’re Friends…, and how she met Jonathan Blum, the painter responsible for the beautiful work on both of her album covers. The list of interesting talking points could go on!

For now, I know you’ll enjoy getting to know “Mil” as much as I have.

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Kids Can Groove: You were born and raised in Brooklyn, and you’re very much a part of the Brooklyn community. How has that impacted you as an artist?

AR: 
Growing up in an urban culture has exposed me to a wide range of styles, cultures, religions, ethnicities, and genres. It’s allowed me to embrace who I am as an individual by respecting others around me for who they are and how they choose to live. I am somewhat obsessed with the similarities and differences we have as humans, and much of my work is based on a response to that and figuring out how we can find a uniting common ground and weave the threads that sew us together.

KCG: Why, before starting Mil’s Trills,  did you embark upon extended world travels to places like. Kazakhstan, Guatemala, Israel, and the UK?


AR: I come from an international family (my parents are Australia / NZ immigrants), so traveling has always been in my blood. We were given a lot of independence as kids and always encouraged to see the world and all it has to offer. We flew down under every other year for most of our childhood, but unfortunately I grew a serious fear of flying that grounded me for 11 years. I didn’t get to go abroad like my siblings had, so by the time I graduated college, I was chomping at the bit to get out of the country!

I went to a few “Fly Without Fear” group therapy meetings (that’s a whole other story) and worked my way up to a flight to DC, then London, and eventually back to Australia. A big part of my “recovery” was facing my deepest fear – the fear of the unknown – and building confidence to grow and develop as a young adult. A series of opportunities presented themselves to me (a medical mission to Guatemala, my brother serving in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan), and I took on each challenge with the biggest tool my parents gave me – a great passion to live life to the fullest. They also gave me a few citizenships, so that surely helped when it came time to take a bigger jump and move to London to “find myself” as an artist and composer.

From there, I eventually got hired to play ukulele on an artificial island in Qatar, which was a crazy experience. By the time I got back to Brooklyn I had all these experiences from which to draw inspiration. I had somewhat learned what kind of person I wanted to be and how to apply my skillset to a craft in which I felt fulfilled. I think travel is the most important gift one can give oneself, especially in those years after college when you’re still figuring it all out. It teaches you how to be self-sufficient, find solutions, and see the greatness of humanity, while eliciting courage, bravery, and confidence that will enable you to take on challenges throughout the rest of your life!

KCG: You love the ukulele!  How did you get started with that, and what do you love about the instrument?

AR: 
I got started playing the ukulele around 2006, I think! A friend handed it to me and said “You’ll love this!” and he was right! He took me to an underground cabaret in the East Village, and I was hooked! I loved the community that was built around this little instrument, and its ability to make anyone smile in an instant. It was also MUCH easier to carry around than a piano (my first instrument), so I clipped it onto my backpack in all my travels. I found it a great icebreaker and made a lot of friends by whipping it out on top of mountains and on street cafes. For families, it seems like the perfect instrument because it speaks to all ages in a special way. It’s accessible, welcoming, and makes people happy! What’s not to like?

KCG: How did Mil’s Trills come to be?  What’s the source of the name?

AR: Mil’s Trills was fashioned after the musical experience I had as a child with a wonderful teacher of mine, Judy Bain. She led a tight-knit group of kids who took weekly Suzuki lessons and were involved in her choir, the Brooklyn Children’s Ensemble. She also organized numerous retreats that we’d go on every year. We were all extremely dedicated – to the music and each other (I was involved from the age of 3 through high school!). It was a really special thing, and we’re all still really close to this day. It was that kind of community that inspired me to try to recreate that same sense of belonging for the next generation.

My sister, who also shared the Judy Bain experience and had just had a baby girl, was the real inspiration for the whole project. She helped me sculpt a framework that would continue the tradition and pay it forward as best we could. 

As for the name, well my nickname is Mil (as a kid, my younger brother couldn’t say my full name, so he just called me Mil because it was easier). ‘Mil’s Trills’ actually came from my college years – that was around about the time I started writing songs as gifts (college students have to be thrifty!). My dear friend Lona, who was in an a cappella group with me, used to call my original ditties “Mil’s Trills,” and so years later when it came time to find a name for my project, she brought it back up again and it just felt right. I remember having pages and pages of scribbles with random names of all sorts and struggling to make a decision because you know you’re gonna be stuck with it for years. People always get the l’s mixed up, but that’s ok – it is a bit tricky if you don’t know the story behind it!

unnamed (5)KCG: What distinguishes Mil’s Trills?  What sets you apart?


AR: I think most children’s musicians will say that their music comes from a very personal place, most often as a response to having children in their lives in some way or another. They will also say that their music is interactive and speaks to all ages. So what makes Mil’s Trills different? Well, for lack of a better answer – ME! Haha.. In this world we are all different and beautiful in our own way. We all have our own paths, and this is mine. My music, as heard through Mil’s Trills, is a constant exchange between received experiences and creative responses. It’s an extension of my being and my perspective on this world, and it will continue to change and evolve as long as I do.

KCG: I’ve heard that at your shows you give stickers to audience members that say “I’m in the band.”  How do you help people feel that they are actually part of the performance?  Why does that matter?


AR: So much of what I do is based around community and making people feel a part of something. I suppose this stems from growing up in a large and tightknit immigrant family (I have 3 siblings), and being accustomed to / finding comfort in that type of support system.

Working with an early childhood population on various continents, made clear to me the global benefits of working as a group and being a part of a team. I would say that my role as a performer / educator is often more as a mentor than an entertainer. I often feel it’s most important to get down on one knee after a show and look a kid in the eye to acknowledge them and hear what they have to contribute. Maybe it’s the result of growing up in a big family that I feel a need to find my voice, and give other kids their individual voices as well. There’s a way for us all to be unique within ourselves and still be a cooperative part of the world as a whole!

KCG: How have you grown, as a musician, through the years?  How has this been reflected in Mil’s Trills?

AR: 
I am a classically trained pianist. I grew up memorizing pieces by Chopin and Bach. I rarely steered from the notes on the page, unless it was bashing the keys during moments of frustration as a kid. It wasn’t until years later in college where I had access to a private rehearsal room with a grand piano that I actually started to experiment and form songs. Maybe it was the classical training, but I’ve always had very strong melodies in my head, and so much of my earlier stuff has been said to sound like musical theater! But then again, I think I also subconsciously picked up a lot of styles living in the city, and so I have a tendency to default to a lot of reggae, Latin, and Caribbean beats. There’s a huge world music influence, too, because music is so intrinsically connected to the cultural experiences I’ve had around the globe. It’s not only exposed me to new instruments that I’ve learned to play, but also other musicians to play with! 

When Mil’s Trills first started out, I was scheduling 5 different musical guests for 5 different shows a week, so each time I played the same song with each of them it sounded different and was infused with a new sense of life. I still work with a rotating cast of musicians for this exact reason – to improvise, keep it fresh and explore new sounds!

KCG: You’ve performed in some amazing venues, including Lincoln Center in NYC.  Tell us about your participation in the Meet the Artist series at Lincoln Center.  What was that about?


AR: It was definitely one of the most enriching experiences with students I’ve ever had. The program spanned over six performances for school age children K-2nd grade. It was amazing because I was given quite a bit of creative freedom. I could have done the same performance at each time slot, but I opted to use it as an opportunity to expand my show into a topic that I’d been yearning to explore – ethnomusicology! At each show, we featured a different family of instruments played by a different cast of characters from all over the world. The instruments were grouped into percussion, tuned percussion, string, brass, wind, and even electronic! I created worksheets for all the teachers to complete with discussion points and activities for the children to prepare in their classrooms prior to the show. Upon arrival, many of the kids had even made their own instruments in relation to the family that we were going to learn about that day. The kids came from all over the city – and even New Jersey – bringing their own school flavor to the mix, which made for some very energized and raucous shows! There were plenty of incredible spontaneous moments, especially when we “painted” music on stage in an improvised exercise with the winds and horns!

KCG: Like many kids’ musicians, you also work as an early childhood music educator.  How has this influenced you, both personally and professionally?  How has it impacted your musical choices for Mil’s Trills?unnamed (2)
AR: Kids see the world through a lens of joy, positivity, and enthusiasm. Everything is NEW to them! And that freshness is so contagious! I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to work with children in the classroom, as it serves as a free play space that directly opens a dialogue for creative exchange.

As the teacher, I provide a safe place   – an environment in which I offer a sense of structure and framework, and the kids respond with bolts of creative ideas that then are morphed into songs, games, and activities. I have learned so much from them – from being present and open to spontaneity, to how to clearly communicate, embrace joyfulness, and channel the ability to freely express oneself. On a personal level, it’s taken me a long time to evoke this type of fluid conversation between my strategic mind and my creative soul – there has always been a very serious internal conflict. However, working with children has enabled me to embrace each facet so that I can be a good role model and my true-est self! I owe it to them to give them the best version of myself when I’m in the front of the classroom, and even when I’m on stage. My most current work is undoubtedly a reflection of that freedom to be open and expressive without inhibition.

KCG: What are your suggestions for introducing young children to music?


AR: DO IT!!! Music is an intrinsic conduit for expression and is an essential element of our natural world. Exposure to new sounds and music inspires kids to blossom and create a relationship with the world around them. It nourishes their ability to embrace their surroundings and find joy, and it’s so rewarding for the witnessing adult, too! Being exposed to music at an early age (and any age!) improves overall health, cognitive development, fine, gross and motor skills, literacy, and social emotional skills – it’s a no brainer!

KCG: Tell us about Now That We’re Friends …   What was the impetus for the album?  How does it differ from/expand upon last year’s release, Everyone Together Now!?

AR: While Everyone Together Now! serves as a sort of “We’re HEEEREEE!” album, Now That We’re Friends… furthers a moreintimate discussion about what it’s like to relate to one another: “Now that I’ve got your attention, this is what I really want to talk about…”

The album actually came out of a period of grief. In August of last year (2014) we tragically lost a close family member. I went through an existential phase of “Why are we here?” and found myself writing about pretty serious feelings of loneliness. I took a trip down to see my family in Australia / NZ for my cousin’s wedding and found the experience of being surrounded by so much family extremely cathartic and moving (I have a HUGE extended family down under). I was reinvigorated by the power of love and was inspired by the mere strength and support of family to transcend distance and time. It filled me with hope and healing, and I realized that life really comes down to LOVE. Not necessarily the romantic kind, but the appreciation for LOVING the world around you, and all that it has to offer. It’s the one thing all of us humans have in common. And the most important thing is to love yourself – because when you love yourself you have strength to grow and relate to others in a positive way that can help the world become a better place.   

This album is also very much about embracing differences and accepting cultural diversity. We are all wonderfully unique and approach our daily lives from various viewpoints and perspectives. A surefire way to get along is to practice thinking unselfishly and instead imagine what it’s like to be in each other’s shoes. This is my tribute to “peace & love, baby!” I also truly believe that every single person on this planet has something special that they bring to the table. In my opinion, most hurt and pain that culminates in violence or mistreatment stems from people not having the confidence or support that they needed as a child. It all starts with the children and giving them the love that they need to succeed in life.

KCG: Many of us are in back-to-school mode right now.  How can your music help children when they return to school, whether it’s transitioning from pre-school to kindergarten, from kindergarten to first grade, or from one school to another?


AR: It’s so funny how sometimes a side of your art shows itself after you actually make it! I started Mil’s Trills about 5 years ago when my niece was 6 months old. Now, she and her friends who inspired this whole project are starting kindergarten at brand new schools with brand new kids. It’s kind of perfect timing for this album, because these songs are purposed to help us navigate the tender moments when we first make contact with another being. It’s a tool to help build confidence within one’s self to help us emanate compassion and acceptance and be able to communicate clearly with one another. Furthermore, school transitions can be very challenging times, and knowing that someone relates to those scary feelings can help you get through it!

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KCG: Your album cover art is stunning.   How did you happen to meet the artist, Jonathan Blum?  Tell us about your relationship with him and his work.


RA: Jonathan Blum is a neighbor and friend who I met during the course of recording my first album. He is one of the only artists left in NYC with a storefront, and the intermittent hours he keeps always provokes interest from passersby! He’d been there for years, but the only time I saw him open was when I’d come home late from the studio at 2 a.m. I’d pop in and share my project with him each evening thereafter – and he came to hear each step of the process from start to finish. His art offered refuge and inspiration during the recording project and a friendship was born! After a bit of persuasion, he ended up doing my first album cover – which was really a collaboration because he let me do the collage underneath that adds the texture to the painting. It all fell into place, as his work is quite paralleled with my music – he paints playful images of such things as ostriches with strawberries on their heads that appeals to adults and kids alike – much like my songs.  It was such an organic, beautiful friendship that bloomed – or should I say, Blum’d!… After the success of the Big Blue Moose (Jonathan sold every moose he made after that album cover), it only made sense for him to do the next record, as well! His website is rabbipainter.com.

KCG: Can you share something interesting/funny that people may lot know about you? You can be as playful or as serous as you want here.


AR: When I was little, I’d chew my food and chew and chew and chew. Guests would come over and I’d still be chewing (this mostly happened with spinach). They’d smile and say “Oh what a pretty little girl,” and then I would promptly go up to them, take their hand with a smile, and proceed to spit out my food in their palm… Not so pretty now, eh? (Note: Don’t worry, I eventually grew out of this phase… )

KCG: What’s next for you?


AR: I can’t wait to find out! Whatever it is, I certainly hope to be able to continue learning, growing, expressing, being creative, and trying to inspire others to do the same.

 

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