Vina Mills sits gazing out the window of the 19th floor of Southfield's North Park Towers. Usually around this hour, this space echoes sounds of Mills and her backup dancers — the grunts and thrusts of performers rehearsing stage routines. But instead, she's taking it easy on this Sunday evening, talking to a writer. Mills wears her black tights and black shirt on a petite frame; her hair, makeup and nails are stage-ready perfect. She glows. Her career's rising here in Detroit, and her most recent single, "Cry Baby" has been getting a fair share of spins from local radio outlets and has been added to iTunes. She has recently headlined shows at the Majestic Theatre and the Detroit Music Hall, and is currently courting record labels.
Mills' music flies somewhere on the edge of rhythm and blues, and its reference points include Monica and Chrisette Michele.
"It's like pop, soul and R&B — I can't really put it into one pocket," the songstress says, grinning. "It's edgy and raw. Everything in it comes from a real place."
Mills' story is like some made-for-TV movie in progress. Her life began in Highland Park, where she and her two brothers were raised by a stay-at-home mom and Vincent Revel, her guitar-wielding dad, who was determined to feed his family via rock 'n' roll.
"My father was a ‘rock star,'" Mills says, belting out a laugh that makes it hard to tell if she's serious. "He played electric guitar and he always had a band."
Her glow brightens when she reminisces about how her father and her brothers would play instruments, with her singing behind them, before any of them could barely walk. "We were really poor back then," she says. "I didn't have Barbie dolls but we always had each other and music."
Mills says her father managed to work with Dolly Parton for a period and also lived in Los Angeles where he worked as a musician. "He was just a free sprit," she says. "He believed that music was really going to make him successful."
At 7 years old, Mills' world turned upside down, though, when her father died in a house fire. Her recollection of the events and the situation are still vague; she was a kid. The cause of the fire was never determined and no one knows why everyone made it out of the house except for her dad. Shortly after his death, things went from bad to worse when her mother became addicted to drugs. By the time Mills was 9 years old, her father's mother took her in.
Mills pauses for a moment. "I think after my father passed, it was a little too much for my mother to deal with."
With their father gone, Mills and her brothers stopped playing music. "After my father died, I couldn't sing anymore because singing reminded me too much of him." Mills doesn't really get emotional when discussing her past these days; it's obvious she has found a place where it can all make sense.
At 12, she was humming tunes in her bedroom. Everything began to come together musically when Mills' entered high school.
"When I went to Mumford [High School], I registered for dance class and my dance teacher told me there was something special about the way I danced," Mills says. "She thought there was more to me than what others were seeing."
Through dance, Mills found the stage, and discovered she loved to perform. A break came just after her 2003 high school graduation: She placed third on a BET-network dance competition, which enabled her to tour with pop R&B sensation Usher.
Mills sits up in her chair and says, with an air of disbelief, "I got a chance to perform in front of Usher and talk to him. That gave me the confidence I needed to move forward."
Mills returned home after the tour, more focused than ever on launching a singing career. For guidance, she went to longtime friend and Atlantic recording artist Rashard Morgan and was soon able to get bookings through Connected Entertainment, an artist management company.
"Rashard took me under his wing and the Connected agency really helped put me on the music scene," Mills says.
From 2003 to 2006, Mills performed anywhere and everywhere that'd book her locally, from the Hoop City Grille to the Fox Theatre. She opened for many of the R&B and hip-hop acts that stopped in Detroit during those years, including Mary J. Blige and the Isley Brothers. Her self-produced single, "Wifey," became a constant on Hot 102.7. ("[DJ] Dr. Darius liked the record a lot, so he played it.)
But by the middle of 2006, she felt as if she were running in place in the Motor City.
She lets out a small sigh: "I just wanted to move forward."
She then relocated to Atlanta, Ga., a hip-hop and R&B mecca. She hooked up: "I got to sit in on studio sessions with Musiq Soulchild, Jazze Pha and learned a lot of things that I could be doing better. ..."
But not all went as planned, and after a year she went back to her dance roots. She auditioned for BET again, and won the opportunity to go on the 20-city tour featuring Sammie, Ne-Yo, Lloyd and Omarion. She networked and solicited career advice — but when she arrived back in Atlanta after the tour, things weren't moving as fast as she would've liked. By 2007, Mills was back in Detroit.
She called her friend Brandon Fletcher, who'd started a new Detroit label, Live TMG. "He told me come home and he would help me out."
Fletcher immediately put Mills through a workshop grind that included media training, artist development and chorography. Shades of the classic Motown era!
Mills offers a wry grin, and says, "Back when I began, I didn't care about a sound or a look. I just wanted to sing songs. But he [Fletcher] has really polished what I already had."
She now thinks about things like lighting, choreography, costume, background singers, band placement, and show arrangement before each show," says Kira Lee, VP Live TMG.
These days, Mills is at peace about where she's headed career-wise. She's playing the local venues again, almost anywhere that'll let her sing. She frequently announces shows on her Twitter account.
As for the ending of that made-for-TV flick, Mills says her mother eventually recovered from substance addiction but that they were never able to establish a relationship. And her late father still inspires her most.
"My father is still where my passion comes from," Mills says. "It's almost like I'm living his dream now. It's how I hold onto what it is we had."
Kahn Santori Davison is music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
Vina Mills tweets her upcoming area performances at twitter.com/vinamills.