Michigan singer-songwriter Lily Milo sorts through big feelings and invites us to do the same

Starship trooper

click to enlarge Lily Milo. - Jennifer Metsker
Jennifer Metsker
Lily Milo.

It isn't easy for Lily Milo to be vulnerable ("Lily Milo" being a pseudonym that she's still uneasy about using). Plus, well, her blatant admission of just how difficult it is for the singer-songwriter to be publicly vulnerable may as well be the most revealing evidence that she's actually really very good at it.

"Oh my god, it's like vulnerability with more than, like, a couple people is extremely difficult,"she says. "And at the time when I finally decided to write the songs, it was so amazing because when I started being vulnerable, nobody was like, 'Hey, don't be vulnerable.' Everyone was like, 'This is great, keep being vulnerable.' There was all this fear and everybody was so supportive. It's just helpful sometimes to know people are going through a similar thing and that people can come out of it together."

Milo, who grew up on Duke Ellington but makes music that's more adjacent to Anna Ash, Cat Power, Angel Olsen's first record, and Devandra Banhart's first record, was, until her debut EP, Stars Go Out, a chronic music dabbler. She's been lugging her guitar around for years and recalls some piano lessons and some choir practice, but nothing consistent enough to take the anxiety out of releasing any material. Work got in the way, too, as did some mental hurdles, and general timing.

"I think that we get so inundated with so many things that we're always trying to do so much all the time," she explains. "I'm definitely somebody who, when I work, in general, I have to kind of like work in silence. So I kind of also thought, oh, how can I make music If I can't listen to enough music?" she says. "Finally, I was like, alright, it's time to just sit down and go 100% and write the music and not look back, just finish the songs, appreciate where I'm at in the moment, and not say like, oh, I'm gonna wait five years from now until I can play that lick really well."

The sudden urgency to expel what Milo describes as "a lot of big feelings" into song resulted in Cautious Hearts, an experimental rock duo with Dylan Strzynski, and Stars Go Out, the six-song solo EP she released last year. Sparse, echoey, and distant, Milo pulls us close with relatable lyrical sensations, like the task of trying to understand and unpack a feeling.

"My life is in retrograde, as the shadows dance/ well, I pulled a classic/ I stayed up too late, got a little too drunk/ Said things that might be fucked up," she sings on "Classic," which sounds like it was preciously and urgently recorded on the iPhone memo app. And on "Satsuma," which Milo says was appropriated from an email sent to her from a friend, she details the mundanity and impossibility of day-to-day life, like a trip to Whole Foods, listening to Frank Ocean, and the chalky sensation the song's namesake citrus fruit leaves on teeth.

"One of us must be wrong," she sings in her power-packed, yet fragile warble. "And the feeling shot through me like ice water, but colder/ one of us must be wrong."

Failing to address Milo's voice would do a great disservice to the songwriter, as her voice can run the gamut of sounding fraught to feeling weightless to being totally guttural and soaring as if something was blocking her windpipe and it suddenly and explosively cleared.

"Sometimes it just feels so good to just sing the feeling of the word," she says. "I think sometimes you have to not overdo it. There was definitely a learning curve, but it just felt good. Like, once the words were there, those words were like —this sounds kind of weird, but I feel like they told me, 'sing me like this' and I was like, OK."

Milo was only able to perform once just before the pandemic hit, which shut music venues down and prohibited the gathering of large groups. She can see herself returning to the stage when it's safe to do so and, in the meantime, will continue to flesh out those big feelings and relatable moments. For Milo, meeting goals is great, but in order for her to stay present and connected to music, she says she has to keep her motivations in check.

"I think we grow up in this way today, where it's just like, OK, when you make something, it has to achieve this goal and this goal and this goal, and it's like, well, are you making that for yourself anymore?" she says. "I think it's such a cathartic process. It's just a beautiful process. But the main point of art and music should be for healing for yourself, and if it helps do that or makes people have a feeling or dance or move or groove or want to sing along, that's awesome. I would definitely be down to play shows in Ann Arbor or Detroit for fun, but, like, the second it becomes not fun, I'm out."

Part of our cover story, "12 metro Detroit acts we think will do big things in 2021."

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