“[Moyo is] definitely a collection of me becoming more comfortable with my identity as a black woman, and not being afraid to just make music that is about these things that I have experienced.” -Millicent James
Millicent James is a British composer, songwriter and performer currently studying at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Drawing from a wide range of influences including gospel, jazz, contemporary classical and ambient music, Millicent’s work embodies a uniquely captivating sound world, with her most recent project ‘Moyo’ – recorded with jazz outfit Tephra – being released on the 17th August. Millicent spoke to PRXLUDES about her upcoming record, her unique approach to writing for video games, and her diverse array of influences.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey Millicent! Hope things have been well with you. I watched the music video you put out for your most recent track, ‘Noah’s Song’; it was an absolutely incredible performance.
Millicent: Hello! Thanks for having me, I’m doing well thanks. Thanks for watching the video, I’m glad you enjoyed it! It was nerve wracking to put something up like that for sure… I’m relieved that it’s been received in such a positive way!
Tell me a bit about the writing process for ‘Noah’s Song’. Were the track and the performance intertwined? How did you come up with it…
That track was quite interesting [to me] when I made it, because I just started with the ocarinas you see behind me*… Those are both of the instruments that are in the track, and I just kind of sat down at my computer one day and I was like “I wanna write a piece that is dark, [and] people are gonna assume ‘oh, it’s Millicent’s usual nice, soft, gentle music’”… whereas actually, it was more like “no, time to come into my world, see how things are for me”. But I projected it through a story of a young slave child who’s lost all their friends…
The dance was completely improvised, actually. But [I worked with] a graduate composer from Royal Birmingham Conservatoire [who] helped setting up the lighting. So we both just sat in the lab and [I] was like “can you do this, this and this for me?” and he programmed it all.
*Note: Millicent had a tenor ocarina and bass ocarina hung up behind her during the interview.
The piece tells a powerful story. Was that taken from anywhere or was it something you came up with?
It was something that I came up with, completely. It’s something that I want to develop later in my career, as maybe like a ‘mini-opera’ or something, which is what I’ve been mentioning to some of my tutors over the years, like… “I want to write an opera!”, but an opera’s a lot of work… -laughs-
I completely feel you. -laughs- Is ‘Noah’s Song’ going to be on your upcoming record?
I don’t know. I was like “do I wanna put it on the record?”, cause originally it wasn’t, but then I was like “it might as well be”. [But] I’ll probably release it as a [standalone] single, to be honest. It’s a bit different from what I’d like ‘Moyo’ to be.
‘Moyo/Ancestors’, track 1 from Millicent James’ upcoming record, Moyo (2020).
Tell me about your new record, ‘Moyo’.
I’m trying to remember how I [conceived] the idea of the project, and I think it came about from working with another alumnus from Birmingham Conservatoire — Dan Cippico — [who] was a few years above me. In August [of] last year, we started to collaborate together, just writing; I think it would have been like an EP that we’d be writing together. It came a bit from that idea, but we both got busy, so we weren’t able to continue the collaboration, but it’s definitely coming back [and] we’re definitely gonna do that again.
So I guess ‘Moyo’ branched from that idea. What I was writing at that moment in time was all in the same sound world, embracing my identity, looking back on how far I’d come and seeing the progression; in that kind of sense, [it was about] reflecting on the experiences — both the positive and negative experiences — that I’ve had at [Royal Birmingham] Conservatoire. [There are] a lot of racial things embedded in the music that probably isn’t so obvious to most people, just because I haven’t made it that obvious! -laughs-
So it’s more of an “if you know, you know” type of sensibility…
Yeah, I guess so. But it also branched cause I’d been taking part in a lot of jazz stuff this [academic] year, which I was kind of doing [last] year in some ways, singing with another previous graduate. Her name was Lufuno Ndou — she’s a great singer — we both did some Afro-Cuban singing together, and that started me wanting to do more jazz stuff. I’ve [also] grown up with a lot of gospel being played in the car, like Kirk Franklin, and those kinds of people…
I saw a jazz gig from a new band called Tephra, who do a jazz-contemporary [fusion] type thing, [and] I got inspired by that band, and by that sound world, and I asked their bandleader if I could possibly write something for them. Most of the musicians from that band are playing on the ‘Moyo’.
I was also taking influence from people such as Laura Mvula, Lianne La Havas and Ayanna Witter-Johnson, just people who I really look up to, in terms of where I write my music from. I also take inspiration from video game composers such as Nobuo Uematsu — who [composed for] Final Fantasy — and Koji Kondo, who’s like, the big Nintendo composer. I guess Joe Hisaishi as well, I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from… his orchestration is just amazing.
It’s very interesting, the amount of influences you’re able to draw from. How did you go about the process of fusing everything together?
That’s a big question, I don’t know! -laughs- I guess if I think rhythmically, a lot of my rhythms are West African-based, I think — I can’t say for sure because I don’t necessarily know, or I’m not conscious of it — and in terms of harmony, I [like] using a lot of extended chords, which is more from the jazz and gospel [influence]. I think [I’m] just being like a sponge, absorbing the parts that I like from those people, or those styles of music, and fusing that together somehow.
Are there any overarching themes you wanted to convey with ‘Moyo’?
As I mentioned before, it’s definitely a collection of me becoming more comfortable with my identity as a black woman, and not being afraid to just make music that is about these things that I have experienced, not being too worried about how people are gonna take the music — because people are gonna take music as they take it, you can’t really control that. I guess being comfortable with that is a theme, and just trying to relax and be myself, finding the silver lining in a dark period is an overarching theme as well, and looking back at my history, too.
Is there any track in particular you’d like to go into further?
The first track of the EP [is] called ‘Moyo’, which is a Swahili word for heart. I have a lot of Kenyan friends, so that’s where I took my inspiration for using the Swahili language; I was like “hey, can you translate this for me?” -laughs- And they were like “sure, of course, it’s fine!” So I’m kind of starting to learn Swahili now, cause I want to integrate that into my music further.
‘Moyo’ [the track] is this chant that starts off with this “big voice”… Some people have said “oh, it sounds like Gladiator!”, the music from Gladiator, which is totally fine. -laughs- So I do that kind of singing in Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble [at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire], and I was like “oh, I want to integrate this into my music”, because I really enjoy it, and it’s almost like a call to the ancestors, in a way. I took inspiration for that sound from James Cameron’s Avatar; there’s this scene where there’s all this intensity going on, and in the background there’s this voice… so that’s where I got the idea from for that track.
Do you develop that kind of sound world, those kinds of themes, throughout the EP?
I don’t actually include it [the sound world] later in the EP, but the themes that I use do come back; you do hear it through the pieces. All the pieces have their own themes, but the last piece of the EP, you kind of get the themes from all the pieces that have singing in [them]. So it kind of is like a bookend, in a way; it shows growth, you started here, and now you’re here…
Tell me about your experiences working with Tephra. How did find working with that kind of instrumentation?
Working with this lineup of musicians was a big learning curve for sure but it was a lot of fun! Very stressful at some points but really great to work with such amazing and talented musicians who just seemed to understand exactly the kind of vibe that I was going for. I’m really grateful to them and everyone else who worked on the project for making my music come to life and just being wonderful!
I started writing down a few ideas of where I wanted the EP to go and did that on my computer using Logic Pro X but if I wasn’t near my computer then I would use Garageband on my iPad. This particular instrumentation was very different from what I’m used to so it was really challenging definitely. It’s quite different from what I’m used to composing for, which is often string-based, piano-based, very classical in that kind of sense. But I really wanted to push myself in writing for a different [than] usual setup. So I was writing a lot of pieces on my computer, but two of the pieces I wrote on my iPad, just on GarageBand.
It was around New Years’ [Eve] that I finished the music. I was on the train to and from Edinburgh, which is a long train journey, and I didn’t have any internet, so I was like “hmm… might as well finish my EP”. So two of the pieces — ‘Enchanting’ and ‘Torn’ — were both written on my iPad, which was quite fun. That’s how I used to write music when I was growing up, around the age of 12, I’d write on my iPad because I didn’t have any access to anything else, and I just found it quite easy, like “this is fun”. In terms of the piece ‘Enchanting’, it is a piece where I go back to a previous moment in my life, when I’m walking on my way to college, and you hear the birds that are going crazy through this little woodland area that I had to walk through… So two visits to previous moments in my life, really.
Does ‘Torn’ reflect those same experiences?
So ‘Torn’ is more [of a] visiting of all the themes in the EP, so kind of like a general conclusion, re-evaluation, uhh… reflection! -laughs- That’s the word. So I was reflecting on everything that’s happened, but ‘Enchanting’ is the [track that is] just specifically looking back on childhood memories.
A lot of your tracks seem quite conceptual. Do the lyrics or conceptual ideas come first, or does the instrumentation come to you first and you slot the ideas in?
With this piece [‘Enchanting’] in particular, I decided off the bat that I did not want it to be a vocal-orientated piece, so I decided on having the instrumentation [first]. I also took out the drums in this, and added synth pads to kind of double what the piano is doing. So I decided on [the] instrumentation of saxophone-trombone-cello to be the main anchor point of the piece, and guitar to kind of start off this wandering into [the] woodland area. When I started off composing, I would write a lot of music that would be based around a fantasy world that I had in my head, almost Zelda-like, I guess you could say… or Mario Galaxy. Very Nintendo-based.
I grew up with that too. -laughs-
Yeah. -laughs- So that’s what orientated this piece; I just wanted this very magical sense of revisiting a memory, in a way. So instrumentation-wise; the idea came first, the instrumentation came second, but it [the instrumentation] was already there in my head. I guess I went from there. I took inspiration from Laura Mvula in particular for this piece — her piece ‘Show Me Love’ — which starts off with this beautiful pad sound, and her singing, as well. So I took inspiration from that, and then I was like “okay, let’s bring in the pool of ideas I have”.
Do you find that’s a general pattern for your workflow?
In some ways, yes, but I guess each piece is different in its own way. But most of the time, usually [there’s] that pattern of working.
I find your influence from video game composers quite interesting — I’ve seen you’ve done some work for video games as well?
Yeah! I am a nerd, with video games, for sure. I grew up watching my mum play video games, so I guess that’s where it’s come from. In terms of me getting involved with , Birmingham University have a video games department, [and] they reached out to the composition department asking for composers for video games, and I signed up, and a few other people signed up to it too. There were different types of games, there were mobile games that would be on the app store, there were Playstation 4 games… I think they were rough demos, that kind of stuff, but it’s still experience at the end of the day, working with that team of people.
What was your approach in writing for video games?
I’m trying to remember, it was a while ago… -laughs- They told us what they’d want the music to sound like, and where they want our inspiration to branch from, and they said Breath of the Wild… And I’m a massive fan of that game, so I was like “brilliant, I can use a minimalistic piano”! They also had concept art, and a few clips that we could watch to get some ideas from. It was very much [about] trying to keep communication up.
Do you see yourself doing more video game work in the future?
Yeah, absolutely. That was definitely a dream of mine, and still is a dream… I would love to at least compose something for a big video game company.
What’s your favourite project that you’ve worked on so far?
My favourite project… I worked with a Kora [player] — I think you may have been to the concert, actually — [which] was really cool, lots of fun. That was a piece [where] I gave him a chord progression to work around, and we both improvised that completely. The singing was improvised, his playing was improvised… nothing was notated except for the chord progression. So it was very freeing, and quite liberating, and just great to work with him; he was so open.
When I heard it, it sounded so precise… It’s like the more natural of a working relationship you have with someone, the more authentically you bounce off each other.
Yeah, for sure. He was really fun, really nice to work with, because he was just so friendly… [We were] like, “oh, how do we start the piece?”, and then we [decided on] a cello intro that’s bowed, and he could do something on that, and then we’d both cue each other to go into the next section… In terms of finishing it, we just decided [to] fade it out a bit and stop on the last chord. -laughs- But yeah, he was amazing, he was absolutely amazing.
I saw ‘Moyo’ was one of a series? I take it you’re planning more volumes for it?
Yeah, it is! -laughs- Some people have asked me “how many volumes are there?” and I’m not telling them yet. I’m hoping to do three — a little trilogy of volumes — all based around identity, growth, finding a nice community to build yourself around… blooming. -laughs- But I haven’t decided the set themes for each of the volumes that I’ve got planned yet, but that’s something that I’m doing now… it’s something that I’d like to do for my major project, where I launch ‘Moyo’ and have a [platform] where I support black artists in Birmingham, with everything that’s going on. I wanna kind of keep it more open, because that’s too much work [otherwise]. -laughs- I don’t want to rush everything, I want this to be a nice process where I’m not burned out completely by the end of it.
Millicent James’s upcoming record ‘Moyo’ releases 17th August 2020 on all streaming platforms. Pre-order the new record at: https://millicentbjames.bandcamp.com/album/moyo-vol-1
Millicent’s work can be found at:
- Kirk Franklin – Why We Sing, live at the 26th Annual GMA Dove Awards (1995)
- Tephra – Keiyona, Part 1 (2019)
- Laura Mvula – Green Garden (2013)
- Lianne La Havas – Paper Thin (2020)
- Ayanna Witter-Johnson – Crossroads (2020)
- Nobuo Uematsu – One Winged Angel, from Final Fantasy VII (2013)
- Koji Kondo – The Legend of Zelda Suite, live with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (2016)
- Joe Hisaishi – Studio Ghibli 25 Years Concert, live in Budokan (2015)
- Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble – Sleepy Maggie (2018)
- Laura Mvula – Show Me Love (2016)