Back before the pandemic, which feels like it began either 3,000 years or 3 days ago, I heard an amazing track called “Come Home” produced by Mike Schommer. Schommer was the founder of the fabled Deepchord imprint, and the track represented something of a comeback after several years hiatus from the industry. But I was captivated most by the vocals of Milly James — a voice with a delicate but distinctive and worldly delivery. “I really connected to Mike’s music and the melody and lyrics came about so organically,” she says of the title track for the EP released on Greyscale. “Together we made something really special.”

Originally from the UK, James has released records on Paper Recordings and Publica Records, and now resides in Berlin writing & producing with DJ Raw Sugar. We were thrilled to talk to her about studio sessions, live music & surviving a male-dominated industry in this first feature devoted to the artists behind the voices of electronic music.

So just right off the bat, we started this before the lockdowns began, and now we’re finishing it in mid-summer which seems like the middle of the pandemic. How has COVID-19 and the lockdown affected you?

Well first I was stunned, then I was angry, then I was bored, then I was accepting and extremely productive. I am grateful to say me and my loved ones have stayed safe and well, those I knew who contracted COVID recovered, it’s devastating to see so many lives lost.

It has been a difficult time for musicians, not being able to go out and perform. I supported lots of other acts by watching gigs online and buying new music. But I myself used the time to focus on my screenwriting.

The scene I would say is largely dominated by male producers which instantly creates inequality. It can be difficult to be heard and respected.

Can you tell us where you’re from, where you are, where you’re going and where you wanna go next?

I am originally from the UK. My very first collaboration was “Take A Small Break” (Paper Recordings UK 2003) with UK DJs Problem Kids under the moniker “Shine Eye Gal.” I was living in Australia when the tune caught the ear of Stephen Mallinder from Caberet Voltaire and led to me performing and recording with his then-current band The Ku-Ling Bros, featuring on their album Here Come The Astronauts (Publica Records 2010)

I also fronted a few local bands in Perth performing at festivals and supporting artists like Ursula Rucker. One gig I did a spontaneous vocal over a Mad Professor rhythm which led to more collaborations with him and respect from Soul II Soul’s Jazzie B. He was so impressed he invited me backstage to hang out! 🙂

I’ve been based in Berlin since 2014 writing and producing with my partner Berliner DJ Raw Sugar. Performing in Berlin led me to meeting Andrea Perrini from Turin-based Dub artists Babe Roots. They liked my sound and I now feature on their album Linear Movement (2017), and also the compilation Dub Affairs Vol. III (ROHS records 2018) Geographically, not sure where to next. Creatively I am working on a TV series about music, and hope to have some input in writing some original music for it.

How did these sessions for “Come Home” happen? You released three original tracks. are there more?

Well… It was Andrea from Babe Roots who messaged me and said Mike was looking for a vocalist to work with on some new material, he heard me on the Babe Roots tracks and asked if I was interested. I said “Yeah” with lots of smiley face emojis! So Andrea made the introduction. I think we originally recorded four ideas for the EP, and Mike chose his favorite three.

You have such a distinctive singing style — jazz sounds like an obvious influence. Who are the vocalists that influenced you or that you admire?

I grew up listening to jazz so singers like Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughn, Billy Holiday, and Ella are, of course, artists that I have admired and whose music I used to sing along to. I was told by a singing teacher that I had a vibrato like Sarah Vaughan but I had to learn how to control it. I also studied jazz for a year but I didn’t like the vocal coaching, but loved the improvisation and music theory classes. I also admire contemporary vocalists Erykah Badu and Jill Scott.

What are the challenges for a vocalist working in electronic music?

The scene I would say is largely dominated by male producers which instantly creates inequality. It can be difficult to be heard and respected.

How important is it for you write and produce on projects that you work on?

It’s important to me as it gives me greater autonomy, and freedom to create the sound that I want, that suits my voice and my style and ultimately tells the story that I want to tell. I wrote and produced a couple of solo EPs that just allowed me to play and experiment. That notion of play is really important for my creative process.

What would you tell your 18 year old self that you know now?

Don’t be so focused on the end of the journey that you miss what’s happening along the way.

Do you have any advice for a producer working with a new vocalist? And the same question: do you have any advice for a new producer working with an experienced vocalist?

Err! My advice to a producer working with any vocalist whether she’s new or experienced is: embrace the spirit of collaboration, don’t be afraid to relinquish a bit of control, and don’t metaphorically lock her out of the tune, give her the bleeding KEY! Haha!

What is your favorite release that you’ve been involved with to date?

I have to pick just one? Would have to say my very first released track “Take A Small Break.” I loved the song back then and I still love it now, it never gets old.

I would also have to say the track “Submarine” with DJ Raw Sugar. It’s so inventive and the beats so wild, I really enjoyed having a major part in creating it.

And lastly I would definitely have to say the entire EP Come Home with Mike Schommer but particularly the title track. I really connected to Mike’s music and the melody and lyrics came about so organically. Together we made something really special.

So we talked about our pandemic projects. What’s coming up next for you?

I have been working on developing a TV series about music, and it’s quite arduous. It’s not like writing a song, recording it, then releasing it. With writing for TV you come up with the idea, write the pitch, the pilot and then there is a lot of back and forth with developers/producers that can go on for years! I am not complaining as I love being creative and I guess I’ll get there in the end. I also hope to be involved in creating the music for the show too.

I also have a short film in development with BFI set in the Midlands in England and it’s about a Caribbean coal miner in the ’50s. I will also be writing the music for that. I am in the process of researching the appropriate sound, and as the story is about a male protagonist I will be writing a theme song for a male voice.

Also in the works is an upcoming live streamed performance for Loose Lips Events, a curated events/label collective based in London/Bristol and Manchester. Fred, one of the co-founders had heard my music and asked me to perform a live set.

I also will feature on their label release compilation LL017 which was released Friday 10 July. The song is called “Foxes” and is a collaboration with Brazilian DJ/Producer Diego Laje. All proceeds from the compilation are being given to the charity Ruff Sqwad Arts Foundation. UK Grime pioneers Rapid and Slix (Prince Owusu-Agyekum and Ebenezer Ayerh) started this foundation in 2017 in order to help create opportunities for young people in the UK who have the talent but are from a less advantaged background and may not have the chance to develop their skills at their fullest. They’re organizing workshops where they share their knowledge about music production, songwriting and many other aspects of music and arts. It’s a worthy charity that I am proud to support especially right now where contributing to change for young black people is so important.