MILCK: a candid Q&A about trauma, silence, activism and the power of sisterhood

"I just felt like I was a messed-up, broken person and so why even try to fight for myself — until I started having some girlfriends, some sisterhood." — MILCK.
LA-based singer-songwriter MILCK shown in black and white, leaning on a table. (Jimmy Fontaine)

Like most overnight sensations, MILCK's journey to the spotlight was actually years in the making. For more than a decade the L.A.-based singer-songwriter played and toured and honed her talents in a variety of stops and starts and shoulda-worked-outs. Even her breakthrough hit "Quiet," which became something of an anthem for the Women's March in 2017, was actually written in 2015.

Video of MILCK and 25 women singing "Quiet" flash mob-style at the Women's March in Washington, D.C., went viral and everybody from NPR to Buzzfeed to Samantha Bee featured the young Chinese-American singer-songwriter's powerful, defiant and vulnerable piano-based ballad in the days that followed.

The song's official music video is accompanied by MILCK's affecting, confessional statement: "For us who come from privilege, speaking up can be scary. For others of us in other parts of the world, though, speaking up can even be life threatening. I can only speak from my own story of surviving anorexia and abuse. I believe that when one person speaks out, that empowerment ricochets in ways and to places we don't realize. I am not truly free until all of us are free. This song is for all of those who can't keep quiet. I hope you enjoy, and feel empowered or comforted after watching. Much love to you."

A little over a year later, MILCK has signed with Atlantic Records and released her major studio debut EP, This is Not the End. She joined us in Vancouver at CBC Music to talk about the aftermath of breaking her silence, the privilege and pressure of becoming the quasi-poster child for the Women's March, and why finding sisterhood helped her to heal from past trauma.

I'm really so inspired by people getting a chance to sing songs that are meaningful. It's really lovely.

It's definitely a path and a choice that I've made, and sometimes it can feel like I'm swimming upstream because sometimes it's harder to say the real thing, yeah, but the good news is that I feel like music within itself — outside of the world and the business music — within itself thrives on honesty so I just go off that regardless of what happens around it.

It must have been sort of a surprise thing to suddenly have your face associated with the Women's March and all these different things. I can imagine it being both a privilege and very overwhelming.

Yes! Both! It's a huge privilege, and I think the privilege outweighs the overwhelm but I've experienced both. I experienced deep gratitude, like, wow my my chance at this industry was through this meaningful platform that I 100 per cent believe in. When the Women's March came up as a Facebook event, I just thought yes, I'm going. I don't know what this is but it says a bunch of women are gathering to talk about the world that they want to see. Like, yeah, I want to go there.

The #MeToo movement was so in sync with what I released when I first released "Quiet." I wrote under my music video that I'm a survivor of abuse and anorexia and this is my response because I'm tired of feeling oppressed. I was like, "OK, if I work really hard to say what I believe in, maybe by my [future] daughter's time there will be a movement." I didn't know that it would be now and how wonderful it would be … Black Lives Matter does feel like it was the foundation for so much of what's happening right now, and I feel bolstered by the movement from Parkland, Florida, and now all the kids are walking out of the schools and using their voices — it's inspirational.

Was it scary to break your silence and have that just out in the world with everybody reacting to it?

The part of people reacting didn't feel so scary, maybe because I was lucky and that the reactions were very loving and supportive. I did get some hate mail but I've always been like, "I guess that my message is working; if I'm not getting hate mail that means maybe nobody's hearing it." If it's honest, it might offend someone. I can't please everyone and that's something I had to learn because being a survivor of abuse, I learned how to fold myself into whatever shape I needed to avoid at all costs any type of confrontation or anger because it's frightening. I still find myself sometimes, like, "Oh my gosh are they gonna yell or attack me for saying this?" because it's this instinct that is planted in my mind now. So writing the song, the journey of getting to that place, that clarity and my mind took a long time.

As an Asian-American woman there's an intersection of different things that are happening culturally. You know, my parents loved me so deeply; however, the culture sometimes made me feel like if I speak out about these things, that's impolite or how dare I even fight against the status quo at this time? I should just be grateful. But there were things that were stuck in my throat. I could feel the tension. I could feel myself self-sabotaging because I didn't feel like I was worth it, because I blamed myself still for the abuse and I'm blaming myself for my eating disorder. I just felt like I was a messed-up, broken person and so why even try to fight for myself — until I started having some girlfriends, some sisterhood.

I love seeing sisterhood empower artists. Where did you find that sisterhood?

I was craving some guidance and I sought out strong women. My mentor, Suzan Koc, would constantly be like, "What do you want? If you didn't care what everyone else thought, what do you want?" I went through years with her, just learning to think for myself again and to allow myself to value my voice, and that was scary but it was also really fun. Some of my music comes from this sadness but there's also joy within the process. I've had such a great time meeting women who have helped me rise and I'm meeting more and more of them now only because of the song. I'm getting surrounded by a whole other level of women that have dedicated their lives to serving and I'm learning from them.

There was this female producer and writer [Adrianne "AG" Gonzalez] that I really looked up to, and I knew about her from the L.A. scene. As I was going through my self-healing process, I finally got to a place like, "OK, I'm going to approach her and I'm gonna ask her if I can work for her for free." Through that, I was able to develop a relationship with her and she's one of my main co-writers. "Quiet" was the second song we wrote together. So there was a moment where I thought, "Oh, I'm worth it. I'm worth it and now I'm gonna offer my time for free to learn and just do whatever I can do to be around people that I want to strive to be like," and that changed my life. It was scary because I was working for free for these people and so I was kind of broke — actually, OK, like falling off the ledge a little bit financially but all these people are around and I'm surrounding myself with positivity and that's priceless, so I hung on to that for a long time and that changed my life.

Find me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner


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