Finding her voice

Born in West Columbia, South Carolina, Tonya Mills moved to Nashville almost ten years ago after attending the prestigious Berklee School of Music, and she's become a regular at writer's rounds within the Middle Tennessee area. Her new album, Always Unexpected, runs the gamut from Americana to pop-rock as she explores the complexities of those time-worn themes: love and the pursuit of happiness in life. Mills, a member of the singing group Nashville in Harmony, spoke with O & AN about her creative process and the personal connection she hopes to foster with her audience.

Who are your major musical influences and how do those influences sneak into your music?

I am influenced by a lot of different music, but most consistently over the years by Tracy Chapman, Neil Young, The Beatles (of course), The Pretenders and Joni Mitchell. A lot of times I have a rhythm from a song I'm listening to in my mind and I think a song of my own builds from that in my head. Sometimes I just love a song so much I want to create something like that. I'm very in to great lyrics and intensity, and I admire Neil Young and Tracy Chapman for that.

How would you describe your latest CD and what's the overarching theme?

I've been describing my new CD as "Joni Mitchell and Chrissie Hynde lost below the Mason Dixon Line." It actually covers several different styles: folk, pop, Americana, rock, but most are with an acoustic edge. We stripped down the tracking quite a bit, but did leave in some cello, and even a couple of horns. I think it's a large part about, for better or worse, the unexpected changes that hit you sometimes in life and the emotions and re-direction that can stem from those changes. One of the other album titles we tossed around was Searching For Something, but in the end I felt Always Unexpected fit a bit better.

What are your musical ambitions for 2011?

I want to support my CD and get it out to as many people as possible and I want to continue to co-write and collaborate even more. I just want to get better and better at what I do and connect with people more than ever before.  

Your background features a lot of twists and turns both professionally and personally. What advice do you have for someone who might be too timid to explore their musical talent and needs that extra push?
Well, I think creativity feeds your soul, because you're basically expressing your feelings which is a very healthy thing. But our society doesn't promote that, so it's easy to develop an inner critic which can hold you back. Life can get distracting and it takes a real conscious effort and hard work, but you have to fight that critic and stand up for yourself and surround yourself with people who'll do the same. If you're thinking about doing it, then there's no reason you shouldn't. It helps me to remember there is no "right" way to make art. I found a new quote I really like that I put in my CD liner that says "Never give up on something you can't go a day without thinking about."

What is the writing process like for you? When you present these songs to your producer (Tommy Womack), how does that collaborative experience help shape the art?

It really varies, but the process seems to go through phases for me. Lately I've been writing in sections, the lyrics, melody, and guitar or piano for the chorus, then I do all of that for verse 1, then verse 2, etc. I've been working on being a bit more narrative with my lyrics, which is probably a result of the country and Americana scene in town. Collaborating is a funny thing. You have to be really open to changes. So many times, I've thought 'Well, that is just not gonna work,' but in the end the collaborative process sort of takes on a life of its own and really great unexpected things can come out of that. For this CD, I'd go to Tommy's house or he to mine and I'd play through some of what I thought were my better songs. He'd just sort of say, 'Now that's a keeper, let's record it!' or "This is good, but let's try doing it this way, or add this here, move this there" and we'd tweak things a bit and then record the new version. Tommy's played in more bands than I have and I think that experience shows in the arrangements. He's very laidback and open to experimentation in the studio and willing to work with what he gets on the first few takes, as opposed to just wearing things out with take after take, which is an approach I'm personally more comfortable with.   

What's the biggest joy in sharing your music for the audience?

Just the connection and act of giving really. One of the biggest thrills for me is seeing someone moved by or connecting to something I've written. You can almost see it in their eyes when it's happening. Of course, hopefully they're not just zoning out! I've always felt that if I work hard enough I can give people a sort of souvenir to take home with them after they hear my music, meaning they'll see some aspect of their life differently and feel better about it in some sort of way. This is what I love about and have gotten from music my whole life and I just hope to pass that on.

Mills' album, Always Unexpected, is available on CDBaby, ITunes and Amazon. You can access her MySpace page for more information about future performances.

Photo by Margo Amala on Unsplash

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