Billy Miles Biography
Disappointed but undaunted, Miles got back to work, this time as a solo artist with a newfound determination not to be pigeonholed. Now she's reemerged with a debut solo album that confidently blends old-school soul, jazz, hip-hop, pop, rock, R&B and the blues into a sultry, late-night soundtrack perfect for her sexy rasp of a voice.
We wanted to find out more about the woman behind that voice, so we got the very gracious Billy to tell our interviewer about her long journey from major label guinea pig to coffeehouse diva to....well, a rising pop/R&B crossover star -- but this time, on her own terms.
I wanted to start by asking you a little bit about your background. You're mixed race, is that right?
Yeah. My mom is Eurasian -- she's Japanese and English. And my dad, who passed [away], was black and German. So half white, quarter black, and quarter Japanese.
And you grew up in LA, right?
What kind of community did you grow up in?
It was a mixed community. Specifically, the [San Fernando] Valley. From North Hollywood to Sherman Oaks, which is where I live now.
Were your parents musical as well?
My mom sings but she never pursued it professionally. She modeled for a while. Like petite modeling because she's not that tall. But she can sing. Like when she's joking around, she'll sing songs about the dog and the cat, the pets of the household. Like the dog, Matthew, "Matthew was his name, la la la la." You're like, "oh, she can sing, okay, cool."
So did you just start singing around the house, too? Is that how your aspirations of being a professional singer came about?
No, that just came from listening to the radio. The music just stuck in a way. Some people just listen to music and that's really great. They're humming along and hearing a melody. But for me, when I listened, it would strike a nerve in me, in a good way: "Wow, I want to do that. I want to be on the radio."
Did you have voice lessons or anything like that or were you pretty much self-taught?
For the most part, self-taught. I can count on one hand the voice lessons I've had. I do my vocal warm-ups and exercises just about every day, just to keep the vocal cords nice and stretched.
Do you feel like it's helpful that you haven't had too many voice lessons? Do you think that can actually can be a benefit that you retain more of a unique style by doing it that way?
I think it's up to the individual. Everybody's different. There are some people that do cover tunes and that's their thing. But for me doing a cover tune is strange. And I actually finally had to do one. When I went to New York, I did this club, and I only did two songs. I could do only one original song and I had to do a cover. And the cover thing freaked me out. I was like, "Oh my God. I have to sing someone else's song, that's too weird."
You don't normally do that?
No, but it's something I'm actually aspiring to open my mind to more. It's a weird thing. I don't know what it is but it just feels strange.
So what was the song that you performed?
I did Peggy Lee's "Fever."
That's a great song.
Yeah. I thought, "If I'm going to do a cover tune, then I've got to do something that's kind of sassy and that fits with what I do." I just couldn't think of anything on pop radio. That stuff is not me at all.
Why don't you talk a little bit about how your first brush with the music industry came about. You were in a duo, right?
I was in a duo, [but] before I'd gotten in the duo situation, I was a solo artist. I was writing my own stuff. I'd never been in any kind of group before. She had. She'd been in a couple groups and then we just happened to meet... at my mom's vintage clothing store. I'd never even thought about singing with someone else. And then she kind of mentioned the whole thing to me. She was like, "I was in a girl group before." And I was like, "A girl group? What's that like?" And I was really into harmony and that's what really opened me up to the idea that maybe we could do something.
We were actually going to get a few more girls in the group, but then we said, "you know what...we get along really great. The chances of us finding someone else who's going to be on our same page and be cool and not confrontational and show up on time and have the same dedication -- you know, here in LA, a land of flakes -- it's slim. And I love LA, but it's real.
There are a lot of flakey people in this town. It's true.
There's flakey people anywhere, but I live here so these are the only flakes I know. And it was interesting because we didn't have a demo or anything. Well, we had part of the demo... it just didn't have any vocals on it. So we would take our instrumentals around and we would sing to them for people. We knew somebody that knew somebody that got us into various labels and presidents of labels. And A&M was one of them. At that time Al Cafaro was the president. And he was just like, "Let's make a record."
Unfortunately, we didn't have any management. The whole thing was really new to us. Not doing music, but just how the whole business side of things worked. Because of that, a lot of things didn't happen the way they should have. We never even made the album. We spent the majority of the time in demo hell, like as an experiment. "Oh, this is the hot new producer this year who worked on so and so's record. Let's put you with him." We'd go, "Okay." Then we'd work with him and we're thinking, "Okay, we're going to make the record now." And then all of a sudden it's like "Now let's try this person over here who did so and so's record. Let's see what that sounds like." Before you knew it, so much time went by and so much money was spent that it never happened.
Were they trying to put you into any one particular style or were they trying everything?
Al, the guy that signed us, was just kind of like, "I'm not expecting you to go out there and blow up on a first record. It's not that kind of thing. I'm looking at you in the long term." But the A&R guy who was assigned to us -- he used to manage producers. I don't know, man, he just wanted to experiment. At that time, there was artist named Des'ree out, there was an artist named Dionne Farris that was out. So they thought, "These are black female artists who are doing something a little left of center, not R&B. It falls in a strange place but yet it's pop, it's accessible. There's a market for it." So I think that's kind of how they were viewing us. "We know it's not R&B all the way -- so let's try all these different things."
But there are people that work at record companies that know nothing about music. At the end of the day, they just look at numbers. They're like, "these guys just spent X amount of dollars. Who are these guys?... Do they have an album out? They don't even have an album out. What's going on with these guys? They're recording all these songs. Let's get rid of them."
If the A&R guy had formerly worked with a long list of producers, it kind of sounds like he was just cleaning out his rolodex with you guys.
Calling up all of his old producer friends who needed a gig, saying, "Here, I can get you paid for doing this for a little while."
In retrospect, that would make a whole lot more sense.
Because as you say, a lot of times those decisions are driven by business factors and personal politics more than they are by any knowledge or interest in music.
And again, we were trying to manage ourselves and stay in good with everybody. If we had had a manager who could stand up for us and go, "Look, everybody's feeling this guy here who they just worked with. These demos are great, let's move on to the album now." It probably would have happened. It would have been that simple. But for us, you know, these two little kids going, "Um, okay, we're on to the next producer now? Okay."
And you were how old at the time all this were happening?
Oh, we were teens. She was just a couple years older than me. She was like 20 and I was like 18. So we had no freakin' clue...to the point where people at the label tried to give us clues. "You know, you need to get a manager." But just like it's hard to shop your demo and get a deal, it's hard to shop your demo and get management. It's hard to shop your demo just to get a music attorney. There's so much. And no one takes unsolicited material. You're basically boxed out unless you know somebody.
So I'm assuming, having been through that experience, you have a manager now and a music attorney and all those people who can take care of the business side of things for you so you can focus on the music?
So after you went through that experience at A&M, what was the next step for you on the path to becoming a solo artist?
We were both really disheartened about the whole thing just not happening. We actually had considered, "Okay, let's just keep at it and get something else going on." But it was so disheartening every time we'd get together to rehearse -- it was just a reminder how nothing happened. It was really depressing. It felt like starting over again. So it was kind of like, "I'll see you around," you know? It was kind of a mutual thing we both came to...time to move on. I try to look at life like there are little lessons -- you meet people, they pass through your life and teach you things about yourself and things about other people. You know, you just [try to] learn something from it. Not stay there in that same place. You've been there, done that. Time to move on to the next adventure.
So after the whole Billy and Raquel experience, when you starting going back to working on your own again, you took a different approach, right? In terms of not only how you were writing and performing music but also how you were getting yourself out there again.
Yeah, I wanted to start getting out there and doing some shows. Even it was just a little coffeehouse. I would do a more stripped down kind of thing, just guitar and percussion. Or a full band with drums, bass, keys, everything. Just to get out there and feel like I was putting myself out there, literally, to get some feedback and just to perform in front of people.
That sounds like that was a positive experience for you.
Oh yeah, definitely. Down to doing shows with a packed house or doing shows where there's just two people, it's always a positive experience because you're doing your thing. That's the main thing. If you don't do it and you just stay in your home and write your songs and sing them and record them...that's cool to a point....
Or just write and record them for a bunch of producers and A&R guys.
Yeah...trying to find the quote-unquote "hit song." But I finally got over that whole idea because what's a hit to me is not a hit to someone else, you know?
Right. I thought it was interesting on your album that the song that most obviously, on first listen, sounds like the hit single is track 12 ("Sunshine"). Most major label releases wouldn't do that.
Yeah, yeah. You know, we're trying it out.
So somewhere along the way, you crossed paths with Andre Williams [Billy's producer/co-writer]. How did that first meeting come about?
Actually, he came to a couple shows that I did at [LA coffeehouse] Lucy Florence, by way of a mutual friend. I had this bass player friend that kept telling me, "You have to meet these guys. They're the AK brothers. They're producers. They're like the perfect producers for you, Billy." And this went on for like a year of me going, "eh, okay, whatever." But when I started doing the shows and stuff, my friends told them about the shows, and they came. Andre specifically was like, "Wow, I'm really feeling your vibe. I just think you could use some hip-hop underneath it all. It would just add so much more flavor to what you're already doing." It's funny, because I wasn't initially open to it, because I wanted everything to be live. It took about a year for us to actually get in the studio and hook up and experiment and do a bunch of different stuff with music. I was really married to what I was doing at that time.
Was it a little difficult to start more of a collaborative process again after the experience that you had at A&M?
Oh no, not that part. Not at all. I'm not a producer, so anything that I've recorded, I would go into someone else's studio and someone else would kind of take the reigns as far as that went. So I was just kind of -- I loved hip-hop music, but I didn't see hip-hop happening with my story. I didn't see how that could work and I didn't hear what he was hearing.
So the AK brothers had to do a little convincing.
Yeah, and it was funny how they did it. I was just hanging out with them at the studio, Andre specifically, and he was playing some tracks he was doing for -- probably a hip-hop group, or maybe, in retrospect, they were really for me all along. [laughs] And I was just hanging out and I had my pen and pad. I had some stories already in my book and was just kind of like, "This is a really cool vibe, this track. I wonder if one of these stories would work on top of that." I didn't know how it would. But before I knew it -- I already had a melody and I just changed the melody on the spot because it wasn't going to work the track. That was my first time changing because I was always so married to my melodies because they would come when the lyrics would come. Like, "Whatever happens, it's just going to have to stay this way. You guys are going to have make your thing work around what I've already come up with." So in this instance, it's like, if we're going to really try this, I'm going to have open myself up and try something different, because there's no other way it's going to happen. And I did, and it was like, "Oh my God, where's your tape recorder, you have to record this. That sounds really cool." And from there I was open to the whole thing and we just started knocking them out, one song after another.
And eventually you wrote all new material for the album, right? None of your older songs made it on there.
Oh, no, there was no place for those anymore. Life is happening and there are so many new things going on in your life, hopefully. There is a ton of stuff to write about.
Is there anyone, past or present, you aspire to be compared to? Or maybe that you already do get compared to a lot?
Off of the "Sunshine" song, I've heard people say, "that kind of reminds me of Nelly Furtado" or, "it kind of reminds me of Macy Gray." It's a huge compliment because I happen to love both of those artists. But it's funny to me because to say that "you sound like this person" or "oh, you sound like Erykah Badu." What are they really saying? Because they just compared me to three different people and those three people don't sound anything like each other. So, do I really sound like them? How can I sound like all them when they're all different?
I think it's a character thing that they're latching onto. When people were saying that Macy sounded like Billie Holiday -- she doesn't sound like Billie Holiday. But there's a character in her voice. They don't have anything to liken it to, but it reminds them of something old, back in the day or whatever. I think that's what it is.... It's your whole sound. It's the music. It's everything that's gonna make you who you are. It makes you shine in your own right.
Who are some of your musical influences or musical heroes?
Oh yeah. There's this 1930s, 1940s jazz singer named Maxine Sullivan. I really like her. I really like some of the Eartha Kitt stuff. I love Sade.
I think everyone loves Sade.
I've even gotten some comparisons to Sade. I get it on...which song? I think "Love Me," the harmonies on "Love Me" and also on "Who Am I?" I dunno, man, if that's what you're hearing. [laughs]
And you mentioned Stevie Nicks?
Oh, I love Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac. And then I love Esthero. She's a Canadian artist. I love Ms. Dynamite. She's really big in the UK.
Where are you discovering all this UK and Canadian music?
Listening to college radio.
There you go.
Billy Miles' self-titled debut album is available now in the ARTISTdirect Store.