Preview: Olivia Millerschin at Black Crystal Cafe
At just 21 years old, Rochester Hills-based singer-songwriter Olivia Millerschin is more prolific than many artists twice her age. She began 2016 with more than 200 concerts planned, and she says she had somewhere between 70 and 100 song ideas prepared when she went into the studio to record her excellent sophomore LP, Look Both Ways, which dropped in September.
Millerschin has expanded her local following to the national scale over the past several years, thanks to appearing as a quarter-finalist on America’s Got Talent, winning the 2014 John Lennon Songwriting Contest with her anti-romance ballad Screw Valentine’s Day, and touring internationally in support of major label artists like Teddy Geiger, Howie Day and Ryan Cabrera.
Look Both Ways follows Millerschin’s 2014 EP Over the Weather, and it’s her most accomplished record to date. Aided by guest vocalists Michael Grubbs (a.k.a. Wakey Wakey) and Sawyer Fredericks (The Voice), the 9-song set explores deeper and darker emotional territory than she has ever attempted. Musically, the record showcases not only the singer-songwriter’s keen ear for catchy hooks and clever lyrics, but also her skills as a composer. The arrangements are awash with everything from strings to synths, but every element of the production rests on Millerschin’s versatile voice and crafty melodies. Her previous accomplishments notwithstanding, Look Both Ways is sure to establish her as a major talent.
I called Millerschin, just after she wrapped up a photo shoot for Hour Detroit Magazine, to talk about her new record, her career ambitions, appearing on national television, and collaborating with high profile musicians.
Q: Having been on America’s Got Talent and having toured the country with more well known acts, in addition to performing locally, where do you feel most comfortable? Do you prefer larger audiences, or do you like playing more intimate venues?
A: I don't really know. I think a lot of people have their vision set out, and that's really great, but I've always been sort of open to everything. I've been really lucky that I've been opening for singer-songwriters who have more intimate venues that they play, and small listening rooms. I've been spoiled in that way, where I really love those. But every time I go to a big stadium concert, I really enjoy that. So I think I'm just open to making more music and reaching as many people as I can.
Q: You put college at bay to pursue music full-time. I'm curious about what your thought process was there, and if you had any fear or reluctance about making that decision.
A: I went to music school for a year and I really enjoyed it, but I found that I was learning more just studying on my own than I was in my classes. I kept having to turn down touring and other opportunities, so I decided to take the year off. I was really worried about it. I was hoping to make it a sustainable career, and I said, "I'll go back if it doesn't work out." You always worry about disappointing your family and your friends, but I took the year off and it's been nonstop ever since. So I'm very lucky that way.
Q: You also had to put off touring for a bit when you were on America's Got Talent. How did that make you feel?
A: That was weird because I love playing live more than anything. That's just where you get to connect with people in general, and you get to grow as an artist. America's Got Talent is a completely different experience than anything I've ever been a part of. It was good from the exposure standpoint, but it definitely held us back in the other aspects of our career.
Q: What did you take away from that experience?
A: It definitely made me see more of the business side of the industry, because I had always dealt with people who are just in it for the music. I was a teenager, so it opened my eyes to people who see it as a business and see you as a business, and it just made me more aware of everybody, I guess.
Q: You seem to work well under pressure, and you often put yourself in challenging situations. Where does that drive come from?
A: I feel like I was a lot better at it when I was younger, because I just like, "I'm gonna stand up on the stage and sing my songs for people. No big deal!" I didn't realize what I was actually doing. It depends on the situation. Sometimes I'm like, "I can handle this." It's just a matter of convincing yourself that you can do something, because the insecurities are what eats me alive. I've always wanted to one-up my previous accomplishment.
Q: Your new album has a very polished sound, but it also sounds strikingly intimate. How did you achieve that balance?
A: It kind of goes all over the map. I kind of write more about other people's experiences than my own. I just think it's easier to be subjective that way. I know a lot of artists write singles so they can pitch them for radio, and I've never thought about that. It's very smart as far as marketing, but my writing's always been whatever I'm seeing around me at the time. I had probably 70 to 100 songs ready for the record, and I showed them to the producers, and they liked those songs the best.
Q: Tell me about the process of recording this album. I know you did most of it in New York. How did that differ from the way you've recorded in the past?
A: My first record was self-produced in one of my friends’ studios. That was very hands-on. We were super young. I think I was 15 or 16 at the time. So we were just kind of experimenting. And the second one I didn't really have much of a hand in. This one I collaborated with two producers out of New York, and I got to really be a part of the whole process. It was my music, but I got to control where the sound went. We did one song in Detroit too, but I think it sewed the whole thing up when I was open to what they were saying, and when I could throw in, "Oh, let's keep this aspect a little more settled down."
Q: Do you have any plans to move to a bigger city to be closer to the music industry?
A: I'm living with my parents right now. I'm trying to save up to get a house or something around here. I thought about moving out to New York because when I was working on the record I was living out there, but it just doesn't make sense, and I just like Michigan so much.
Q: You have two well known guests on the album: Michael Grubbs and Sawyer Fredericks. How did you meet them and get them in the studio to sing with you?
A: Michael Grubbs is a really phenomenal songwriter. His band is Wakey Wakey. He was one of the two producers that produced the record. The song that I have him on I originally just wrote for a solo song, and he was singing some backups and I was like, "Do you want to be featured on this one?" He was really happy to do that.
Sawyer I met through a project I did for Mitch Albom. Sawyer and I are both on the soundtrack for one of Mitch's books [The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto], and we just kind of kept in touch lightly. I had this song that I really imagined a couple different voices on, but especially his. So I reached out to him, and I didn't really know what he would say, and he was like, "Absolutely!" He drove into New York, and we worked on it. I'm just really lucky [laughs].
Q: How did you come to work with Mitch Albom?
A: It came about when I was on America's Got Talent, or maybe a little before then. I was promoting a couple of different things, and I went on his radio show. I don't know how it happened, but he somehow decided that he liked me. He's been nothing but incredible. Ever since then, every time he's got a project or he's producing a movie, he'll call me and have me do something for it. He had this soundtrack for his book, and it was all these huge artists. They had Ingrid Michaelson on it, they had Tony Bennett on it. He asked me if I could just be, like, his local artist on the CD, so I did.
Q: Turning back to your new record, Long Weekend is the obvious single, but it also seems like the emotional center of the album. Where were you coming from when you wrote that?
A: That was my favorite one off the record, which is saying a lot [laughs]. Most of my music in the past has been upbeat, and part of that's just age. Of course songs I write when I'm 14 are going to be different from songs I write when I'm 20. I wrote that song not only about personal experience, but just about everybody. I think everybody has that one person that they think is going to be the one, and then they get away or something like that. That one was really tough to write. I wrote most of it in the studio, because I showed the guys the chorus of it. That was all I had written, and they were like, "You have to finish that one!" So I kind of rushed the process, but I really like that one.
Q: The record sounds very cohesive, both thematically and sonically. Was there any kind of overarching theme or concept you wanted to express?
A: I think the whole point of this record is perspective, and being able to find some good in something that's seemingly bad, or even just understanding and coming to terms with the bad. The older I've gotten, like anybody, I've experienced more not only heartbreak, but just real life experiences, and death and loss. So I felt like that stuff needed to be talked about, but it didn't necessarily need to be mourned. It needed to be discussed in a way that people could understand and relate to.
Q: What are your plans for the rest of the year, now that this record is out?
A: I'm doing some promotion for the record. I'm hoping to get it in movies and TV. I'm doing a ton of touring this year, so I haven't had much time to be writing a new record. But I'm ready to do that. After two months of living with this one, I'm like, "Oh, why not start a new one" [laughs].
Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.
Olivia Millerschin and her full band perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, December 2 at the Black Crystal Cafe, 3653 Santa Fe Trail. The show is private to registered guests. Tickets are $25, which includes complimentary hors d’oeuvres and beverages.