COVER STORY

Armi Millare on self-care, growing up and the new UDD album: ‘It should be out this year’

The Up Dharma Down frontwoman ruminates about her creative process, the band's longevity, and reconciling with fame.

 

 

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Every morning for the last 25 weeks, Armi Millare has been dragging herself to a swimming pool to do laps.

Once an incorrigible night owl — “songwriting happened after hours” — she has bullishly willed herself to get up every morning, to make good on a promise she made with herself while on a particularly arduous leg of touring with her band Up Dharma Down, now abbreviated to UDD.

“I was sick a lot,” she says, “adjusting to time zones and weather changes. From east to west [in the United States], there’s a blizzard in one city and then you get back [to the west] and suddenly it’s not like that anymore.”

She started to think about mortality very seriously. “‘Because I enjoy what I do,” she says. “If I’m dead …” she trails off, chuckling. “Or if I’m physically compromised, there will be a lot of things I won’t be able to do.”

Millare had a taste of this in 2015, when sciatica left her needing a wheelchair as a result of spinal compression. There was a month when the band was touring every weekend — which meant long plane and van rides — causing her unpredictable, shooting pain 24/7.

Sciatica is throbbing pain that runs from the lower back, the glutes, and down to the back of each leg. “After that, I thought, okay, I have to shape up.”

At 34 years old, Millare was suddenly contending with her limitations, realizing how elusive longevity can be.

Photo-9 (26).jpg Photo by JAKE VERZOSA; Styled by MELVIN MOJICA; Hair and make-up by PAM ROBES

“So I started swimming, which I did a long time ago, but now I got back into it using a different technique.” The technique is called total immersion, a method of instruction with a focus on allowing swimmers to move through the water most efficiently. “It makes you last longer. Everything is about longevity now in my head. Whatever keeps you going,” she explains.

During one of their tours, she found herself so drained she started thinking about the end of their career. “Because I was thinking about how long we were going to do this. Tours are a lot of fun but physically, it’s one of the worst things you can do to your body if you don’t play your cards right … So I was wondering, can I do this with the same people for a long time? Like, how about their health?”

That same day, the Norwegian band D’Sound, the act behind hits like “Tattooed On My Mind” and “People Are People,” released a new song, “Only One.”

“I was so happy that they had come out with something new,” she says. “Being musicians for quite some time, they’re still doing it and that was really inspiring for me ... So I posted their new single and showed my love for it.”

Millare had met the band previously, through UDD’s manager and Terno Recordings head Toti Dalmacion, when D’Sound did a show in Manila a few years ago. “And then Kim [Ofstad], the drummer, replied. He said he was proud of what I have done so far and would love to work together. I thought, ‘What???’”

Before she knew it, she was making a side trip to Oslo while on vacation in Europe. The result of the three-day sessions is “Lykkelig,” billed as a collaboration between D’Sound and Armi Millare, for which she says she wrote the happiest lyrics she has ever written.

“[For people to] make the best of times together and stay in that space for a while,” she told Bandwagon. Is that the state of mind right now? “Yes, happier and a lot less baggage, I suppose. We have a lot of baggage we’ve let out there,” she says, “that’s three albums worth of baggage.”

Photo-8 (20).jpg Photo by JAKE VERZOSA; Styled by MELVIN MOJICA; Hair and make-up by PAM ROBES

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It’s becoming a kind of New Year’s tradition, to wake up on the first day of the year to new UDD songs. It happened in 2017 with “Sigurado” (which quietly topped Spotify’s Global Viral 50 charts that week, and UDD being the first Asian act to do this), and again this year, with the one-two-three punch of “Anino,” “Stolen,” and “Crying Season.”

This year, it will be seven years since “Capacities,” the band’s last album. Every year that the band — composed of Millare on keyboard and vocals, Ean Mayor on drums, Carlos Tanada on guitar, and Paul Yap on bass — doesn’t release an album, more new bands pop up, trends change, and the industry keeps shifting. Still, UDD feels singular, of a genre of its own. Every year they don’t release an album is a year where the most anticipated OPM release is a new UDD album.

“The quality of their songs, up to this day, is still the high standard when it comes to local music,” Dalmacion says. “We don’t really try to follow what the market dictates … Despite [how] every five years or so, the trends come and go, they’ve just made their own path, just like the label has. [There are] pros and cons to that — obviously you’re not in sync with everything else and maybe that could have its effects. But that’s what I’m saying, they don’t have to adjust. They’ve crossed over and they’ve been accepted as they are.”

To tide listeners over, they released the three singles, which are about as representative of UDD’s past, present, and future as you can get.

“‘Anino’ [has been] a 17-year process,” she says. “It’s a really old song. It was written before the band was even together. And every year we would try to fix it and every album we would try to put it in and it wouldn’t work. I remember one time Ean messaged me, ‘I’m in tears. We finally finished the mix’ — that long!”

“Crying Season” is, as she says, “one of the more different songs we’ve ever done.” Perhaps having more sonically in common with the demos of songs like “Anino” rather than their finished products, it’s an emotional song for the band. It was written last August, after their road manager Sherwin De Guzman passed away just a month before.

“Sherwin really was the fifth member of the group,” she says. “The band’s meticulous and systematic setup was his instinctive work and he was that friend who glued everyone together. There is unspeakable pain in losing him.”

Photo-16 (17).jpg Photo by JAKE VERZOSA; Styled by MELVIN MOJICA; Hair and make-up by PAM ROBES

Meanwhile, “Stolen” is an R&B song in the vein of the ‘90s. She mentions Aaliyah, even Janet Jackson. “We wanted to pay tribute to many other artists and genres that we haven’t given attention to,” she says.

When Armi Millare was young, her mother encouraged good marks in school with a reward — a new book or a new album. “I remember CDs were so new at the time and my mom got me a Mariah Carey CD — her “MTV Unplugged” CD, with no words on its sleeves,” she says. “I would lock the door of my room and I would just sing every afternoon.”

“I guess the relationship with music has always been intimate for me,” she says. “You get a cassette tape or a CD and figure it out for yourself to listen, pause, with ears glued to the speakers and some words would even be misheard for a decade! Until Google — ‘Oh my God, that’s what it was.’”

“It was a different relationship, consuming music that way,” she adds. “One whole afternoon would be dedicated to one song, figuring it out on the piano or waiting by the radio on the off chance they would play your favorite song.”

Later, upon closer inspection of the album sleeves, she realized that Carey was doing it all — singing, writing, producing, even background vocals. “It was surprising to find out much later on that she did most of the work writing those hits,” Millare says. “I loved the work ethic behind those hits that I may have taken some of that with me.”

It might come as a surprise to know that a pop diva like Carey has served as one of Millare’s most crucial inspirations, but the last few years have only underscored how much we still don’t know about the other aspects of her artistry.

It probably really started with “Tao,” a 2015 cover of the Sampaguita classic for the “Honor Thy Father” soundtrack. Listeners always knew Armi Millare had a special voice. We knew it as early as “Maybe” and “Oo,” a perception that was fortified by later songs like “Sana” and of course, “Tadhana.” But in “Tao,” an arrangement that’s about as close to acapella as a guitar and mandolins can get, we understand the full interpretative power of that voice.

The following year, she scored the film “Apocalypse Child,” and wrote and sang its theme song, “Young Again.” Last year, she served as musical director and composer for the film “Kung Paano Siya Nawala” with Malek Lopez under Stoa Sound. And a month later, she released “Lykkelig” with D’Sound.

“My whole soul is on that record. This is just technical stuff, this is just flesh and bones but my whole psyche is in that five-minute song.”

There’s also her brand Stoa Studios, which makes everything from soaps with carefully-sourced ingredients to jewellery that is “not just embellishment.” On Stoa Studios’ Instagram bio, it says: “We create objects of value for our well-being and yours.”

“The journey of reading up on Stoicism started when I had sciatica. It has helped me with questions about well-being and mortality — the pain was that bad. I had a lot of downtime being unable to move so much and it became like a guide to self-improvement,” she says. “I hope to go outward with that improvement creating objects, but it has to be sustainable for these long nights at the studio or workshop to continue.”

“We started out with the idea of soaps because they are small, and can change when in contact with water. I think it’s a great medium to start with — almost like tiny sculptures.”

It’s quite a lot of range in a short span of time — a folk song, an international jazz pop collaboration, film scores, even soap — and they perhaps go to places the casual UDD listener didn’t see coming.

“Like every artist, she's inspired by many musicians and not just the obvious ones you'd infer from past successes,” says Erwin Romulo, who produced the Sampaguita cover “Tao” with Malek Lopez. “But more important is that no matter what musical context Armi works in, what you're hearing is Armi.”

“I know this is said about many singers and songwriters, or just about anyone that's touted in the arts,” Romulo, who shares an office/studio with Millare, says, “that there's no one else quite like them. It's the use of the word ‘quite’ that you should take note of. You can take it to mean that they're really like everyone else, but with a slight difference. Which could be anything. With Armi, you can forgo using ‘quite’ and just say what's been apparent for more than a decade: there is no one like her. Not even in the world — ask Paul Buchanan or the guys from D’Sound.”

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Photo-4 (22).jpg Photo by JAKE VERZOSA; Styled by MELVIN MOJICA; Hair and make-up by PAM ROBES

Still, despite exciting extracurricular activities, Millare stays most committed to the upcoming UDD album. “It’s in our headspace,” she says. “It’s just that there were shows, there were projects, and these things cannot be done with half a mind. This is really the natural course of things. It should be out this year.”

About the songs so far, she will only say: “It’s about growing up and the things that happen when you grow up.”

It’s a perspective seen in “Unti Unti,” a single released in 2017. Nowadays, sad songs aren’t just sad songs, angry isn’t just angry — they make room for gray areas, understanding, different perspectives.

“Paul [Yap] and I wrote ‘Unti-Unti’ like [how] I think real, collaborative songwriting would best be done. I think that’s part of what the song’s magic is about, having two different people with two different minds making sense together as they slowly fall apart.”

“Maturity,” Millare agrees. “You just let people be. Like, ‘If this is how you feel, okay, I’ll try to empathise with you.’ And when I was younger, it would be, ‘This is how I feel. Deal with it.’ No, it’s more complex than that.”

About writing with the band, she says: “We know each other more. We can write together more flexibly. It’s a whole seven years of different methods for this record alone. I have lost count of how many there are through the years.”

“What makes them work is really the combination of the four of them,” Dalmacion adds. “One member gone is not going to be UDD because they all contribute something to the overall sound.”

In the seven years since “Capacities,” we’ve seen UDD go from a very popular band to a nationally-beloved band behind one of the era’s defining songs in “Tadhana.” Truly transcending boundaries, the song has been the theme of a GMA-7 teleserye (“Ilumina”), covered by everyone from Regine Velasquez to Noel Cabangon to show bands in hotel lobbies, and immortalized in the now classic rom-com “That Thing Called Tadhana.”

Antoinette Jadaone, the director and writer behind “That Thing Called Tadhana,” was so moved by the song, she practically built her movie around it. “Nung sinulat ko 'yung Tadhana, dalawang bagay ang sure na sure ako — 'yung opening scene sa airport na may mga panty, at na magtatapos ang pelikula sa kantang ‘Tadhana,’” Jadaone recalls.

“Hindi ko maalala kung kailan ko unang narinig ang ‘Tadhana’… pero alam kong 'yun lang ang kantang babagay sa pagtatapos ng ‘That Thing Called Tadhana.’ Parang ginawa 'yung kanta para sa pelikula. Parang commissioned song. Ganun ka-swak. Parang tinadhana.”

For Jadaone’s eagerly-anticipated new film “Alone/Together,” Millare is also set to contribute a new song to the soundtrack.

“It was unexpected,” Millare says of the “Tadhana’’'s late-blooming status as a classic. “That was a 2010 song and I didn’t think much of where it could go. The business of music now is so different and it’s changing as we speak.”

“As a craftsman, I’ve learned to kind of mature in small ways, knowing that there are some things that you cannot leave and deal with the next day. They are mostly hard to execute, but rewarding in its own way.”

How does it feel to have written a song that’s both yours and everyone else’s? “[‘Tadhana’] was the song that taught me how to get over it,” she says. “Once you write something, in the process of writing it, it’s yours. But as soon as you release it, it’s no longer yours. Even more so when people cover it, it’s really theirs. So my business is to write it, the band’s business is to make it an equal collaboration of four people. It’s the people’s business to listen to it and do as they please with it … There are many songs out there [to choose from], so if you put ‘Tadhana’ in that light? Thank you.”

Armi Millare is still a very private girl, making very private art that just so happens to have become not just public but widely beloved. Hers are not only songs people hear and sing along to, they’re listened to, taken to heart, drunkenly sung at karaoke bars but also privately in cars, showers, the sanctity of our private pain. They’re very private anthems — a contradiction but one that speaks of the paradox that Armi Millare has become.

She’s still uncomfortable with her fame, is still somewhat surprised when people ask for her picture and is always a moment or two between taking the picture or running away. And she still gets stage fright, can only perform properly when UDD are onstage with her, and looks for the “Exit” sign at every gig, because she can’t bear watching people watch her sing and so, sings the songs to generic neon lights.

“For me, the justification, at least in the previous years, is you don’t have to know me. My whole soul is on that record. This is just technical stuff, this is just flesh and bones but my whole psyche is in that five-minute song. I think a photo of me shouldn’t count for much.”

“When I was in high school, I just wanted to be in a band, I just wanted to keep playing. But of course, in a scientific way, the more you’re out there, the more people will know you — we become what we repeatedly do and these have circumstantial effects,” she says.

“But I think about that and tell myself, ‘You kind of asked for this and this is part of that.’ That’s part of the whole Venn of what you do here, in the public eye, no matter how much you die a little each time it happens.”

“I’m just really awkward with the photos,” she smiles, “but that’s part of my job, so I have learned to see the beauty in the love people show me in spite of all this. The next step is to execute this gratitude well to all.”

Photo-18 (9).jpg Photo by JAKE VERZOSA; Styled by MELVIN MOJICA; Hair and make-up by PAM ROBES

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In Norsk, the title of Millare’s song with D’Sound — “Lykkelig” — roughly translates to “happy,” “delighted,” and even, “fortunate.”

Talking about the 2017 UDD song “Sigurado,” she describes it as “[not] exactly the happiest song” but it’s a hard-won happiness, “a step right before you kind of take that leap,” before you give yourself permission to let go of baggage and finally be happy. “Huwag mo nang pigilan / Ang sinisigaw ng puso mo / ‘Di ka bibitiwan / Kahit ano pa ang sabihin mo,” she sings on that song.

When she was younger, Millare had always found herself a slave to her songwriting. “I hated having to move everything around just to be able to write a song,” she says. “Dati, in the middle of my day where I’m doing something, I’d have to stop, and go home because I had something in my head … I would rearrange furniture in my room, rent houses for myself for a whole month, and then I would send demos to the boys. To feel the isolation.”

“[When you’re young,] you have that luxury of time and age and you don’t really have that many responsibilities,” she says. “But it’s really a state of mind, I think, and you really have to progress as you grow older, because there are more things added to your life, people included.”

“It’s not like you can tell people you’re with to take a break, ‘I need to write so vacate the house.’ Life’s not like that. I can run to the studio just a few blocks down, but even that I try not to abuse. Time with loved ones is important, and I’m still getting the hang of being there for people who matter — something I should’ve done a long time ago.”

In the past, Millare went where the spirit moved her, breaking commitments, leaving herself lonely to make room for songs. The 35-year-old Millare’s got a firmer handle on things.

“As a craftsman, I’ve learned to kind of mature in small ways, knowing that there are some things that you cannot leave and deal with the next day. They are mostly hard to execute, but rewarding in its own way.”

A few months ago, Millare posted a quote on Instagram: “Do not spoil what you have for desiring what you have not; remember that what you have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

Talking about life and songwriting, she tells me, “This is exactly what I wanted.”

 

 

 

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Styled by MELVIN MOJICA

Hair and make-up by PAM ROBES

Stylist assisted by KAJ PALANCA

Special thanks to CECILE ZAMORA