Amelia Robinson Of Mil’s Trills On Music, Inclusion, And The Power Of The Ukulele

How did you go from helping create a legal website to becoming a children’s musician?

It’s a long story of twists and turns, but I’ll try to sum it up in a nutshell. In 2007, I worked part time for which had me going to NYC Council offices to give lectures and train people throughout the five boroughs on how to find the legal help they needed. The job allowed flexible hours so that I could simultaneously start up my own business writing personalized songs for different occasions, called Give Music. Around about that time, I had also acquired a ukulele and found it a fun and easy tool to write songs on and connect with others instantly. I had also always had an itch to travel and leave NYC to “find myself” (just like those who move to NYC do) so I ventured out into the world, ukulele in hand, with the strength to somehow overcome a fear of flying, and went off backpacking solo around Europe! That spawned a few other trips to countries like Kazakhstan, Guatemala, and Israel. Ultimately, I ended up moving to London to pursue composition and then found myself randomly securing a job in Qatar playing ukulele as a “busker” on an artificial island.  Qatar was an experience in itself and pretty tedious at times, but one of the ways I got through it was connecting with the children who were intrigued and excited by my music. After creating a symphony for bicycle bells in London, I decided that I wanted to devise large and small scale interactive performances in whatever form that took. But, It wasn’t until afterwards, when I came back to Brooklyn to meet my new niece, that I found that form in the world of kids’ music. Thanks to a really fun musical get-together in the park and a bunch of supportive caregivers, word spread like wildfire, and Mil’s Trills was born. All of a sudden everything I had learned from all those crazy experiences (playing ukulele, connecting with others, traveling with an open mind) pieced together like a puzzle and carved out the next stage of my life.

How did Mil’s Trills come to be, and how did you choose the name?

Mil’s Trills was fashioned after the musical experiences I had as a child with a wonderful teacher of mine, Judy Bain. She led a tight-knit group of kids who took weekly Suzuki lessons and were involved in her choir, the Brooklyn Children’s Ensemble. She also organized numerous retreats that we’d go on every year. We were all extremely dedicated – to the music and each other. (I was involved from the age of 3 through high school.) It was a really special thing, and we’re all still really close to this day. It was that kind of community that inspired me to recreate that same sense of belonging for the next generation. My sister, who also shared the Judy Bain experience and had just had a baby girl, was the inspiration for the whole thing and helped me sculpt a framework that would continue the tradition and pay it forward as best we could.

As for the name, well my nickname is Mil (as a kid, my younger brother couldn’t say my full name, so he just called me Mil because it was easier). “Mil’s Trills” actually came from my college years – that was around about the time I started writing songs as gifts (college students have to be thrifty!). My dear friend Lona, who was in an a cappella group with me, used to call my original ditties “Mil’s Trills” and so years later when it came time to find a name for my project, she brought it back up again, and it just felt right. But I remember having pages and pages of scribbles with random names of all sorts and struggling to make a decision because you know you’re gonna be stuck with it for years. People always get the l’s mixed up, but that’s ok – it is a bit tricky if you don’t know the story behind it!

Of all instruments, what is it about the ukulele that you love?

It instantly makes people smile! Without fail, it always starts a conversation and breaks the ice when meeting somebody new. And, it takes you to the beach and back without breaking a sweat (or the bank!) – who doesn’t love that? It’s also a very relatable and accessible instrument, making it really easy to connect with kids and grownups at the same time. It helps bring people together!

How would you say that Mil’s Trills differs from other music for children?

I think most children’s musicians will say that their music comes from a very personal place, most often as a response to having children in their lives in some way or another. They will also say that their music is interactive and speaks to all ages. So what makes Mil’s Trills different? Well, for lack of a better answer – ME! Haha.. In this world we are all different and beautiful in our own way. We all have our own paths, and this is mine. My music, as heard through Mil’s Trills, is a constant exchange between received experiences and a creative response. It’s an extension of my being and my perspective on this world and it will continue to change and evolve as long as I do.

How has your musical style changed over the years?

I am a classically trained pianist. I grew up memorizing pieces by Chopin and Bach. I rarely strayed from the notes on the page, unless it was bashing the keys during moments of frustration as a kid. It wasn’t until years later in college where I had access to a private rehearsal room with a grand piano that I actually started to experiment and form songs. Maybe it was the classical training, but I’ve always had very strong melodies in my head, and so much of my earlier stuff has been said to sound like musical theater! But then again, I think I also subconsciously picked up a lot of styles living in the city, and so I have a tendency to default to a lot of reggae, Latin, and Caribbean beats. There’s a huge world music influence, too because music is so intrinsically connected to the cultural experiences I’ve had around the globe.  It’s not only exposed me to new instruments that I’ve learned to play, but also other musicians to play with! When Mil’s Trills first started out, I was scheduling five different musical guests for five different shows a week, so each time I played the same song with each of them it sounded different and was infused with a new sense of life. I still work with a rotating cast of musicians for this exact reason – to improvise, keep it fresh and explore new sounds!

You also work as an early childhood music educator. What do you love most about your job? How important is it for children to be exposed to music at an early age?

Oh, it’s the way they see the world – full of joy, positivity, and excitement.Those feelings are so contagious! Music is an intrinsic conduit for expression and is an essential part of the classroom. Put any words into a song and a kid will remember it for life. I work with children who have learning differences and some behavioral challenges. The day can be really difficult for them, and so when it comes time for music and movement they get to shine and be free! I have seen kids blossom and really come into their own, and it’s absolutely amazing. Being exposed to music at an early age (and any age) improves overall health, cognitive development, fine gross and motor skills, literacy, and social emotional skills – it’s a no brainer!

 How did Now That We’re Friends come to be?

It evolved as anything does – bit by bit. Having released my first record, Everyone Together Now! as an introductory album, I knew I wanted to have a strong and meaningful message to follow it up. It took quite a few transformations to actually sculpt the vision I had into an existing product that could be appreciated by all ages. I knew I wanted to start a conversation with my audience, but wasn’t sure how to encapsulate my innermost thoughts or broach certain subjects in a digestible way. We lost a close family member last year, so a lot of what I was writing was existential and plain ol’ sad. I took a trip to see my extended family in Australia to bring back the light and remind me how powerful love can be in transforming your outlook on life. Then, thanks to a good team of musicians, producers, artists, and an extremely supportive network of family and friends, it all somehow came together into something that I’m really proud of. I give much of the credit of this album and Mil’s Trills’ success to the people around me who have allowed me to find my voice and feel safe enough to express it.

Cultural diversity is a recurring theme in your music. Tell me why it’s so important to you and what you hope to achieve?

I think most of the disputes that we humans have on this planet come out of misunderstanding and a lack of love. Differences scare us and sometimes threaten our sense of self. (I was a Biological Anthropology major, so evolution and human behavior fascinate me.) The solution is clear in my mind. If we teach our children to be compassionate and open minded, and to acknowledge and accept these differences, then we can start a new cycle of love and caring for one another in a more peaceful way. Embracing what makes each other unique is the pathway for learning and growth.

It’s often clear what’s different within the human race, but I’m always trying to figure out what’s the same. What’s that factor that unifies us no matter where you come from or what you believe in? Our blood pumps, our lungs expand, but also, we love. And if we’re going to set an example for the next generation, that starts with self-love. To me, “Everybody’s got a Body” is actually one of the more important songs on this record because we can’t appreciate our world around us if we don’t love ourself first.

I’ve also been developing a curriculum that focuses on ethnomusicology through families of instruments. I’ve found it a wonderful metaphor for exploring similarities and differences that parallel cultural diversity – making music, living in harmony, etc.

It’s amazing that this album was made in only two weeks! Why was the process faster this time?

Surround yourself by an incredibly supportive and talented team of people, and you can do anything! (My producer, Rocky Gallo, is also just plain brilliant. We are so much on the same wave length that he can actually read my mind before I even form the words.) I had two weeks off in the spring and thought that would be a good chunk of time to bat out a record. We had already done Everyone Together Now! together and were familiar with the process and each other’s work flow, so that really helped. Most of the creative stuff came in the months and months before we got in the studio under the guidance of my co-producer / bassist, Lorenzo Wolff and drummer, Justin Hofmann. If the core rhythm section is golden then it’s much easier to lay down stuff on top, so having solid arrangements and clear charts for instrumentalists was key. By the time we started tracking, everyone had done their homework. That’s not to say that we didn’t give ourselves room to be spontaneous and creative – we did, but everyone was just really professional and focused – we were on a mission!

What are some of your plans for the future?

Who knows! I am keeping an open mind 🙂 Whatever it is, I certainly hope to be able to continue learning, growing, expressing, being creative, and trying to inspire others to do the same.

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