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The power of exponential growth, an interview with Milow

Let’s for the sake of our convenience, and you’ll get my drift once I tell you why, blame chaos for our lack of perception. Belgium singer-songwriter Milow, who earned his international breakthrough with his gentle and sensual version of 50 cent’s Ayo Technology, is late. His schedule allows him only so much time and he has to be on camera for a national showbiz program in 30 minutes, consequently we’re downsizing our conversation.

We’ve seen Milow’s crew walking around wearing similar black shirts with a clear ‘Milow’ chest logo. So when finally a black ‘Milow’ shirt is coming our way, we fail to notice the tall and slender figure behind the ‘shirt’. Yes, it’s Milow.

As of yesterday Milow’s on the road again, celebrating his second live album ‘From North to South’ with his ‘Less is More’ tour. Having found his platform, he voices his concerns for the planet in a moderate manner by mitigating his own carbon footprint, while travelling with a smaller crew and band and performing unplugged. With these intimate settings he hopes his fans will be inspired and join him to ‘think small’.

Skye

Milow- © Skye

Sanderz: You are considered a DIY musician. In your case it’s a success story, but it could have gone either way. How do you keep your determination through the more challenging periods?

Milow: It’s funny, because when people say to me that it’s going really well, they are only looking at the last few years. And of course everything that happened during that time, making music, has been amazing, but I’ve been doing this for almost 15 to 20 years. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been playing music, and from the time I was twenty years old I really wanted to be a full time musician. It wasn’t always easy. When you create something, you have to deal with your own insecurities and when you get the message from the rest of the world that no one is waiting for you, no one wants to hear your music, then sometimes you find yourself thinking: ‘Well this might not be such a great idea after all.’

I don’t know what kept me going.  Something was telling me, ‘This can work one day.’ I’m so passionate about music. Even when it wasn’t going well, the positive responses from the people at the concerts gave me the confidence to keep going, or when I performed in a bar and was able to get a noisy crowd quiet. Those are the moments when you feel that you can make something happen. But I could never have predicted the outcome.

Sanderz: Out of necessity you released your debut album in 2006 on your own label Homerun Records. What turn would your career have made if you had a major label contract right from the start?

Milow: That’s impossible to answer of course. At the time it wasn’t a scenario I preferred, but I just wanted to get started. I had been waiting for so long for people to help me out and  I didn’t want to wait forever. But now, thinking back, I’m really happy about this turn of events and the time it took to get here, because I was able to slowly get better with what I was doing. I could take my time and make mistakes. I think these are very important things that a lot of people forget these days. Everyone is very impatient. Maybe they want to be famous or successful right away, but there is nothing wrong with taking your time and slowly trying to get better.

When you look at various musicians, all following their own unique path, it’s often  paved with ups and downs. I think that this applies to a lot of jobs. But when you ask me the question today, I have to answer that I’m really happy that no one was interested in me back then.

 © Eva Vermandel

Sanderz: You are part of the Belgium project ‘Sing for the Climate’ (or the Big Ask Once More), organized by Nic Balthazar, Friends of the Earth and the climate-coalition, to emphasize the ‘Sense of Urgency’ that is needed to keep the planet from its tipping point. Can you tell me something about the project?

Milow: Nic Balthazar is known in Belgium for directing movies and, for a few years now, actively trying to raise awareness regarding global warming. He was planning  to record a song called ‘Do it now’, based on an old Italian song called ‘Ciao Bella’, with new lyrics on the subject of climate change.  I just got back from the US, where I had been for six months, when he asked if I wanted to come by in the studio and record some vocals. I didn’t have to think about it, because I it’s a project I believe in.  

On September 22nd and 23rd ‘Sing for the Climate’ (www.singfortheclimate.com)  was organized and more than 180 cities all over Belgium participated to raise awareness and to get media attention for climate change.  For the last few years people have asked me to help out with really ‘big-hearthed’ projects, but often I had to say ‘no’ because I couldn’t be there. Now I was happy that I could finally say: ‘Yes, I’m in Belgium and I’m clearing my schedule.’

As a rule I have always kept my private life very separated from ‘Milow’, my musical career. Environmental issues in general, climate change specifically, have been a private concern for a very long time, and I’m slowly looking to find ways to lift that private concern and to combine it with my music. Until a few years ago, I didn’t really had a platform or a way to raise awareness and now I have started something (Milow’s Less is More-tour  started October 22nd , 2012. For more info visit www.milow.com ) that’s actually based on the food rally I organized during a few concerts in Belgium and Holland at the end of last year. I got the idea of the food rally in the US.

We worked together with food banks. By tweeting and putting messages on Facebook we could get the message across and say: ‘People on your way to the concert look in your closet and see if you have a spare can of soup or some food. Obviously with a long expiration date. Bring it to the concert and leave it in the container. We will distribute it to the homeless.’ I was really astonished by the enormous success. Just based on social networks, we filled a few containers each night. I realized I was at a level now where I was able to ask for something.

But it’s a very tricky issue, because critics can and always will say of course: ‘How can you be concerned about climate change, when we can see on your website that you have travelled almost 250.000 kilometers in the last few years?’ And I admit that’s true. The most ecological way for me to go, is to stay at home and not play any concerts at all. At the same time I believe in what I do. By playing music I’m trying to make people forget about their worries for an hour or two. And when I build a big fan base, I will be able to ask them to pay attention to a project that I believe in. It’s a way of doing good too. People are more likely to do good when they’re moved, for instance by music or a movie. But it’s difficult to find a balance, because I admit that I do fly all the time. Sadly, I cannot cycle to the US. So someone who wants to be cynical can argue that it’s bullshit, it’s fake. But I don’t want to use my concerns for false media-attention.

 © Eva Vermandel

Sanderz: Let’s say that by definition politicians move slowly, pushing ahead climate solutions. How would you use your DIY expertise creatively to tackle the climate crisis? 

Milow: The truth is, you can be discouraged or become pessimistic about how slow changes in general are being applied, definitely in politics. At the same time, I would like to draw a parallel to my DIY background. When I was playing music, for 10 or 15 people my goal was to send these people home so excited, that they would tell someone else about it. I really believe in the power of numbers. When you convince 15 people by doing a really good job, they actually might come back a year later and bring someone else. Once the number gets bigger it’s actually easier. I’ve experienced that it’s much easier to get from 10.000 to 20.000 than from 0 to 10.000. I’m talking about concerts, people buying your album, even you tube views. I believe in the power of exponential growth. It begins when a few people are really excited about something, about a form of change for example, and that enthusiasm spreads. It gets the word out. All of a sudden this can go a lot faster than one can imagine. And the good thing is, there are a lot of tools to spread the message nowadays, via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I’m telling this, because it’s easy to become very pessimistic and cynical, and you can say: ‘Fuck, this is never going to happen. How can we change something?’ But at the same time there are so much more possibilities than people think.

Sanderz: As a graduate of political science versus Milow the musician: What are your views and expectations on the effect of ‘Sing for the Climate’ on the world leaders in Doha (Qatar) starting November 26th?

Milow: I’ll be very honest: the song and the project, won’t have a lot of effect at all. It is only based in Belgium, but at the same time I really believe that by participating with other artists we can reach a lot of young people. So more people will have heard about the effects of climate change. And it’s necessary that the information will keep coming from every direction, so it will begin to mean something. But I’m realistic and that’s maybe because of the nature of my education.  I know that this campaign by itself won’t have much effect on what’s going on in Doha at the climate change conference, on a global level in terms of politics. At the same time that’s no reason to stop raising awareness.

Sanderz: Coming back to the power of exponential growth……

Milow: It has a counter effect when you say people are doing it wrong, so you better bring a positive message. And then you might find that people respond with: ‘That’s true. Why do I always take the car? Why don’t I just carpool?’ There are so many little things that might be more fun, like travelling with a group of people. I’ve seen things change for the better compared to ten years ago, when some of my friends who couldn’t care less about the environment, changed  their views and how those changes became part of their values. But you have to give people time and of course you can argue ‘We wasted enough time’. Nevertheless I’m very hopeful for my generation and the one that’s coming afterwards.

 

Milow live at Brabant Open Air- © Skye

 

Sanderz: The Kingdom, is a political song from your 3rd studio album ‘North and South’ about the linguistic and political division in Belgium. What urged you to speak out about this subject?

Milow: I don’t pretend I can solve a political problem by writing a song, but because I’m a songwriter, I want to write about things that concern me, topics that touch me. On the road I was always reading about the political tension between the Dutch speaking North of Belgium and the French speaking South. And it just seemed like a universal issue, because everywhere I went, going by a different name in every country, they were still talking about variations of the same problem. I see this as a human reaction to the fact that we’re losing control over our lives and by aiming our attention on a local problem, we’re under the impression that we can regain some of that control that we have lost.

Due to globalization, people think that the world is getting a lot smaller and smaller, because of the internet and so on. But if you ask a lot of people they feel the opposite, as if they’re losing more and more control: over their lives, over the value of their house, over their jobs. All over history there have been movements pointing their anger, frustration, attention and energy at a local problem wanting to feel in control again. This is what urged me to write this song. I wanted to focus on a more universal dimension of that problem. This is not specifically about Belgium politics.

Someone came up to me and said: ‘I’m from Saudi Arabia and ‘the Kingdom’ is a song about where I am from. I was stunned, because I had no idea that these lyrics  would reach someone who lives that far from here. It was the biggest compliment I got, for having written a song that could be about a country, about a town, an environment where you grew up in or a small town attitude. Basically it’s about our roots. At the end I sing that ‘Where you are from, is in your DNA’. There’s no point in spending too much energy in discussing whether you like the place you grew up in or not, because it has shaped you and there is nothing you can do about it. It’s a fact.  But you can choose to try to change some of the values you were brought to believe, if you look consciously and consider whether you still agree with those values now.

As soon as you start to distinguish those mechanisms, you can try to do something about it. Even if you’re educated to believe something is true, it’s not necessarily the truth. It’s very important that people take a very critical look at the world.

Sanderz: Your ‘Less is More’-tour beginning this month, is to lower your carbon footprint as a touring musician. Besides cutting back on musicians, crew and vehicles, are you taking other  measurements to mitigate you’re CO2 emissions?

Milow: I know that a ‘green tour’ is a paradox. It’s better to stay at home. I’m going to work together with a few organizations. One of them is a non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable reforestation called ‘WeForest’ (www.weforest.org) and the other organization is the first social community for tap water drinkers called JointhePipe (www.jointhepipe.org). Basically it means that I’m going to make a few commitments . One of them is that I want to plant a tree for every ticket that is sold and I’m going to build at least one water-station together with JointhePipe at the end of the tour.

It’s time to give a little bit back. I know it won’t stop the earth from  reaching its tipping point, but most importantly it’s about people and about music and I like to say very gently:  ‘These are a few organizations we really admire . They are doing a good job, so I hope you will take the time to read about the project and maybe even support them.’

Sanderz: You’ve said that it’s your intention to have your fans ‘think small’. What efforts do or can you make to bring that message across?

Milow: We are trying to raise awareness about climate change and every other environmental aspects of current issues. It’s a way of becoming more conscious about the decisions you make, like how am I going to the concert? But I want to communicate in the most modest way possible. I believe in a style that is the most effective by saying: ‘Don’t feel you have to. If you have a few minutes to spare, check out these people. I really believe that mouth-to-mouth is the most powerful tool. More powerful than anything else. You can read about something, but if you really talk to someone with great convictions and good arguments, that is probably the strongest way of being inspired.

 

Young Milow fan- © Skye

Sanderz: The question we ask all interviewees: What do you do in your daily life to reduce your carbon footprint?

Milow: I ride an electric scooter in Belgium.  I drive a Prius, a hybrid car, when I’m in LA. When I buy my food, I try to buy it locally. But I’m still learning every week. Sometimes when you think that you’re making the best choice, it’s not necessarily so. I try to read and be conscious about every little thing I do and how I live: for instance the devices I plug in or unplug. I’m not perfect, I’m only human, but I’m learning and I’m trying to be conscious. But for everything I might do right, I take a plane from LA to Brussels and I know that this part might neutralize it, or even worse, fuck up what I did before. There is only so much I can do, but then again I try to divert a lot of energy and attention to the tour (Less is More-tour www.milow.com) and the projects.

© Circles on the Water, 2019