Note: I moved to Los Angeles in 2012 for a new job in hopes and dreams of experiencing the Hollywood life. Since the move, I have attended amazing concerts, Hollywood movie screenings, big sporting events, met famous actors, musicians and experienced all the excitement of the entertainment industry. Hollywood fascinates me. I have been a loyal subscriber to Rolling Stone magazine for several years and I always enjoy reading their feature stories on music artists. I wondered what it would be like if I had a chance to meet a famous music star, spend a day with him or her and share their story to the world.
I studied magazine journalism at San Jose State University and my goal was to write for the back page of Sports Illustrated. Being published is something I find a lot of pride and joy in. I have been published in smaller magazines and have hundreds of articles online – but writing something for a major magazine is a goal I still want to achieve. Getting published, whether a magazine or a book, remains as one of my lifetime goals.
A couple weeks ago I attended a concert of an artist I first met in 2012. Watching the growth of her music career since I saw her perform two years ago made me wonder about what her journey must have been like. Taking a cue from my creative writing side and my journalist side, I decided to create a story of my own music artist. This was something I had never done before but felt like a challenge of creative writing would be great. My writing style is still a work in progress but as I write every day, I know I am getting better.
For more details on the inspiration and creative process of this story, I’ve posted more information at a link at the end of this story. Thank you for reading and I welcome any kind of feedback. Enjoy!
— Samuel Lam (10/28/14 – 11/6/14)
LOVE FROSTED FLAKES!”
Ami Mills pulls out a cereal box from her cabinet and grabs an empty bowl off the dry rack. It’s the only clean bowl in her new apartment studio outside West Hollywood. The rest of the bowls are in the sink with remnants of previous breakfast cereal meals of the past week. Her day can’t begin unless she’s chowing down her favorite cereal with her favorite tiger. “Mom always told me to stop eating it for breakfast every day. It’s the sugar she says. Tony would disagree. I mean, come on. They’re gr-r-reat!”
She pours the cereal into the pearl white bowl with anticipation in her eyes. Turning around, she grabs the milk carton (“Always 2%!”) from her magnet-filled refrigerator and carefully pours into her bowl as she’s done nearly every single morning. Mills takes her first bite of her crunchy breakfast, trying to savor her sugary flakes before they even get a chance to turn soggy. She quickly bites into another. Opening her fridge door to return the milk, she looks at one of her magnets on her freezer door. It’s a pineapple with “Aloha” written across the leaves in bright red. She smiles wide. “I got that in Hawaii. It was right after my senior year. I liked it there. It made me happy.”
She takes another bite with a joy on her face as if the world is in perfect order. After breakfast, Mills will head over to her record label’s recording studio on Sunset Boulevard for a photo shoot for her newest single “Finally Free.” Later in the evening, she will attend an album release party for her first full-length album, set to hit stores and iTunes next week. The self-titled album is a “story of reminiscing and reflection” she says. Mills believes that her music career may finally be on the right path after years of uncertainty. That’s why she chose “Finally Free” as her followup single to her debut song “Spectrum,” which blew up the radio airwaves during the summer. She hopes for an equally successful encore.
Today is considered a light day for Mills. For the past month, she has been working nonstop with her manager and traveling secretary with her upcoming booking appearances. From David Letterman to Jimmy Fallon in New York, then back to Southern California for a taping of the Grammy Christmas Special – this also includes the interviews she has set up with various radio stations, magazines and other shows. It’s been a busy time for Mills as she prepares for the upcoming months in the public eye.
She’s the “it girl” right now even though she refuses to acknowledge it. The popularity of “Spectrum” on iTunes tells a different story; it has reached over 500,000 downloads in the five months it’s been available. On top of that, she’s hitting the road headlining her own tour with former American Idol contestant Jackie Tohn. This is a first for Mills and she’s doing everything to prepare for it. But most of her time preparing is spent watching old clips of the Food Network’s various shows on famous eateries across America. She plans to snap a photo and share on her Instagram the different meals she eats on tour. She’s tagging them with #MillsMunchies. There has to be a little bit of fun on this demanding nationwide tour. With her, fun always means food. Lots of it.
Grabbing the bowl of cereal, Mills glides across the living room hardwood floor without spilling any of the milk and sits on her couch. It’s set up in the middle of the living room, facing out towards the Southern California morning sun. A ray of sunlight begins to peak over the Hollywood Hills. She crosses her legs in her Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pajama pants. Blue sock on one foot, black on the other. “I love waking up early and just watching the sun rise. It’s just a great way to start off my day before it gets real busy. I never was much of a morning person really. But lately, I find it relaxing to be awake when the sun comes up.”
Mills moved into this apartment four months ago and you can tell she’s already made it her home. There are different fashion magazines with yellow Post-it notes sticking out of the pages laid out over the dinner table, a stack of DVDs along the wall next to her television. Specifically, they are DVDs of every season from Breaking Bad and The Simpsons. She calls this place comfy, her fortress of solitude. Her cat Scratchy (yes, from her favorite show The Simpsons) naps on a pillow right next to the DVDs. The Sunday morning is perfectly quiet.
The appointment for her photo shoot is in two hours. It’s written on her Beatles calendar that hangs up next to her clock. At this moment, she’s not even thinking about the rest of the day. She’s in the moment – cereal bowl in hand. This freedom, she says, won’t last and she must continue to fight for it. “If I ever think that I’ve made it in this industry, then I lose all my drive. I won’t shine if I stop the grind. I’m happy, but I’m not content. I don’t think I can ever afford to be content. I’m so blessed right now – I don’t want to mess this up.”
There’s a lot of pressure that comes with a debut album and she knows it. Despite having been in the music business for a few years, this is the first time Mills has gained major notoriety. It’s a different feeling she’s still wrapping her mind around. The new album has been discussed as one of the top anticipated albums of the year; early reviews have been mostly positive. The big expectations don’t seem to faze her – she’s too busy being happy. “They [the record company] told me they wanted this and that on the album. ‘More pop’ they would tell me. I told them I could let them have a little of it, but the majority of this album would be my own.”
The debut album will be her own. All the songs are written by Mills and she had the final say in the creative direction of how the sound would be mixed. It’s a bold task for a music newbie to have almost all creative control. She listens to suggestions from her producers, but most of the decisions on the sound and presentation come from her. There is an inherited risk with the approach. But if successful, there is great reward.
The light breaks through right over the Hollywood Hills and a sun ray strikes right onto her empty cereal bowl. Not even an ounce of sugar can be found on her spoon. “This morning is too nice. Let’s go chill on the balcony.”
WO YEARS BEFORE RELEASING HER DEBUT EP IN 2012, Mills thought she could be an Indie pop star with her best friend. Moving out of her home in Champaign, Illinois, Mills’ childhood buddy Anna Kowalski grabbed their guitars and headed out West in hopes of shaping their music careers. They had played guitar together since childhood, led their church’s worship band every Sunday during their high school years. Local cafes, open mic nights, talent shows were their sanctuary during their college years. They would sit in the middle of the campus student union and play in between classes. A crowd would gather every now and then; they had a minor following. They wondered if they could be bigger together. They wondered if they were good enough.
Both Mills and Kowalski (whom the neighborhood called “Pickles”) were wrapping up their second year at the University of Illinois, allowing them to follow through on a promise they made each other in high school to graduate college together. It wasn’t until the summer after their senior year did the plan start to take a detour. “As much as I would have been fine with doing the four or five years in college and getting whatever degree I might have studied for, I was hoping for a chance to change it up,” Mills reflects. “I was homeschooled for most of my childhood and I had an itching to really experience the world. Pickles felt the same way too. Homeschooling was fine, but it really cramped our childhood. So for the first time, we finally made a decision for ourselves.”
Their families had planned a week-long joint trip to Honolulu for that life-changing summer. The friends took that as their first taste of freedom away from home. Sitting on the balcony of their hotel rooms every morning before heading out to their scheduled sightseeing locations set up by their parents, the two strummed their guitars while looking out towards the Pacific. The ocean view inspired the two to write a song and on the last day of the trip, they started playing that song in the hotel lobby. The passersby stopped and listened to the impromptu one-song concert. Thoughts of a music career together started to come into shape that week. They had learned how to play guitar together for five years and wondered if they could make a career out of it. It wasn’t an idea they told their parents (knowing they would disapprove), but the desire never went away. It only grew. They held onto it throughout their first two years of college.
Two weeks before final exams during their sophomore year at Illinois, Kowalski bursted through her dorm room with big news about her cousin. In a classic “he knows a guy who knows a guy” scenario, Kowalski’s cousin Flip actually did know someone who works in a Hollywood record company. Flip worked as an on-call technician in Hollywood and serviced big name entertainment companies. He gave them the number and email address. The girls sent in a demo of a couple songs they had written over winter break, not knowing whether or not it would make it to the right people.
A week later, they received a reply to their email. The label wanted to meet them in person. Packing only their guitars and any clothes they had brought with them to their dorm room, the two drove out to Southern California in hopes of securing a deal with small record label Pineapple Productions. Driving 2,000 miles across the country (splitting most of their savings on gas and food), the duo started putting together a song to impress the record label for their audition. One good song, they thought, was all they needed to get recognized and to secure a deal. “We had written a few songs before we had gone to California, but we knew that a new fresh song was going to wow the record label,” recalls Mills. “We came up with a pretty catchy song called ‘Invisible’ about wanting to stand out in a crowd of faceless faces. We actually penned that at a rest stop somewhere in Arizona. It’s kind of like what we were going through at the time while we pondered our Hollywood dreams. I thought it represented our styles well.”
Pineapple Productions producers agreed with that sentiment when they met the duo. Six months after agreeing to a deal, Champaign (named after their Illinois hometown) released a 10-song LP called Explorations of a Wandering Mind. Their demo song “Invisible” was included in the album. In total, the album featured three songs the two had previously written prior to their exhibition to California. Following the release, they went on tour and opened for the band Blue Ports, another talent under the same label. They received modest exposure during the tour but there was potential for the two to build on it. However, tension about creative direction soured the tail end of the tour. On the last two shows on the tour, the two couldn’t even agree on rehearsing their set together before the crowd filled into the venue. By the time they returned to the studio a week after the tour for a scheduled recording session, they were not on speaking terms. That would be the last time the two would play music together.
“I don’t even think that our problems were that big,” Mills explains. “We had established a sound for so long and she wanted to add a new sound to it. I was for it but I wasn’t comfortable completely changing our sound to the point where we were pushing out a new genre. At the time, I thought that we could try to work it out – I wasn’t too comfortable getting too pop with our sound. But ultimately, it was just best that our creative ways would be best used separately.”
Mills left the label while Kowalski went through a complete career makeover and was repackaged as an R&B singer named Krystaline – a change of genre and style Mills wasn’t ready to embrace. Krystaline’s first single “Don’t Give Me Up” helped her secure a Grammy award for Best R&B song last year. Her second full-length album is expected to be released in May – her first album since signing with Atlantic Records. Mills’ search for a new label led to a meeting with veteran producer David Greenfield of Morning Dew Records. Three months after Champaign split, Mills found a new music home.
The two former best friends haven’t talked to each other since the split. Mills corrects me, saying that it’s not fair to say they were “former” best friends. “It wasn’t a nasty breakup or anything. I just think we’re all just real busy now doing our own thing. I’m OK with it. We’d been together for so long that change was inevitable. I just think she’s busy. I’ve known for a long time. It’s just busyness.”
ILLS LOUNGES HER MISMATCHED SOCKS ON THE balcony railing, leaning back on her chair. In the right corner is a frangipani tree in a worn down black pot. It’s almost two feet tall. It stands up against the railing in the corner, next to a small glass round table. She gestures at me to look at the plant. “My neighbor Sonia gave that to me a couple months back. She tells me that the plant is really pretty once it fully blossoms. I’ve never really was much of a plant person but I couldn’t say no to Sonia. She’s such a sweetie. I don’t even remember the last time I watered it. I think I should. I’ll get to it tomorrow. I come out here to this balcony almost on the daily, so I’m sure I’ll remember the next time I see the plant.”
She pulls the hood of her Fighting Illini sweatshirt over her head, trying to keep a little bit of warmth. Her red hair rests on her left shoulder peeking out of the hood. She closes her eyes and inhales a deep breath of the morning air. “I’m out here in LA and I’ve got a new lease on life. Well, more like a third or fourth one – more than I deserve. It’s been tough, but it’s been real good.”
Mills released her first record under Morning Dew Records in 2012; a six-track EP titled Follow Me. She toured with established music artists for three months following the release. Rubbing elbows with fellow artists like Wondries, Shana Livingston and Dwayne Ellis on the tour gave her inspiration and hope that she could make it in the music industry. Her friendship with Wondries lead singer Kurt Williams during the hours upon hours of driving in a tour van cross country in between concerts led to an outlet for some new creative songwriting.
The time together led to a blossoming friendship that only grew as the tour traveled through the months. Mills won’t admit how serious their relationship was, or if there ever was a relationship. Williams has never addressed the issue publicly. Judging by a 4×6 framed photo of the two together at a Halloween party (he’s Mario, she’s Peach) that stands next to her table lamp on her desk, it’s apparent that Williams means a lot to her. Inside the pages of last month’s US Weekly showed a photo of the two together at the Santa Monica Pier, suggesting a relationship which neither will admit. During that tour, the two wrote a song together and released it as an extra track on Wondries’ 2013 album Fading Fireflies. That album just reached over 650,000 copies sold.
“That collaboration with Kurt probably saved my career. Writing ‘See You Again’ and having my name associated with an established act was the exposure I needed. It was a real blessing for me. Before that, I was still unsure of how far I could get. I was opening for them every show but since I was an unknown name at the time, it was tough to really get excited when the crowds were still making their way in when I started my set. After that collabo, I felt a little better about myself.”
Mills pulls out her iPhone, protected in a pink Hello Kitty case, and scrolls through her Twitter account to check for updates in her mentions. She’s very active on Twitter, gaining almost 620,000 followers over the past year. It’s not a high number of followers compared to other music artists, but that allows her to read almost every tweet directed at her from fans. “One of the most surprising things, at least to me, is that Kristen Bell reached out to me on Twitter one time. She follows me! I thought that was pretty cool; it helped me gain some exposure. She tweeted at me telling me that she liked my callobo with Kurt. I favorited that tweet. Let me find it.” Mills looks through her favorites and in about a minute, she shows it to me. There’s an excitement in her eyes, as if she’s still a girl who is star struck all over again. She reads me the tweet.
She continues to scroll through her phone.
“I haven’t met Kristen yet. I hope to meet her one day. I’ve been a fan of hers since day one and she seems pretty genuine. I direct messaged her to come to the album release party tonight – she has the address and is on the guest list. I don’t even know if she’s in LA now though.”
Scratchy walks up to Mills and leans on her leg, purring for attention. She laughs at her cat. “Yeah, I know. My cat is orange and it would have made more sense to name him Garfield. But I love Scratchy! You ever see the one episode with Itchy where it was directed by Oliver Stone? The JFK one? That was just pure genius. I can’t get enough of The Simpsons. Even though their stuff now isn’t as good, it still gives me the warm fuzzies. I watched that marathon nonstop.”
She grabs her cat, holds him tightly to her body. Scratchy doesn’t seem enthusiastic about it. Without hesitation, she extends her arms and takes a selfie with the cat. She tweets the picture with a note to her followers:
The new album, Mills says, is a journey towards looking forward to new chances in life. Last week she wrapped up shoot for the music video of her follow-up single off the album. It’s set to hit YouTube later tonight during her album release party. “The sound on this album is going to be a little different than what I had when I first made my EP. I’m taking everything that has influenced me. From different artists I grew up with to the speed bumps in life, I’m trying to put together my story with this record.”
She puts Scratchy down and the feline runs back indoors to his resting pillow.
“I grew up a huge fan of The Beatles. It was the first music I heard when I was a kid. My mom would play their vinyl records and I would sing along almost every night. I don’t think I would have loved music as much without them. Back in August, I was at Dodger Stadium when Paul McCartney performed. Best concert ever! That place was packed crazy. Oh that was fun! I want to see Imagine Dragons next. I haven’t looked up when they’re performing, but you best believe I’m there when they come through. Wouldn’t it be great if I got a chance to meet them?”
Mills has embraced an attitude of dreamers that has helped relaunch her career. Nothing ever seems too out of reach for the soon to be 26-year-old. If there’s a chance, she says, then it’s worth a try.
She readjusts her hood, stretches her neck and heads back inside. She has about 90 minutes before her shoot. The drive isn’t far, but Mills never likes showing up late to anything. The plan for the day’s shoot is to get a cover for her newest single and possibly get a few promo shots in for her upcoming tour in December. The creative directors from Morning Dew have been pushing photo shoot ideas to Mills, but her heart is still set on waiting for a creative inspiration to come from within when she arrives on set.
The empty cereal bowl is placed on top of the rest of the bowls of breakfasts past and Mills heads into her bedroom. “Give me 15 minutes and I’ll be ready to head to the shoot.” She shuts the door, turns on her iPod to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. “Wake up, wake up, wake up, it’s the first of the month!” she sings through the door.
The apartment isn’t particularly spacious, but it has everything that she needs to live. It’s located in a quiet suburban neighborhood but remains a decent walking distance from a Ralphs and the shopping mall. A small television sits in the corner on top of a stand that was probably purchased at Ikea. A notepad of scribbled lyrics sits right underneath the coffee table. On the table lay two books that are rarely seen together: The Bible and Stephen King’s newest book Mr. Mercedes. Sticking out of the Bible is a photograph of her and Kowalski from their summer in Hawaii. The corners of the picture are worn out, but the image of the photograph appears to have retained its original colors, as if it was just taken yesterday.
In an interview with Ultra Magazine’s web series on YouTube, Mills admits that her breakup from Kowalski was tough on her. She was the only friend she had when she moved here and readjusting to life without her best friend by her side was extremely stressful. Despite not having talked with her since the two went their separate ways, she maintains a close eye on her friend’s career. She likes some of the songs and has even downloaded the music off iTunes. But she remains hesitant to contact her friend.
“I still think about that friendship we had and what changed,” she told Ultra. “We spent summers together and our families are close. We had the closest childhood. The more I think about her, the tougher it is to admit that I don’t miss her. I do miss her. I’m happy for her though. She’s doing her and I’m doing me. That’s good.”
There’s still a chance that the two would reunite again as friends. Mills holds onto that hope but is not sure if she should initiate it. After seeing the success of Krystaline, she’s unsure if they would be able to connect again and if they would still be able to relate with each other. It would be something she hopes to resolve soon.
The door to the bedroom opens as Mills walks out in a blue plaid shirt, tucked into her jean shorts. Her socks are still mismatched. She grabs her worn out Chicago Cubs cap, places her ponytail through the back strap and gives me the thumbs up. She turns off Tupac from her iPod, grabs a pair of green Chuck Taylors. “Let’s get some donuts first.”
ILLS HUGS HER MANAGER JAIME SANDERS AS SHE walks into the lobby of the recording studio. Sanders, wearing a T-shirt with the label’s logo, has been by Mills’ side since the two first met when she joined Morning Dew. They’ve been labeled as “inseparable” by their peers. “Are you ready to get this on?” Sanders asks. Before Mills could even respond, her friend laughs. “Oh I know you are girl!”
You can see the eyes light up on Mills’ face as she walks into the photo shoot area. It’s a new chapter in life for her today. The set is stationed in the back lot of the building. The crew walks through a collection of guitars and speakers that block the hallway. “Don’t mind that,” Sanders says. “We’re just cleaning this place up.” Not too far in the background in the other end are cars parked in the lot. The backdrop for the shoot is a clean white sheet. The idea, says photographer Lenny Volney, was to really reflect the emotion of “Finally Free” with a clean background and Mills just being herself. Being outdoors was her idea. But it all could change once the singer gets into her creative zone.
“Hey y’all!” Mills says out loud. “I got some donuts for everyone.” A few of the crew members huddle around the pink boxes. Mills picks out an apple fritter. Even on a day where the entire focus is on her, she’s still a bubble of a personality who takes time to say hi to all the crew members. She knows them all by name.
She walks over to the costume rack, looking through some potential options for the shoot. “I never paid attention to album covers for singles,” she says while chewing on her fritter. “I remember seeing them when I was a kid when I went to Tower Records. But I didn’t even know they still do them. I thought the digital downloads took those away.” She sifts through the garments and grabs a plain white V-neck T-Shirt from the rack lined with denim jackets, satin vests and clothes you might find on a rack at Goodwill. “Just give me a minute.”
Thirty seconds later, Mills appears from the barrier behind the rack with the white shirt on. She has taken off the mismatched socks, slips on a pair of sandals and walks across the lot to the hairstylist. Her toenails are a bright ruby red, matching the bracelet on her left wrist. The makeup artist applies eyeliner and a blush to her cheeks. She gives the photographer a wink and the entire crew understands that that was the look she wanted for this album. In about 10 minutes, her hair is shined and sprayed for volume. She walks over to the white backdrop. “It’s show time!”
OROTHY AMILIA MILLS WAS BORN TO RESTAURATEURS Robert and Hannah in 1988. She’s the youngest of two children. Her brother Daniel, five years older, is a pilot for United Airlines and visits Los Angeles frequently. He sees his sister as often as he can. They have always been close. “He texts me at least once a week,” Mills says.
The bond between the two was a product of being homeschooled by their parents. Both Robert and Hannah alternated days working at a very popular hole in the wall restaurant near home. Serving classic American meals such as burgers and salads, it was the pierogis created by co-owner and partner Jim (Annie’s father) that made this restaurant one of the top places to eat in Champaign.
Every day of their childhood, Daniel and Ami would be homeschooled. Most days it was their mom as the teacher. There would be trips they would take to the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum (they had an annual pass) and that would be the rare time when the two were not under the watching eye of mom or dad. “They trusted us enough to just roam around and learn,” Ami recalls. “We were surrounded by educational things. That was all it really was for us during our homeschooling times. Learn from mom about textbook things and field trips. We were so eager to get to high school.”
High school became the place where the creativity and the desire for new things came to Mills. She had to learn on a quick curve in socializing with hundreds of different faces every day. During lunch, she would latch on to her best friend in hopes that they both could find a group to hang out with. Most of the incoming freshmen already had friends from the elementary schools they attended. It was essentially a new world for the two. Daniel had already graduated by the time the pair started their first year at Centennial High School.
It was a tough freshman year, she says, but they both eventually broke out of their shell in their first-year drama class. Forced to stand on stage and to do improv acting to break the ice, it gave Mills a chance to make an impression. Her wittiness eased her own apprehension and she gained the friendship of many of her classmates. Mills would star in four plays in her four years at the high school, including the lead role of Kim in Bye Bye Birdie for her drama club’s winter production her senior year.
“I grew so comfortable in front of people because I had performed at my church’s worship band for so long. Acting was nothing to me. But getting comfortable in a new place where I didn’t know anyone was the real challenge. Mom said ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ was her proudest moment as a mother.”
Mills still remains close to her mom even though they were nearly on non-speaking terms after the bolt to California to pursue a music career. “She’s come around and accepted the idea that it’s OK for me to try something different,” Mills says. “If I could do it over, I think I would have just given her a heads up before I left. I am glad that I made the move, but it was tough to just abandon my family like that.” The family has remained in Champaign during the time and Mills tries to go back at least once a year, preferably for Christmas. This year, she won’t be able to get back home until March after her tour ends. She’s checking to see if there’s a chance she would have time to visit home when her tour goes through Chicago in January. Her father is still bitter about her moving out to California in the middle of her studies. She hasn’t seen or talked to him since the last time she went back to Illinois in 2012. “I’ve got a long way to go to try to get through to him. Daniel tells me that he just needs time.”
IME IS PRECIOUS TO MILLS THESE DAYS WITH HER schedule filling up every week. The crew calls it a wrap after 30 minutes of shooting. Mills gives a hug to her photographer and grabs her cap off the costume rack. After lunch she will look over the photos and decide which image she wants to use for her single. She motions for me to follow her back inside. Sanders follows as we walk into a conference room on the second floor. The walls hang with black and white framed photographs of the label’s current lineup of talent. On the corner next to the door is Mills’ photo taken from the last day of her tour with Wondries at the El Rey Theatre in Hollywood. She’s wearing a shirt that reads AMI ROCKS! while holding a beach ball up against her side as she looks towards the crowd on the stage.
“Best night of my life!” Mills recalls with a gleeful look. “This was right before I performed a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide.’” Fleetwood Mac is another one of her favorite bands. During that tour she would perform the cover of “Landslide” on guitar for every show. There are dozens of videos uploaded on YouTube of her performing that song, most filled with approving comments of her rendition of the classic hit. Mills claims that Stevie Nicks is her “spirit animal.”
“You see that shirt I’m wearing there?” She points back at the framed photograph. “A fan saw me setting up on stage before the show and tossed it to me, asking me if I could wear it. It was a girl, maybe 12 years old. I wish I got her name. She told me that she made that shirt at home specifically for me to wear. She said she was my number one fan. I think I’m a bigger fan of her than she is of me. That night warms my heart still.”
Mills assures me that they’re just waiting in on a quick conference call with producer David Greenfield. In the meantime, the floor was open for questions. “Just don’t try to pry into my personal life,” she reminds me with a sly look. It’s hard not to wonder about her personal life when she has been so open about every other aspect of herself. “I look at all the other celebrities out there. I don’t know if I am one, but I sure know that with any kind of public image, there is some danger if the people know too much. I love Taylor Swift but I cannot even imagine all she has to deal with when it comes to rumors about her relationships. And Selena and Justin? That’s so tough for both of them with the ‘razzi always following them. Can we keep private things private? Maybe I’m just kind of hoping that nobody notices that about me and sees all the other good things I do. That is, if there was something going on with me.” She chuckles at her own hinting to me.
One of the things Mills does and is very open about is her volunteer work at her church. She says that after spending her first year in California, she needed to get back to her faith roots. She grew up in a very strict Christian household and was always involved in the different activities and ministries her parents signed her up for as a kid. “It just became a part of me. So after a year and I was pretty down, I found this church about a mile away from where I was living at the time. They were doing this soup kitchen service around Thanksgiving and I just felt that it was what I needed to do.” She’s been attending that church frequently since then, even though now she lives further away from it and her schedule starts to pile on. She plans to return and serve again this Thanksgiving. “If I lose my music career, at least I can still be a good person. I don’t know what exactly is my purpose here on this earth. But if God says that music isn’t my purpose, at least I know I can still give. That’s all I know I can do.”
The conference call phone on the center of the table rings. It’s Greenfield. “Hold that thought,” she reassures me. “We’ll talk after this.”
N A GORGEOUS SUNNY AFTERNOON IN HONOLULU, the concierge of the Aqua Pacific Monarch Hotel applauds in excitement. He had just witnessed an impromptu performance by two teenage girls on guitar. He walks up to them and asked them why the two decided to play in the middle of the hotel lobby. They weren’t in trouble for disturbing the peace, he assures them. In fact, the concierge was hoping the two could play a little while longer. Judging by the small crowd that had gathered to watch and listen, he wasn’t alone in the sentiment.
“We wrote a song earlier in the week and wanted to play it,” the freckled redhead responded. “I hope it didn’t disturb you. We couldn’t play in our room since we had already checked out and we’re just waiting for our parents. We wanted to try it out. It’s the first song we’ve ever written together.”
The concierge, surprised at the captivating talent of the two youngsters, asked the girls if he could take their photo. He wanted to commemorate and capture the excitement on an otherwise banal workday. “Maybe you two will be famous one day.” The girls joyfully took a photo; this was their first taste of stardom.
“What’s the name that song?” an onlooker asked.
“Journey Together,” replied the brunette, feeling a little embarrassed with all the attention. She tried to deflect praise. “We’re not that great. She’s the talented songwriter. She wrote most of this. I just play and make the sound work.”
To the amazement of the teens, the crowd of a dozen tourists encouraged them to play another song. They had played in front of crowds before – crowds bigger than what they saw before them – but never were they asked to do an encore. As the two started to muster up the courage to play some cover songs they knew, their parents returned and told them that they had to go if they wanted to make their flight back home. As the two started to pack their guitars, another curious onlooker asked them what their names were.
“My name’s Ami and this is my best friend Pickles.”
They picked up their bags and headed out the sliding door, embarking another journey together back home.
EY! SHE DM’D ME BACK!”
We’re sitting at the Golden State Café in West Hollywood for lunch; it’s about a few miles from her apartment. She claims it’s the best burger joint anywhere on the West Coast (“And it serves gelato!”). It’s a small spot that she frequents with Sanders, who is sitting right next to Mills looking through her own phone. On the wall is flat screen television turned on to ESPN. Along another wall are paintings of monkeys wearing headphones, gators wearing sunglasses and other various works of animal art. “Man, Kristen just said she’s a maybe for tonight. Well, there’s still a chance. I’ll take it!”
She opens back up about her new album, saying she was unsure about making a record mostly about reflections. “When I started writing and composing the songs over a year ago, all I could think about was home, my journey here and all the lessons I learned,” she says while sipping her mint lemonade. “I was even told by Jamie here that the record is good, but the mood felt too somber. She was right, but I wasn’t going to make any major changes. Instead we hit the studio and Davey said he could mix the sound, just to give the songs a more upbeat, bass feel. Same message, just different sound. But still me.”
Sanders admits that Mills was a little stubborn at first when approached about changing her sound for the new album. Mills was adamant about making sure all her songs could still be performed live on the guitar and that it would still sound good. It took a little convincing, but they were able to coax her by remixing the sound to “Finally Free.” She liked it and was “jumping up and down like a kid on Christmas morning.”
Mills embodies a spirit of a teenager. Last week, she attended a Halloween party dressed up as Karen Smith from Mean Girls, her favorite movie ever (“I’m a mouse. Duh!”). She claims to have the entire script memorized and dared me to quiz her on anything about the movie. “You know, I look back at the movie and I still feel that I have a bit of Lindsay Lohan’s character. I was entering a high school world as a teenager that I didn’t really understand at all. I was new, trying to fit in, and I was hoping to be accepted. I feel like I was Cady Heron. I might as well have been from Africa!” Mills pauses for a moment in thought. “Whatever happened to Lindsay? She kind of just disappeared after that.”
The waiter arrives at the table with our plates of burgers. Without hesitation, Mills snaps a photo of her burger and immediately goes to Twitter to share her meal.
Before even taking a bite from her side of sweet potato fries, a fan notices her from outside the glass window and runs inside to approach the star. Never shy and never wanting to turn down a fan, she takes a photo with the young girl and even autographs a napkin. The young fan, ecstatic, runs back outside to the sidewalk and makes a call – presumably to tell her friends about her encounter with a celebrity. “I’m always humbled when somebody says they want to take a photo with me,” she tells me later. “I don’t think it’s sunk in yet for me. I am a celebrity. Whoa.”
As we finish our burgers, she walks to the front counter and shares a laugh with one of the cooks. The small restaurant has an open kitchen behind the cashiers – an invitation for Mills to once again talk and thank the people who made lunch possible. She hands the cashier her credit card, then points to the chocolate gelato. She walks back to our table, dessert in hand, grabs her sunglasses and strolls outside. “I’m going to stop by this one shop a few blocks down. I have a beanie I ordered and want to pick up so I can wear it tonight. We’ll walk it.”
On the corner of Melrose and Fairfax is an urban skateboard shop called IKON. It’s a local establishment with their front sidewalk spray painted with the store’s logo. Mills discovered it during one of her walks around the neighborhood when she first moved to the area. Sitting out front are two high schoolers from Fairfax High School from across the street. She fist bumps both boys as she walks into the small shop. Jason, the store owner, greets her with a hug. “How you doin’ Jason?” she asks. She sees her green beanie on the counter and reaches for it. “Is this it?” She replaces her cap with the beanie, looks at the mirror and nods in approval.
“Man, you know what? This beanie would have been perfect for the shoot today.” Mills takes a step back, ponders about the shoot for a moment before returning back to the present. “Naw. On second thought, I’m happy with the shoot.” Jason grabs his iPhone and snaps a selfie with the music star for the store’s Instagram page. He did the same thing when Chris Brown came for a visit two months ago.
Mills and Sanders will return to the studio to look over the photos from the shoot and go over final details for tonight. It will be six hours until her album release party. Mills reconfirms with me as she walks back with Sanders. “I’ll see you at the party tonight, right?”
MI MILLS’ DEBUT ALBUM LAUNCH PARTY IS HELD IN Hollywood at the famous Hotel Café. The first ever concert Mills attended after moving to Los Angeles was right here. She had never attended a concert before and when she saw that John Mayer was performing, she immediately got herself a ticket to the show. She called the intimate setting and the show inspirational. Tonight she will perform on the same stage.
The Hotel Café is a rather small venue that can probably fit 150 people comfortably. The stage is set up with Mills’ guitar and a drum kit and keyboard for her supporting band members. Only the bartender and a few stagehands are here setting up for the evening. The party will start in about an hour and the only sounds are the clanking of wine glasses being moved around at the bar. Lined up along the bar counter are about 20 small black ceramic bowls – just the right size to fit in the palm of a hand – filled to the top with Frosted Flakes.
Next to each bowl is a copy of the new album with more copies stacked at the edge of the counter. On the cover is her silhouette with a guitar lifted over her head; in the background is a clouded sky in sunset. There are 14 songs listed on the back instead of the planned 13 songs that were announced in the press release. The last track is a new song that was not on the original tracklisting. The song is titled “Journey Together.”
“A few weeks ago, she insisted that we add one more track to the album,” manager Jamie Sanders would tell me later in the evening. “We didn’t have any leftover songs and were real close to sending the album to be pressed. She persuaded us to let her record one song in the studio for that extra track. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. On the first take, she recorded it and it was done. She said that it was an old song she wrote that’s dear to her heart and it felt right to add it to the album as the last track.”
There’s a ticketing area inside the venue near the main entrance. The ticketing booth and lounge is separated by a glass door to the concert room. Mills walks through the door towards the booth and leans up against the wall, taking the bowl of cereal on her palm and gently placing it on the counter. She’s 45 minutes early and the doors have not even been opened yet for the waiting guests. She buries her face into her iPhone as she flips through Twitter again. The green beanie she bought earlier in the day matches her jade fingernails to near perfection. It oddly complements the strapless black satin cocktail dress and the Aldo heels on her feet. She wisely decides to forego the mismatching socks for the evening. No matter how busy the day is, she always finds a moment to pause to jump on Twitter to catch up on friends and other celebrities she likes.
“You hungry?” Mills asks as she looks up from her phone. She grabs the bowl and extends it to me, hoping that I would accept. “You didn’t even have any this morning at my place. Come on, have a bite. They’re gr-r-reat!”
She puts the bowl back on the counter and starts laughing at her own awkwardness. Today has been the perfect day for Mills and she gets to top it off with a bowl of cereal at her own party. This is everything she could hope for and she has it. Before she could return to scrolling through some Instagram photos to double-tap, her phone buzzes with a text message. She stares at her phone for about 10 seconds, her eyes widen as she rereads the message. She leans up against the wall again.
I ask if everything is OK. She looks up at me, her eyes reflecting the illumination from the screen from the phone. A tear falls from her right eye as she slides the phone across the countertop.
The text comes from a number that she doesn’t have in her contacts list. It reads:
Hey girl congratulations on the new album. Just saw ur new video. Sorry. It’s been a while let’s catch up soon. I miss you!!! – Pickles
Mills looks through the glass doors to the staging area and sees the stagehands finishing up the final setup for the show. The lighting of the room is just bright enough where she can make out the faces of everyone inside. She takes a deep breath and smiles at the sight. Holding onto her phone tightly, a moment of peace covers her face. She looks back at her bowl of cereal and takes another bite. ⊗