Attending last year's Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City was an eye-opener for Kiwi singer-songwriter Milly Tabak, and not just because she was mixing with thousands of other musicians.

"One of the best experiences was meeting [fellow Kiwi] Anika Moa who ended up being an unwitting mentor to me and gave me lots of great advice. Probably the most important was to not really care about what other people think or expect but to be my true, authentic self.

"That's really given me a new lease on what I'm doing and I realised that for so long I'd been doing what others wanted. It's kind of astounding that I went so far to gather something so simple but it's been really valuable to me."

Milly Tabak. Photo/ Oliver Crawford
Milly Tabak. Photo/ Oliver Crawford

Another revelation was that much of the music she heard at the conference dealt with the same concerns – primarily, falling in and out of love and coming home.

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"Once I picked up on that it was very interesting. It made me realise that sometimes I need to reach out and sing about different things, think outside the square."
Milly, 25, already has 11 years of performing experience behind her, thanks to The Band Factory, an after-school programme at Kaipara College. And it was there she met Liam Pratt, performing with him for several years as a duo and in trios before they started five-piece band The Miltones in 2016.

"It's hard to explain what our genre is," Milly says of the group that won last year's Taite Music Award for best independent debut album with The Miltones. "I guess on disc we're folk with a country tinge that is becoming more soulful … but if you see us live we're a full-energy full-noise 70s Americana rock-blues band!"

Part of the Taite prize was having Auckland Live run an event for The Miltones. "We didn't really need a gig as we had a tour with Tami Neilson coming up," Milly says, "so I very cheekily asked if we could make a music video in the Civic Theatre and they said yes, which I wasn't expecting at all."

The ornate Orientalist interior of the Auckland landmark features in Disappear, directed by Charlotte Evans. "Auckland Live organised all the people needed to run the venue for the day and we got to shoot there for free. It blew my mind."

Having media studies students from Aorere College watch some of the filming completed a perfect day. "It was pure luck they were there but what a take away for them. It was an epic day."

For the video Milly wore a Brooke Tyson-designed dress from her wedding line, Ritual.

"Brooke designs all the gowns I wear on stage and is one of the most hard-working, clever and creative women I've ever met," Milly says. "She captures all my quirks and eccentricities and turns them into something beautiful."

Milly lives on a 10-acre block at Whenuapai with her mother and older brother (another brother lives in Te Anau).

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"Dad died suddenly seven years ago so it felt right to stay close to Mum and be able to help out and be around for her. I daresay I'll spread my wings one day."

The family farm was the setting for the fun video of Pursed Lips, the first single off The Miltones, which includes the band's family and friends lip synching the song.

Both her grandfathers are Dutch migrants, from opposite ends of The Netherlands, who married Kiwi nurses who were friends. "And then their children married each other, it's so cool,"

Milly says. "I love going to visit family in Holland and learning Dutch history but it's kind of frustrating because everyone speaks English to us so we can't practice our Dutch." Her father loved making music and it was the weekly jam sessions with his mates in the family lounge that prompted 13-year-old Milly to ask if she could learn guitar. "Dad could play the piano and guitar and sometimes he'd wander off to the [plant] nursery on the property and get some pots and play them like bongos. It was exciting and fun."

Taught guitar by her father and a family friend, who agreed to teach her Gypsy jazz guitar in exchange for a weekly dinner, Milly has only recently come to accept that her voice is an instrument too.

"It wasn't until last year when we toured with Tami Neilson that I began to learn how to take care of my voice by watching what she did. I'd never bothered with warming up, I'd talk loudly between shows. I've got much smarter and now if we have gigs on I won't hang out with anybody so I can protect my voice."

The Miltones will have a new single by the time they appear at Tauranga Arts Festival on Friday, November 1, which will be followed by a second album next year.
For the new, as yet unnamed, album Milly spent a year writing lyrics and playing gigs as often as possible to explore new ideas.

"If I hit the wall I took it to the band for reworking. We all play in other bands too so there's a great diversity of experience and knowledge.

"The first album captures a time and place and was about me growing up but the next album is a real representation of who we are," Milly says. "I've been very staunch on some of the songs we've included – I started with about 20 possibles and we whittled it down to 11 tracks. It's been quite a process.

"There's a diverse mood and energy on the album so I wonder what people who've known us for a long time will think. It's a mature step, let's put it that way."

the details
Milly Tabak and The Miltones perform at Tauranga Arts Festival on November 1. Earlybird ticket prices (including earlybird student) available until September 13. Tickets from Baycourt box office or via the festival website. See the full programme at taurangafestival.co.nz