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31 December 2012

Musicology: An in-depth interview with Morris Mills

   Morris Mills will make a night of beautiful music this Friday.
  He will be celebrating the release of his second album Beautified” in the next month with a concert at 11 p.m. Jan. 4 at the Hard Rock Cafe, 63 W. Ontario St., Chicago. The cover is $10.   He will play mostly original material, but, he will perform two Prince songs: “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” and “Purple Rain”. The album will be available on internet outlets like Spotify, iTunes and, Mills said.
  “I am singer, I am a songwriter, I'm not a poet, but, I'm a poet in music,” he said. “I'm just a man that loves music.”
  His music spans all genres including rock, pop, soul and blues. He has been compared to artists like Maxwell, Lenny Kravitz, Curtis Mayfield, David Bowie and Prince.  He said that no matter how much people try to put him into a category, everything he does comes from an individual place.
  He has also worked on a cover of  The Smashing Pumpkins song "Disarm" with Matt Fink-- better known as Dr. Fink-- who played keyboards in Prince's band for more than 10 years. Rosie Gaines, a vocalist best known for her work with Prince on his 1991 Diamonds and Pearls album, has also expressed interest in recording one of his songs. In addition, awarded his single “Beautified” best song of 2011 and nominated him for music artist of the year 2012.
 “I'm going to do something different, I'm going to do something else,” Mills said. “They are going to say that I remind them of Prince, but, not that I sound like Prince.”

Courtesy of Morris Mills
Musical Beginnings
  Mills is a self-taught guitarist and pianist and his love of music goes back to when he was five years old. He was introduced to different types to music at a young age: His mother listened to blues, country and soul records and his dad liked pop, classical and rock music. He cited Elvis Presley, Tom Jones and The Jacksons as early influences, he said.
  “It wasn't white music. It wasn't black music. It was music,” he said.
  He walked around the house singing and performing, imitating The Stylistics, a 1970s soul group, with his siblings and he was writing songs by the time he was in grammar school. His mother was very supportive of her children's musical aspirations – she herself played the trombone in high school. She bought his older brother a guitar and allowed him to build a studio in the basement of their Broadview, Ill. home, where he and his brother recorded on four-track, and later, eight-track tapes.
  “(My brother) would wake me up in wee hours of the morning to sing the vocals on songs,” he said. “We would spend all day in the basement.”
  The first time Mills heard Prince was when his older brother, who was in college at the time, brought home the album “For You” in 1978. His brother told him to “listen to this guy that sounds like you.” Before that, he had been listening to singers like Stevie Wonder, Eddie Kendricks and Curtis Mayfield and imitating them in his recordings, but, from the moment he heard that album, Prince also became a major musical influence, Mills said.
  Prince and the Minneapolis sound were very popular by the time Mills went to Proviso East High School. He remembers there were many neighborhood bands forming that paid homage to the artist and the biggest showcase was the high school talent show. He got his band together and auditioned for the talent show his sophomore year.  They performed "D.M.S.R." (Dance Music Sex Romance), from Prince's "1999" album at the audition, but, were kicked out because of the song's suggestive lyrics. The experience was devastating, especially after he saw other local bands flourish after the talent show, he said.
   "I would watch the bands and I would fantasize about being onstage," Mills said.
  Not long after the audition, he moved to Lawton, Oklahoma to stay with a relative, because he was experiencing some family problems, and there honed his craft by performing at a high school on an local army base. By the time he came back to his old high school in Illinois for his senior year, he easily passed the talent show audition.

Courtesy of Morris Mills

Mississippi Bound
  After high school, he did some touring, however, his musical dreams were put on hold after he became a husband and father. Yet, he had never stopped writing and recording music and he was also sending out demos and performing sporadically, Mills said.
  While married, he was studying to be a minister and after he got divorced in the early 1990s, he accepted a job as an assistant minister in Jackson, Mississippi. However, the situation was not permanent, he said.
  “I kind of made it up in my mind that I wouldn't do that (ministry) again,” Mills said.
   The move to Mississippi turned out to be a life-changing event, but not right away. During the time he was working at the church, he was introduced to Vasti Jackson, who became a very important musical mentor.    However, after the ministry job ended, he did go back to Illinois where he worked in “corporate America” for about a year. Mills later returned to Mississippi to pursue his music at Jackson's behest, he said.
  Jackson, was well known for his writing work with artists Tyrone Davis, Johnnie Taylor and Buddy Guy. He took Mills under his wing, introducing him to blues music and local musicians. Mills also became involved in the neo-soul music and spoken word scenes in Jackson and surrounding cities. He added that Jackson was also instrumental in getting him away from relying heavily on computers while recording: one day Jackson put him in a room with a piano and tape recorder and told him to learn “Ooh, Baby, Baby” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
  In addition, Mills was staying in a home he rented from Jackson that had its own recording studio. Jackson was working with blues artist Bobby Rush on an album there that ended up being nominated for a Grammy award.
   Mills later put his own band together and opened for artists like Brian McKnight and Jon B. when they did concerts in the Mississippi.
  “(Jackson) taught me how to be a real musician,” he said.

Courtesy of Morris Mills
The Road to Success
  Mills later moved back to Chicago, put a band together and started touring the city regularly.
He released his first album, "Love and Coffee" in 2005, which actually supposed to be the soundtrack for an independent movie he was making with William Pierce that was never completed. He has worked on other films, including My Phamily Barbeque and seven other movies. His most recently completed film "Ran$om Gains" starred Elise Neal, best known for her work on the TV comedy The Hughleys and Wood Harris, who starred as Avon Barksdale on HBO's The Wire
  Two songs from that album garnered him major attention: Radio Personality Terry Bello, Senior Executive Producer of the International Soul Summit, which takes place yearly in Atlanta, heard his music on and took an interest in him as an artist.He included Mills' song, "Steppin' Out Tonight," on the Heineken Soul Star Series, a compilation CD that included  well-known artists like Angie Stone, Rashaan Patterson and Anthony David, among others. The CD received international attention and helped really push his career, he said.
  He said that the song “Hello,” which was co-written and produced by Jackson from the album "Love and Coffee" also brought him attention around 2009. It caught the ear of Stephanie Levine, owner of Lovebrand Records, who got in contact with him and flew him out to New York for his first music video, directed by David Watson. She also heavily promoted the song on the East Coast and internationally. He worked with her company for two years.
   Interscope Records also digitally released “Beautified” as a single in 2011, he said.
  He said with his newest album, however, he wanted to move toward featuring a more rock feel, but, he was worried about what some fans of his first album might think.
  “I was afraid I was going to lose my soul base, but, at the same time, I wanted to be true to myself,” Mills said.
  He said some of the artists he would like to work with in the future include British Singer Lianne Las Havas, Coldplay, Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift and, of course, Prince. He is also looking forward to touring in Budapest in 2013 and expanding his fan base there. He has also had an offer to tour with Lee Fields and the Expressions. He also is working on another movie, "Soul," which should begin filming this summer.
  “What is me is that category you can't put me in,” he said. “That feel, that fun, that electricity.”

Check out Morris Mills' music at and

Stay beautiful, Kristi


Lead photo courtesy of Morris Mills.


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