Melbourne artist James Milsom releases debut album Impossible Future today, a diverse and enchanting journey that wanders you through a mashup of sweet sounds and moods. Recorded and engineered by Phil Threlfall (360, Bliss n Eso, Seth Sentry, Owl Eyes) at The Base, South Melbourne and mastered by John Ruberto at Mastersound, Impossible Future is chilled and charming listen offering endless moments of discovery. James very kindly takes us through the album track by track, in all honest detail.
Take it away James!
I spent a bit of time in Tel Aviv a few years back on one of these solo writing retreats I try to take myself on. I’m always excited about them, and they always wind up being super scary and full on. Alone time, the desire to make something amazing, etc. All a bit much. Anyway, one day I was in this little apartment I was sharing with a cat, and I really can’t deal with cats, so that was an added layer of fucked. Somehow I got on this strings binge, and just wanted to compose bits of music for strings, so I worked up this little beat and bass line purely as a vehicle for a wacky little string quartet piece I was imagining. In my cat-riddled isolation, I was kind of down on things, so on a walk by the beach I sat down and started writing these ‘state of the world’ lyrics and it was kinda done. I was lucky to record real strings for the record, and it still blows me away listening back to the way someone else can make my ideas sound when they’re outside of a computer.
Ishi is a post-relationship-argument tune. We’ve had a bunch of them before, but they’re going to keep coming, and I’m helping them do that. I was in Tassie doing some work on a big arts project, composing music and doing sound designy stuff, and while I was sequencing a piano part for the project the main theme in Ishi came out. I thought it was great, and it was really Bon Iver-ish at the time (which is always a massive bonus). I quickly cut and pasted the part into a secret ‘other’ file to use for myself, and rediscovered it a while later, when I was in one of those post-relationship-argument places.
I bloody love Big Scary, and know them a little bit too, so it was a bit embarrassing to admit to Jo (Syme – the drummer) that I had based my Clockface beat off of her beat for Luck Now. As it turns out, she couldn’t hear it, and by the time I took it into the studio that was kind of behind me. Mark Leahy is a Melbourne drummer and producer who worked on the record with me, as well as a bunch of other projects. He’s a brilliant player and has a really great head and ability to understand what I’m about (while I struggle to explain it). He took the electronic drums I had sequenced for Clockface and made something that I just loved as soon as I heard it. He hadn’t played any of the tunes before we got into the studio, and it was a real head rush when I heard him just.. get it. Once I heard Mark playing those drums, I was just motivated to ramp the song up to make it as big and rocky and powerful as I could while trying to keep it a bit restrained. It’s since had these comparisons to Bowie and Pink Floyd (in style, not quality) which I still don’t hear. I love that this is a song that exists in a totally different world outside of my head, where I hear it as something apparently no one else does.
Oh, When It’s Dark
I can remember SO vividly the moment when I wrote the string quartet arrangement for Oh, When It’s Dark. My partner Rachel and I were staying in this little hotel on the side of a lake in Rwanda and she was lying flat on her back on the balcony (weirdly I can’t remember why – #badhusband). We had heard Crazy In Love on the radio in a bus or something, and it was stuck in my head, so I sequenced the beat from it, then messed about with it, and this chord progression emerged over it. I loved it, but it wasn’t until like 2 years later that I found a way it could be a song I liked. The tune went through heaps of iterations, with lots of lyrical themes, and I wound up hating all of them, so I decided I needed it not to be about myself. Just as the start of the tune had come from somewhere foreign to me, I figured the lyrics should too, so I found this artist I had come across online and just wrote things down while I looked at his stuff. I loved that approach, so I sang through these kinds of stream of consciousness response to visual stimulus and that was the demo that stuck. (The artist’s name is Jonathan Calinawan. I know nothing about him whatsoever.)
Bonus insight: one of the melodies / themes that went into one of the failed demos of ‘Oh when it’s dark’ sounded quite cool, but I realised it was an exact rip off of Graduation Song, by Vitamin C.
I worked as a composer and producer on a project a little while ago, and the brief was to do something easy and smooth and a tiny bit sexy. I basically had no idea how to respond to that brief, and I had been listening to a lot of James Blake, so I thought I’d do a bit of an imitation of him. I can’t play piano, even though sometimes I tell people I can (why? good question), so I sequenced these piano chords and played them back a bunch of times, and made the executive decision that this was a piece of music I liked too much to sell, and that it wasn’t sexy at all. Maybe to someone. But I didn’t see it as a sexy bit of music. If someone finds it sexy I’d love to know. It’s one of the songs I’m most proud of on the album, because I think it’s a massive departure from the way I normally write, and when we play it live I don’t play any instruments, which is scary and means I have to find something to do with my hands.
The recording process with Switch was hilarious. Nate Gilkes played the part I had sequenced on a grand piano and most of the recorded material was his expletives. I don’t always think about time signatures and stuff when I’m writing, and allegedly I wrote something that doesn’t make musical sense. As a classically trained muso with opera singing up his sleeve, he has the skills for it, but I apparently hadn’t done anyone any favours. He got there, but he got weird for a while afterwards.
I wrote this finger picky guitar part a couple of years before I wound up writing Wizard. I was in Alice Springs, living and working, and I was still in a pretty indie rock/alt-folk guitar phase, so I was writing on the acoustic guitar. The original demo of that part appears on the album in one of the interstitial tracks ‘OW’ as a bit of a prelude to what came later. Wizard is about climate change without being too much about climate change. I really like it when listeners get to decide what songs are about, without having it forced upon them. I love synthy electronic music, and I had decided this album would have none of it, but I felt too attached to this song to let it go, so I pulled rank (on myself?) and made an exception. I borrowed this polyrhythmic idea from somewhere for the instrumental part, added some strings, and added this weird happy interlude that ends the song in an entirely different way to how it started. Imagery. Metaphor. Pretentiousness. All of the above.
Up And Up And Up And Up
Before I decided I didn’t want to write songs about isolation, I wrote a song that was literally called Isolation. It sounded nice and had a pretty piano and violin part, but it was happysad and just wasn’t the kind of music I want to put out into the world. Strangely, I still spent time with musicians recording Isolation in an expensive studio, and tried to work it into something better for a while before dropping it altogether. It kept irking me that I had done that, so I pulled it up, deleted the piano and violin parts as quickly as I could without hearing them again, and sequenced this quirky little synth progression. I had heard a Dapples Cities tune that morning and I think that provoked what came out. I heard my demo back a few times and realised it was screaming out (inside my mind) for a Rihanna chorus, so I made one and sang it in my best Rihanna voice. It’s not super convincing as an impression, but I love that it’s different to what the real me (the non-Rihanna me) would normally do.
Bonus insight: while working on a music/art project with Mark Leahy (the drummer), we snuck in some time to record the percussion for Up And Up. We were in an old mechanics workshop in rural Tasmania, it was freezing, and between turns standing really close to the fire we banged on different objects we found. The main percussion sound you can hear in Up And Up on the record is a motorbike fuel tank.
I first recorded what was then known as ‘I say! I see’ with my former band Ancient Free Gardeners. It was a pretty fast indie rock tune, lots of guitars, overdrive, crash cymbals, etc. Then when I started playing solo shows after that band was over I couldn’t shake the song and formulated something closer to the version that appears on Impossible Future. It’s a song about white guilt and the way Australians (all of us) still have a long way to go before we’re properly talking about what we’re doing wrong with Aboriginal people.
On the way home from a Chvrches gig in Melbourne, I sang this little bass thing into my phone, which was probably a complete rip off of one of their tunes. I was just a bit excited, I guess. That recording became a sample, which gave birth to a drum beat, which was then repeatedly trashed before Mission emerged over layers of rejected drum and bass parts. I had these layers of ideas I didn’t like when I went away for New Year’s Eve a couple of years ago on a little solo song retreat. I have no idea why I thought it would be fun being alone in an old church on New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t. I was in regional Victoria, there were bushfires all around me, and I was sleeping on this bed that had these strange sensual carvings all over it. The Airbnb host explained that it was a kama sutra bed, and while I still don’t know what that means, it makes me feel as uncomfortable now as it did then.
With Mission, I wanted to make a pop song that was happy. I don’t have heaps of experience doing that – I’m pretty solid on the melancholy. I was trying different ideas from my own head when I realised I just didn’t know how to make pop music, so I went to someone who does. With Taylor Swift’s Blank Space recorded onto my laptop, I just kind of took cues from Tay Tay to figure out how to do it. I guess you could say she was my muse. Once I had this structure and feel I loved, the lyrics were basically a diary entry based on the weirdness of the whole experience.
Quiet In You
My wife Rachel plays in a netball competition, and husbands and boyfriends are strictly banned from attending games. That’s actually fine, as i’m not a sports fan and I can usually find other stuff to do on a Monday night. As an amazing husband, I did go along once in breach of the unwritten rule, and as I don’t really like sport I got a bit bored and started recording things. That recording became with the samples that made the beat that starts Quiet In You. The song existed before the netball game, but it was a softer, slower and more boring version. I still wasn’t 100% sold on the song after we had recorded it, so I sent it to a fellow named Tim Mitchell, who is a close friend who I have played in a bunch of bands with. I sent Tim a version of the song that didn’t have a space for a guitar solo, so he just solo’d over heaps of the song. He’s a bloody maniac on the guitar and I love the way he plays, so I made some changes to the tune to give his solo the gap it deserves, and I reckon that’s what makes the song record worthy. That guy. Helluva guitarist.
Thank you James! Catch him launching Impossible Future live at The Toff on July 1, details below.
Impossible Future Album Launch
Sunday 1 July
The Toff In Town, Melbourne
Support: Broads and Kirsten Taylor
Tickets on sale now via Moshtix