Simon Milliman (Urban Jack)

by Corey O'Flanagan

Simon Milliman, or "Urban Jack" as he is currently known on stage, is challenging himself to write 12 albums in 12 months. As you can imagine, this doesn't leave time for revision - it's kind of like free writing, but with music. In this episode of the Songfacts Podcast, he explains how he's planning to pull it off... with no filler!

Simon is a fixture on the music scene in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife, kids, dogs, and yes, chickens. Full of energy and endless creativity, Simon is relentlessly upbeat; he's one of those people who make you question how you are spending your own free time.

As Simon explains, there are a number of challenges that come with being continually creative and with making each album unique in sound and style. Here, he talks about his approach, and also discusses a couple of his past projects, including his time live scoring a film with a band that must have been playing as tight as anyone in order to hit those cues. Excerpts from the interview are below the player.


Background

My grandmother used to give me piano lessons, but aside from that I hadn't inherited much musical prowess. Both my younger brother and I hooked onto it, although he is the musical genius having just finishing his doctorate, and I am the rock and roller. When I was 18, I wrote this awful song to my girlfriend at the time, and I decided then I was a songwriter. The first 100 of those were awful, but then they started to get better.


The formation of Urban Jack

The most well-known band was Subterranean Howl, who after deciding to go their separate ways two years ago, encouraged me to start solo recording, thus the birth of Urban Jack, which is a name made up of both my grandfather's middle name and father's name. The first album has been in the vault for some time as I couldn't quite bring myself to releasing it. Once Covid-19 came around, however, I found myself sitting around, unable to do the photography I was doing. The next thing you know I had posted on social media that I was going to record 12 albums in 12 months.


Progress

I have a lot of creative energy I need to get out, and I'm going to release it through this project. Being a combination of both old and new songs, it gives me an opportunity to get this stuff off the shelves that for whatever reason I hadn't released. This style of creating is definitely a tyrannical pursuit of forcing my creativity out, but waiting for inspiration just isn't my style. I believe in the now. I play it fast and loose and I am a terrible planner, so I'm not being super strict with how those 12 albums come through, the goal is they just come. I'm not someone who has a process, I come into my studio, and whilst I am loosely aiming for one album a month, I am kind of going with the flow.

The more I progress with the albums though, I am trying to incorporate other artists to help develop the ideas and the narrative. The latest album, Erebus, I have written as a soundtrack to stargazing. It's composed mostly of diminished chord voicings, and when another artist came in to collaborate, she had no idea what to do with it. Her words were, "Well, that's different."

It's funny because I had received an email from someone in Asia who had listened to the albums I had already released and they had said how each album had gotten better and better, and then I had responded, "Well, don't get your hopes up for this next one, it's weird."


Expectations

Throughout my entire recording career I have always said no filler. I need every song to have integrity. This is something that could be a challenge in a project of this magnitude, but if I am ever in a place where I am not really proud of any lyrics, then I will not release that song.

The song "Helios and Selene," which was on my last album, is the only romantic song on that album and is about idealism. But, I really wanted to make it so special, there was just no way that the final product could ever live up to my expectations of it.

Creative juices

Even though I'm not a planner, I do like there to be a thread and a concept for each album. My second album, The Postmodern Idolators, was all recorded in '50s style with only one microphone. I would place the microphone in different parts of the room and, like they used to do back then, I would move around the room and record from different areas to create a sense of space. It was sometimes a frustrating challenge but I'm really happy how that came out.


Family rocker

As a father of five, recording all of these albums and juggling with everyday life, I have learned to just embrace the chaos. Whilst some of my kids have struggled with quarantine, I do have to say that as a family overall we are built for this. We have had so much fun together during this time. For the song "No More Aves" I dragged all my kids in to make the music video and we all had so much fun together. They made their own instruments, put together their own costumes. My daughter did all of their makeup - it was awesome. We all like each other, so overall quarantine hasn't been too tough on us. We're lucky.

September 9, 2020
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