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Interview with Milana Zilnik, January 2014
Interview with Milana Zilnik, image 1
One of my favorite new artists who submitted music for review last year is pianist/composer/vocalist Milana. She released an amazing four albums in 2013 - three solo piano and one vocal. Two of the albums were a collaboration with German composer Stephan Beneking - “Petits Reves Bizarres” (“Strange Little Dreams”) - where she played each of the twenty-four rather short pieces as written and then improvised on all of them (there are twelve “Dreams” on each album.) Intrigued, I did a little research on Milana and discovered that in January 2013, she became the only Canadian musician to receive the "SoundCloud Hero" status for being one of the most active and influential members of the SoundCloud community. In June of 2013, one of her songs earned a high score in a crowd review, which earned her a spot as a "Featured Artist" on ReverbNation’s site. In November of 2013, one of Milana’s ambient compositions won Editor’s Choice Award at AudioSparx. Her vocals are often compared to Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan. A very promising star on the horizon, I’d like to introduce you to Milana!

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Click the album covers to read Kathy's reviews.
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KP: Hi, Milana! Happy New Year! You released four remarkable albums in 2013. Are you planning as big of an output for 2014?

Milana: Frankly, "planning" is not the right word, as I am a pretty spontaneous person. But I do have enough material for three piano albums already. One set of piano pieces is a blend of rock and neoclassical genres, the second is more like ambient and lounge, and the third one is more funky and jazzy. I also have at least a dozen songs, some of which have never been published online, even as a "draft" unplugged/live version. If we get enough time and money, then we plan to release the second album of my original songs in 2014 in addition to the mentioned piano albums.

KP: How did you team up with Stephan Beneking to improvise on his twenty-four Petits Reves Bizarres?

Milana: Thanks to my husband, Arty, who spends much more time on SoundCloud than I do. He found Stephan Beneking's pieces played by different pianists and asked if I wanted to try to play the one he liked the most - the 14th Petit. Arty also asked me to not just play it “as-is” (as other pianists did) but to improvise on the same theme. We weren't sure if Stephan would like such an "altering" of his composition, so we made the recording and sent it to him privately. Stephan liked it very much and asked if we could record the entire set in the same manner. I was rather reluctant at first since I wasn't too much into classical compositions and it seemed like lots of work. So we didn't make any promises to Stephan. But then I tried and it went pretty well: all 24 Petits were recorded in about a month.

KP: That’s pretty amazing since you expanded most of those pieces by several minutes. Looking at his website, Beneking is a very prolific composer. Do you plan to do more collaborations with him?

Milana: There are no particular plans, but we talked about recording other sets in a similar manner in the future, i.e. combining Stephan's compositions with my improvisations.

KP: Do you have any specific plans for your next albums?

Milana: Nothing special - pretty much the same plans as for the existing albums: release them, submit to some contests and see how it goes :) Although, maybe this time we'll try a more efficient way to release them, i.e. doing some preparation steps like getting publicity, promoting, sending to radio stations - all prior to the actual release.

KP: Tell us about your background and early life. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Milana: I was born in Ukraine, in a town called Chernovtsy. At the age of twelve, my family moved to Israel where I lived for more than half of my life.

KP: Are any other members of your family musicians?

Milana: My grandpa was a singer and my grandma taught children music. My dad played piano and was a very skilled improviser. He was going against the rules that took place in USSR at those times, stepping aside from the classics to the "forbidden" genres, like rock and jazz.

KP: Wow! That was a brave thing to do! How old were you when you started playing the piano? When did you start piano lessons, and how long did you take lessons?

Milana: I started playing piano when I was four, being one of the youngest students in the music school where I studied for eight years and graduated with honors.

KP: Were you encouraged to improvise or compose by your piano teacher(s) or anyone else?

Milana: My father was the one who introduced me to the magic of playing by ear, never depending on having note sheets on hand.

KP: With your classical training, I assume you’re also a good sight reader?

Milana: Yes. And I love doing this, discovering new pieces every time.

KP: Me, too! I always feel like I’m on a treasure hunt! Do you play other instruments?

Milana: It's an interesting question, really. At first, I thought to answer that I only play piano. But in today's era of virtual instruments and great sampled libraries, I tend to say that I am not just a pianist but also a keyboardist. I love to catch the essence of how other instruments are played and try to replicate the same "mechanics" using the keys. Many bassists are fooled by the upright bass and bass guitar I play on keys for my songs, thinking that this is a real instrument. I also like the sound of electric piano and play it periodically. But, strictly speaking, piano is the only acoustic instrument I play.

KP: A lot of people who play virtual instruments on their recordings don’t think about how the actual instruments should sound - going beyond the range of the instruments and forgetting about the quality of the sound. I hate it when “canned” strings sound like a swarm of bees on the attack! Or when choir voices are pitched so high that they screech.

Milana: I agree with you about the virtual strings - they are tricky to replicate. Same stands for the virtual brass and electrical guitar. Using those virtual instruments requires lots of post-editing tweaking to sound as realistic as possible. But upright bass and flute to my surprise were among the easiest instruments to replicate. I just started to get into that while composing orchestral pieces. So far it's been a fun experience.

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KP: How old were you when you started improvising?

Milana: Around eight, maybe. It's difficult to recall the actual age because it was always a part of the game my dad used to challenge me with.

KP: What did he have you do that was challenging?

Milana: I had to invent short melodies on top of his chords and mostly switch from melodies to chords when it felt right. It was sort of scary for classical young pianist like me, but it was fun.

KP: Sounds like a great exercise! How old were you when you wrote your first song?

Milana: I wrote my first songs when I was a teenager, but I never shared my creations at that time. The first time I tried to record one of my songs was when I was twenty years old. At the time, I was performing with a small band and other band members tried to change the song to be more in the mainstream pop direction while I wanted some alternative. So, at the end, the song wasn't recorded properly. Then, after a long break from music, I returned to songwriting a year and a half ago, being supported by my husband, who insisted on recording.

KP: Yea! I’m so happy he insisted! Where did you go to college? Were you a music major?

Milana: I don't have a formal high music education. When my father dropped music cause it didn't feed the family, I realized that I might need to look for a more solid profession and got B.Ed., less focused on music but more on general early childhood education. As a part of my final project, I still chose a musical direction focusing on improvisation.

KP: Where have you lived during your lifetime (so far)?

Milana: Ukraine, Israel and Canada.

KP: Those are very diverse cultural influences! Have you always been a professional musician (as an adult)?

Milana: I used to perform with a band in my late teens and early twenties, switching more to singing at the end. I also used to teach piano lessons. When my first child was born, I left the musical career and focused on children, returning back to the musical path just in 2012.

KP: And we’re so glad you returned!!! When did you move to Canada?

Milana: In 2008.

KP: Do you perform in concerts very often?

Milana: I used to perform periodically before the long break. In my recent return to my musical career, I performed several times and had one full solo concert here in Ottawa. I also performed live on a radio show for an hour - that was kind of a concert, too.

KP: Your playing is amazingly versatile. Have you always had an eclectic taste in music?

Milana: I guess yes. Being exposed to so many different cultures influenced me and my musical tastes. I’ve always had a soft spot for jazz, soft rock and ambient. But after discovering SoundCloud in 2012 and getting in touch with different musicians playing so many different genres and styles, it was like a "second birth." I never thought I'd dare to try all those genres and styles I've tried during the last year, both playing and singing.

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KP: Do you have sheet music for any of your pieces?

Milana: I do have chords for many of my songs but not the instrumentals. It's not that easy to create the note sheets for improvisational pieces. But I do plan to choose the best pieces and release the sheet music for them one day.

KP: Was your musical training in classical music only?

Milana: Yes.

KP: Who or what are your biggest musical influences?

Milana: There are quite a lot. Well, starting with my dad, of course. But as for known names, ironically, Bach and Grieg. Ironically because I am not much into classical music, but those two showed me the diversity in the classical genre. Closer to my favorite genres: Ella Fitzgerald, Sting, Sade, Tori Amos, Michael Nyman, Keith Jarret, Chick Corea, Nino Katamadze (she made me want to sing again after a long break). The most recent discoveries that Canada showed me were Diana Krall and Sarah McLachlan.

KP: What inspired you to start composing your own music?

Milana: I had a very emotional time, kind of a middle-age crisis. It all turned into the music.

KP: Have you done any composing for films and/or TV?

Milana: I haven't composed for films or TV deliberately, but one of my pieces was chosen for a short film that will be presented in some Short Film Festivals in the US and another piece was composed for a promo video clip. I do have plans and dreams to compose for films and we (me and my husband) are working in this direction. Recently we started exploring this type of composing by inventing some scenes and moods and writing appropriate music for it (not just piano music but also orchestral pieces).

KP: What has been your most exciting musical moment or experience so far?

Milana: Being able to witness how my daughter, at nine years old, improvised a piano motif and then wrote quite serious (for her age) lyrics, making it a wonderful song.

KP: Is there a particular philosophy that you try to convey in your music?

Milana: My dad said once that my music reflects a deep meditation feeling, like a day dream. I tend to agree with that, since my intention is like a prayer to be shared.

KP: Who are your favorite composers?

Milana: My favorite composers are also my biggest musical influences. But to name a few not yet mentioned, I deeply love Chopin and Tchaikovsky.

KP: Who are your favorite performers?

Milana: Lately I discovered Hiromi and she immediately became one of my favorites. Tori Amos (during the early 90s) - I've been compared to her many times. As a rule of thumb, I always enjoy the show when it's well planned but also free spirited.

KP: I agree! If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?

Milana: I'd say that the most desirable for now is to be able to combine my passion for music with paying the bills. In other words, to make a living out of making music. But, I guess, it's a dream of so many musicians all over the world. I also wish I could have the proper training to improve my vocal and piano skills. And I wish my family and me will be able to continue taking an active part in our musical journey.

KP: Is there anything else you’d like to “talk” about?

Milana: I think we covered pretty much everything, so I'd like to wish everyone a happy and adventurous New Year, full of good music.

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Many thanks to Milana for taking the time to chat with us! For more information about Milana and her music, visit her website and her Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Kathy Parsons
January 2014