What is it? You close your eyes while listening, imagining him playing in a large concert hall. His voice, resembling some kind of gypsy in mourning, echoes off the walls. Multiple string musicians pluck, play and prod their instruments, encircling Milford's words like an ambush. The song stops. No applause. Is the room empty?
“The guy who recorded me wanted to make it sound like an old record,” Milford says, trying to explain the audible j'ne sais quoi. “I don't know what he did, but I know that's the way albums were recorded back in the day.”
Recorded live in a studio with nothing but the man and his violin, Milford uses effects pedals to give the listener the sense that he might be playing with multiple musicians.
From the outside looking in, the 25-year-old's life is a lesson in duality. Classically trained since the age of 3, he has a penchant for minor chords and Baroque stylings while at the same time unraveling more contemporary, inner conflicts through his singing. Raised in the often-frigid climate of Detroit, he now lives in Phoenix. A devout Christian, he also majored in biology while attending Arizona State University. Even his solo music runs perpendicular to his work in his other band, The Whisperlights, who have more of a raucous, psych-pop sound.
Milford doesn't exactly worry about being pigeonholed into that group of openly religious indie acts like Sufjan Stevens and Pedro the Lion. He hopes that, like those musicians, his material is strong enough that any religious imagery is offset by the strength of the music. After all, you're not going to fault Stravinsky's 1929 masterpiece Symphony of Psalms just because he wrote it drunk on Jesus juice.
“Man, I'd love to be pigeonholed,” Milford says.
“Sufjan is a role model of mine, and he's openly faithful. But the stories he's telling have these narrative layers that I think anyone could love. I wasn't explicitly making songs about reason versus faith. If there's any tensions in the album, I think it's more about hope in the face of death than faith versus reason.”
In fact, much of the inspiration comes not from Deuteronomy, but from Dostoevsky. Milford cites Alyosha, the protagonist from Dostoevsky's epic novel The Brothers Karamazov, as his muse when he was writing the songs that ended up on the EP. He sees a lot of himself in the character, a spiritual man who gets caught up in the trivialities and temptations of life, a man whose intentions are pure but who doesn't often have the wherewithal to execute them.
“That main character just really won my heart over,” Milford says. “He is a person of faith, but he's in the real world. People are drawn to him. They think he's crazy, but they still love him because they can tell that he has that something.”
It's easy to hear that “something” on tracks like “Old Friend,” in which Milford recounts a tale of a friend letting him down, only to realize later that he's just as much to blame. Or take the song “Death!,” which, despite its name, is more about finding hope in the face of hopelessness. The song took on new weight when Milford's mother died just before he went into the studio to record the tracks for the EP.
“When you're feeling lost, the world just feels dead,” says Milford, who dedicated the album to his mother. “There's literal death and there's spiritual and emotional death, but being able to grab onto something real and full of life in the midst of all that is really important.”
Milford sees future projects reflecting this more hopeful tone. While he wants to keep the ambient approach, he's currently playing with percussionist Henri Benard in his live shows and wants to add even more players for his soon-to-be-recorded debut full-length.
“I love doing arrangements, and I'm learning composition,” he says. “I'd love for it to still have that minimalist appeal, but I want to do something that I can really pour my heart into.”
Tobie Milford plays with Conscious Summary and Brent Nettles & The Texas Tea Party at Soda Bar on Monday, Nov. 29. tobiemilford.com