Popping Up is our recurring look at new artists making noise on the music landscape. Because, hey — Madonna and Britney were once unknown, too.
For someone who’s just now popping up, Milow has already had quite a career: The Belgian singer-songwriter has enjoyed homegrown success, with his debut LP, 2006′s The Bigger Picture, staying on the Belgian charts for 110 weeks; he went on to release his sophomore album in 2008, which was also a success in his native land.
But that same year, he performed an acoustic cover of 50 Cent and Justin Timberlake‘s “Ayo Technology” that stripped the song down to its barest essence, transforming the radio thumper into a spare, guitar-driven meditation on the perils of technology without changing a word. His studio version of the cover went #1 in five European countries and Top 10 in seven more and earned an endorsement from Kanye West — no small feat.
Despite some blog attention stateside for the cover, he’s remained largely unknown in the United States, prompting him to release a US-only EP last year, Born In The Eighties, a sharply drawn collection of acoustic-driven singer-songwriter pop.
I caught up with Milow at Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee to talk about his international stardom and starting all over again with cracking the notoriously tough stateside market.
WHERE HE’S FROM: Antwerp, Belgium
THE SOUND OF MILOW: “I write acoustic songs,” Milow explains. “It’s about the storytelling. If you like Jack Johnson, Brett Dennen and Jason Mraz — I really like those guys. But the difference is I’m from Europe, and not from England, but from Belgium, which makes it more like the Swedish guys. We have more of a pop background sensibility — that’s something I’ve noticed. I think the end result is different than what’s already out there.” (For the record: It is.)
ABOUT THAT TECHNOLOGY: “It’s an example of something that got completely out of hand in a very good way,” Milow laughs when discussing his viral cover of “Ayo Technology.” “It’s very bombastic, the original, and I think what got me hooked was the chorus. There’s a really strong melody, and that line — ‘I’m tired of using technology’ — even though in the song they’re talking about watching porn and cybersex, but I knew there were more layers to that line, and so I just stripped it down and changed the structure. I beleve that no matter what style is, you should be able to play a good song on an acoustic guitar.”
STATESIDE SUCCESS?: Milow says that despite carving out extraordinary success all over Europe, the challenge inherent to launching in the United States is part of what keeps him sharp: “I love to keep pushing myself, and looking for places where I have to leave my comfort zone. And it would be very comfortable and safe to stay back in Europe, in the countries that know me already, to be treated well and to play for the people who already know me. But as soon as I started playing music, I loved making myself go to places where nobody knows me, and I have to start all over. I just feel that keeps me sharp as a songwriter. I have to write better songs and I have to keep trying to get better. And obviously, if the United States never works, I wouldn’t give up music, because there’s a lot of people back in Europe. So I’ll just keep playing.”
AND UP NEXT: As he preps his fourth studio album, Milow says he doesn’t want to try something he’s already done: “I’m going for a more vintage analog approach,” he explains. “Just get a bunch of great musicians in one room and play the songs live, get some really great string arrangements, make something that could have been recorded in the ’70s as well. I can’t wait. I hope to be done before the summer and then hopefully be able to release it early next year, early 2014.”
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