The Millies give voice to their daring, fun-loving, theatrical selves in a benefit for Hospice.
DORIS DAY, in the title role of Calamity Jane, sang: “Once I had a secret love that lived within the heart of me. All too soon my secret love became impatient to be free.”
When Day sang it in 1953, “Secret Love” was a somewhat meditative confession about an unspoken crush. When belted out with silky sass and playfulness by Victoria a cappella trio The Millies, it’s more like a joyful collective confession about their artistic practice and gratitude at having found one another through an act of daring to ask for what their hearts desired.
In fact, that’s part of their appeal. The Millies are not just witty, entertaining and gorgeous singers weaving exquisite harmonies crafted by an expert arranger; their performances also offer a passionate reminder for all of us, at any age, to never stop seeking and giving ourselves permission to pursue our own secret loves.
Lynda Raino (Lynda Millie), Mollie Kaye (Mollie Millie) and Elizabeth Adilman (Lizzie Millie)—left to right in the YouTube video above—came together while singing in a jazz choir, after the director offered the opportunity for small ensemble work. The chance to break out of being vocally and physically buried in a choir seemed to answer a need they each felt, so last spring they began arranging Patti Page’s 1954 hit “Cross Over the Bridge.” As Kaye struggled with a three-part harmony, Raino (founder of longtime Victoria cultural icon Raino Dance) offered to enlist the help of a composer friend, Governor General’s Gold Medal-winner Stephen Hatfield.
While it was supposed to be a one-off collaboration, the process proved magical for all of them. “As he was walking out the door,” Kaye tells me, recalling that moment of excitement and longing, “I thought, ‘He’s an internationally recognized composer. Why would he want to work with us?’” But she blurted out: “Do you have any other ideas of songs we could sing?” His answer: an enthusiastic “Do I!” As Hatfield says, “We were all looking for something we needed.”
Since then, they’ve been meeting twice a week, and they staged their first public performance in May 2016. From the tightness of their sound, the flow of their moves, and even their coordinated costumes, it’s hard to believe they’ve been singing together for under a year.
Though they each have decades of experience with various styles and genres in other contexts, in this group they’re exploring a very different and difficult, though ultimately liberating, kind of performance.
“It’s not simply a soprano up on top carrying the melody with some harmony lines underneath,” Hatfield explains. “It’s like that illusion where you have an empty birdcage on one side of a card and a bird on the other. If you keep flipping it back and forth, you eventually see the bird in the cage.” What excites him as a writer is the challenge of creating the depth and density of jazz or of an orchestra with just three voices—what Kaye calls “sleight of ear.” In fact, after one show, an astonished audience member came up and told them: “It sounded like there was a whole band behind you.”
From poppy ’50s broadway hits to swingin’ jazz, sultry torch songs and even vintage commercial jingles, The Millies aren’t just trying to recreate or capture bygone sounds. Hatfield’s original arrangements, created specifically for their voices, means they avoid being simply a nostalgia act appealing only to those who grew up in a certain time. Rather, they’re reinventing and re-exploring each piece even as they pay homage to the past. When working on “Cross Over the Bridge,” Kaye recounts, Hatfield explained that it was actually about making monogamy and marriage sexy again in the post-war era, which led the group to some new flirtatious gestures and attitude. Kaye says, “It opened me up to performing in a totally different way. He coached us to really change the whole context of that music.”
The secret love they all had for theatricality was also let loose, allowing them to not only inhabit the characters of The Millies but, within those characters, to also each truly be themselves—fun and fearless. “We are really set free,” a beaming Raino tells me. “Personally, I was looking for salvation after letting go of my dance world. This has absolutely been a phoenix for me.” Adilman agrees: “I think it’s the way we’re connected to each other. You can see us looking at each other, weaving in and out with each other.” And, still seeming a little surprised, Kaye admits: “I do things on stage with them that I’ve never done in my life as a performer.”
When they sing, they each radiate an unabashed, uninhibited joy, revelling in not trying to steal but share the spotlight. As a result, the audience is also treated to a show of trust, respect and solidarity.
It’s something the singers themselves all value just as much as they love singing uplifting repertoire while wearing white gloves and ’50s taffeta party dresses. In fact, the matching outfits are a symbol of the group’s unity. “There’s something very poignant about the fact that we are women of a certain age,” Kaye notes. “We’re not the same. We’re not three lithe young women in our 20s, so there’s something a little bit tongue-in-cheek about wearing these. But to me, there’s a lot of meaning in the fact that we’re wearing these matching outfits even though our bodies are different, our ages are different, our lives are different. There’s something really bonding that happens to us. We become The Millies. To me, the harmony starts with the outfits.”
Raino, who found the dresses in a Fairfield shop, shares that sense of empowerment. “If you ever said to me, ‘You’re too old or you’re too big or you don’t have the right feet to do whatever,’ to me it would be a call to arms to say: ‘Watch me.’ It’s been the mandate of my school forever, and I don’t feel that a certain-aged woman is not supposed to sing or perform. I think we feel pretty committed to doing it until we can’t.” Indeed, as they huddle up for the 1958 jazz standard “Centerpiece,” the line “Our happiness will never cease” seems to sum up their feelings about the group and about each other. Inspired by what they have accomplished and are still becoming, my mind floats back to the first song of their rehearsal, and I hear it like a Millies’ mantra: “At last my heart’s an open door. And my secret love’s no secret anymore.”
Turning that love outward, The Millies are putting on a benefit concert for Victoria Hospice on April 28 at Hermann’s Jazz Club. Adilman, who has volunteered at Hospice for several years and whose parents both died in hospice, brought the idea forward. “I’ve just always been very moved by it,” she says. “We’re hoping to have a sellout show!” Tickets are available through brownpapertickets.com.
To hear more, visit www.themillies.ca.
Writer Amy Reiswig found her secret music love playing percussion with early music group Banquo Folk Ensemble.