December/January 2023

by Nur Lajunen-Tal

Renée Millner: Highways of Broken Dreams

by Nur Lajunen-Tal

Renée Millner: Highways of Broken Dreams

With a distinctive, gravelly yet ethereal voice, and a penchant for reflective, inspirational lyrics, singer-songwriter Renée Millner ‘s third EP ‘Fly Me Back’ sees her beginning to experiment with new sounds and styles, but is still firmly situated within her folk roots. These days resident in New Plymouth, she talked with Nur Lajunen-Tal.

Renée Millner grew up in Sydney and began playing music as a kid.

“Pretty much late primary school,” she relates. “I started on piano and then I learnt classical piano, and I learnt clarinet as well for many years. Through high school, I composed, more so on piano than anything else. I was introduced to more classical music initially, but never formally studied classical music or contemporary music for that matter.

“I didn’t really get into lyric songwriting until much later. I didn’t really think, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be a songwriter,’ it just felt like a natural progression, you know? I think writing sort of became a bit of a way to just process feelings, or process what I was going through.”
In time, Millner wanted to share her music with the world, and by 2016 she was ready to release her first EP. It was the same year she moved to NZ.

“That EP is called ‘Everywhere I Turn’… I actually was in the midst of moving when I was in the middle of recording that, so I actually came over to NZ and I finished it off over here. Going back and listening to it now, there’s parts of it, I kind of go, ‘Ugh! Why did you do that?’ But… I was just more uninhibited, just putting it out and not so worried so much about the outcome.”

Released in 2018, Millner’s second EP, ‘In The World’, was co-produced by Graeme Woller of Into The East and Sam Johnson. Johnson also produced her new EP, which was recorded at Taranaki’s Rhythm Ace Studio.

The EP opens with the meditative Out Their Windows, the music video for which features performance artist Sophie Gorgon dancing in the street, while three elderly ladies watch from their windows. Millner says she was thinking about her own grandmother when writing the song.

“She spent a fair few years at the end of her life in a rest home, as many elderly people do. I sort of got thinking about women’s sacrifice, I guess. Sacrifices that generation made for their families, and to me that song is kind of thinking about regrets. Not necessarily not having them, because I think everyone has regrets, but having regrets that you can learn from…

“I didn’t initially write it with the pandemic in mind, it was more thinking about looking back on one’s life. We had these three beautiful elderly wahine who came in and were part of the video… and it just happened to be sort of mid-last year, but obviously, the pandemic had already started, so the idea of looking out one’s window kind of felt like a very collective kind of idea.

“And I guess the other side of that is the whole idea of what we do when we just kind’a hang out and look out windows… we can be dreaming, we can be thinking about the future, or we can maybe be beating ourselves up,” she laughs. “Or we can be looking at something outside! That lyric can mean lots of different things, but to me, that song is really about moving through the difficult experiences or the traumas that we have, and seeing that they can teach us something.”

The EP’s piano-driven title track is spacious, with more of a pop edge.

Fly Me Back is kind of about reaching for something greater than myself,” Millner explains. “I was very religious in my late teens, but I definitely wouldn’t say I’m religious anymore. Maybe a bit more spiritual, but definitely not any kind of organised religion. Fly Me Back is thinking about how sometimes we do need to reach out and ask for that help. This is thinking a lot about habits, and wanting to change habits, wanting to change behaviours.

“The lyric is sort of like almost talking to the habit, saying like, ‘Why are you fucking me around like this?'” she laughs. “And kind of going, ‘Okay, here I am at the edge, I’m at the precipice. I need some support, I need something greater than me to help me to move forward.’ I like the idea of the words – that something outside of me is helping. To me, that is a really powerful song, and I felt like it fitted, that I wanted that title as the name of the album.”

So Much is the EP’s most upbeat song, a feel-good anthem about self-love and belief. The chorus has a particularly comforting feel, with Millner repeatedly singing, “…there is so much love here for you.” The song, she says, is an expression of her trying to find her place here in Aotearoa.

“I’ve been a bit of a nomad throughout my whole life. I’ve travelled a lot, I’ve been really fortunate enough to live in Japan and I’ve been really blessed to have the experiences I’ve had with being in different countries, different communities and that sort of thing. For some reason I found moving to NZ really hard,” she laughs.

“I found it hard to settle, you know? And so I think So Much is sort of about recognising that what you focus on is gonna get bigger, or gonna expand more. So focusing on the support that is there, and the love that is there, is gonna just keep attracting that back to you.

“The other part of the song is about really just sticking to your own path. That sometimes the support you seek’s not gonna come from the people you think it’s gonna come from. The verses to me are really about just backing yourself, believing in your own worth and your own journey and moving through life holding yourself, even if you don’t feel held from other places. Finding that resilience within first, or finding that love. I know it sounds cliche but finding that self-love first, I do think it’s true.”

The more folky and reflective Not OK follows, featuring some of the EP’s deepest and most introspective lyricism. “When did you start to take it all so seriously,” sings Millner. “How did you manage to forget that your mind is free/ When did you start to care about what they say/ When did you start to believe you’re not okay.”

She links the song to the pandemic, thinking a lot about the mental health of young people here and in Australia, and the effects of social media.

“There’s this really interesting quote by Johann Hari, who’s written the book called Stolen Focus: Why We Can’t Pay Attention, and he talks about the connection being the antidote to addiction. Sometimes a question is more powerful than having all the answers, you know?

“So I was thinking about the idea of not believing your thoughts or asking ourselves those open-ended questions which could maybe lead us down a different path. I guess the link between So Much and Not OK is the idea of love, and I’m not just talking about romantic love, but love for oneself, or love for one’s life in general, or love for friends or family or whoever it is. Not OK is a reminder to myself of remembering what’s really important. Social media likes are not that important at the end of the day, you know?” she laughs.

Her EP closes with the stripped-back, melodically expressive and lyrically poetic Cambodia. “These highways of our broken dreams/ Taken from our generation,” Millner sings to a soaring chorus melody. “We walked away, separated by the seams/ I pray a ray of light shines through your door.”

Cambodia is based on a woman that I met when we travelled to Cambodia just prior to the pandemic. She had lived through the war in the ’70s. We went to one of those camps that were set up, where some pretty awful stuff happened. To me, that song is all about resilience. I was really just moved by her story and how she got up every morning really, to be honest. So that song was born out of that experience.”

With a couple of singles in 2021 and this year releasing her new EP, Millner is keen to tour.

“I really feel like I just wanna get back to the nuts and bolts, which is the songwriting and the performing. That to me is where it’s at, what it’s really all about.”

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