How major life events shaped Andy Milne’s music

Growing up as a young music student in Ontario, Andy Milne thought the Junos were possibly unrelated to his musical world — yet he was strangely drawn to them.

About a month ago, the pianist, composer and bandleader picked up his second Juno Award for his latest album The reMISSION, a project made with his trio called Unison.

With bassist John Hebert and drummer Clarence Penn, Milne reimagines the intimacy of the piano trio on a record that has more of a personal touch than his previous work, giving listeners an intimate look into his world. The reMISSION follows his 2018 record The Seasons of Being, recorded with a 10-piece edition of his ensemble Dapp Theory. That album won Milne his first Juno Award.

Milne joined us to talk more about his latest projects and how the circumstances of his life informed the creation of his music.

First of all, I have to say congratulations. It’s a beautiful record.

Thank you so much. I’m really happy with how that record came into being. It was, for me, a short cycle. Often it takes me much longer. This was an express lane in some ways.

Was there a reason for that?

I was on the road with the trio, and we were performing and of course it’s a new group so we didn’t have a recording. Here I am selling my other recordings but we’re not playing any of that music. The guys were like, “What are we doing? We need to do a recording. We’re going out and selling a recording that has nothing to do with us.” I hadn’t made a plan for it, but I just said OK, you’re right. We discussed a date, which was literally a week after the end of the tour. I called a bunch of studios in New York. This all happened in 24 hours at the most. And a week later, we were in the studio.

It’s nice that you were working it all out on the road, so you didn’t have to rehearse.

Exactly. That was ideal. When I think of making recordings, I generally think of this longer arc where I ramp up to doing it. But sometimes that leads to excessive stress on the mind and body. I was withdrawing a bit from that old philosophy I had adopted. It was a gentle enough nudge to see that it was doable.

You’ve been very open about a couple of things that have affected your world lately, including the discovery of family that you knew about but didn’t know. Can you talk a little bit about that?

I was fortunate enough to make a connection through Ancestry. I have a birth cousin who’s very close to my age. Fortunately, we were able to meet in December of 2019 before the borders got shut down and travel was impossible. We met and really hit it off. I discovered that he has a huge passion for jazz and in some ways we’ve had… not similar paths, but we’ve walked in similar spaces and know some of the same people. That was very intense and emotional. That jazz connection to a large degree came from my birthmother, his aunt. That was a pretty profound revelation for me, after being consumed by this music for most of my life.

Recommended Links

You’ve also been pretty open about your treatment and recovery from prostate cancer. How are you feeling? And did that journey make its way into your music?

The journey definitely made its way into the music. I’m doing fine, thanks for asking. I think the fact that I picked this moment to finally make a trio recording is in large part due to what I went through when I was dealing with diagnosis and treatment and the life changes that go along with something significant like that. I had pushed off the idea of making a trio recording and putting myself out there in that setting for a long time, and as I was grappling with needing to scale back the scope of things, take time off and rethink the ways in which I was thinking of my efforts and thinking of my output and the energy that I had, it was glaring that this makes a lot of sense to explore the trio format. That was in large part a pragmatic response to my circumstances. And then musically, everything falls into place based on one’s own sensibilities. For me, I have to find a way inside something and make it honest and true to myself. So when I started to pursue making a recording with Unison, what you’re hearing now and what won the Juno was the second iteration. I went into the studio and did a recording, didn’t like it and scrapped it. Nothing from that session survived. I wasn’t quite in the right place musically for this trio. I was writing music that, in a way, was more suited to my other group Dapp Theory. I think I was so used to writing for that group that I hadn’t quite crossed the transition of being more sensitive to the players I had chosen and their strengths and the sound we were going to recreate. So I scrapped all that material and started over.

You won your first Juno with Dapp Theory for The Seasons of Being, and then a second one with Unison for The reMISSION. Is there a reason why you formed these separate groups with their own names, as opposed to, say, the Andy Milne Quintet and the Andy Milne Trio?

I think a name has a vibe. It’s sort of a jumping-off point and a coming-home point. It’s like when you give a title to something and then you start writing it. It has a sense of origin. You can give something an identity … and it delineates [it]. There is such an aesthetic at play. People are familiar enough with a group like Dapp Theory that they understand there are certain people who are in the group and there’s a certain kind of aesthetic presentation that’s different from Unison.

Now that things are opening up a little bit, what’s coming up for you?

I am going to attempt to record a solo piano record at my home studio, because I have a beautiful instrument and I have a great environment. The last couple of years prior to the pandemic, I had been in transition because I was relocating and it was tough to put an effort into really sculpting a space. Now I have that, so I’m eager to be practising and playing again. That’s the plan for the second part of the summer — to record a solo piano recording here. I also just submitted a film score to the Zurich Film Festival, so I’m anxious to see what the verdict is on that. I was doing a lot of film scoring a few years ago, and I had the good fortune of being able to collaborate with William Shatner on some projects. I’m interested in doing some more film scoring. Submitting this score was an opportunity to rethink my setup and how I use certain instruments. It’s a testing ground for yourself to see where you’re at musically, even though it’s not necessarily what I do all the time. You have to constantly refine your outlook on something. That was the impetus.

This interview has been edited and condensed.