Armi Millare on self-care, growing up and the new UDD album: ‘It should be out this year’

The Up Dharma Down frontwoman ruminates about her creative process, the band’s longevity, and reconciling with fame.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Every morning for the last 25 weeks, Armi Millare has been dragging herself to a swimming pool to do laps.

Once an incorrigible night owl — “songwriting happened after hours” — she has bullishly willed herself to get up every morning, to make good on a promise she made with herself while on a particularly arduous leg of touring with her band Up Dharma Down, now abbreviated to UDD.

“I was sick a lot,” she says, “adjusting to time zones and weather changes. From east to west [in the United States], there’s a blizzard in one city and then you get back [to the west] and suddenly it’s not like that anymore.”

She started to think about mortality very seriously. “‘Because I enjoy what I do,” she says. “If I’m dead …” she trails off, chuckling. “Or if I’m physically compromised, there will be a lot of things I won’t be able to do.”

Millare had a taste of this in 2015, when sciatica left her needing a wheelchair as a result of spinal compression. There was a month when the band was touring every weekend — which meant long plane and van rides — causing her unpredictable, shooting pain 24/7.

Sciatica is throbbing pain that runs from the lower back, the glutes, and down to the back of each leg. “After that, I thought, okay, I have to shape up.”

At 34 years old, Millare was suddenly contending with her limitations, realizing how elusive longevity can be. Photo by JAKE VERZOSA; Styled by MELVIN MOJICA; Hair and make-up by PAM ROBES “So I started swimming, which I did a long time ago, but now I got back into it using a different technique.” The technique is called total immersion, a method of instruction with a focus on allowing swimmers to move through the water most efficiently. “It makes you last longer. Everything is about longevity now in my head. Whatever keeps you going,” she explains.

During one of their tours, she found herself so drained she started thinking about the end of their career. “Because I was thinking about how long we were going to do this. Tours are a lot of fun but physically, it’s one of the worst things you can do to your body if you don’t play your cards right … So I was wondering, can I do this with the same people for a long time? Like, how about their health?”

That same day, the Norwegian band D’Sound, the act behind hits like “Tattooed On My Mind” and “People Are People,” released a new song, “Only One.”

“I was so happy that they had come out with something new,” she says. “Being musicians for quite some time, they’re still doing it and that was really inspiring for me … So I posted their new single and showed my love for it.”

Millare had met the band previously, through UDD’s manager and Terno Recordings head Toti Dalmacion, when D’Sound did a show in Manila a few years ago. “And then Kim [Ofstad], the drummer, replied. He said he was proud of what I have done so far and would love to work together. I thought, ‘What???’”

Before she knew it, she was making a side trip to Oslo while on vacation in Europe. The result of the three-day sessions is “Lykkelig,” billed as a collaboration between D’Sound and Armi Millare, for which she says she wrote the happiest lyrics she has ever written.

“[For people to] make the best of times together and stay in that space for a while,” she told Bandwagon. Is that the state of mind right now? “Yes, happier and a lot less baggage, I suppose. We have a lot of baggage we’ve let out there,” she says, “that’s three albums worth of baggage.” Photo by JAKE VERZOSA; Styled by MELVIN MOJICA; Hair and make-up by PAM ROBES ***

It’s becoming a kind of New Year’s tradition, to wake up on the first day of the year to new UDD songs. It happened in 2017 with “Sigurado” (which quietly topped Spotify’s Global Viral 50 charts that week, and UDD being the first Asian act to do this), and again this year, with the one-two-three punch of “Anino,” “Stolen,” and “Crying Season.”

This year, it will be seven years since “Capacities,” the band’s last album. Every year that the band — composed of Millare on keyboard and vocals, Ean Mayor on drums, Carlos Tanada on guitar, and Paul Yap on bass — doesn’t release an album, more new bands pop up, trends change, and the industry keeps shifting. Still, UDD feels singular, of a genre of its own. Every year they don’t release an album is a year where the most anticipated OPM release is a new UDD album.

“The quality of their songs, up to this day, is still the high standard when it comes to local music,” Dalmacion says. “We don’t really try to follow what the market dictates … Despite [how] every five years or so, the trends come and go, they’ve just made their own path, just like the label has. [There are] pros and cons to that — obviously you’re not in sync with everything else and maybe that could have its effects. But that’s what I’m saying, they don’t have to adjust. They’ve crossed over and they’ve been accepted as they are.”

To tide listeners over, they released the three singles, which are about as representative of UDD’s past, present, and future as you can get.

“‘Anino’ [has been] a 17-year process,” she says. “It’s a really old song. It was written before the band was even together. And every year we would try to fix it and every album we would try to put it in and it wouldn’t work. I remember one time Ean messaged me, ‘I’m in tears. We finally finished the mix’ — that long!”

“Crying Season” is, as she says, “one of the more different songs we’ve ever done.” Perhaps having more sonically in common with the demos of songs like “Anino” rather than their finished products, it’s an emotional song for the band. It was written last August, after their road manager Sherwin De Guzman passed away just a month before.

“Sherwin really was the fifth member of the group,” she says. “The band’s meticulous and systematic setup was his instinctive work and he was that friend who glued everyone together. There is unspeakable pain in losing him.” Photo by JAKE VERZOSA; Styled by MELVIN MOJICA; Hair and make-up by PAM ROBES Meanwhile, “Stolen” is an R&B song in the vein of the ‘90s. She mentions Aaliyah, even Janet Jackson. “We wanted to pay tribute to many other artists and genres that we haven’t given attention to,” she says.

When Armi Millare was young, her mother encouraged good marks in school with a reward — a new book or a new album. “I remember CDs were so new at the time and my mom got me a Mariah Carey CD — her “MTV Unplugged” CD, with no words on its sleeves,” she says. “I would lock the door of my room and I would just sing every afternoon.”

“I guess the relationship with music has always been intimate for me,” she says. “You get a cassette tape or a CD and figure it out for yourself to listen, pause, with ears glued to the speakers and some words would even be misheard for a decade! Until Google — ‘Oh my God, that’s what it was.’”

“It was a different relationship, consuming music that way,” she adds. “One whole afternoon would be dedicated to one song, figuring it out on the piano or waiting by the radio on the off chance they would play your favorite song.”

Later, upon closer inspection of the album sleeves, she realized that Carey was doing it all — singing, writing, producing, even background vocals. “It was surprising to find out much later on that she did most of the work writing those hits,” Millare says. “I loved the work ethic behind those hits that I may have taken some of that with me.”

It might come as a surprise to know that a pop diva like Carey has served as one of Millare’s most crucial inspirations, but the last few years have only underscored how much we still don’t know about the other aspects of her artistry.

It probably really started with “Tao,” a 2015 cover of the Sampaguita classic for the “Honor Thy Father” soundtrack. Listeners always knew Armi Millare had a special voice. We knew it as early as “Maybe” and “Oo,” a perception that was fortified by later songs like “Sana” and of course, “Tadhana.” But in “Tao,” an arrangement that’s about as close to acapella as a guitar and mandolins can get, we understand the full interpretative power of that voice.

The following year, she scored the film “Apocalypse Child,” and wrote and sang its theme song, “Young Again.” Last year, she served […]

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