Sound & Vision #19: June Millington

By

Welcome back to Sound & Vision, the Rumpus profile series that spotlights the creative talents of those working behind the scenes in the music industry. Long before there was Carrie Brownstein or Courtney Barnett, there was June Millington. Born in the Philippines in 1948, Millington moved with her family to California in her early teens, where she and her sister, Jean, both took up guitar. The two formed a succession of all-girl bands before forming a lineup that caught the attention of the legendary producer Richard Perry, who signed them to Reprise. In 1970, Fanny became the first all-female rock band to release an album on a major label.

Over the next five years, Fanny cracked the Billboard Top 40 twice, and counted among its fans Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and George Harrison—who went as far as to call the band “the female Beatles.” After Fanny disbanded, Millington became involved in the women’s music movement, playing and touring alongside Cris Williamson in support of the 1975 album The Changer and the Changed, considered by many to be the definitive work of the genre. In 1986 Millington co-founded the Institute for the Musical Arts, a non-profit performing and recording facility to support women and girls in music and music-related businesses. Still active in making music, Millington has also recently published a fascinating new memoir: Land of a Thousand Bridges: Island Girl in a Rock & Roll World. On February 21st, she’ll be honored at a musical tribute in Northampton, Massachusetts by Gail Ann Dorsey, Earl Slick, Jill Sobule, and other musical artists.

I recently had the honor of interviewing Millington at the IMA. In addition to sharing her music, stories, and ideas with me, Millington also shared exclusive content from the forthcoming Land of a Thousand Bridges companion audiobook, which she’s producing now. Along with our discussion, I’m delighted to pass along an excerpt so you can hear Millington, in her own words and music, talk about what draws her to guitar and how she’s successfully navigated her musical career.

***

The Rumpus: I thought I might start out by asking you how about you first came to music.

June Millington: I don’t think I came to music. I think music came to me—or was already embedded when I came into this sphere, this realm, this Earth. And that feels really good because it’s part of the fabric that makes me feel a part of everything.

Rumpus: I believe I read somewhere that you started out on ukulele. Did you come from a musical family?

Millington: Well, I came from the Philippines and Filipinos are incredibly musical. I mean the best cover bands in the world come from Manila! And I had an aunt by marriage who had gone to Julliard, believe it or not, and she taught me piano from about age five to eight. But I was more interested in playing in the trees [laughs], so my mom was like, “Fine, then. Stop. Quit.” But I do have that in my background. There was actually an amazing psychic in New York—I saw her in the late seventies and early eighties, and she told me I was a composer in Germany, and I don’t know how I would do this, but she told me if I were to look around I would find the school that’s named after me. It’s interesting because I wasn’t always so interested in classical music, but I do know it and I can write orchestral parts with my guitar.

Rumpus: If classical didn’t grab you, what kinds of music were you listening to when you were growing up?

Millington: Stuff on the radio: “Yellow Bird” by Harry Belafonte, “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley,” “Travelin’ Man” by Ricky Nelson, all the early Elvis Presley stuff—“Won’t You Wear My Ring Around Your Neck?”—which rocks on ukulele by the way—“Paper Roses” by Anita Bryant. We loved Johnny Mathis. “Tell Laura I Love Her,” and all those sappy teenage “death songs”—oh my god, my sister Jean and I ate those up! You’ve got to get into drama and pathos, but in three minutes you’re out of it. [Laughs] That’s what’s so great about songs!

Rumpus: When did you first become specifically enchanted by the guitar?

Millington: We were going to a Catholic girls’ school called Assumption College the last year we were in the Philippines. I was in the seventh grade, and it was my last day of school. Mother Milagros, who was the strictest of the strict, was at the podium in front of us when I heard a sound coming from somewhere. I stood up and walked out of that class, and it was like I was invisible. She didn’t say a word! I walked down the hall to another classroom, and there was this girl playing an acoustic guitar. She didn’t even look at me. Maybe she didn’t notice I was there! But I kind of think she was a guardian angel who was sent down to let me know—I knew instantly that guitar was going to be my liberation.

Rumpus: Did you get your own guitar right away?

Millington: From that moment on, I was completely obsessed, thunderstruck, and inspired. I had to have one. I must have gone home and talked about it incessantly, and for my birthday that year my mom surprised me with a small handmade mother of pearl inlaid guitar made by someone in the southern Philippines. When I got my second guitar, Jean must have started playing my first one. Eventually I went to a pawnshop with my dad, and we bought a little Sears rig that came with a guitar and amp.

Millington_pic2

Rumpus: Tell me more about how the guitar did in fact liberate you.

Millington: Jean and I got good grades in school, but outside of school we did nothing but practice music, playing songs off the radio, and slowly but surely we went from playing at hootenannies to playing during breaks at our boyfriends’ surf band gigs. This was like ’61 to ’64. And that was sort of our secret, magical life. We were two girls who were bicultural and biracial. Our dad was American, and our mother was Filipina, and everything we heard that touched us we went to immediately. I can still remember when I first heard the Beach Boys’s “Don’t Worry Baby” in Junior High. I loved it because we weren’t accepted in school. People didn’t even know where the Philippines was. They had no idea who we were, or where we came from. So to hear somebody say “Don’t Worry Baby,” in that incredible bed of music (and of course we all know now that was Carol Kaye on bass), well, that was my rock ‘n’ roll go to sleep song, my lullaby.

Rumpus: For a young woman to get involved in folk music in the early sixties, I suppose that was a lot more acceptable than a young woman playing an electric guitar. Where were you drawn musically?

Millington: Well, you can’t even think of it that way. There was no conception of a woman playing an electric guitar.

Rumpus: So were you thinking: “I want to do this thing: play guitar period—and that seems impossible”?

Millington: No. Jean and I were consumed with a fire: “We’ve got to do this!” After playing together during breaks at our boyfriends’ gigs, we met two other girls, and then it became the four of us singing and playing acoustic guitars together. We were doing a lot of Motown back then—if you can imagine us along with two white girls doing songs like “Heat Wave” and “Nowhere to Run.” But we were learning how to play songs together as a band, you know, figuring out the components of a song—how can you make it rock and groove.

I call this journey rock ‘n’ roll “manifest destiny.” We were actually meant to do it, so we didn’t stop to think about it for a moment. It was like a shaft of light had come down on us, and it was so powerful and so strong, that we just went with it. Also, we came from the Philippines, so we knew how to study and we had discipline. We got good grades, but we would also sometimes sneak out of the house at night, literally out of the bedroom window, and drive to rehearse with the other two girls.

Rumpus: It sounds, in a way, like that fact that no one had done this before also meant there wasn’t any failure for you to overcome.

Millington_pic3Millington: Yeah. We had no one to compare ourselves with. There were other girl bands but they weren’t so visible and we didn’t know about them. For example, Goldie and the Gingerbreads had had their single out in New York but out in California we didn’t know anything about it. So there we were in our own little world in Sacramento, which was just bucolic enough to be away from the fire about to consume so many kids our age, and that was “flower power” and the music coming out of Haight-Ashbury. If you could have stood on the corner of Haight-Ashbury, say in 1967 or ’68, something would have ignited in you. But by then it wasn’t so innocent anymore, and a lot of people literally got lost in a “purple haze.”

Rumpus: Did your parents support you as your musical career started taking off?

Millington: We asked our dad for some money for equipment and he said no. But my mom saw how happy playing made us so she went to the music store without telling my dad and signed for about $500 worth of equipment—I’m talking about 1965—so that was a huge leap. Thank god because we couldn’t have done it without her. We were crossing a threshold and we took off. How did we get some of those early gigs? Maybe someone would tell us about a school dance, and then I heard we could play at Air Force bases and whatnot. So I’d call and get us a gig. During the Vietnam War the USO needed performers, and who better than a band that could do “Stop in the Name of Love” and be all girls? Come on!

Then we heard about teen centers, so we’d play all over, in Chico, then Redding and Santa Clara. In fact, once in Santa Clara we were on a bill with maybe three or five bands, and the band up after us was really good. I mean I could really feel something. It was Creedence Clearwater Revival! Back then no one knew who they were. And in ’66-’67 I went to UC-Davis and there I saw Buffalo Springfield. Jean and I were standing next to each other and we just couldn’t believe it.

Rumpus: When people first saw your all-female rock band, how did they react? Did they see women first, or musicians first, or was it some sort of complicated combination of reactions?

Millington_pic4Millington: I don’t think they saw musicians because there was no context for that. So I think they were seeing girls. For the most part people would get slightly excited but they’d get more nervous than excited. We were nervous too. What if we weren’t good? Everyone would be humiliated. We definitely knew we were representing. In the beginning people in the audience would be shuffling around, there was a lot of nervous energy, sometimes some of the boys would be openly sneering, but as soon as we hit it everyone would be dancing and singing along. That’s the great thing about music. You can’t hold joy back!

Rumpus: Let’s talk about Fanny, how that band was both a culmination of your sustained effort and defiance of expectations, getting folks to go from sneering to being stunned.

Millington: Going from sneering to smiling!

Rumpus: Yes, smiling! At what point were you thinking about going from playing gigs to landing a recording contract, etc.?

Millington: As a musician, of course that’s always on your mind. We’d been playing a lot, for example in the summer of ’66 we’d played a club in Reno six days a week, doing maybe five sets a night. We’d been getting really good, and really known, but it was getting to be a bit of a grind and we knew we needed to get to LA. We had a manager, Linda Kavars, who had come out to California from Iowa with our drummer Alice de Buhr. She went down to LA twice to shop our tape. On the second trip, she made the rounds, including to Johnny Rivers’s office and he just kind of pooh-poohed her. Then she approached the Cohen brothers, Herb and Mutt, and they too said, “You can’t have an all-girl band! They’ll get pregnant, and they’ll never stay together.” She stormed out of the office crying, but Mutt’s secretary went after her, and said he wanted her to come back. Mutt said, “If you so believe in this band, I’ll set up a night at the Troubadour.

Rumpus: And how did that gig get Fanny connected with Reprise?

Millington: The Troubadour show wasn’t a gig per se. It was an open hoot. We went down to LA in our “magic school bus” that my dad had transformed for us by painting it blue on the outside and orange on the inside. How psychedelic is that?

Millington_pic5

When we got there, we found out the Cohen brothers had invited a bunch of industry people to hear us play. Among them was Richard Perry’s secretary—Perry was a staff producer at that time at Reprise. After the show we were just about to leave the Tropicana Motel where we’d been staying, and the phone rang. Everything was already packed up in the bus, but we answered and it was Perry’s secretary, Norma Kemper (a great lady who I’m still in touch with!). She told Richard she saw the band and loved us and he arranged for us to stop by Wally Heider’s studio and audition for him on our way out of town. Richard is musically intelligent and he could see that we could play. He fell in love with us, and our playing, and we fell in love with him because he loved us.

Rumpus: And you’re off and running!

Millington: Richard had just had a hit with Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” and right before that he had produced Captain Beefheart. He got Mo Ostin to sign us sight unseen. A place had been arranged for us in Hollywood, which just happened to be Hedy Lamarr’s old house! It was about three blocks up from the Chateau Marmont, and it overlooked Sunset Strip. It was beautiful. It looked like an old castle transported right from Austria or something, and the vibe was electric. We called it “Fanny Hill”—which happens also to be the name of our third album; the one we recorded at Apple Studios.

Rumpus: Wow. I understand there was a lot more artist development in those days—maybe also more label support overall.

Millington_pic6Millington: Yes, and it was organic. Having the team invite select executives from the record company to come to either the Fanny Hill basement, which was our rehearsal space, or to the sound stage on the movie lot so all they had to do was get in a car and drive over or walk over to see us play, meant the entire company was really jazzed about us. Also, there was a lot of camaraderie among the bands. I remember a lot of times when I’d be driving up Laurel Canyon and pass by the house where Frank Zappa was living and I’d just see people out on the porch playing guitars.

Rumpus: How did Fanny select material to record?

Millington: Our covers were material we had already done earlier with our pre-Fanny band, the Svelts, but we wrote our own original material together. Take for example “Take a Message to the Captain,” which is a [Fanny keyboardist] Nickey Barclay song I still really love. By that time I’d met “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow of the Flying Burrito Brothers and we became really good friends. I was so influenced by him that my guitar parts on “Take a Message” are from learning his licks and also from “Rainy Night in Georgia”(the Brook Benton version).

Listen to “Take a Message to the Captain”:

Rumpus: You put out four albums with Fanny before leaving the band in 1973. What led to that decision?

Millington: I didn’t decide to leave the band as much as my body decided “I can’t do this anymore.” We had worked so hard, and done our job, and recorded great records. Why didn’t we have more hits? The only answer for me is the world at large wasn’t ready. We could play like guys, but that wasn’t good enough for us. We were intelligent women, and the mental strain of constantly having to put off perceptions about “girl bands,” and make hits, took its toll.

Rumpus: Did you ever think about leaving music altogether?

Millington: Never. As I said, music chose me. I ended up taking a sabbatical. I rented a summer home in the winter on Long Island, I took long walks, and then I ended up moving to Woodstock. It was a fertile musical area and time, and I played with a lot of different musicians there, including getting into women’s music, and I ended up playing with Cris Williamson. I was looking for that spiritual aspect, and so for me that experience was truly revolutionary. My book Land of a Thousand Bridges ends in 1975 when rock ‘n’ roll, spirituality and women’s music merge for me.

Rumpus: Was that a smooth transition for you, going from rock to women’s music?

Millington: Well, it’s interesting—and this is going to be in the next book—when I started going on the road with Cris, the tour was as rock ‘n’ roll—trust me—as anything else I’d done. In retrospect, I can see it was this calling, a time for women to come out and start being seen in a different way. I learned a lot. And for me the explosion of rock into women’s music was seamless, but not everyone saw it this way. Cris and I had so much fun together. She let me do tai chi on stage while she sang “Wild Things,” and she let me play the drums, which I’ve always loved. But a lot of women got mad at her because they thought the drums were a “man’s instrument.” Imagine my reaction given where I came from! It was a whole other self-negotiation. And when Jean and I did women’s music together a few years later, in the early ’80s, I can’t tell you how many times we were asked to turn down the volume. Eventually I realized I just have to do what I know is right, what I know is love, pure connection, and joy.

Rumpus: How did those experiences inform your decision to found the IMA, and your approach to teaching and mentoring the next generations of female musicians?

Millington: After that first tour with Cris, Olivia, which was the only women’s music recording collective at the time, put a call out to women of color asking them to a meeting to consider how they could be more involved. I was getting tired of that kind of thing, but I came, and I remember hearing this stuff about how it was going to be egalitarian, and we were going to share everything, etc. I started to hear this voice asking who’s going to take care of all these women who are getting swept up in this excitement? And I also thought, and said, “What about the women who aren’t lesbian? Don’t you also want to reach out to them?” Oh my god. You would have thought I’d said, “I’m going to kill your cat,” or something.

Cut to ten years later. I’m living with my partner, Ann Hackler, who was running the Women’s Center at Hampshire College. I was thirty-six at the time, and I was still thinking about the Olivia event, and I mentioned it to Angela Davis, who encouraged me to get started realizing my own vision of supporting women and girls in music and music-related businesses. She put me in touch with her sister, Fania, who’s a lawyer, and she became our first attorney. It took us a year or two; Ann and I drove around the country doing gigs and raising cash to get IMA started. We founded it in 1986 and got our non-profit status the following year.

Rumpus: You started one of the first residential summer rock camps for girls and young women at IMA in 2002, and so far close to a thousand have participated. What, aside from learning to play music, do you hope they’ll take away from the experience?

Millington: You know there are a lot of places where you can go to learn to play. But I call this place, and this experience, “the Magical Queendom.” It is separate, and for the time they’re here, this is sacred ground. They get an understanding here of what it’s like to work with other girls, how to make choices, and how to negotiate power. They leave here much more armed and ready for the world, not just with musical knowledge, but how to carry themselves in the world, how to fail and get back up and try again. It’s not just jamming. It’s jamming with the universe.

Rumpus: Is there specific wisdom that you hope to impart to them?

Millington: If you care enough, you keep learning. And if you super-care, you pass it along.

***

BONUS MATERIAL

1) In this exclusive excerpt from the forthcoming companion audiobook for Land of a Thousand Bridges, Millington shares her passion for playing guitar and her perspective on being a pioneering “woman in rock” (iPad/iPhone users, click here):

 

2) Here’s a video of Fanny performing Cream’s “Badge” on French TV in 1972—check out Millington’s killer guitar solo at around 1:57:

3) Hear “One for Change” a song written, performed, and recorded last year by Millington and the attendees at IMA’s performance camps:

***

All images are courtesy of June Millington. Feature photograph © Marita Madeloni. Svelts photograph © Steve Griffith. Fanny photograph © Bob Riegler. Fanny billboard © Linda Wolf. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission is strictly prohibited.

***

This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here.


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, The Brooklyn Rail and others. More from this author →