She might not be on your radar yet, but Mila J should be. With a velvety voice, effortlessly good dancing and striking looks (she's of Japanese, African American and Native American descent), the L.A. singer is poised to break out of the pack of artists leading a new R&B wave. After getting her start singing in two different girl groups and then taking a hiatus from music altogether, Mila J re-signed with Motown Records just last year and is set to release her debut album, M.I.L.A., in August. While she's gearing up to re-launch her career, she's already got an avid fanbase at the ready: 60,000 people follow her on Twitter, her self-released 2012 mixtape, Battlefield America Soundtrack Vol.1, has racked up over 600,000 downloads and her current single, "Smoke, Drink, Break-Up," released in March, is #33 on Billboard's R&B/Hip Hop charts. We caught up with Mila J over the phone to chat about her album, growing up in a musical family in L.A. (her sister is Drake protégée Jhené Aiko btw), and getting ready for her first tour with L.A. rapper and close friend, Ty Dolla $ign.
How does it feel to be back writing and making music?
It feels great. I took a pretty lengthy break, so it feels like it's the first time all over again.
Why did you take such a long break?
Well, two things. I had been in music since I was like 5 or 6 years old. I had a couple of setbacks with groups not working out. I took a second to refresh and regroup and develop myself as a solo artist and to take a break from it all, honestly. Growing up, I was never a solo artist. In groups, you have to compromise and for me, it was like "what is my voice?" and "what am I singing about?" [With a solo career] I had more control over everything from the subject matter to how I dress. I was able to find out who I was on my own.
What was your inspiration for "Smoke, Drink, Break Up"?
It was unfortunately inspired by some real stories. My friends and I were talking about having to be out of your mind just to be with a particular person -- it's kind of a play on words.
Ty Dolla $ign plays your love interest in "Smoke, Drink, Break-Up" and you guys are going on tour together this summer. How did you two meet and become friends?
What's funny is we actually go way back to when I was first in the industry as a kid. We had mutual friends. I actually didn't realize he was the same person, because he looks different now. It just made sense to work together -- we already knew each other. It's kind of cool seeing everything come full circle with people you came into the game with.
Who sound and vibes can we expect from your new album, M.I.L.A?
There's a '90s vibe. My records tend to take it back, and I dance, too, so I'm really trying to bring back that ['90s R&B] element.
What are the songs about?
A lot of them are about relationships. They're aggressive -- not in a bashing men way but keeping it 100 with them. A lot of my songs are about being that girl who's down, about being there in the good times and the bad times.
And M.I.L.A stands for Made In Los Angeles. What was it like growing up in L.A.? How has the city influenced your music?
It was great growing up in L.A. It's such a melting pot. I wanted to make the city go with my name because I feel like there aren't too many people that are actually born and raised in L.A. Everyone is from somewhere else. People have the whole image of what an L.A. girl is but you have to give L.A. people a chance. They are just as normal and real as people from everywhere else. Let me rep for my city the way that the rappers do.
How do you feel about the current state of R&B?
I think R&B is in a good place right now. I love Frank Ocean. It's different than it was in the '90s. I think it's dope, it's progressing and evolving, you can respect a lot of the artists coming out right now. It doesn't seem manufactured.
Let's talk about your dancing. You've got some moves. How long have you been dancing and how does that influence you musically?
I started off as a dancer and was dancing in a company when I was about 5 or 6. I ended up booking Prince's "Diamonds and Pearls" video and that was my first taste of music. My dad was a musician, we had a studio in our garage, and it just kind of progressed.
Is it ever frustrating to get remarks about comparison and competition between you and your sister? How do you deal with that?
No, it's not frustrating because that is my sister. And then on top of that she's the baby and I'm proud of everything she's doing. People aren't really comparing us. People are looking at us like the singing Kardashians. Before reality TV, people were more about pitting people against each other. Now it's more of a positive reaction.
What was it like for you and Jhené to grow up in such a musical family?
My older sister sings, too, and my older brother raps so people think when we're together we sing all the time, but we're really like a normal family. We do love to harmonize. [Growing up] was pretty normal unless it was time to go into my studio. We weren't like sitting around the piano all the time. If someone came over they probably wouldn't know we were artists. When it's family time, it's family time.
Will there be any Jhené and Mila J songs in the future?
I definitely see that happening in the future.
If you weren't a musician, what would you be doing?
I got into skincare really heavy, so probably something in beauty. I ended up getting my esthetician license. Or, I would be a photographer. I love taking pictures of people.