After paying her dues, Andreena Mill is ready for her close-up
Andreena Mill is ready for her close-up. For years, the Toronto R&B singer-songwriter has been steadily working her way into the public eye—first as a member of an ill-fated R&B trio then through a number of singles and cameo appearances, most notably as a head-turning voice on Drake’s early material. Now, with the release of her debut album, All Eyes On Me, Mill is moving to centre stage.
When I speak with Mill, she’s in Toronto. But these days, she’s often in Los Angeles or New York working on opportunities that her Universal Music Publishing deal has provided her, like writing songs for R&B stars Keyshia Cole and Trey Songz, and collaborating with acclaimed songwriters like Brian Michael Cox who has worked with Mariah Carey, Usher and Mary J. Blige. Despite aligning with heavy hitters, Mill doesn’t seem intimidated or worried about the fate of her songs. “Sometimes they keep them, sometimes they don’t,” she says. “But you never know.”
If one thing’s for sure though, it’s that Mill’s songwriting and musical prowess was cultivated at a young age by influences such as Stevie Wonder and her reggae musician father who enrolled her in piano lessons at age four and had her songwriting by 10. “He’s been the influence when it came to me singing because I was so shy as a child and he always encouraged me,” she says. “He also showed me how to use the piano and how to start putting together songs.”
While studying at the Etobicoke School of the Arts, Mill joined R&B trio X-Quisite, with Melanie Fiona and Nicole Holness, who went on to become a Grammy-nominated singer and MTV Canada host, respectively. Mill was the first member to leave, but still counts Holness and Fiona as friends.
Another artist with whom Mill formed a strong bond was Drake. On his 2007 Comeback Season mixtape, she appeared twice: “I think we share the same passion when it comes to music,” Mill, who believes they will work together again, says. “The constant discipline of being in the booth, always writing and expressing emotion, I think that’s what made us so close.”
However, it was the momentum of You and Tomorrow, her collaboration with Saukrates, which made Mill take the mixtape route. After the single’s buzz, she worked with DJ Lissa Monet on 2009’s free release Ready to Fly. Soon after, Mill signed her publishing deal, widening her opportunities to write for others.
The songs Mill has written for herself on All Eyes On Me, like the single Key to Your Heart, can explore oft-unspoken vulnerabilities and frailties. “Honesty,” she says when defining the essence of her songwriting process. “Being very honest with my emotions, being honest with the things that I would say. Or trying to [create] records to make people say, ‘Yeah, I really love someone that way’ or ‘I really can’t stand someone that way.’”
With Mill’s narrative writing style, it’s no wonder she focuses on words, even during live shows. “I like to switch things up so people can really hear what’s being said or catch the emotion of the song rather than just the beat.” That, however, doesn’t mean she is averse to working with skilled beat makers. The album features various Toronto producers such as Boi-1da, Tone Mason, her main collaborator Snaz and Mill herself. “I wanted the album to be based on the sound that’s from this city,” Mill says. “That’s why I chose to collab’ with a lot of the producers from here.”
It’s also Mill’s way of ensuring that despite the growing demand for her talents and time across the border, home remains a focal point. “I grew up on reggae music and jazz, and a lot of people around me did as well,” she says. “They are who I work with, so you just kind of take everything and mould it together and it becomes this. It’s the sound of Toronto. It’s loud! It’s fresh!”