The bonafide polymath is kicking off a new era with the psychedelic, maximalist ‘Quicksand’. In our exclusive interview, she explains how her future will be defined not by one singular path, but a kaleidoscope of ambition.
Milan Ring enjoys sharing anecdotes about fellow artists she's encountered serendipitously – SZA, James Blake, The Avalanches... But the Sydney (Eora) future soul auteur has long exuded mystique, her songs alluding to youthful indiscretions and struggles with dependency and depression. Now, two years after her ruminative debut I'm Feeling Hopeful, Ring is extolling a "new era" – and she's feeling sanguine, even free. Romance is in the air.
It's late on Friday arvo and Ring is Zooming from her pad in Sydney’s inner-west, "running around" earlier in the summer heat "doing a few errands" and organising a video shoot. "It's a stinky day to do anything," she exhales. Ring jokes about "humid head chaos”. But she's keen to promote her latest single Quicksand.
Ring – who has Chinese, Indian and Australian heritage – is attached to the multicultural area, growing up in Petersham. In fact, she recorded I'm Feeling Hopeful in an industrial building in Marrickville when she was living in a sharehouse. Today Ring has a sanctuary of her own. "I was like, 'I really would love to live alone and have a little lounge room studio.'" Though not soundproof, the space offers serenity. "It's just light and there's plants and there's some Hindu deities around – and it's got a nice light energy to it."
Ring is chary to spoiler any secret PR strategy for a sophomore roll-out – "it's all about the bread-crumbing effect, isn't it?" she teases. But Ring has broken her drought, issuing the summery Mangos in November. Live, the indie R&B star hints at big plans for 2024, including a return to Europe (she toured with her pals Winston Surfshirt over Autumn) and inaugural dates in the US.
Ring is a bona fide polymath – a singer, rapper, multi-instrumentalist, producer, audio engineer and music director. She learned to play keys in childhood, but later became enamoured of the guitar, joining bands and gigging as a sessionist. These days Ring is primarily renowned as an expressive vocalist, rather than a virtuoso guitarist – frustrating considering pop's gender disparities. "I've always had that as my second voice, in a way," she says. "I think people don't know I play guitar sometimes. So I like to tell them again."
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In between, Ring studied production and sound engineering. Indeed, she may be the homegrown equivalent of Prince, who famously had the catchphrase "produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince" in his albums’ liner notes. Regardless, Ring is widely acknowledged as a leader in Australia's surging homegrown R&B movement.
Assuming the early handle 'Milan', a sibylline Ring introduced her mode of neo-soul with 2014's EP Glassy Eyes. Developing an experimental, pluralistic style, the performer established her eminence with the cult singles Drifting and Green Light – the Australian pearl company Paspaley syncing the latter for a global campaign directed by Joseph Kahn. Ring soon lent those dynamic skills to others, helming Arno Faraji's 2019 hit Scalin'.
Pondering her decade-long trajectory, and an expansive catalogue, Ring is philosophical – the prodigy haunted by imposterism and (maladaptive) perfectionism. "It depends what day you ask me but I think overall, yeah, I definitely feel proud," she says. "Also life is life... It's hard to create that much music, independently, and be producing it and mixing it – and so much of that music was self-released as well. I was really just giving it all a go – like I was self-managed for quite a while."
Recently, Ring revisited Glassy Eyes. "It's not often we sit and look back and reflect as artists," she admits. "So I was just curious – I was like, 'I wonder if my mixes have even gotten better? Or my production?'"
Ring realised that she's "exponentially gotten better”, but discerned something else. "There's this thing that's still 'me' that's there. I was like, 'I guess that does still just sound like a young me' – which was cool, 'cause [at the time] you don't really know. You're just sort of playing around – and what is being authentic and all of these things when we're borrowing stuff and exploring music?"
Ring has impressed industry types with wild collaborations. She once sang alongside SZA in the studio with Chance The Rapper's band The Social Experiment in Los Angeles. "It was unintentional – it wasn't a planned session," Ring stresses. "But we were all there together, all jamming. And we did exchange details and everything like that. [SZA] was absolutely lovely. It was just before her Ctrl album and before she blew up."
Mid-2021 Ring pulled off a smooth mash-up of SZA's Love Galore and Broken Clocks for triple j's Like A Version. Did she receive feedback from Top Dawg Entertainment's First Lady? "No, I actually didn't, but that's cool," Ring laughs graciously. "We kept in contact [for] a little bit on Instagram, but definitely not anymore. She's just a little bit famous – no, no. But I've got so much love for her.”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Ring consummated a debut album, I'm Feeling Hopeful – expanding her dubby electronic soul with guests like the South London MC Che Lingo (from Idris Elba's 7Wallace stable), Chicago's Jean Deaux, Barkaa and BLESSED.
"It was finally the right time," she explains. "Having the touring stop and being in lockdown, I was like, 'Well, if I'm not gonna make an album now, then what excuse do I have? There's not much else going on.' Of course, though, it was still difficult. It's not like it was an incredibly inspiring time.
“I think, for me, it's been overwhelming throughout my musical journey to try to figure out how to complete this big collection of songs... So it was a challenge. But that time allowed me to go, 'Okay, no, I'm gonna do it.'"
Determined to approach the album purposefully, Ring already had an "emotional concept". She explains: ”I didn't want it to sound like a collection of random songs. I wanted it to be a body of work and have it be of a certain time."
As such, the transformative I'm Feeling Hopeful was as much about spiritual healing as psychological trauma, Ring symbolically contemplating her diasporic identity. "I just knew I wanted to lean into certain themes that I think really make me 'me' and the things that are constantly on my mind: mental health and depression and addiction...”
Touring behind the LP proved tenuous – reoccurring waves of the virus, shutdowns and border closures were "very challenging” for her. "I kind of got used to disappointment – but I lean towards pessimistic,” she says, “so I was like, 'Ah, here we go again.'" Ring eventually hit the road in April 2022, with a highlight being an "intimate" concert at the Darlinghurst Theatre Company. "I'll always remember that gig." She believes that, post-pandemic, punters value live shows more.
Ring has stayed busy. Last July, she featured on Ta-ku's single WAY OUT alongside the Canadian producer Matt McWaters and The Roots' drummer Questlove – her buzziest collab since gracing B Wise's Afro-beat bop Ezinna with Sampa The Great. Questlove's involvement came as "a surprise”, although he'd previously followed Ring on Instagram. "He wrote to me being like, 'Love your voice!' and I think I wrote back, 'Love your drumming!' What do I write to Questlove? 'Thank you!’"
But Ring is unsure about the fate of some songs she demoed with The Avalanches in another "organic" exchange – the Sydneysider supported them in 2021, and lately playlisted their song Oh The Sunn! for Wonderland Magazine. "We randomly chat now and then – we keep in contact," she says. "We're like, 'We've gotta get back in the studio!'"
Besides, Ring isn't predisposed to bug peers. "It's so interesting in the music industry – you make so much stuff that just never gets released. There's so many cool songs I've written with other artists."
For the present, Ring is prioritising her solo endeavours as she ushers in "a new phase – definitely a new chapter, definitely a new journal purchased at Officeworks – like definitely a new start."
Ring's fresh output is uncharacteristically buoyant – and accentuates her fluid guitar. She made the sensual and sultry Mangos with 18YOMAN (Vincent Goodyer) – the Bunaba hotshot winning an ARIA for co-producing Kaiit's Miss Shiney and notably credited on Kid Cudi and Lil Nas X projects. The pair had moved in similar circles but "are really great friends now”, Ring says. "We actually went to the same school, but I didn't really know him then. He was a year below me or something like that. He's not 18, I'm just saying!"
The two had multiple sessions generating samples for beatmakers. Later, on a writing retreat, Ring reviewed an instrumental titled My Favourite Drink and, "inspired", turned it into a song. She cut the pitched-down vocal hook on a laptop mic, retaining it for the final. "I kind of liked how fucking bad it was,” she quips. However, Ring was especially pleased with her innovative addition of the guzheng – "which I still pronounce wrong, because I don't speak Cantonese or Mandarin, but my grandmother spoke both and she played that in school" – or, at least, the "MIDI version" of the traditional Chinese zither.
Different again, Quicksand is psychedelic maximalism with stacked harmonies, vintage piano and an aerial groove. The single was initiated by 18YOMAN, LEN20 and BLESSED – "a dream production trio," Ring declares. She subsequently recognised its potential. "I was like, 'Hey, that's so great – I'm taking it!'" The absent musician "ripped it apart”, "switched up the beat" and layered the track with guitar. "It's a weird song. I don't know what genre it is at all – like I have no idea. And that's fine."
Lyrically, Quicksand is a plea to resist pressure to relentlessly compete – "trying not to rush your way up this ladder you've created, 'cause it keeps sinking," Ring says. "It's about capitalism in a lot of ways, but it's actually kind of not as well. It's about your internal walls and glass ceilings that can come from the outside [but] you can internalise and then create them yourself, and how to push past that. I'm still figuring that out."
Ring's new direction might be the counterpoint to I'm Feeling Hopeful. "Even though the album has the hope and all of that, it was still a lot to pull up and it was heavy," she concedes. "But afterwards, I was like, 'Oh, I do feel lighter. [Now] I just wanna make some fun songs and be silly and playful.' I had some new plug-ins and toys – and I just wanted to be a bit more quirky and alternative. I didn't wanna have any particular genre restrictions, per se. I just wanted to see what happened and what could come out of my weird head. And I think some weird things have come out... Weird but cool, I hope."
Ring has also written more love songs in the Mangos vein. "I have had a really lovely romance for a while," she says bashfully.
Ring's personal listening habits are pertinent. She "loved" James Blake's clubby Playing Robots Into Heaven. "I actually pumped that in the house yesterday while I was making a guacamole!" In the past Ring has chatted with the Brit. "He is super nice. I met him randomly backstage at Splendour [In The Grass in 2019]. We were both ordering hot chips and we just started a conversation about chips, basically. And then I was like, 'Oh, thanks for your music, I'm a big fan' at the end. Then he was like, 'Oh, cool. What do you think of the set? I actually wanted to continue talking about it.' I was like, 'Okay, cool!,' because I didn't wanna fan girl too hard."
Still into avant R&B, Ring rated Kelela's RAVEN and Sampha's LAHAI – but is "obsessed with" South London guitarist Mansur Brown. "I feel like we have a similar tone sometimes."
And she's pursuing pastimes aside from music. "I have lots of weird interests – and I go through weird phases," Ring divulges.
Ever-questioning, Ring reads books on philosophy and psychology – and is currently researching Taoism. She's into podcasts, too. "I like my AI, tech podcasts; I like my environmental podcasts… I'm a nerd. I like science things." Ring pens poetry – "I intend to put some out there." Plus she cooks and works out. "I like to go out and party as well, and dance," she enthuses. "But, other than that, it's just music, music, music."
Many an artist is anxious about artificial intelligence, but Ring is receptive. In 2020 she messed around with machine-learning tools in a Google Creative Lab, dramatically observing that it was prior to all the "'AI's gonna take over the world' conversations”. Ring reasons, "I think it's a tool you can use, just like anything, to enhance your creativity – and I hope that that is where it remains."
Nevertheless, Ring understands the misapprehension. "I definitely have swung on both sides," she says of the debate. "At the same time, I have this hope. I think things can't really replace the human. Sure, it's nice to perfect things, and make it all perfect and get a computer to make it [perfect]… I suppose you could tune in imperfection – that's the other thing.
"But, overall, it's [about] the emotion and the imperfection in a human and a work of art and, at the end of the day, it's how we relate to one another and our story and our human experience. So I think humans, for the most part, are still gonna appreciate art."