By Jacob Katel
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I prefer to let my music do most of the talking," announces Miami-based singer-songwriter Deblois Milledge as she appears at the door of this reporter's house armed with a guitar, a mandolin, several CDs, and a promotional DVD. She slips the latter into her laptop, and out flows a sampling of her earthy folk rock and lyrics, as heard on the song "Crazy." Then she starts to talk, and it's obvious her spoken words are as fluid as her creative musical process.
"It's the song that you write when you're looking back on that time you're literally sitting on your bathroom floor and it feels like your guts are kicked in. But I wrote it from a place 10 years ago to where it almost feels funny now," she says now about "Crazy." She stares up at the ceiling and chuckles at her own resilience, before uttering a few more lines about deciding that someone you once thought of as a meteor shower can later dim to a pile of rocks.
Deblois is a rock of sorts — a diamond that's coming out of the last of its rough stages. During the next two months she'll be polishing up the songs for her new album, and then heading to Los Angeles to follow that city's strong folk-rock vibe.
She's sad she can't take her favorite collaborating guitarist, Buffalo Brown, and bassist, Nathan Greenburg, with her, as they've been an integral part of her creative process. "I pick my artistic partners carefully," she says. "Buffalo — how easy can you get? He has that great musical sixth sense." And she says Greenburg is "very devoted to the projects he works on. He has a really understated vibe that's about supporting the art as a whole."
Still, she's confident the two Angelenos she's found are pretty intuitive themselves. Drummer and producer Danny Campbell has his own production studio in L.A., and guitarist Dave Curtis has an edgy sound that should jive with the West Coast surf crowd. They've already helped Deblois line up some gigs at the House of Blues, the Derby, and Hotel Café, venues that fit L.A.'s vibrant singer-songwriter scene.
"It's really down to earth. It's a roots music movement," she says. In fact, it's a bit like coming home.
"I was always really drawn to the campfire side of guitar. My parents are from the South, so there's also a lot of front porch time," says the Miamian, her husky voice unconsciously meandering into a Southern drawl.
Deblois has been performing for as long as she can remember, but her real break came after a five-year adventure in Costa Rica between 2000 and 2005. She ran the Sweetwater Surf School on the country's Pacific Coast by day, and hung in hammocks plucking out tunes on her guitar by night.
By the time she returned to the States, she had enough material for two albums: Leviathan (2006) and Velveteen (2007). Both run in the vein of Emmy Lou Harris, Lucinda Williams, James Taylor, Norah Jones, and her personal favorite, the Indigo Girls.
Coming up with dozens of likable songs was easy. Getting them recorded was the tricky part. "I had to paint houses and put up drywall and work construction before I could pay for my first album," she says. Then she leans back, relaxed and confident. "I haven't really looked back since. I've had some lean months but for the most part, I get by."
Deblois was pretty much raised on resilience. Take, for example, the time her dad nearly sent her straight into the mouths of murky Everglades monsters, as described on "South of Okeechobee" (Leviathan). Its lyrics recount how her dad loaded her into her crib and set her in a johnboat along a creek while he walked into the cabin they were renting to put some things away. Minutes later, Deblois's mother walked outside to find the boat had slipped out into the middle of the creek's alligator-infested waters. "My dad was in trouble for a long time; it about made my mama crazy," laughs Deblois.
She giggles when asked if that experience prompted her risk-taking behavior — moving to a foreign country, diving into some of the most treacherous waves on the Pacific, and willingly becoming a starving artist. It was actually in Costa Rica, she says, that she learned to become more disciplined as an artist, though she's not sure if it was the culture or just an inevitable growth process.
"Did college make you smarter or did you just get older?" she asks cheekily. "Costa Rica was just a huge chapter for me." It was the place where she learned to be a better businessperson and maybe even work through some of her past pain. When Deblois was 16, her mother suddenly died of cancer. Over the course of the next few years, a young Deblois would bumble about from one band to the next, trying to figure out her sound, herself, and how to manage a team of musicians.
"It's very difficult to be a band leader and a young woman and find your own voice as an artist," she says. Costa Rica allowed her to find her voice and run the show at the surf shop. Still, Miami is where she learned to let her emotions flow freely through her music, a feat she's convinced will be obvious by the time she hatches album number three in L.A. next spring.
"If you put your heart on your sleeve, everyone will say 'I know that heart,' not because it's yours but because it's theirs," reflects Deblois. "I'm a little more willing now to show the blood and guts, not just wipe the mascara."
That's exactly what she does on new songs such as "Fire in the City," which is about getting stuck between the Southern California wildfires and the Pacific Ocean. "It's very percussive with extremely fast lyrics and a heavy delivery," she says. But once again, she shows her buoyancy on the new track "Make Me Like a Boat," which she describes as "swampy." "Calling for Change" is a tribute to the way President-elect Barack Obama rocked the boat of American politics and ideology. But she says it's really about all kinds of change — about learning to overcome anything that seemed nearly impossible.
"Sometimes you do want to just flip everything on its head — I guess I kind of meant to turn the ship around, but I was feeling melodramatic," Deblois says.
It's that ability to ride the waves and paddle back into them that will surely impress Angelenos as much as it has Miamians. That, and the way her voice catches its listeners with a few sweet notes, pulls them upward with deep-chested voluminous force, and then rides them down into a reflective whisper. "I just really believe in jumping in," she says. "That's how I like to roll."