In strange and dark times, Grace Millo turns to music.
After being furloughed from her job as a fitness instructor, the New York-based songwriter found herself spending more time on social media, where she noticed an alarming trend in her friends’ posts. “It was almost like a wave came over my Facebook,” she tells me, “and people were just talking about how down they were. … ‘Are we going to get through this?’ and ‘I can’t even deal, I have to go to bed’ — all of these messages were there.”
Then one night, feeling depressed by what she read, Millo found herself turning to the natural comfort of music. A song was starting somewhere — in the back of her head or maybe in her heart. She began writing.
The product of that night’s brainstorm is “We Will Rise,” a song to remind us that together, we will get through these uncertain times. Available on Millo’s YouTube channel, the video is an uplifting collage of talented vocal artists, each performing Millo’s music and lyrics from the safety of their own homes — separately, but also together.
“It’s very simple,” Millo says of the song’s central message. “Of course we’re hearing that we’re all in this together; everyone is saying that all the time, but it’s true. So for me, that was what I was trying to convey, to not go into that depression that I was starting to sink into, and I wanted to write something that would inspire and uplift.”
Not a singer by nature — the guitar is her thing — Millo turned to a repertoire of singers she’s worked with over the years. She shared a recording of herself performing the song and asked them to record their own versions, giving them free rein over performance tone and style. Within a week, they’d all submitted their original recordings back to her.
“I’m just very blessed they had the time and took this seriously and really loved this song and believe in the message,” she says. “It was phenomenal!”
The most difficult part of the process was deciding what not to include. With the help of her sister, opera singer Aprile Millo, and editor, Nate Irvin, she was able to make the necessary cuts, although listening to her carefully describe the differing performance choices made by each artist, it’s easy to understand her dilemma — and to see new layers in the video. One artist approaches the song as a power ballad, while another hangs back for a more introspective approach. A third acts out the central message, beginning in a crouched position before gradually rising with the song’s progression.
For Millo, music can convey this message in a way that spoken words cannot. And as a musician, “We Will Rise” is how she knows she can help provide some hope amid the current crisis. “We love music,” she says. “I think it’s a natural thing we’re just drawn to. And it’s considered something that touches your soul. Or at least, I know for me it does. For me, the only way I know to convey is through music.”
Millo has been surrounded by music her entire life; you could say it was her destiny. Her parents were both opera singers, and her sister was a mainstay at the Metropolitan opera throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Her brother, Rick Wilder, was the frontman for punk band The Mau-Maus. There was never any question that music would be her calling too, even when Millo imagined herself going down a very different path. She recalls telling her mother once when she was very young how she wanted to be a heart doctor. She was greeted by a long silence before her mother said, “‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no” — and that was the end of that. “It was like I was laughed at for wanting to be a heart doctor!”
Raised with opera, Millo was initially encouraged to follow in her parents’ and sister’s footsteps, although she soon recognized that neither opera nor singing was for her. Through her brother, she was introduced to bands like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, finding her own passion for rock and music writing.
In the 1990s, she formed the indie rock band Amanda’s Waiting with then-girlfriend Minx. Although the band ended along with their romantic relationship, the two remain close personally and professionally — Minx appears in “We Will Rise” — and Millo went on to produce two solo albums, “Simplify” and “Quicksand Ground.” Millo has also written and composed “Connections,” a rock musical about subway performers in the days before and after 9/11. The play has been making the rounds in workshops, developmental readings, and limited-run performances, and she is hopeful to get it Broadway-bound once the city reopens.
Like 9/11, Millo sees the current pandemic as one of the defining moments of her lifetime. While the medical emergency is on a much more global scale and has taken more lives, she’s seen how both have brought out the strength and goodness in her New York community. Although the physical meetings that offered comfort in the days following 9/11 are no longer possible, she tells me, “I feel that togetherness even though we’re not together. We can’t hold each other. We can’t get together and say ‘Hey, it’s going to be okay.’ But what we’re now doing is everyone’s getting really proactive about the little Zoom parties, the happy hours. And that is how I would say yes, that’s like 9/11 to me. That feeling of camaraderie and pulling each other through.”
But she’s noticed some striking differences as well. We’re in a more divided time politically, where our president often appears pitted against state governors while counter-protestors urge their states to re-open against the advice of medical experts. She’s taking solace, however, in the fact that those she knows are content to shelter-in-place until the virus is under control.
Through her writing, she explores and tries to capture the complexity of these feelings. If “Connections” tells the story of New York in the era of 9/11, then “We Will Rise” is her anthem for the pandemic. After 9/11, “We didn’t know what we were coming back to. And I think that’s very much now, even if and when they open the city you don’t know what you’re coming back to. So, that’s the emotional resonance. It has to come out of something you feel very deeply about and then you can create a song that just covers the emotions you’re feeling and that you think other people are feeling.”
That, she says, is her proudest accomplishment as an artist: “The ability to convey emotion and touch people with my work.”
To keep her own spirits up, Millo is teaching herself to play piano and keeping fit with at-home circuits. She is also working on a song cycle, “Five Mondays,” that continues to explore the emotional territory charted in “We Will Rise.” She’s hoping to share this project within the next few months.
An avid animal lover, she is also hoping that our current predicament highlights the importance of nature, and our fellow creatures who share the earth. Her hopes for “We Will Rise” extends to them, too. “One of my biggest prayers would be that we just leave animals alone and stop poaching them and hunting them and just let them live as well. That would be beautiful.”
“We Will Rise” can be seen on Millo’s YouTube channel, along with other songs. Featured performers include David Baida, Tara Martinez, Cake, Luis Villabon, April Ortiz, Minx, and Charlie Nicholson.