Where Are They Now: Mila Mason
As the daughter of a successful performing artist who regularly opened for the Commodores in Las Vegas and beyond, Mila Mason was born immersed in music, however, she was passionate about the songwriting part of the music business. In her late teens, her mother would pick up the family and move to Nashville in order for her to have the greatest opportunity to become a successful country music songwriter. For a decade and a half, Mason worked two jobs, had children, sang demos and wrote jingles–all while knocking on doors at Music Row like most aspiring artists and writers do.
In 1993, she got her big break. Blake Mevis, known for producing recordings by George Strait, Vern Gosdin, and Keith Whitley, uncovered Mason and facilitated a record deal with Atlantic Records and then-Vice President Bryan Switzer. She made her debut on the country music scene in 1996 with the release of That’s Enough of That, which produced three hit singles on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks (now Hot Country Songs) charts. The title track cracked the Top 20 as did the follow-up single, “Dark Horse.” That album was followed by 1998′s The Strong One, from which two more singles were released; “Closer To Heaven” was a Top 30 single and the title track just cracked the list.
After her sophomore release, Mason left the label to focus on the two true passions of her life: songwriting and family. She would release one more album in 2003 on the independent Twinbeat Records called Stained Glass Window. Numerous artists took those songs and added them to their own albums in the 90’s. But during that window of time between records two and three, she crossed paths with cousins Gary LeVox and Jay DeMarcus. She introduced the guys to producers Marty Williams and Mark Bright and the rest is history with Rascal Flatts. The discovery of the super-group set Mason on a new path of working with new artists and songwriters in Nashville. A decade after that discovery, she is still doing that work today.
Mila, with your mom as a traveling musician, was there ever a time in which you didn’t want to follow in her footsteps?
Oh yeah. I didn’t want to follow in her footsteps at all. I started out singing with my mom. I was eight. When I was 15, I started singing full-time. I wanted to be a songwriter. I didn’t want to follow my mom’s footsteps because I thought she was so great at what she did. And she was a wonderful entertainer and an amazing singer. She had a real top voice. She had a range like Mariah Carey. She could go from note to note with ease and she was what you would call a singer’s singer. She did acrobatics with her voice. It was pretty amazing so I never thought of myself as a singer, I always thought of myself as a songwriter. She always told me that she loved my voice because of the rasp in it. She really loved my voice.
But I did want to kind of follow in her footsteps because I wanted to be a writer. My mom was just generous enough–and gypsy enough–to ask me when I was 16 or 17 if I wanted to move to Nashville or if I wanted to move to California to pursue my writing. She always said that the biggest mistake she ever made was not finding a bigger place for her music. She didn’t follow her potential through to fruition if that makes any sense. For me to have her career, she wanted me to move someplace so I had a chance to pursue it. So she asked me if I wanted to move to Nashville or to California. We have family in Kentucky, and Nashville was the perfect place to pursue a career as a songwriter, so she moved us back nearer to family. So I started writing music–I had been writing music all while growing up and my mom had seen that. She knew that’s what I wanted to do. And she gave me a choice, which is really unusual to move the whole family like that. She was just gypsy enough to load all us kids up in the car and say, “This is where I’m going.”
Was country music your music genre of choice or did it have pop leanings like your mom?
My mom always played artists like Marty Robbins and I was raised most my life in Kentucky and the other half of my life on the road with my mom. We weren’t totally gypsies, but we were close. Our roots were in country music. My mom was raised on all kinds of music. My grandmother would go around the house singing all kinds of music–music from the 30s and 40s like Billie Holiday. My mom would listen to all kinds of different country and pop music. She could sing anything. My dad always said that if my mom had ever tried country music she would have had a lot of success there. All he ever played was country music–Marty Robbins, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn. No matter where we were on the road, we were going to watch Hee Haw–it didn’t matter if we were in Nebraska.
But my roots are from Kentucky and I’m from a family of coal miners. She just broke loose from being from Kentucky and she felt like she needed to travel and sing. She was offered a record deal and cut a few songs one time. We were living in Muscle Shoals Alabama at the time and the producer who produced some of Dionne Warwick’s albums produced four or five songs. And then my mom became pregnant with my brother and that ended any chance of having a record deal. I think that’s why she was so supportive of me wanting to become a songwriter. She was willing to do anything she needed to do to help let me follow my dreams. And you would have thought from that point from when we moved there would’ve been a short story for me to get a record deal but there certainly wasn’t. I was in my 30s before I got a record deal. But I was busy trying to be a songwriter all those years.
What is ironic is that one of my mom’s best friends during that time was a man by the name of Jack Brumley. He wrote the great song, “I’ll Fly Away.” And Jack was managing David Frizzell–he had a real nice management company–and my mom went to work for him. He wanted to hear my music–my mom told him I was a songwriter–so my mom laid all that groundwork for me again. He was the first person to have listened to all of my music. I was about 16 or 17 or so. He said that I could be a songwriter. He thought what I was doing at that time was great. Ironically the last record that I made was for his brother’s company. When I put Stained Glass Window out, it was on his brother’s label. It’s pretty amazing that you can come full circle like that. It’s crazy that the person that gave you your first aspirations and then let me go on to do all my things at Atlantic would be right there at the very end when I recorded my last album.
What are the things you remember most from your days there on the Atlantic record label?
Oh my goodness, just about how blessed I was at that time. I was very blessed. I was one of the only girls at Atlantic. They had tried for years and years and years. When I came there the whole atmosphere in the way they treated me, there was a ton of acceptance there at Atlantic. Blake Mevis, who produced George Strait, was one of the ones that helped get me my record deal. He produced some sides on me. He and a really nice man by the name of Charlie Rogers who took me to Atlantic Records. Atlantic didn’t have a girl over there for years and they signed me. Every label in Nashville had seen me at that time. They had all turned me down. I had been turned down all those times because I had kids and was an older artist, but Atlantic looked at all those things positively. They knew that if they took some time and invested in me and put some energy into me that I was a working single mom and I would never take that for granted. I was single had a couple kids–we were scraping by and those things were all things that other labels made me feel bad about. But Atlantic looked at those all as positives and made me feel like a woman. I was different from a lot of those 18-year-old girls, and nothing against 18-year-old girls, I work with a lot of young girls who are super talented. One of the things I remember most about Atlantic records is being so grateful for them accepting me for who I was. They played up on that. Instead of hiding that and making me look 18, they let me be who I was and it showed through with my music. I enjoyed being at Atlantic Records. They were a wonderful label.
Do any recording moments, performances or music videos stand out above all others?
There’s those little presents, those little moments, that God gives you that you don’t expect. The first time I was on stage singing “Dark Horse,” people were dancing in front of me and they were pointing at one another and motioning that it was “their” song. That was amazing. That can still tear me up right now. Hearing my song for the first time on the radio, doing my radio tour–I was trying so hard to do so well for my label. All of the record promoters that worked there at Atlantic became my best friends. I was touring and doing shows all the time that they would take me over to all the radio stations. I thought if they can do it for me, I can certainly do it for them. I had such little sleep at that time I literally ended up getting double vision. But I wasn’t ever going to give up. That was my chance to do better for my kids. The very first time I ever heard one of my songs on the radio was one of those times we had two days off to spend a little time with my kids. I was with them when it came on the radio. They screamed, “MOM!”
Anything you would have done differently there at Atlantic if you have the choice to do it over again?
No, nothing at all. Everyone there gave it everything they had. There was no missing link in the chain. They did a fabulous job with my career. I have absolutely no regrets. Had they not given me that opportunity when I was in my 30s, no one would have. I watched all my girlfriends get record deals before me. All my friends just felt like I wouldn’t ever get signed. I was working two jobs. On my lunch break I was running down the different labels to drop them off new songs. Those special breaks that come to you usually have a lot of hard work behind them and that was certainly the case for me.
Back then it was such a drive for me to not become famous, but to have my songs heard by the world, but ASCAP took in a few young writers that they had high hopes for and they gave some classes for young writers that were about six weeks in length. They would take you in and give you a mentor. You would sit there in a class with the whole bunch of other young writers and it was there that I saw people who were 40, 50, 60 years old. And there were a bunch of them in their 20s. And it was there I was playing one of the songs that I had written and everyone in my class said I was crazy if I didn’t try to become an artist. Until then, I thought I was never going to be anything other than a songwriter. Shortly after that, I realized that the only way I was ever going to get any of my songs cut was if I was going to cut them myself. I enjoyed being an artist. I knew how to be one because my mom had been one all those years. It wasn’t fake. But I really wanted to be a writer in Nashville. And for me the singing part of it was able to progress the writer in me. I finally figured out I couldn’t be a writer unless I was going to be an artist as well. That was the process.
Let’s move forward in your career a little bit. After Atlantic you moved to a little record label called Twinbeat and recorded your album Stained Glass Window. What was different about that particular album being on an indie label or smaller label versus a big label like Atlantic?
I had wanted to take time off and write an entire record. So that process was really different. I left Atlantic and made plans to write that entire record. People had offered me budgets to be able to go in and cut another record. But I hadn’t had very much time off while I was doing what I was doing at Atlantic. I love both of my albums that I made there at Atlantic, but as I’ve said, I went to Nashville to become a writer. I wanted to write my whole next project. So I asked for time off from Atlantic and ended up leaving Atlantic. I had other producers offering the budgets to come in and cut other records, but I told them that I didn’t want to do that at that time. I didn’t want to go into another production deal. That’s not what I wanted.
So I had some time off and during that time, I went to go see a show by one of my band members who was in a group called the Blue Heelers. I went to go see them play one night–that night I met another band member from another group that was playing at that same time and a friendship developed. Then a while later he told me that he had a friend who had a studio in his house where I could go do some recording and that friend ended up being Jay DeMarcus. And when I went over there, Jay wasn’t there, but his cousin Gary was there and he’s singing “Moon over Georgia” a cappella and my jaw just dropped. Oh my gosh he was just so good. And I had no idea that he wanted to be an artist at that time. He was singing background vocals at that time. Gary and Jay had a little duo at that time (called Deuces Wild) that the Blue Heelers were allowing them to open for them. I had taken some time off to write, but then ended up discovering these two amazing groups. I had lost my mind. Here I had people offering me money to go in and cut my next projects when all I really wanted to do was produce these two acts that I had found.
I took both those groups to different producers and asked them if they would let me co-produce with the budget that they had offered me to do mine on. So I had a hand in getting Rascal Flatts their developmental budget for them to do their first record on. It was during that time off that I kind of got a different calling for my career. I had met some wonderful groups and I ended up producing the album for the Blue Heelers and they were in the process of being assigned to Giant Records, when they abruptly closed their doors. And I just finally finished my album about that same time when Atlantic closed its doors. And all of the record labels were changing at that point in time.
Atlantic has since reopened, but it really changed my path at that time. But it led me on a path with working with other artists–developing other artists and helping them find budgets became my new pathway. It led me to what I do now and I love it. I put out Stained Glass Window on a smaller independent label and then a bunch of those songs started getting cut by a whole bunch of other artists. Ty Herndon cut one; Mindy McCready cut one. And I finally arrived at a point in which I came to Nashville to do. I want to write. I want to create. I want to give back what was given to me by people like Blake Mevis. I wanted to go find help people find their paths, so I took a job doing that when I left Atlantic.
So when you flash forward to 2011, how do you describe what you do today? What keeps that music itch scratched now?
That’s a really good way to put it. It’s doing what [accidentally] occurred with Rascal Flatts. I work for a company that is a publishing company. I am a creative director. I help their creative songwriters and help develop them. I work for couple producers in town and help find musical acts for them to produce, to help find talent for them and then they start producing new acts. I’ve done some work for another independent record label called BLEVE and I helped find new talent for them as well. And I’ve moved on and work for the Favorite Entertainment doing similar work. I’m Creative Director for their artists. And that’s been my path.
What other musical goals do you have for yourself for the rest of your career?
For the rest of my career I want to be doing exactly what I’m doing right now. I love finding hit songs. I love writers. I guess that’s because I came to Nashville to be a writer. And I think God puts you in places to learn. I feel like you are led to places where you’re going to learn what you’re going to do. Now looking back, I don’t really think I ever saw myself as an artist. I always saw myself as a songwriter. And I think I became an artist and went through all of that just so I could learn what an artist has to go through. You know?
It’s now that I can share those experiences. The singer-songwriters that I work with now, I can tell them what the road is going to be. I can help them find their own great music. Helping to find songs for Ronnie Milsap has also been amazing. It has been one of the great joys of my life. I have three writers that I work with over at Favorite that are just wonderful writers. I think the world of them. They’re all young amazing writers and to hear their music every day definitely scratches my music itch. I have some of the most talented kids working around me. What they come up with and what they do with their craft amazes me everyday. If anything, the teacher learns more from the students. It seems like I’m a student everywhere I go. You never quit learning in music. It’s like when I get a chance to hang around Ronnie for a little while; I’ve never been around someone who can listen to music like that. Ronnie has had 40 number one hits. It’s amazing that when he’s listening to a song, he’s amazing. He’s like talking to a musical encyclopedia. I go and try to find songs for him and he’ll tell me exactly where they came from and what song is similar to that one. I just love the way he listens to music. He and his [producing] partner Rob [Galbraith] have been doing music like that for years. Working with the young writers and then working with those two masters has just been a joy in my life.
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