Milla in 3-D

Every Monday afternoon, the Houston Press staff convenes around a big ugly green table in a big room with ugly purple carpeting and commences with the weekly editorial meeting. A very small portion of this meeting is occupied with the music editor's report to his editors of upcoming music stories. Last week, I told the crew that the music opener, as we say, would be a profile of Milla Jovovich, the Kiev-born super-waif model who scored big in the fashion mags when she hit the scene at age 11 with a face that made Sue Lyons look like Lolita's day-old stool. Milla, I informed the table, trying hard to lend the appropriately exotic pronunciation to the double "l," had gone on to land a few small, non-speaking movie roles, including the gorgeous guitar strumming hippiechick in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, and was now, in fact, touring the alternative rock circuit with a polyethnic backing band, promoting a debut CD titled The Divine Comedy, which has, in fact, received pretty darn good press from the critical tastemakers, and is, truth be told, a not at all unpleasant piece of music-making; a minor revelation to be sure, but thoroughly legitimate.

Every last member of the staff of this paper, male and female alike, laughed out loud. Yeah, right. Bet she's really good, huh...

Which I suppose could be made to lead into a story about how tough it is to be beautiful, everyone thinking surely you must be operating at a low mental wattage beneath those physical fireworks, so difficult to get respect, having to work twice as hard as everyone else just to be taken seriously.

Whatever. You wouldn't buy it, I wouldn't buy it, and if Milla -- musically, she goes by just that one name -- feels burdened by her blessings, there's not a hint of it in her voice. She's gorgeous, lucky and talented, and seems quite well aware of all three factors in her success.

She answers her phone in the kitchen of her apartment in Los Angeles, and half of the answers she gives are interrupted with over-the-shoulder addendum's from her mother. Milla's 18 years old now. She's at home, interrupting her band's tour for two days so that she and her mother can be sworn in as U.S. citizens the next morning, something they've waited for since applying for citizenship in 1985.

And since she's not -- as we've quite rightly come to expect of supermodels who venture outside of their habitat to "get into" movies or music -- hell-bent on championing herself as a Fully-Spherical-3-D-Honest-to-God-Real-Human-Being, it emerges in the conversation that, duh, she is. And a hell of a lot more thoughtful a conversationalist than most Real Musicians, if you want to know the truth. She grew up in California as a Russian citizen under the blanket of Reagan's Evil Empire rhetoric, has traveled all over the world as an actress and model, and was making money hand over fist while still a prepubescent. And now she's entered the music industry with a respectable bang.

Musically, it started in 1984, when seven-year-old Milla first sat down at a piano. That lasted two years before she switched to guitar, and so there was always that proverbial interest in music at work in her childhood, but, she says, with what sounds for all the world like a straight face, "I didn't actually get signed to a label until I was 14," when the precocious teen inked a development deal with EMI.

She modeled, worked with songwriters to help put some form to her ideas and listened to lots of Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, Simon and Garfunkel and Cocteau Twins -- almost precisely the same music her spacenik Dazed and Confused character was probably high on.

At 16, three years ago, she finished recording The Divine Comedy. This year, the disc was finally released, and Milla headlined a small club tour, opened another for Canada's Crash Test Dummies and is presently on the road again opening for Toad the Wet Sprocket, performing with a backing band of virtuosic Swedish instrumentalists she found playing on a street corner in Paris.

The album is in some ways much what you would expect. Milla's voice betrays the Kate Bush years, which means she's now sure to be pegged as the successor to Tori Amos, which would bother me, but apparently doesn't faze Milla. Her lyrics are miniature portraits of angst, which is surprisingly okay when it comes from someone legitimately young enough to have not gotten over it without being pathetic yet -- though she's quick to point out that she's 18 now, and she's done a lot of growing up since the album was finished. She doesn't much wallow in her feelings, thankfully preferring to get into, say, a doomed romance, paint a little picture and get out. Musically, there's a bit of the pop-Celtic flavor at work in the arrangements and instrumentation, and it's imaginative enough to retain interest, in a mellow folk-pop sense. Dreamy, meandering stuff. Her voice is young and sultry and maybe just a little bit contrived when she pushes too hard, but for the most part more sophisticated than plenty of her peers.

In other ways, the album's not at all what you might expect. There's not a legitimate dance track, for instance, which would seem almost a requisite. There is, more surprisingly, not a picture of Milla on the disc's cover, front or back, which defies all known laws of marketing. The producers of Dazed and Confused, she says by way of example, fell all over themselves trying to get her involved in the project, though her final role turned out to be little more than a cameo and a prominent portrait on the flick's promotional posters. It was the face they were after.

So why doesn't the album cover capitalize on the already bankable image?
"It's not," she says, "because they didn't ask, that's for sure."
"Who doesn't fight with the record company?" she says. "From my point of view, I really felt like if there was a space on an album cover where I could put anything I wanted, make some sort of a statement or anything, why would I want to put another picture of myself on it? I just said "Look, people know what I look like. I'm not a complete stranger to the industry, I've been working for a long time, it's not like I'm a totally unknown artist they picked up off the street." I had a lot more power behind me, because I didn't need to make a record because I was hurting for cash or whatever. I didn't need anything from this record, except to express myself. If I wanted to make money I could have modeled every day."

Even modeling as much as she did, though, immediately makes Milla suspect in the brave new critical world, where it's staunchly assumed that anyone with a talent is being pushy, and anyone with, God forbid, two or three distinct talents must be either cheating, lying or a front for some corporate puppet master. Maybe that's why it's so surprising to hear the lack of pretense on the record. And maybe it's that lack o' pretense that's allowing her to connect with a young audience that could care less if she sounds like Kate Bush, who they've never heard anyway, knowing only that Milla's their own age, with a seemingly genuine interest in communicating, and quickly becoming a poster girl for good-timing Gen-Xers everywhere.

What else could anyone ask of their next multimedia crossover superstar?

Milla opens for Toad the Wet Sprocket on Thursday, December 15 at Numbers. Call 629-3700 for info.

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Brad Tyer