DeadJournalist contacted me a couple months ago saying something along the lines of “it’s high time everyone knew your psycho backstory” (paraphrased), and I was all “OK awesome, but I’m shooting a video so let’s do baby mini questions” and he was like “totally.”
Eventually, I had spilled all of my SECRETS and my surname and everything.
Exclusive Interview: DOLLS
September 26, 2015 by Chuck Norton
Let’s role-play for a moment. Imagine you have – in a short period of time – gone from anonymity to being seen as a rising star in the music industry. You are signed to a major. You have charted hits. You should be ecstatic with you situation … but you aren’t. You feel trapped. What would you do?
DOLLS is the project of Nikki Milovanovic, a Canadian-born, London-based audio and visual artist. She doesn’t have to role-play the above scenario because she lived it.
As “Nikki Awesome”, Milovanovic rose from the Toronto music scene to become a budding pop sensation in 2009. But nothing about the situation felt right to her as an artist. Despite her success, she quit. As she describes in great detail in this interview, her decision to end Nikki Awesome was easy, but the fall-out of the decision almost ended her musical career.
But it didn’t.
With DOLLS, Milovanovic is able to be an amplified version of her own personality. The outcome is music like a female, comic book anti-hero might make. DOLLS is unabashedly unapologetic; music without consideration of market or demographic.
In early August 2015, Milovanovic and I set-out to do an interview – the first DeadJournalist interview in 15 months. The hope was that it would be able to post in early-to-mid September, coinciding with the release of her “Just Stop” video. Unfortunately, the interview took longer to put together than I’d hoped.
This interview is as in-depth and no-holds-barred as any interview I’ve conducted for DeadJournalist. Milovanovic is brash, humorous and candid. Much like her DOLLS project, Milovanovic doesn’t hold back her opinions or on subject matter. In a world of vanilla, Milovanovic is anything but.
DeadJournalist brings you this exclusive interview with Nikki Milovanovic of DOLLS.
You release a new video on September 15; what’s the background on the track? Is it part of a complete album or a one-off release?
NM: There’s an EP to come, but since it’s been a while since my last release, I thought it might be a cute look to tease listeners first with a saucy little single. That way they’ll start to get the flavour of what I cooked up with Fauxplay, a dance producer in London who I collaborated with on these tracks. It’s still fairy-tale smut, but with some added extra polish, so it’ll be interesting to see how it’s received. I’m loving it and obviously think everyone else should too, because duh!
Any timeline yet on the EP release?
NM: Timeline on the EP is looking like January or February 2016, because I can’t bear the idea of releasing alongside the latest Jingle Cats and One Direction Christmas albums, so would rather give listeners something glorious to keep them going during those bleak winter months.
In the years since your last release, what has been keeping your creative engine firing? With the new music you’re working on, what were the sources of inspiration?
NM: This process of collaboration has been like coming back to the party, – the fun, fucking fabulousness is back again … not that I was really ever in a phase of refusing to prance around onstage, but it’s more “IDGAF, let’s make shit sound like Ghostbusters.”
My first project, The Royal Society, was a pop/hip-hop thing, so when we got onstage it was super amped up and stomping, and when I started producing for DOLLS it got a darker, angsty and introspective – so completely different. These new tracks marry the party and the pouty but it’s more glossy and hooky as fuuuuck. I’m hexing exes and burning bridges through the medium of grimy pop, and I also rapped on at least one track, which I hadn’t done in forever – it’s so unbelievably satisfying burning someone in 8-16 bars, so it was gorgeous getting back to that.
I was trying to explain the vibe of the new tracks the other day – the closest I got was “take that museum scene from the first Batman where the Joker is smashing up the shop to a Prince soundtrack, then add some French film noir that culminates in a bonfire of your old love letters, accented by exploding bottles of Chanel no. 5.”
“Just Stop” is about that ex that does the disappearing/reappearing act for the millionth time. Everyone has that ex where you’re not even mad – more smiling and over it, like, “okay, that was cute for a minute, but done with you now …” Lately I’ve become really naughty in taunting people-collectors who behave like that revolving-door dating stuff is normal – it might be common but it’s not normal. It makes for really fantastic songwriting, though, so everybody wins, except those guys who hear it and suffer pangs of remorse-lust.
My phone will 100-percent be haunted by the ghosts of boyfriends past when the single drops. Someone should probably start a support group for emotionally stunted investment bankers.
Make sure to charge your phone battery before it drops. You don’t seem like the type to change your number.
NM: I could never change my number, because I would never remember the new one – I can’t even remember my own lyrics. So instead I’ll just have to be exceptionally vicious in order to exorcise any defiant-of-common-decency phone-haunters when they come around.
Let’s jump back to your first career. You were signed to a major, had some songs chart and then basically started over. Did that process disillusion you or was it a motivator to make music on your terms?
NM: My first releases did really well, but it was when the music industry was still shell-shocked from consumers switching from hard copy to digital, so no one really knew what was going on but everyone claimed to have “the answer.” It was like the Kansas bits of ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ – all grim and dusty and sepia-toned with me living out of gift bags – because you actually got amazing gift bags at events, since no one had figured out the money tap had been shut off, it was like “maybe this extravagant party will fix everything!”
Once the penny dropped that the industry was fucked and labels were closing down, a lot of people who’d been @shittyAandRguy were on some ruthless ‘Game of Thrones’ manipulation tip, and I was pretty naive to it because I was still in that dream where once you’re signed everything is magical red carpets and the promise of even better gift bags.
I’d gotten a lot of love from TV and radio, and some people were bitter about it, which led to problems and finally having my masters repossessed and offered back to me for like, a billion dollars. That was disheartening, because I trusted those people, and we’d worked together for years, so I fucked it all off and moved to the UK.
When I arrived in London, I was still in my sell-off period, which meant I couldn’t really do anything without risking being back under contract, but I had fans asking where the album was, and I still had the “don’t get blacklisted” brainwashing, so couldn’t reply, “why don’t you ask ____ where the album is” and expose the poisonous industry thievery that’s so common, so it was a very thrilling psychological drama for a while.
Gradually through learning production and making music without anyone else’s input I started getting to this next-level nirvana where I simply did not give any more fucks. I started releasing stuff that I’d made without even a microphone just because I got to finally be in charge of it – utterly teenage rebellion rather than any kind of strategy. But some of it worked, and then I was singing on a multi-national makeup commercial, with no label and no management and ha ha ha motherfuckers! When it didn’t work, it didn’t matter, because there was nothing to lose; I was just like “OK, fuck it, learned something, try something else.”
Ultimately it was a blessing because not only am I getting to make the music I wanted to make all along – which I was told repeatedly there was no market for – I have so much more insight about the industry and which parts I want to take and leave, and figuring out that I can burn a bridge or throw some shade when I want to – I don’t need to have any skittishness about not upsetting the apple cart. The whole fucking apple cart situation to me is like that child in the Matrix being all “there is no spoon,” and dropping the mic.
Have your fans from your first run started finding you as DOLLS? Have you drawn interest from labels for your new work? Do you think you’d ever go back to being under contract?
NM: Most of the DOLLS fans have been unique, because the sound is frequently so much darker, but there has definitely been some crossover especially after I collaborated for “On Your Lips,” which got licensed for a Rimmel London commercial, so there was like this “whaaaa, that’s YOU, and you changed your name?!” I didn’t so much change my name as stage my own death and phoenix into flames of fabulousity. Mostly new fans of one project find out about the other one and think it’s cool, or have a similar moment of confusion to when they find out I’m a single artist with a plural noun for a name. Some people seriously glitch out on that!
I’ve drawn interest from a few labels but they haven’t felt right to me. I don’t deal with situations where I’m being spoken down to or expected to sit quietly while 15 people who don’t know me discuss my art like it’s a breakfast cereal with options for a Saturday morning cartoon.
That being said, I’ve effectively eradicated any notion of presenting as ‘family friendly,’ so it could be an entirely different experience now. I’d talk to a label that was willing to think outside the box and prioritised art – are there any of those kicking about?
Do you feel like your DOLLS persona is more you? Does it empower you to push boundaries and buttons more than you might on your own?
NM: The DOLLS persona is more like me for sure, because the “Nikki Awesome” character wasn’t something I’d come up with. It was just a nickname that stuck, and I wasn’t happy with at the time but label/management was like nope, that’s it. I’d actually tried to persuade my then-manager that a fictional girl group starring me vs. me (“nasty” and “nice”) was the best idea ever, but he said no one would go for it – which is rather delicious, since it’s essentially exactly what I’m doing now, and his only involvement is playing the backstory character “random douche who said ‘you can’t do that!’”
I think the DOLLS persona is a hyperreal version of me, with fewer filters – if that’s possible – and significantly more likely to show up not wearing pants. It’s sometimes difficult to persuade people that I’m not quite as scary offstage as when I’m on – but it’s all part of the thrill of being around artists, isn’t it? We’re all bat-shit, but embracing that rather than playing “girl next door” is the more exciting option for both the artist and the audience.
I give a lot of banter onstage, which takes people by surprise because I’ll tease them and play with them instead of just standing still while the intro kicks – why not though? Audiences don’t go to a show to watch performers give only what they did on the recording – they want something to take away something “one night only” – otherwise what’s the incentive to see you again? I definitely push people’s buttons and I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, but trying to play that is so tiresome.
I’m not about artists censoring themselves for the sake of not upsetting anyone. When I put out Pedestal I did some market research, and a significant chunk of the feedback was so neurotically upset that I’d used the words “fucked up,” even though there was also a “clean” version. Like they were actually disappointed that I couldn’t restrain myself from cursing and find a more articulate substitute – which is hilarious because I’m super articulate, but the line (“are you disappointed that fucked-up is less fun”) was exactly what I wanted to say – from their reaction you’d have thought I’d just punched Bambi’s mother in the face.
What drew you to music, initially? Was it something that you knew you wanted to do from an early age or was it more taking advantage of an opportunity?
NM: I definitely knew I wanted to be onstage. I remember choreographing the most heinous lip-synch to Madonna’s “Like A Prayer”, then earnestly crayoning up literally hundreds of tickets on mismatched strips of paper, having been really shrewd to ensure sure each one said $1. I think I probably managed to sell about four – disappointing even by today’s standards – but obviously my talent lay in doing jazz hands, not admin.
Growing up, I had hundreds of pictures taped all over my walls of different bands and played piano and guitar, but didn’t like playing in front of people and I was rubbish at practicing – I just wanted to know how to sing like David Bowie, play Nirvana and The Pixies. Eventually I put it aside to focus on acting at what was essentially Canada’s version of the FAME school, where I played the character of “weird androgynous raver performing Shakespeare before skipping class to go get piercings.”
Through the Toronto party scene, I met loads of producers who were like, “Oh, you can sing? Come do something for this, write on this track, whatever.” Looking back, they were probably just trying to sex me, but I was more interested by the equipment and when they realised out I could actually play music, we became mates. Around the same time I’d been engaged by a promo team that was pretty much paid to hang out with rock stars and cause scenes, which is how I met Care Failure from Die Mannequin, who introduced me to the people who said, “I’m gonna make you a stahhhhh.”
So yeah, it was partially an opportunity thing, but I’d prepped for it forever so it just seemed like a logical step. When my first single came out, it got so much attention on radio/video – so my third gig was in front of like, 3,000 people, which was a bit nuts. I can see how people were resentful about it seeming like an overnight thing, but it was more like “you wrote this song – do you wanna go make videos and play huge venues, or do you want to continue with that Uni course?”
Why would anyone say, “No, I think I’ll waive my all-access pass to that thing millions of people dream about?”
What is it that gets your rocks off about music now? What drive your creative process? Is it the music? Is it the art? Can the two be separated?
NM: I don’t know if this is really answering your question, but what’s currently excites me is being back in love with music again. My last project got kind of soul-destroying, because it’d been like getting into Harvard Law and then realising you hate law, and all lawyers, and you get pissy every time someone even mentions Matlock. It took a while for the dust to settle; I didn’t to go to shows, didn’t care who was charting, hated being around anyone in the music biz, and I was actually envious of how “civilians” could get amped when a track came on, because I’d just gritted my teeth and bottled up my whole experience.
It was like I’d broken up with music and producing my own stuff ended up being couples therapy – like, “OMG baby, you’re the best …I’ll never leave you again!”
The first DOLLS show, at the Underbelly in London, was so rewarding because the material was so loaded with all of that – which no one had really heard. Finally doing what I love on my own terms, without having to deal with anyone’s input on “who I should be like” made a huge difference in my level of enthusiasm and I think audiences read that. On one hand, it’s been tremendously challenging going from having the label support, PR, management, stylists, designers and assorted entourage to rocking up with a rolling suitcase like, “we’re here!”, but the DIY-ness it has forced me to be a lot more creative and think outside the box, so good luck prying me away from the controls now.
I think music and art can definitely be separated, but it depends on the project. I could write you a dog-food jingle or a song I wasn’t invested in, but I wouldn’t want to perform it – I’ll happily take the royalties, though. With DOLLS, they’re so intertwined that I think it would be difficult to extricate one from the other. DOLLS tracks are usually born out of some little ember of a concept that, by the time it’s all written has taken on a life of its own – so when tracks get to the performance stage there’s already a predetermined vision dictating the tone, the movement, everything.
I think art drives artists to the point that they literally have to produce or that unfulfilled need manifests in ways that destroy them. I’ve seen many artists who’ve strayed from their creative vision to produce something that may be making money but isn’t fulfilling, and they almost always wind up dead-eyed or killing themselves. Sorry, that got a bit dark, didn’t it!? I’m not saying that everyone is doomed, but I think it’s really psychologically difficult “being the product” and having to sell something you don’t believe in. It can be fun and lucrative for the right personality, but to me, that’s the difference between “artists” and artists. You can have a marketable look, be not entirely tone-deaf and learn some dance moves, but it’s a different beast to being willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of your art.
Of course I don’t think it means you need to bleed for it every day – as I said, I’m delighted to accept cheques having completed the most fabulous dog food jingle ever – but that paycheque (for me) should supplement what you want to bleed for.
For your new video, take me through developing the concept. Did you know you wanted to work with your director in advance or did you have to pitch the concept to prospective teams?
NM: I usually have a concept set from the time we’ve finished recording, but I didn’t have anything set in my head for “Just Stop.” I was put in contact with my genius co-director/Director of Photography Julie De Moura through my makeup artist Carleen Gordon, who wasn’t able to be part of the shoot because of scheduling conflicts, so the fabulous Aurore Bruna stepped in.
Aurore and Julie are from Paris, and I speak French, so we’d had some vague but terribly passionate frenzied discussion en Français, and then I completely relied on them to make it glossy and chic so I could focus on performance.
What was the most challenging part of the shoot? Did your do a formal storyboard in advance or just lay out the concept and shoot scenes more organically?
NM: We were very spoiled to nab the venue – The Workshop at Roadtrip in East London, which is really cool live music spot with quite a Lynchian feel to the décor – through my mate @OmarHoxton, so we knew we had that ‘sultry stage, velvet curtains’ bit and wanted to showcase the live performance element. We had a shot list worked out prior to going in, but there was so much sexy neon ambiance all over the place that we were luckily able to play around with the concept and everyone as great input.
I don’t want to give too much away, but some of the performances got a bit steamy – it probably didn’t have anything to do with the fact that I was lubed up like Wonder Woman’s blonde, latex-loving second cousin, though.
Do you feel videos showcase DOLLS better than music or live shows?
NM: “Just Stop” is the first time I’ve ever done an onstage performance in a video, and I guess because of the excitement levels of being in such a sickening venue and having so many fabulous people involved, it’s actually captured a lot of the vibe at DOLLS shows, chiefly, me stomping around in massive heels, dancing erratically and generally being insane in something very tight and very short. Where is the downside, right?!
Seriously, though – queue now, because they’re loads of fun; go tell your booking agent friends to get me over to the U.S. so I can give you my insane Valley-Girl-meets-West-London banter while frolicking in your favourite fantasyland playsuit. If you even halfway like the videos, you will adore the real-lifeyness … also I’m fairly certain my travel and accommodation can be written off as work experience.
What were you listening to in 2005?
NM: LCD Soundsystem; Scissor Sisters; TV on the Radio; Madonna’s Confessions On A Dance Floor; Kanye’s Late Registration; Bloc Party; Britney Spears; NIN; Franz Ferdinand; M.I.A; The Strokes; The Streets … Plus obviously the staples: Salt-N-Pepa, The Pixies, Bowie, etc.
Record, Tape, CD or digital?
NM: Digital all the way. I have way too much stuff in my house, and I hate physical anything. The whole concept is just so fraught with annoyances – but … if fans want to buy something from me I’ll probably make them something personalised, because I’m crafty as hell – that being said, if you want vinyl it’s probably not going to be playable by conventional means.
One drink. One movie. One album.
The other two are the most impossible questions ever for me, so I’ll give you a rundown.
I stopped at 30 because it was getting ridiculous.)
All About Eve
BTTF I; II (although I have renewed appreciation for III, it’s not in the must-see)
Behind the Candelabra
The Breakfast Club
Death Becomes Her
A Fish Called Wanda
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Gone With the Wind
The Hunger Games
Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
Some Like It Hot
Total Recall (1990 – though the recent remake is VERY watchable)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
Albums 1000 Forms of Fear – Sia The Downward Spiral – NIN Fatherfucker – Peaches Like a Prayer – Madonna My Machine – Princess Superstar Nevermind – Nirvana Outlandos D’Amour – The Police Transformer – Lou Reed Very Necessary – Salt-N-Pepa The Wall – Pink Floyd