Milan Ring had no way of knowing this, but when we sat down to discuss her forthcoming debut album I’m Feeling Hopeful, my emotional state was anything but. Having emerged from NSW’s lockdown just days before, and living alone through all of it, I was tired. Outside of that, terrible events in my personal life were being thrown at me relentlessly, and I was drained. Nothing about my circumstances felt hopeful at all.
But, once I ended that Zoom call, things felt different – and Milan Ring is to thank.
“It's definitely something I have to remind myself of,” the Sydney artist says after I ask her if she’s feeling hopeful this very second.
“I really do try to practice daily gratitude, as clichéd as that can sound. But honestly, it has transformed my life thinking like that and just really trying to be grateful for whatever's happening right now, the present moment and the little things. Otherwise, I'm someone that can get very easily overwhelmed – I think we all can. So I'm definitely feeling hopeful today.”
“I actually went to the gym just now for the first time!”
I’m Feeling Hopeful, out in November, isn’t a wholly optimistic album, if it is one at all. Milan Ring wasn’t interested in making a “I was sad and now I’m not” album. She wanted to document her life experience as frankly and as transparently as possible, and through that she found her optimism – though it naturally waivers.
“It's almost like a muscle, I think, hope and gratitude,” she muses.
“It's rewiring your brain, my personal patterns from my teens just weren't in that space really, all the time. In terms of the last year and a half, being able to keep that hope dips in and out, but I really try to meditate every morning. Even if it's five minutes and I'm thinking the whole time, at least I sat there with the intention to just go ‘hold up a second’."
"I’ve just made sure to take a second and remember that I’m more than just my thoughts and I’m more than the exterior things going on. Even for a couple of minutes, just to check in with that, has been really transformative and life-changing for me.”
Despite not being at all a cut-and-dry album, I’m Feeling Hopeful does represent a metamorphosis of sorts. Adopting a medicinal R&B and neo-soul line – bringing to mind luminaries like Solange and SZA – Milan Ring sings of her struggles with mental illness, acknowledging her own toxic behaviours and how she’s learning to flourish anyway. There’s the rambunctious search for freedom on “Hide With You”, the desperate plea for intervention in “I Can Fix You” and an incredibly vulnerable yearning for comfort in the tender “Keep Me Safe”.
Something else I’m Feeling Hopeful isn’t – a pandemic album. The title feels fitting for our country’s collective emotions right now, as we all emerge from a traumatic, enforced slumber. The album was even largely written throughout the pandemic itself. But Ring says this is the album she was always meant to make.
“These are concepts and themes and things I've been thinking about for a long time,” she explains, “It was more of a reflection on other stuff, like addiction and mental health and depression and all these things that obviously correlate with the pandemic.”
“However, sometimes I've even listened and felt it could correlate with COVID, even though that wasn't my initial intention. I want people to be able to connect with the songs, give them their own narrative and their own meaning. That's why sometimes I hesitate and I step away from giving the specifics of each song sometimes.”
Despite the purposeful cloudiness around each song’s meaning, it’s hard not to feel impacted by the raw and intense feeling injected into all of them. Not only is this forged with Milan Ring’s own voice and production, but she meticulously chose collaborators that would help push it even further. Every collaborator on the album successfully does this to a degree – from the ever-versatile flow of Jean Deaux on “Pick Me Up” and the moody vocals of BLESSED on “Sydney Hue” – but none do it quite as well or as poignantly as Barkaa on the incredibly heavy and impactful “Let It Glide”.
In fact, Barkaa did her job so well that Milan Ring couldn’t even bring herself to finish the track by herself because she simply couldn’t do it justice.
“I had actually attempted some verses of it and it just wasn't sitting right for me because I knew that that song needed raw truth, and I honestly didn't feel like I was giving it to the song,” she says.
“I definitely had Barkaa in my mind when I just even opened up thinking about features, she was right there because of her vulnerability and openness about her experience with addiction and substances. I really admire her for that courage and that openness. It's incredible. She's so strong.”
“I brought the song to her, and I said, “This is what the album's about, this is what this song means to me, this is what I'm expressing”. But I also said that she was completely fine to take it in whatever direction she wanted to. I think she just sent me the lyrics at first and I was just in tears.”
“She's like ‘How's this sound?’ and I was like, ‘It's amazing, I trust you, go with however you feel." She sent the verses back, and that was it. We didn't do any other passes, there were no edits, there was no back and forth. No, I was like, ‘this is fucking amazing’.”
While I’m Feeling Hopeful does find part of its strength in collaboration, its core is anchored in the power of solitude. The album cover itself sees Milan sit in peace with a guitar in her lap, light beaming around her, surrounded by Mudras – symbolic hand gestures that appear as part of Indian classical dance – that are to represent outside temptations. It’s Milan Ring discovering her sanctuary, in part through her culture and her spirituality. But it wasn’t easy.
“No matter what life throws at you, it's very important to sit with yourself,” she explains. “We need to look within and find that internal resilience. I think, because of what the album is about, it's also trying to search outside oneself with things to make one feel free.
“And we're all looking for freedom, but where is it really, and where can you really find it? I believe it is within. It is controlling the critical mind and being OK to sit with yourself.”
“It's really hard,” she explains of her experience getting to that point.
“It wasn't easy at first because you do have to face a lot. You have to face a lot of things you think about yourself, a lot of feelings you might not have been wanting to sit with. But the last two or three years before the album came to life for me was this period of transformation and growth, and a lot of time sitting with myself.”
Once we incorporate that into our day-to-day life, Milan argues, freedom can be achievable, even if only for a moment. More importantly, we can learn to forgive ourselves for past indiscretions that we hold on to – which is what the choral and cathartic album closer “Hands Are Tied” is all about.
“Forgiveness of self is most important because we hold onto so much shame about things, I think, and that doesn't allow us to actually live wholeheartedly and give wholeheartedly to our friends,” she says.
“That's where I really wanted the album to end, because it was a big process for me to forgive myself for things.”
Before we say our goodbyes, I ask Milan Ring if she has forgiven herself, and with a soothing but resounding response, she says “I have.”
As we continue to experience post-lockdown life, self-forgiveness can be hard. For me, I picked up habits that I am proud of, and others that are more self-destructive. I felt myself become hostile as I looked around to see other people sharing a roof with significant others or housemates, with me peering on begrudgingly through my phone – single and living alone. That hostility fed feelings of envy and resentment, which of course led to anger, and now on the other side, has led to guilt.
But, despite not being a pandemic album, I’m Feeling Hopeful so gracefully and powerfully taps into exactly how I feel emerging from lockdown. In lockdown, there were fleeting moments of ‘this will never end’ but, as I continue to meet up with friends for the first time in months, it does feel like the heaviness is lifting. Milan Ring, through her music and our conversation, speaks about how hope surrounds us all the time – it’s just a matter of us being able to latch on to it and not let go.
Doing so is difficult, sure. And it's not guaranteed to last. But after our Zoom call came to an end, Milan Ring offered me a sobering reminder that it is not instant – but it is possible.