An Armi of One

Up Dharma Down’s music is unlike anything out there. And it follows because songwriter and vocalist Armi Millare, with her many beautiful contradictions, is unlike anyone

Photography: Cyrus Panganiban / Makeup: Al de Leon / Hair: Julius Villanueva / Video by Gym Lumbera and Patricia Evangelista / Production Assistant: Mica Romulo
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Meowmits and Sylvian are the loves of Armi Millare’s life – but only if you don’t count music, of course.

The vocalist, keyboardist and songwriter of band Up Dharma Down finds it hard to leave the house for these 3 reasons. When she’s not writing or dreaming up a new melody, she is by default, a self-described cat lady who prefers to lounge with her Persian and tabby, and listen to the patter of rain.

For someone who can lament a soul’s darkest, most unnameable heartaches so eloquently and who can possess an SRO crowd with the clarity of her voice, Armi appears walled up.

“I was right to be afraid of this,” she croons in panic as the camera crew faces her and proceeds to bring the walls down. The confession is to no one in particular. Or probably, it is to herself.


Undefined but distinct

Founded 10 years ago, Up Dharma Down has been reaping accolades both local and international. It’s been called best local musical act, the Manila band “most likely to cross over to the lucrative Anglophone market of North America” according to BBC’s Marc Cole, and described as “genre-defying,” “thoughtful and sensual,” by TIME magazine.

Thirty years old now, Armi still retains that ingenue/indie aura from when she was 20. The tie-dyed headband might be gone, replaced by a more adult bob, but Armi still carries herself like a writer yearning to be understood.

This despite the success and the almost cult-like, girlcrush-level fawning that has followed her around. There are now 3 Up Dharma Down albums (Fragmented, Bipolar, and Capacities). There have been front acts for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Incubus, Bloc Party, The xx, Tegan and Sara. There are committed audiences that dutifully follow the request “Thank you for not smoking during the show.”

Their sound has been described as indescribable. In a Rappler story, Marga Deona writes, “It wasn’t rock, it wasn’t jazz, it wasn’t pop, it wasn’t techno. One thing was certain – Up Dharma Down was an alternative to alternative.”

Yet maybe the constant self-examination is the reason behind the success, and our fascination. In their official website there is a note: “We'll always be your awkward little band from Manila who just got really lucky.”


Inside out

The introversion is palpable. During the interview, Armi’s answers are short and riddle-like. Some big statements are repeated like the chorus of a song. And all throughout the Q&A, she unconsciously thumbs the side of her iPhone, leaving scratches on the casing.

Interviews are clearly not her ideal mode of communication. Songwriting is. In fact, it is survival.

“Without music I think I’d be in so much conflict, not being able to express myself, the things I feel,” admits Armi. “Often, when I feel something, it feels like I’m going to explode. Before that happens I need to write it, or else I’m going to suffer and go down with it.”

Before even hitting elementary school, Armi discovered the piano. In a previous interview with Rappler, she shares how her natural desire for solitude made her stay at home. In lieu of friends, she played with instruments. Her musical lexicon expanded to include everything from the kulintang and Japanese koto to traditional violin, guitar and even the drums – making an early portent of her future as a genre mixologist.

Her parents were initially unhappy about the music. Coming from a middle-class family with its standard checklist of doctor, engineer and accountant, Armi was expected to follow the beaten path.

Of course, she chose differently.

“I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was just thinking, I wanted to do something in the field of music. At that time, I was being groomed to leave the country by my family to pursue studies abroad. So I checked out the Berklee College of Music website. Of course that’s not what my parents wanted me to do.

I checked out the Asian Department there and they only had two faculty members and from the looks of their names, they weren’t Asian. So I said, ‘Hey why don’t I teach that stuff? Why don’t I do that because I’m [from Asia]; why don’t I learn it?’”

Songwriting was triggered by an experiment. “I was trying to write with my left hand. I was doing this for about a year, then I became ambidextrous. And I think it triggered my right brain, because after learning to write with my left hand, I just started writing songs.”

“There’s just this whole illusion that there’s no person behind the work, and that work defines everything and the person. But we’re all just people doing what we like.”


Vulnerable but strong

Di mo lang alam (if you only knew)/
These are just feelings/
I can’t wait to chase the fiction on and carry home/
Stains on my mind/

“Kaibigan,” “Tadhana,” “Oo,” arguably the most famous songs, transcend mere diary entries, more appropriately described as piercing soliloquies. They are not confessions. They’re more love poems to a complicated love one, or to no one.

“I write because I have to. I sing because I have to. If I could give this job to someone else I would,” tells Armi. It’s a sort of mantra that she repeats throughout the interview. It reveals her constant conflict – the desire to express versus the comfort of being alone. She would really much rather stay in bed. She would really much rather cook for her friends.

But these songs have to be sung.

On one hand, she despises the idea of celebrity and on the other, she knows no one else can voice her thoughts.

“I write because I have to. I sing because I have to. If I could give this job to someone else I would.”


Confused but clear

“I’m a really big fan of reality,” shares Armi. “That dose of reality, I always dispense it when I meet younger musicians or songwriters, lest they get caught up in the idea that, you’re an artist and your world is full of color and you can do anything you want because it looks more beautiful that way, or sounds better that way.”

But Armi still says, “There’s just this whole illusion that there’s no person behind the work, and that work defines everything and the person. But we’re all just people doing what we like.”

What does she like?

When the walls come down, we find a character with a unique sense of humor. There is a rebellious core there, revealed by an adolescence that saw her having to lie to her parents. “I always used schoolwork as an excuse whenever I would go to gigs. I wasn’t going to come home pregnant. I just wanted to make music. I didn’t even drink or smoke, ” she reveals in a previous story.

Her ultimate act of independence was leaving home and paying for her own tuition fee for a music degree.

“I like being alone. I’m just more comfortable,” says the lyricist. “It’s normally linked to arrogance, being shy. I wish it were true. It’s just that I’m afraid of interaction, too much of it, I guess.”

There is a quiet fortitude that powers all of the songs.

“Ako ang sasagip sa iyo. (I’ll rescue you),” assures one line.


Creative tension

It takes someone who is so intimately aware and comfortable with solitude, to talk about the things we dare not even name.

Maybe that is why she is able to capture our universal demons.

If things broken could be rendered so beautifully, when the unrequited can sound so connected and complete, that’s where Armi Millare is.

“It’s the worst in between songs. When you’re in the song, you’re thinking of delivering it.

In between songs people are expecting you to do something – I don’t know, entertain them? I won’t call it a problem. It’s a problem for me, but not for most people doing that. I’d rather drink water than have to say anything.”

And to be human is to have spaces that cannot be filled.

What makes Armi happy are mundane things: being bribed out of bed with panizza, her belly being kneaded by her cat. Songwriting and entertainment came with contracts to an unpredictable life, but Armi has fully embraced the uncertainty.

“There are some songs that are still with me and would probably never see the light of day. For a long time back then, I thought there were some things that are very personal and I didn’t have to release it.”

And she is still in the quest of knowing. From reluctant songwriter, she has transitioned to mentor and teacher in the Elements Songwriters Camp.

She is set to travel to Europe very soon for “mental silence,” a term Armi coins. “It (the trip) might be helpful to gain some perspective.”

“I’m not sad. Okay, maybe I’m melancholic. My music is melancholic,” admits Armi.

A smile from her is like the sun prying cracks out of a steel gray sky. And if the music alone didn’t reveal her soul enough, you can tell from the big and small acts: of paying her respects at a mass grave in Tacloban 1 month after Haiyan, and of perfectly undone portraits of Meowmit and Sylvian in bed.

This is a woman who refuses classification. And we would all like to keep it that way.

So we leave her to her cats and wait for that next brilliant stroke. New music is on the way.

Labels as Freedom

We’ve seen how labels can hold us back. However, what if they can also be our redemption?
Can we make “bossy” work to our favor? Instead of an apology, can we turn “shy” or “introvert” into an asset and identifier?

We’ve seen how women have defied labels. But it’s interesting how certain women choose to define them. Rather than take the term for what it is, there is a way to flip it and make it something that you can be proud of.

These women can confidently wear the word “ambitious” because they have the success to prove it. These women can call themselves “stubborn” and have the defiant lives to show. These women exist: single moms who refuse to be called a shame, career alphas who refuse to be pigeonholed as selfish, and feminist activists who see beauty in being contrarians.

Labels are only words. Because frankly, you can choose to live on your own terms.