ANDERSON TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- Funeral parlors and farms often stay in the family, but the Millikins have a whole different type of family enterprise: music.
Miriam Katz sang lead vocals for the Champaign, Illinois-based rhythm-and-blues band One-Eighty when Bill Millikin auditioned as a saxophonist in 1977. A decade later, they had spent hundreds of nights playing disco and dance clubs around the country, landed a 1982 single at No. 56 on the Billboard charts and settled down in Cincinnati with their three children.
At age 24, their middle son Charlie Millikin is pouring literal blood (his battered acoustic guitar has the red stains to prove it), sweat and tears into making a full-time music career work with lots of support from his producer parents, who now run their own jingle and voiceover production company.
“When you put all that work in, there’s a point that comes that you’re proud of it, and you’re not surprised when things start to happen for it,” said Charlie, who won two Ohio Music Awards in December. “It’s confirmation that this hits outside people, too, and I should keep going with this type of writing and workflow and things that I do.”
As an experienced lyricist, Miriam insists Charlie’s songwriting has gotten more refined since he quit his day job in late 2014 to live at home as a full-time musician. The singer-songwriter logs 70 to 80 hours per week writing, recording and producing music in their home studio, he said, often with the fervor of a kid at summer camp.
Charlie has gigged at private events like weddings, local bars like the Blind Lemon and a weekly residency at Norwood’s Seasons 52 restaurant. Now his newly hired agent is working to broaden his base with a tour through Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia over the coming months, starting with a sold-out local talent showcase Saturday night at Cincinnati’s DownTowne Listening Room.
A late start
Charlie didn’t even pick up a guitar until he was already a Turpin High School graduate.
Like a lot of kids, his parents forced him to take piano lessons, and he sang in choir through high school, but “it was all secondary to sports” – basketball and baseball. After graduating from high school and failing to land a spot on the Northern Kentucky University baseball team in summer 2010, Charlie started experimenting with his mother’s hand-me-down guitar.
After a semester as a vocal performance major and a semester in audio/video production, Charlie knew NKU wasn’t for him. His parents, who had listened to him practice through the year, then made him an unusual offer: Live at home as a full-time musician.
“’You have to commit every single day. If you don’t, you’ve got to get a job and move out,’” Bill and Miriam told Charlie.
“I said, ‘Yes, OK,’ even though I didn’t really know what that meant, or how much it would take, or what mindset I’d have to be in every single day to start working for yourself when I was so young,” he said.
Although millennials are living at home longer than ever, Charlie said it’s an arrangement reminiscent of what many Los Angeles producers would do in paying for a house with a studio attached for artists to live in and record albums as their sole job.
“We can, at least for a few years, take the issue of survival off his plate,” Bill said. “Because that’s the thing that really squashes musicians. They gotta pay the rent, car payment, everything.”
After finishing an associate’s degree at Brown-Mackie College in 2014 and quitting a string of part-time jobs, Charlie accepted his parents’ offer in late 2014. Not long after, a panic attack at an ill-fated Northern Kentucky gig with a disinterested audience inspired “Change Me,” the opening song on his four-song EP.
He wrote it in 20 minutes and then tweaked it for two years.
“That doesn’t come too often for me that I have a full song that is exactly the way that I want it and it’s true and it means something to me at least,” Charlie said. “We agreed that if I was going to write songs, they had to be 10s. There was a bar. I have hundreds and hundreds of demos on my computer waiting to be heard by my parents.”
He takes his demos to his parents for monthly “green-light sessions” where Miriam and Bill don’t hold back.
Listen to the Millikins share the secret of a good song.
“I remember the fateful green-light session where I said, ‘Charlie you have to stop sucking!’” Bill said.
“Working with them is easy because they’re like me in 20 or 30 years,” Charlie said. “It’s like working with my brain in 30 years. It’s so much easier than going to a studio and paying for it and working with someone who comes from a different place.”
Experimenting with podcasting
That same anxiety-inducing moment before a performance that inspired the first song on Charlie’s May 2016 EP also pushed him in a new direction this year: podcasting.
He debuted The Self-Esteem Room on Jan. 2, featuring weekly “non-interviewy” conversations with Tri-State musicians and creative types who are trying to pursue their passion full time.
“I really don’t want people to think that it’s all about anxiety and depression,” Charlie said. “It is about that, but it’s about behind the scenes of what solo musicians go through, or solo anybody -- people who are trying to do this and stand out from others in what they’re trying to do in their creative life.”
The shows range from 40 minutes to an hour and a half with nearly a dozen musicians lined up so far, but Charlie hopes to branch out to people who work in film, television and stand-up comedy in Greater Cincinnati.
He is not out to make money with The Self-Esteem Room, and he hasn’t set a goal for how many ears he hopes it will reach. In fact, he said it would be fine even if his mother were the series’ only listener.
“I’m cool with that because I’ve already accomplished what I wanted to, which was making connections with musicians who I’ve played with who I had no idea about their backstory or how we relate on so many things, and that feeling is great,” Charlie said.
As he keeps plugging away at making a full-time music career work, submitting music for consideration to television shows and occasionally auditioning for hit shows like “America’s Got Talent” and “The Voice,” the Millikins have high hopes he’ll make it big with music that resonates on some media platform.
“His work ethic has been, really, the most amazing part of this. We’re living together and working together, and he has maintained a really eye-on-the-ball (attitude),” Bill said.
“I’m like a crack addict,” Charlie broke in. “It’s funny because I feel like all the time I’m not doing enough.”
And the only way you can win in the music business, Bill said, is if you feel you can’t let up for a moment.