Mark Mills embraces the positive on debut album

There’s an easygoing earnestness to Mark Mills that’s evident even at the beginning of our conversation. And while much has been written about his scrappy sex-positive synth pop we quickly veer off into other topics: The source of his admirable-but-not-grating positivity (he attributes that to self-awareness) his energizing diet (these days less focused on superfoods more focused on locally sourced goods) and Kelowna metalheads. “They’ll come up to me and say ‘It’s not necessarily for me but I can appreciate your stuff.’”

Eventually though we circle back to the topic of his posi copulation pop. He named his debut album Go Love Yourself and while that title might sound hokey and new-agey he makes it clear that his music is the product of self-enlightenment. “I wasn’t in a dark place in my life but more of a grey area” says the Edmonton-via-Calgary songwriter. “I had an engineering diploma from SAIT and a high-paying oil and gas job as a technologist.

“I was living a life based on what others thought would be my best bet. Growing up in Calgary everything was driven by status money and approval from your peers. I had a lack of resolve. I was spending more time sitting in a cube than I spent at home. It was counter-intuitive to who I really was.”

Who Mills really was then was someone far more interested in art than engineering a fact that he knew even as he played in Calgary guitar-based acts like Life Like Cobra and Needy Cat. Eventually though he resolved to pursue a full-time career in music. After pondering a move to Vancouver and Montreal he eventually settled in Edmonton living in a subsidized space catering to low-income artists.

It was a change from a high-paying career in oil and gas but Mills never looked back. “I embraced the fact that I wasn’t going to find fulfilment if I didn’t follow my intuition” he says. “It all stems from self-awareness. I’ve always had strong gut feelings about certain situations and the closer I came to my gut feeling the closer I came to [myself]. Also being a father I started to analyze what I’d want my son to do in certain situations and acted on that. Life’s been very rich since.”

Indeed Mills credits having a son — and being a role model — as the source of his positivity energy and newfound productivity. (Along with Go Love Yourself for example he pounded out the I See Sprouts EP for his wife’s birthday in an afternoon.) But there’s likely another source of inspiration behind his music: by moving to Edmonton he placed himself in a scene that birthed swaths of synth-minded troubadours including Arbutus mastermind Sean Nicholas Savage Born Gold’s Cecil Frena and the ever-shirtless Renny Wilson.

In particular though he tips his hat to Calvin Love whose scrappy late-night approach to synth pop has evidently rubbed off on Mills. “There’s a real strong-knit group of performers who’ve stayed home stayed by themselves to produce music in Edmonton. I’ve sat in on some of Calvin’s sessions and he laid down some bass on my tracks. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to live in Edmonton and draw inspiration from [similar-minded] artists.”

Accordingly Mills is elated to share the stage with Love and Savage in his hometown — especially because for him coming back to Calgary is special. It’s where he grew up. It’s where he honed his chops as a musician. It’s where he spurred an impromptu C-Train dance party while shooting the video for “Body Break.”

“That was probably the strangest thing I’ve ever done in my life” Mills admits with a laugh. “I had to commit to that because if you step on the C-Train with a boombox you can’t just slouch in the corner. It was probably the best performance experience I’d had and there was only one person upset with me — lots of innocent bystanders were surprised by it. But I’d just gotten home from a tour to Montreal and it was like I had to show Calgary who I was. It was like me saying ‘Hey Calgary. I know you might think I’m a nutjob but this is who I am. So we gotta do this for the sake of both of us.’”

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