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Drake Milligan: Running From Elvis

Drake Milligan at C2C Festival

Drake Milligan burst onto the scene as a young Elvis in CMT’s ‘Sun Records’, a drama mini-series based on the musical ‘Million Dollar Quartet’. Milligan was just a schoolboy but his portrayal of the legend that is Elvis Presley garnered him a huge following. He has since appeared on America’s Got Talent and released his first album showcasing his original material towards the end of last year.

For Milligan, it was a dream role playing Elvis in the TV show in 2017 as, although he remembers the music of his childhood fondly, it was when he discovered the music of Elvis that he really began paying attention. “I grew up loving country music. I love the stories. My parents music was really like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Randy Travis. But it wasn't until I discovered who Elvis was, through an Elvis impersonator tribute artist who was performing at a local restaurant that I was like, this is the coolest thing ever. That’s when I realised you don't just sing music, you perform it. Watching Elvis, that was an interactive experience. That’s where it all really began for me of wanting to be an entertainer and singer.”

Although ‘Sun Records’ presented itself as the perfect opportunity to Milligan, there was some thinking to do. Having just started the last year of high school and a college application submitted, was he ready to walk away from the future he’d planned to try a big adventure in acting and singing? “That really changed my my life. I was a senior in high school, and was planning on going to college. I found out about the open call audition for Sun Records, and ended up driving up to Memphis and ended up getting the part. I finished high school online and then worked on that TV show, and it opened a lot of doors for me.”

The experience was insightful and upon the conclusion of filming, he wasn’t ready to leave the industry just yet, “Shortly after that, I moved to Nashville and started pursuing music. I ended up withdrawing my college application and treated that show as my college experience. I was asking every question I could, I had a great mentor on the show, our musical director Chuck Mead who was in a group back in the day called BR549. He’s really just an Encyclopedia of music. Just getting to be around him and getting the bug for music history. I still treat everything I do in music, every opportunity I get, as a learning experience.”

For as grateful as he was for the opportunity to portray The King, Milligan found it difficult at first upon the conclusion of filming, to find his own voice. “When I moved to Nashville, at first, I was running away from Elvis,” he reflected. “It was really through one of my producers Tony Brown, who's a legendary producer here in Nashville and he actually played keys for Elvis back in the day. So he got to know Elvis and he had seen me on Sun Records. Tony really helped me, he’s like, you’ve got to use that Elvis thing. You spent so much time being influenced by Elvis, you can’t just run from it. When I first came down to Nashville I was just looking at other artists like George Strait, and I was pretty much just trying to sing like George Strait, trying to turn corners and try to be a George Strait impersonator.”

As he darted from one influence to the other trying to break out of the shadow of Sun, Milligan slowly began to discover who he was. “It really took a little bit of time for me to find my own voice and really doing that through, combining all my influences, trusting my instincts. There's times when I'll sing and I'll be like, that's an Elvis thing, or there's times when I'll sing, and think that's a George Strait thing. I try to incorporate all those influences and create my own thing, because that's really all Elvis did, right? He had a unique set of influences and he wanted to combine all of those, which at the time was pretty new. My path to finding my voice was just through my influences.”

Milligan tried his luck on programmes such as America’s Got Talent, in a bid to get his original music heard far and wide. “It reaches such a wide audience. Getting to share my music with the world has changed everything. I've been on the road constantly, since the show. People are showing up and they're singing along. They're singing along to every song on my record, it's really cool to see people using this music in their life, people are getting married to the songs! It’s made a lot of my dreams come true.”

His new album showcases Milligan’s songwriting prowess as much as his voice and he explains the journey he went on to work with the people he truly wanted to write with. “When I moved to Nashville, I really wanted to seek out people who had written my favourite songs, songs for George Strait, Alan Jackson, or Brooks and Dunn. Some of these 90s artists that I looked up to so much and that's pretty much what I did. I was lucky enough to get in some of those rooms and word got around that I was respectful of people's time and could write a tune. Eventually, I started getting in these rooms with, like Terry McBride, who co-wrote ‘Sounds Like Something I’d Do’.”

Produced by Brandon Hood and Tony Brown, Drake Milligan’s debut album, ‘Dallas/Fort Worth’ takes Milligan back to his home state an on a journey through young love and romance, youthful, trouble-making fun, all set to honky-tonk hooks and western swing production. All the while, Milligan fuses his Texas attitude with the songwriting sensibilities he honed in Nashville. “First of all, you're just surrounded by country music and cowboy culture. You can't help but be enveloped in that just growing up in Texas. There's great artists that come out of Texas, and there's great artists that only play in Texas and cut their records in Texas, but I really wanted to take that Texas attitude and go straight to Nashville.”

The wisdom of producer, Tony Brown, Milligan touched upon throughout our conversation but he was full of praise for Hood as well, the young songwriter and producer that helped bring his vision to life. “He’s a very talented, young producer. We just got on the same wavelength, he really understands what I want out of our music and puts in a whole lot of work. He worked probably harder than anybody on this record, just rolled up his sleeves.”

The record has it’s moments of humour too, something which shines on ‘Bad Day To Be A Beer’ and he reflects upon how that song came about. “During the pandemic I went back home to Texas, and spent a lot of time outdoors just fishing with my friends. We always go a little early in the morning, 8am or so. My friend cracked open a cold beer as you do, and he goes man, it's a bad day to be a beer. The songwriter inside of you, goes okay! I quietly wrote it down on my phone and took it back. I got on a zoom with a couple of my favourite writers Mark Greene and JT Harding. I told them the story and we had so much fun writing it.”

He’s riding the crest of a wave from the release of this record but his attention quickly turns to 2023 as he ramps up his tour plans and already thinks about the new music he’s been working on. As I push him on his plans he reveals that a trip to England has been discussed saying, “Nothing's set in stone. I can't say too much about it but we are looking at getting over there very soon.”


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