Over the course of its 10-year run as a downtown music venue, Modified Arts has seen its share of emo concerts, indie rock get-downs, and hard-rock shows. In 2009, the venue's focus shifted from "big indie rock shows" to being a full-time visual art gallery. The change promised that the music featured at the space would be quieter, more reflective.
Something like a performance by Tobie Milford.
At a recent Modified gig, the Phoenix singer/songwriter plugs his violin into an amplifier and begins tuning. There are around 50 or so seats facing the small stage. This isn't a strictly classical performance, though — instead of sitting, Milford stands in front of a microphone amid cheers of "Go, Tobie!" from the diverse crowd. There are teenage girls and middle-aged couples in the audience. Milford starts to play, weaving his bow up and down before stepping on a pedal on the floor. His initial notes loop in the background as he adds new layers of sound from his instrument, crafting a gorgeous instrumental song that, while it sounds like it could fit in at a wedding processional, still has a stylistic edge that commands attention.
And then he starts to sing. Milford closes his eyes while he plays, singing lyrics that touch on everything from abandonment and loss to friendship and spirituality. The ghosts of loud rock 'n' roll bands still linger in Modified, but the 26-year-old Milford commands the kind of attention volume alone can't afford.
"I think everyone needs to catch a show and see what he does," says River Jones, president of local label River Jones Music and one of the organizers of the Modified concert. "It's really moving. The first time I saw Tobie live, I had no idea what to expect. The looping of the violin and vocals slowly came to a swell, and I could feel the music. Not just hear it, but feel what he was expressing. It was wonderful."
Milford isn't just a solo artist — he also plays violin and sings in The Whisperlights, and he has popped up as a session player on local records of almost every stripe: He may be the one guy in Phoenix who's recorded with both folk-punks Andrew Jackson Jihad and hippie rockers What Laura Says.
Though Milford teaches at the Phoenix Conservatory of Music, started classical training at age 3, and took music lessons for 15 years, there was a time when Milford put down the violin and didn't consider music a priority.
Before he moving to Arizona, Milford lived in Michigan, where as a high-schooler his musical abilities landed him a spot in the Detroit Civic Orchestra. While he excelled there, he didn't make it into the music schools he applied for and instead opted to come to Arizona State University to pursue a degree in biology and religious studies.
In Tempe, Milford began playing guitar more than violin, performing at open mics around town. It wasn't until his junior year, when a friend introduced him to the work of indie singer/songwriter Andrew Bird, that he decided to give the instrument a go again.
"I was like, gosh, I didn't know you could do that with a violin," Milford says, referencing Bird's style of looping violin parts on top of each other. "When I started messing around with the violin, it was just a lot more satisfying than the guitar."
He traded the open mic gigs for violin solo stints at Tempe's Rúla Búla and played his first official solo show at The Trunk Space in 2008. He played with Porches, a punk rock ensemble, before forming The Whisperlights with members of The Coke Balloons, Reindeer Tiger Team, and Owl Out.
The Whisperlights gained traction with Valley audiences, but with the band taking a yearlong hiatus, Milford is poised to play more solo shows than ever.
With time to focus on his own music, Milford will also be able to write more and finish work on a follow-up to his debut solo EP, Alyosha, released over two years ago. The album was greeted with a warm reception, with Java Magazine going as far as to hail Milford "a musical genius." But while his debut may have brought some hype to his musicianship, Milford is in no rush to create a follow-up, wanting to take the time to craft another record he can be proud of.
If you listen to what his supporters have to say, that shouldn't be difficult. Cary Miller, who runs Surface to Air Records, was so captivated by an on-the-street First Friday art walk performance of Milford's, he started his label just to put out Milford's records.
"To my mind, he's the single most vital songwriter/composer in the Valley," Miller says. "Straight-up, I think he's the voice of a generation."
Or at least the voice commanding stages at rock clubs like Long Wong's and Yucca Tap Room. Milford seems to play anywhere, from rowdy bars to intimate groups at coffeehouses to artistic events such as Ignite Phoenix. Since his music mixes classical with indie rock and pop, he's been successful in cultivating a diverse fan base — so much so that at his EP release at Modified, 50 people were turned away from the sold-out show but later got a mini-set from Milford outside the venue.
Modified Arts owner Kimber Lanning says she isn't surprised by the success Milford has seen. "Tobie is an essential part of our local music community because he stands on his own and creates unique music that defies categorization, yet he plays all the indie rock spots," Lanning says. "Anyone who calls themselves a music buff will find something here — everyone should listen to what Tobie is doing and be excited he blurs the lines, pushes the envelope, and breaks the boundaries. I'm proud to say he's from Phoenix."
Milford may be in no hurry to issue a new record, but life has provided a lot for him to write about: the loss of his mom last year, his recent engagement, and his belief in God.
Though it may take some time for a new record to be released, Milford's current recordings have been played on PBS programming, on US Airways flights, and on Internet radio stations reaching listeners everywhere from South Africa to New Zealand. He also recently contributed to the Princess Lost project, a female songwriting trio that works for victims of sexual abuse.
His manager, Lisa Whealy, says that because his "musicality transcends genre," his material can find a home just about anywhere.
"People who think outside of the box, color outside of the lines, or in other ways defy categorization should give Tobie Milford a live performance listen," Whealy says. "Once you see him, you won't ever want to miss another show."
It's not uncommon for producers and managers to sing their artists' praises, but for Milford, the validation of fans has been the most flattering.
"The biggest compliment that I've gotten is someone said they felt like they'd gotten rest," Milford says. "They felt rejuvenated and comforted, and that's really cool that they were able to just be, whatever that means."