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Trauma, Healing—and a Tall Glass of MILCK

Overnight, singer MILCK became the voice of women’s rights. But the song that sparked it all was actually about her own lived abuse. Here, she gets real about anorexia, depression, dealing with shame, and tapping into the power of energy—and fate.

She appeared on the first season of The Voice, which is only ironic in retrospect, now that her voice has become the voice of more than one cultural crusade. Last year, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, MILCK’s single “We Won’t Go Back”—which sampled audio of the crowd at a pro-choice protest chanting those four words—served as a universal rallying cry.

But her status as protest icon began five years earlier, at the 2017 Women’s March. When Trump wanted to “grab ‘em by the pussy,” MILCK showed up to the Women’s March and started to sing, belting out her beautiful anthem “Quiet” alongside a cappella groups. A producer happened to be walking by, posted it to her socials, and it went so viral, MILCK got signed to Atlantic. That experience led to a documentary, I Can’t Keep Quiet, which has just been announced today, recounting MILCK’s life in the aftermath of becoming famous overnight.

Her songs are as much about mental health as they are protest. MILCK herself has dealt with anorexia, depression, and trauma from sexual abuse—what “Quiet” was actually written about. And, like us, MILCK sees mental health as part and parcel of everything in life. In 2020, she created The Somebody’s Beloved Fund, which uses her music to support and generate resources for ten grassroots organizations with a focus on the intersectionality of feminism; the AAPI, Black, and LGBTQ+ communities; criminal justice reform; and mental health. 

If you haven’t heard her sing yet, you’ll get all the hubbub—and, likely, full-body goosebumps—when you listen to her recent debut “Metamorphosis.” Plus, she’s got a lot of mental health wisdom to impart. 

But first, let’s clear one thing up: MILCK’s birth certificate, as you may have guessed, doesn’t say MILCK. It’s as much an anagram as a stage name, formed by the first letters of her first and middle names (Connie + Kimberly), and her last name (Lim) spelled backwards. “That’s the thing with me: For better or for worse, everything has a meaning,” she says. 

Q: We’ll be talking mental health obviously, and I’m pretty TMI about everything, but let me know if you aren’t comfortable with anything I bring up.
I’m built in a way where I’m oddly comfortable talking about the things people don’t talk about, but I’m also learning the art of keeping things sacred, as Brené Brown talks about.

Q: You’ve been open about having anorexia. We published a story about how even in recovery, it can be really easy to still want to look a certain way. How do you deal with triggers?
I’ve known I’ve had persistent depressive disorder for 10 years now, and I finally took the leap to take medication a year and three months ago. This doesn’t happen for everybody, but what happened with my body is that I’ve gained weight. It may be a culmination of being less anxious, so I’m burning less calories anyway. I told my friend, it’s totally worth it for me to gain a few pounds if I can live without this constant dagger of anxiety puncturing my chest. 

I’ve had to look at my body and buy bigger-size clothes and think, This is ok. That’s a huge jump from when I was anorexic and would constantly measure my body. Adele said it in one of her earlier interviews: “I don’t have time to think about that.” 

She introduced [that concept] into my psyche: I can choose how to use my time, and I have the power to change that up. And Adele lost weight later, and she chose to allot her time to that. I’m thinking abundantly to not focus on that in this moment. And that is different from the story we’re told, that when you’re thin you have more power. What if I already have power and decide what to do with it outside of this paradigm?

Q: In our story, one therapist mentioned that, when you feel you might relapse, it helps to think about what you value as a human.
I’m glad you brought up the values thing. Is it really about me getting bigger, or about the story I have behind me getting bigger? The story I have is that I’m lazy. That’s the ugly talk. I call her Kimmie. Her other name is Shame, [pronounced] Sha-may. She comes out and she’s like, Look at you; the people who said this about you are right—you’re not disciplined. I fear being that, because then I won’t be able to make money for myself, and it always goes to the fear of not being able to survive. 

I was like, Oh, I hate that I have these thoughts. But am I going to Sha-may myself about Sha-may? Now I’m like, she’s just gonna be here, and we’re gonna hang out sometimes, and I have to develop a better relationship with her and how to talk to her. Sha-may likes to chat.

Something my therapist has exposed me to that’s changing my life is Donna Eden, [who wrote a book called] Energy Medicine. Donna is one of the leading teachers of this art form. It’s super affordable—you just need your own hands and this knowledge about it. It’s very democratizing. It’s the philosophy that we are energy beings. I use tapping and certain movements and stretches to realign my energy. It helps to energize, ground, and protect me. There are different things like visualizations and body movements that can help in many different scenarios. 

I was just doing it with some of my musicians in the recording studio last night. They were recording for 12 hours, and we were on the last hour. If you process life this way, you can use your fingers to tap under your collarbone and feel a resurgence of energy. When we got the bad news about the shootings in Atlanta in that massage parlor, I immediately felt my body shift. [During those times], I use these movements.

I highly recommend it for people who feel a strong pang in their body [when they get nervous]. Sometimes, before I was taking medication, if I was driving and someone made a crazy move on the road, I would feel an ache in my feet. If people identify with that, you might be a physically tapped-in, energized being. These types of exercises really help.

Q: Anything else you do when you need to let go of something?
My friend is a really creative artist and has taken lots of different courses from clown school to dominatrix school. We talk a lot about what she’s learned about the act of domming and subbing. I always joke with her that I’m gonna let life dom me, and I’m gonna be full sub. In being the sub, there is the joy of surrender and trust and it can be really beautiful. When life gets hard, I chuckle to myself, I’m getting dommed here, and I fully surrender. I’m gonna be the sub in this situation and just accept it.” 

Q: Can you give me an example of that?
When it’s really cold outside, if I’m resisting the cold, I’m tensing my muscles. But if I just say I’m accepting it, I just relax my muscles and, it’s like, it’s a little less cold.

Or I’m gonna let thing be shitty. I’m gonna let myself cry if I need to, but I’m gonna have this chuckle in the back of my head: I’m being dommed. We’re all so eager to have control, but the fact is, life can dom us sometimes. A tree root—it wants to go deep in the soil. But there’s going to be a rock in the soil. What are we going to do? Resist it? Deny it? Or cry, but also accept that I’ll have to grow around that rock.

Q: You’ve had a lot of change in your life recently. I’m told your song “Metamorphosis” is about your decision to leave Atlantic, but is it more than that?
“Metamorphosis” is about transitioning out of my beliefs of what success looks like. Really processing leaving a major label and making that choice when my whole childhood and life was geared toward that goal, and transitioning out of what we believe as young adults, is always a really interesting experience. It’s like killing off that set of ideals to free myself. 

It’s very similar to when I was anorexic and had to learn to eat and accept gaining weight. It was that I have to let go of these ideas so that I can be healthy and be more honest with myself. I think the goal for me is to have a better relationship with me and be more present. I want to be here moment to moment and enjoy the nectar that life is.

Q: How did you define success?
My older definition of what used to be true for me: Success was very tied to what mainstream success was. I set a pretty high goal for myself when I was in middle school. I was paging through magazines and couldn’t find any Asian women in there, and I was like, I’m gonna be the Asian woman there to change this. I’m going to get the number one song on the Billboard 100. Number one is something all of us can relate to. We’re taught that number one is it. And I think underlying that really ambitious sense of needing to be that type of success was a hunger for being enough and being accepted and belonging.

I had this interesting childhood of not belonging fully in my family because I didn’t fit what was going to be the right formula for succeeding and surviving in America. My parents are immigrants, and they wanted the best for me. By the skin of their teeth, they built a life that is incredible and used discipline and hard skills and higher education. A seriousness was undergirding all of it. 

I was this goofy kid who loved music and was expressive, and that was scary for them. In Chinese culture, artists were considered lower-class society; they were not respected and were also persecuted. So I didn’t belong there, and then in not seeing myself in the media was another “not belonging.”

Q: What does it do to the psyche when you don’t see yourself?
It’s not obvious, like a villain in a superhero movie. It’s the near enemy you can’t see. These really subtle harmful ideologies—it’s like water torture. It’s like a slow drip. I personally experience a lot of this stress through my body as well. Mental health and physical health are so tied. I feel it.

Q: How does stress manifest for you?
In my experience, it creates a sense of overheating in my body, and an acidity. It was pretty uncanny, when the AAPI hate was rising in 2021 in mainstream media, I was getting really bad acid reflux. Reading a news article, I would feel heat in my stomach. I get it so bad that it gives me vertigo, because it changes the pressure in my head. 

There’s a really intelligent writer, Raj Patel. He’s written a couple books, and one talks about the correlation between oppression and the acid, the burning of the body. He said that a study that was really inspiring to him was that one of the things that decreases the acid and harm and migraines is storytelling—sharing one’s story. It immediately decreases blood pressure and creates healthy impacts in our body. 

And so that study was not a surprise to me and a joy to hear that, yes, that’s what my life has been. This attempt to heal these wounds and this overpressurizing through telling our truths and sharing—just that verbal communication to another—can be so healing, and that’s my life and that’s why I sing.

It’s really my way of processing the world around me. It’s what keeps me going. Songwriting and the art of creating something has changed my life for the better. I can navigate this difficult stuff.

[Editor’s note: There’s a fascinating study, published in the journal Cerebrum, showing that narratives with a dramatic arc spark a release of oxytocin, a neurochemical in the brain that’s involved in attachment, bonding, and empathy.]

Q: There’s a lyric I love in “Metamorphosis” about “wet wings, they will dry.” What does this mean to you?
When I wrote that one, it was a couple levels. My family has had trouble accepting my romantic partner, and the pain of that schism in the family and being the “cause” of the schism, even though I’m not the cause, it’s like, Oh my god, I feel like I am dying and don’t know if i can function as a butterfly that needs to fly. My wings are wet, my wings are birthing. I have to give this time because there’s nothing I can do to change their minds. The only thing I can do is be kind to myself.

There was this line in Shrinking that Harrison Ford said that made me choke up a bit: “You wait for your people to be ready.” I can’t pause my life, but if and when they’re ready, I’m not going to shame them or reject them. [The lyric also refers to] leaving Atlantic and building my own business and all of the ups and downs. Sometimes I’m like, I was in a whole different level of this industry and now I have wet wings again. I’m rebuilding.

Q: How do you practice patience in this situation?
Having really good friends and cultivating friendships where I can go to them and say, I am losing faith; I’m so scared. Just hearing someone else saying, I believe in you—keep going. I really turn to nature and watch the process. Hence why the “Metamorphosis” song. 

This being melts itself from caterpillar and has to wriggle out of this chrysalis, and it’s hard, and it can’t skip any steps, and I don’t know if the butterfly doubts itself in the chrysalis. I don’t think it does but can’t say for certain, but I remind myself of nature and the slowness but also the effectiveness of its evolution. I am part of this. I am living alongside this blossom.

Q: You brand-new single, Closer,” just came out!
It will be the end title credit for the documentary. The song is about what [public interest and criminal justice lawyer] Bryan Stephenson talks about regarding proximity, and how it’s the most healing thing in our culture and country. I always take it to the personal level. 

When I have conflict, [my goal] is not to sever ties. I think severing ties is really important for some people, and I have done that with friendships, but there are some where I’m wanting to sever ties because I don’t want to be accountable and take the easy way out—but, in this relationship [that the song is about], I want to get closer. Even though I don’t want to, I want to.

Q: There’s a lot of chatter on social media about severing ties when boundaries aren’t met, and one of the hardest places to set boundaries is with family. How do you do it?
I come from a culture where even how we say our names, our last names come first. If I’m born into a heritage that so proudly puts family first, that’s in my blood. I’ve had to invent a new approach and allow myself my own permission that, yes, okay, family’s important and I’m important. 

I went on tour with Glennon Doyle and Abby Wambach, and Glennon Doyle said that a broken family is not a family that’s broken in structure. It’s a family that requires its individual family members to break themselves apart to fit themselves into whatever the agreed-upon culture. I will give myself permission within my respect and reverence for my family. I feel such loyalty and love for my grandfather who has passed. I can find ways to exit and enter my family. 

For example, there’s a tradition in Chinese New Year’s where married couples give red envelopes to unmarried people, and that becomes an issue where my cousin in her 20s is married and I’m not [MILCK is 36], because I don’t really want my cousin to give me money. So I showed up with my own red envelopes, and my aunts, they couldn’t even compute. 

Q: Tell me about this new documentary, I Can’t Keep Quiet. It’s premiering next week at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival?
Grace Lee—an award-winning documentarian who created the canon of Asian-American history—is producing this documentary about my life and the song “Quiet” and how it’s become a story about reclamation of friendship, sisterhood, and voice. I wrote it with another woman six years ago. [The documentary is] the story of how we dealt with it after the song went viral. 

[My new song] “Closer” is the end title credit for the documentary. It is a song that relates to mental health because it’s about maintaining proximity and closeness to people who are showing me something too real about myself that I don’t want to look at but I should, and the other aspect is bringing myself closer to Sha-may. Being closer with Sha-may is [knowing that] my body issues are not about what I look like, but more the fear about being able to take care of myself financially.

Q: “Quiet” became an anthem around the #MeToo movement, but it was written about your own personal experience, yes?
Me Too is more about power dynamics in a structured organization. Mine was domestic violence, and so pervasive. It was my boyfriend when I was 14. He was 17/18, and he would get drunk and force me to do things, and I was really young and didn’t have the vocabulary. 

The hardest part of that was not that actual thing, but the lack of vocabulary that my caretakers had to take care of me when I shared. It became about slut-shaming, and it became my fault, and I didn’t really understand it was domestic violence and not my fault until 10 years later. My heart breaks [for the me] between 14 and 26. I can’t tell you how many times I negative-talked to myself and didn’t think I deserved good opportunities.

Q: What do you tell young people when something like this happens in their life?
Thinking about, It’s not your fault. See if you can bring that phrase into your life. Is there a trusted person you can ask that question. I remember being that age and being convinced it was my fault—it was this dark secret, and I didn’t allow myself to have relationships with other women [because I thought] once they know me, they’ll see me [and see that I’m] damaged. [I’d also tell a young person] that they’re not the only person [who’s experienced this]. They’re not alone.” 

Q: Do you think there’s power in hearing other people speak their truth? Does that help someone get through a bad situation?
Amanda Nguyen, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee, posted on her socials that the Asian culture has a big problem with slut-shaming and not having the vocabulary. And her saying that allowed me to look at it with a fierceness and a confidence. Her audacity to say that. I struggle being of a different culture and learning these new things, like, Is this my culture or is this abusive? Or is that inappropriate behavior? It’s a trip. It’s a big trip. That’s why I’m so grateful for Amanda and these movements. 

There’s so much healing to do. There’s still a big disparity in the music industry. There was a study that in 2020, less than 5 percent of the producers of popular music were women. You’d think with all the initiatives we’re doing, there [would be more] improvement. Then this year, a study came out that less than 3.5 percent of producers of pop music are women.

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It’s actually dropped. It’s probably up and down, but I want to acknowledge there’s been a lot of conversations [where people think], We’ve handled this, that there’s a lot of progress. No. We’re starting the conversation, and the numbers don’t lie. I’m an advisory member of See Her [an organization that works to portray women and girls accurately in media, marketing, and entertainment].  

I’m also involved in Moving the Needle [a nonprofit that supports women in the recording industry]. We’re doing some really good work. Less than 23 percent of [musical] artists are women. Less than 14 percent are songwriters. We’re singing these words and ideas that people are dancing to, and less than 14 percent of [women] wrote the song. A lot of men are still writing the lyrics that women are singing about our bodies, about our ideas of what relationships are. 

I’m very interested in calling in men and people who don’t identify as women to join and collaborate together to create something with joy. There are amazing allies. I met with Justin Tranter, who’s written some of our biggest songs in the industry, and he is always conscious when writing for a female artist to make sure there’s a woman in the room. We need more men like this doing that in our industry. 

Q: Do you consider it fate the way you were discovered at the Women’s March?
I actually do. This woman named Alma Har’el literally just walked by [Milck was singing “Quiet’”with D.C.-based a cappella groups]. I didn’t know who she was. I had like 7,000 followers on Instagram and had been dropped by my management. Alma [a producer and director] happened to walk by and put it on her socials, and it went crazy-viral, like 8 million views over the weekend. 

The number of things that had to happen to make that moment happen! Because I was able to experience that lightning-in-a-bottle thing, [I believe] the relationship with the universe is very potent. [I had thought], If you want this song to be shared, universe, you’re gonna let me know. And then all of that happened within the next few hours.

I feel like if we continue to build that most honest relationship with ourselves, things do unravel in that way, beyond our wildest dreams. If I experienced that, it has to be possible for many other people

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