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L to R: Ben & Mackenzie Di Millo. Photo: Patrick Kidney.

Talking Albums: Mack & Ben

By John McDonald on April 23, 2020

Siblings Mackenzie and Ben Di Millo are the Ottawa singing duo Mack & Ben. Their soul/R&B stylings are groovy, smooth, and harmonious. At the end of March, while under confinement, they released These Walls, a “snack pack” EP of three songs. And the reduced daily demands we all face have not slowed them down. They’ve decided to keep active and grasp the opportunity of unexpected available time. We asked how exactly they’ve been spending their days, and what they’ve been listening to while keeping busy.

Mack & Ben:

In addition to spending a heck of a lot of time listening to old favourites and exploring new musical finds, we’ve managed to keep pretty busy over here! We released our debut, homemade, mini-EP (or snack pack, as we like to call it) These Walls a little over a month ago, and have been really touched by the great response from the musical community.

In the spirit of sharing and connectivity, we decided to follow this release up with a series of live videos that we aptly titled our Homebody Sessions. With these videos, we decided to really embrace the “quarantine” concept by performing in several creative at-home spots: dancing in the dining room, sitting on the bathtub, and propped on the kitchen counter!

We followed these videos with a series of fun chord charts/lyric sheets which are on our socials, and within the extras section of our website. We’ve been spending a lot of our time learning from some of our favourite songwriters. With these charts, we’re sharing a bit more of the behind the scenes of our music.

I would say that the content that has been the most fun for us to create these last few weeks has been our daily QuaranTUNES compilations. We decided to kickstart our QuaranTUNES initiative for the purposes of sharing the tunes that were helping us get through the day. We’re hoping to learn which songs are helping our friends and listeners get through their days. Each day, we post our little hand-drawn template on our Instagram story with three great tunes that we’re listening to. They can be new or old, and touch any genre. We then post a blank template for followers to screenshot and fill with their own songs of the day. We couldn’t have hoped for a better response! We’re receiving tons of new suggestions each day through tags and mentions, which has helped us create a massive QuaranTUNES community playlist. We’ve also been able to make connections with musicians all across the world. They’ve been very receptive and appreciative of the support from here in Ottawa.

Ben Di Millo and Mackenzie Di Millo. Photo provided.

Oh yes. How could we forget! We’re also writing, arranging, and recording for our fall 2020 full band, full EP! We’ve had to reorganize our priorities somewhat, and put some of our recording on pause for the well-being of everyone involved. But we’re still trucking away as best we can to keep the ball rolling. And rolling it sure is!

That’s what we in Mack & Ben have been up to lately.

Before we talk about albums, we’d love to give a big shout out to the sweet Ottawa music community for being so communally supportive, and collectively engaged in each other’s content. We’ll get through all of this crazy together!

OK, Apt613! Now the hard part. It’s so tough to pick just two albums! But we did—each choosing one.

Moonchild – Voyager

Ben here. This was my Moonchild discovery record. No exaggeration, the first second of the opening track caught my attention. The depth of the sound, instrumentation and harmony immediately had me investigating further. I had this record on repeat for a long time, and still do. Moonchild is one of those groups, like Robert Glasper, Hiatus Kaiyote, or Native Dancer that defined “modern” neo-soul to me. They seamlessly pushed through any existing pop music boundaries that I had imagined. Now, they’re absolutely not the first to do this. But Moonchild’s particular combination of lush instrumentation, harmony, and style within their writing really clicked with me, all while maintaining such a memorable melody. They remain a heavy influence of Mack and mine both.

Michelle Willis – See us Through

Mack here! Okay. I would have to say that the album on repeat for me these last few weeks has been See Us Through by Michelle Willis. Michelle is a Toronto musician based in New York, and this is her debut album. The album is absolutely stunning from top to bottom. From the first chords of “It’ll Rain Today” the lushness of Michelle and her band’s sound completely envelops the listener. In several songs, gorgeously layered atmospheric harmonies set the stage for the musical journey to come. Michelle’s jazz influences, and her ties to Snarky Puppy, Becca Stevens, and David Crosby shine brightly through.

Lyrically, the whole album is breathtaking! Really though—there are lines that genuinely took my breath away. “Persimmon” would have to be my favourite tune, in which lines like “I miss being known by you” shake me to my core each and every time listen through. I don’t know how she does it, but I swear that Michelle is able to write out what the listener’s feeling. And does it better than they themselves could ever hope to articulate. If you’re looking for a little breath of fresh air, and a little escape, this is a great place to start. I’m telling you, this album breaks your heart, and puts it all back together again. And in less time than an episode of Tiger King.

About Moonchild – Voyager

Allmusic has called Moonchild’s music “Soulquarians-inspired alternative R&B.” The L.A. trio, known for their spaced-out grooves and wispy vocals, has cited influences like D’Angelo and Hiatus Kaiyote. Their soul/new-school jazz styling has brought them a host of iconic supporters including Robert Glasper, Laura Mvula, Jamie Callum, and Tyler, The Creator. Voyager, released in 2017, is their third full-length album. Sputnick Music called it one of the year’s smoothest albums with its “dreamy-creamy neo soul” saying that “those familiar with the works of Hiatus Kaiyote, Sade or Nujabes will feel right at home.”

About Michelle Willis – See Us Through

David Crosby has called Toronto’s Michelle Willis “one of my favourite singers in the world.” That’s high praise coming from one of the golden voices of Crosby, Still & Nash. See Us Through was released in 2016, and features original music inspired by years spent singing in choirs, coupled with a love of jazz, folk, gospel and blues. Jazz Weekly felt that “what makes this album stand out is Willis’ use of choirs both large and small as extra textures to frame and accent her own supple singing.” Michelle has been in the studio recording a follow-up: “I also filmed and recorded a live performance of the same songs. I’ll be releasing these two albums (studio and live) simultaneously in 2020.”

More from Mack & Ben:

Official website
EPK (Songs from These Walls)

QuaranTUNES playlists on Spotify:

Playlist 1
Playlist 2