Twenty years ago the 23 am album came out. And in this May Robert Miles passed away. This brings me once again to the thought of the legacy and the memories that we leave. Artists leave things they lived for: music, films, books, and paintings. Artists leave this world, but their vision carries on influencing others. And, perhaps, this is the meaning of their
The first album, recorded with minimal means, enjoyed unimaginable success and, for a short time, made Miles one of the wealthiest people in the dance scene. Dream house and its components were a sensual reminder of the shortness of life and fragility of people. Disfigured by imitators, the style was soon dethroned
by drum and bass,trip hop and trance music, which were rapidly entering the UK. This was the bundle which Miles planned to experiment with on his second album.
The record label didn’t agree with that and demanded developing the piano phenomenon, and even more so did the listeners, charmed by the debut album, who even decades later were waiting for the Dreamland sequel, or were at least surprised that it hadn’t appeared yet. So, it isn’t surprising that pressure is the key word of the second album. “Deconstruction were putting pressure on me to add vocals on many of my tracks and I really didn’t want to go that way. I thought that it was very pop. At the time I didn’t speak any English and I trusted their judgment”, said Miles in his later interviews. Before Children became successful, Robert toured around and lived in the Italian backcountry, performed in clubs, had a pirate radio station and supported the underground scene. Children changed everything. He quickly moved to London, toured the whole world in a year, met lots of people he hadn’t known before, got lots of respect and gold discs, but quite soon he realised that he was just a commodity on a shelf with many salesmen and advisors.
of the One & Onesingle, that was specially recorded for the US market, led managers to make the following conclusion: we need to make another Dreamland with more songs and fewer instrumentals. More songs, more popularity. Miles was quickly transforming from an underground DJ into a pop star.
And this was something Robert couldn’t agree with. But his second album was constantly restructured by his managers. “I wanted this to be a conceptual album; an album which would reflect the experiences and understanding gathered on my travels. 11 pieces describing the life cycle of a normal human being, such as I wanted to be—starting from birth, through the vicissitudes of everyday life, to maturity and finally to death. The scores were the translation into music of my state of mind at that moment: the desire to hold on to a normal life, to run away from those who wanted to overburden me; the need to be free again to give vent to my feelings”.
They found a compromise: Robert wrote lyrics for half of the album in Italian and a prominent poet Frank Musker translated the rhymes into English. According to Miles, even though the quality of the album was good, it was something between his vision and the label’s desires. And there was the matter of integrity and responsibility for the result. It was like music by Miles, but not the genuine one—the Miles that had very little to do with reality. This is why the album cover as well as the following releases had a dark silhouette on them. Like, guys, I have nothing to do with this, these pop lyrics aren’t mine. And this is what the name 23 am implies—a combination of realities that is as absurd as the clock of an answering machine that has mixed up all time systems: the traditional American
Robert: “The title of the album comes from a message that I got from my broken answering machine—it said you have three messages, Sunday 23 am. I thought that it was perfect because 23 am can be, in a certain way, an imaginary time in which you find yourself, which fits well with the silhouette on the cover—that’s Robert Miles the pop star, not Robert Miles the real person. It’s a double personality, which is also a double reality—a lot of people want to see me as a pop star, but I’m not in that frame of mind at all. I think the title works well with that idea because it’s something that can exist, but doesn’t exist in reality.”
Miles sabotaged his promotional campaign. He refused to give interviews or perform live and, instead of his own picture for the press kit, he only approved a silhouette because he didn’t want to become an object of massive interest again and denied his involvement in the pop industry. “I’m not scared about working but I am scared about the way you promote your own album. Labels push you towards anything really. Instead of being on creditable shows and magazines, you end up being on crap shows and magazines. If you were doing pure pop music, you would end up doing any promotion, as they would be surrounded by people who would tell them what to do, what to sing, what to wear. To me, music is a reflection of who you are.”
Music comes first. Music is a reflection of the author. After he’d earned enough to live, Robert looked back, understood the principles of major labels and started demanding the return of his artistic freedom. He added originals that hadn’t been included on 23 am to his few singles: an instrumental and club version of Freedom and an incredibly mystical Mnemba version of Full Moon with an Asian tint, which already showed the contours of the future Organik, the third and the most shocking album by Robert. It could only be released after lengthy work by the lawyers that Miles had hired to terminate the contract.
Caught in a commercial trap, he wrote on the back of the Freedom single: “The freedom we lost cannot be reconquered cheaply, but however high, it’s a price worth paying”. And it looks like he never regretted that he hadn’t repeated the success of Dreamland.