Born Travis Tatum Mills, the 22-year-old was able to turn laptop musical experimentation in his bedroom into national tours and a recording contract with Columbia Records, all in just over two years. But the rapid ascent didn't come without plenty of work.
From an early age, T. Mills was musically curious. As a kid growing up in California, he learned how to play guitar and drums, before soon getting into singing. He recalls being exposed to a shmorgas-board of musical flavors from an early age by his parents and relatives: "My dad is a huge Elvis fan. My mom was huge into Queen. My first CD that I can ever remember seeing was Nirvana Nevermind. I listened to The Eagles. My uncle was a huge Bone Thugs N Harmony fan, and he kind of got me into all of the hip-hop and R&B. He gave me an Usher tape when I was probably six years old. He gave me an R. Kelly tape. He got me into 2pac. I listened to a lot of Souls of Mischief. Pink Floyd was hella cool. Placebo. Once I got on the Internet, my tastes went all across the board. There was no genre I wasn't listening to. Sade. Eric Clapton. Bob Dylan."
It took some time to hone that sound, though. At 15, he started what he calls an "experimental pop punk" band with friends and was overcome with his connection to music. "When I turned 15, it was over," he says. "Music was my whole life. You couldn't stop me."
Things really began to take shape just over two years ago, though. "I took a T-Pain and Plies beat, and I made a song over it on Garage Band in my bedroom, and I made a MySpace page and I put some pictures up, and kids just started finding my page," he says. "I recorded like three more demos in my bedroom and I kept putting songs up." He would interact with his fans, promising them that when he hit new thresholds of friends - 1000, 5000, etc. - he would put up another song.
"That's key, because I would literally spend eight to nine hours a day on my computer, adding kids and talking to my fans," he says. "It was a cool way for me to connect and I could take their temperature on what was working for me and what wasn't working for me. I just kind of got to build my own virtual career. It got to the point where I had like 30,000 plays a day and I only had four or five songs up there."
Virtual soon became reality, when, through an acquaintance and good timing, Mills landed himself a coveted spot on the summer-long Warped Tour 2009. "I sold my own merch everyday. I set up my own equipment everyday. I just hustled. I played 60 shows by myself the whole summer. It was a grind but it was amazing."
Once he returned to the Pacific, Mills rode his early wave of success to book shows for himself at local venues. Then, one day, unexpectedly, the tattooed talent got a call from John D'Esposito, Live Nation's vice president of talent and the founder of Bamboozle."I was trippin," Mills says. "I didn't know if that shit was real or fake, so I called, and it really was him."
D'Esposito asked the newbie to craft the theme song for the festival and, in return, gave him a spot on the B-Boy stage, which was also rocked by the likes of Mike Posner and Far East Movement. "That was cool for me cause I didn't have an album out, and it was my first time playing in the East Coast," Mills says. "I didn't know what to expect, and we had four or five thousand kids who knew every single word. That was an eye opener for me and definitely a turning point for my career."
Eventually, after months of negotiating, T. Mills inked with Columbia in early 2011. "It has always been important to me to communicate directly with my fans whether it is through facebook or twitter or by putting up my music for them to enjoy online" he says of his decision. "So we went to work. I spent six or seven months in the studio pretty much every day. I recorded 140 songs. We narrowed it down to 16, then 12. And we settled on ten tracks I'm giving away to my fans for being fans." The project, Leaving Home, was made available July 22.
Now, as he preps his official debut album, he's looking towards growth and the future. "My old stuff just came from a place of, I don't know, just fun," he says. "Now, I've grown and matured and I'm becoming a real artist and writing real songs that are important to me. I feel like I can reach more people with the songs I'm making now."
As the catchy, genre-bending songs continue to develop, you can try to classify T. Mills, but that doesn't matter. He's going to keep doing it his way, like he has all along.
"When I go in the studio I don't say, 'I want to write a rap song; I want to write a pop song.' I hear what's in front of me and I work with what I have and I create what I want to listen to. I don't care if people want to label me a pop artist. I'm not a rapper; I'm not a singer. I'm just an artist. I'm Travis."
Time to get acquainted.