Материалът на български виж ТУК.
An interview with Borislav Milanov by Ralitsa Blagovestova
for ‘Bright Sparks in the Aura of Bulgaria’
Photo above: Borislav Milanov (personal archive)
Photos below: Alexsandra Vali
I fell in love with ‘Beautiful Mess’ right from the first listen. The combination between the song which represented Bulgaria at Eurovision this year and its performer in the person of Kristian Kostov set off an explosion of emotion in me, the like of which I’d never before experienced with a piece of pop music. The minimalist (exquisitely white) lyrics-video, which I rewound time after time for days on end until the official video was released, is perhaps still the one which evokes in me the strongest sense of the spirit which the song embodies. It’s like meditation and a rising above worldly dramas, that inner state in which you are no longer a participant in the battles of opposing camps but can see the whole picture and can embrace all those involved with the energy of quiet humility and acceptance. Truly the inviolable state of untouchable love which can once again make our world beautiful and connected, quite literally. This is how I perceived the message of the song and, on tenterhooks, I kept an ear out for something that could officially confirm that my feeling was not merely a question of a personal vision of the reality I dreamt of. And this was not long in coming, to my great delight! But let’s now give the floor to the main culprit for the ‘Beautiful Mess’ in our souls, the man who wrote the song which has borne fruit in the many minds and hearts it has filled with its white glow – Borislav Milanov.
Tell us a bit about what you were like as a child. Where and how did you grow up, what were your favourite pastimes, interests, dreams…?
I was quite an inquisitive, bright child. Pretty mischievous, with an adventurous spirit. I was constantly on the lookout for new things to happen to me which I could get to learn about. I was really sociable, was always starting conversations with people, getting to know them. My childhood was a happy one and I’d say that it was thanks to this that some things come more easily to me now both when I’m communicating with people and in life in general.
My great-grandmother, in whose house I was raised, gave me complete freedom. I grew up without a father and my mother went abroad very early, still in communist times, to the West – she’s an artist – so that my great-grandmother, who was a school-teacher (may she rest in peace) brought me up as well as my other grandma on my father’s side from time to time. I had to do homework even before first grade, of course – with the two school-mistresses, my granny and my great-grandma, there was one condition: first you have to write this, you have to do these sums and read this and THEN you can do whatever you want. I had complete freedom: until 11 in the evening in front of the block with the big kids. I still have really lovely memories of those years here in Sofia.
After the 10th of November (the 10th of November 1989 marks the official end of the communist system in Bulgaria – tr. note), with the fall of the Wall, I went to Vienna to be with my mother when I was 7, and it was a bit difficult for me at first. It was as if I’d stepped into cold water all of a sudden, because the Austrians are quite reserved, especially towards foreigners and especially the kids, you know, and it was that kind of era. Things have mellowed a bit by now but when I was there, there weren’t so many foreigners as now and it was more difficult for me at the start. Maybe it was precisely because of this that I was motivated – I learnt the language really quickly to prove myself because there were prejudices about me coming from Bulgaria.
As for interests… I was into music – I was forever humming some kind of tune, having a sing, experimenting when I saw any kind of instrument, playing something by ear… I thought up all kinds of stories and scenarios, too – that’s why I applied to do film directing and theatre studies later on. I also did sport… I constantly found something to occupy myself with.
Later on you find out how to make an instrumental on the computer with different programmes and plug-ins to replace different live instruments, how to make a musical sketch… in a pretty amateurish way but intuitively. At some point I got together with musician friends – that’s what I’d call them – we were really young, but one boy especially was a long way ahead, he’d been playing the piano since he was little and was really musical. And gradually he started to wonder how I did something without knowing what it is exactly, without having learnt the use of musical notation, so that’s how I ended up learning the theory too via him and I got more deeply into music. We were all around 14-15 years old at that time. And that’s the way everything developed, without any outside pressure but in a really natural way instead. I was really very lucky to come into contact with people like that, people very open to creating something together, taking our first steps in music together, but for me the main focus in parallel with all this, in fact my number one dream, was film directing. Music was kind of something that was just there, it was a part of me and it gave me pleasure but, as with sport – I played football and did light athletics – I’d never thought that I’d be involved mainly in music and the same with sport: I’d never thought of being involved in it professionally.
I would have said that I was going to write film screenplays, to direct films – that had been my main goal from an early age. At some point though things took a different turn: after the age of 21 I realised that it was interesting for me to be more involved in music, to get deeper into musical matters. I worked as an assistant for a concert organiser in Austria. I got to know foreign performers all the time. That helped me later on with my other sphere of activity: doing the organisation myself, putting on events, liaising, establishing contacts. Everything was connected: the creative and the organisational aspects. By getting to know other musicians, coming into contact with them, you see that they are really quite normal, ordinary people, each with their own idiosyncrasies… and you see that everything is possible if you really believe in yourself and work a lot. Putting in the work is perhaps the most, the very most important thing. Talent, intuition – you can’t do without them – but to work and evolve constantly, that is the key. No-one has just sat there and have things happen to them just because they’ve got talent. There’s no way for that to happen.
Can’t you still apply your knowledge of directing to music videos, for example?
That’s what I do, yes. In most cases I am the director of the music videos but since you can’t be everything all at once I hire an additional director who is responsible just for that. I write the script and do the conceptual stage on the spot along with him, but he is in charge on the film set. He imposes his vision but always in consultation with me or if I don’t like something, I tell him… That’s how we’ve always worked and, thank God, so far all of the directors I’ve worked with have gone along with it and we haven’t had any kind of ego problems. We’ve made everything clear right from the start: the fact that I also know what I’m doing in this field and that it’s important to me for the main idea to be realised but I also give someone else space for their own vision and contribution.
So what kind of things to read or films were interesting for you in your childhood?
The first book to make a big impression on me was ‘The Little Prince’ by Exupery. Fairy tales like ‘Hansel and Gretel’, clearly, but really nothing had touched me to such a degree until the moment I read ‘The Little Prince’: I really liked it and I’m sure I must have read it 5 times at least. As for films, I’ve always liked the more historical ones which are connected to some kind of heroism. And ‘Star Wars’ of course. ‘Braveheart’ is a favourite of mine, it was really formative for me as a teenager growing up without a father figure and I said to myself that William Wallace with his bravery and all that was the kind of man I could emulate as an idol. I think figures like that are really beneficial to every boy, for there to be the kind of character like for example the hero in ‘Braveheart’. A hero of this type for us is Levski.
What about the J Lo concert in Bulgaria, which has become emblematic of good organisation: can you tell us how it came about that you took on the task of bringing it to fruition?
With risk and courage. Via the contacts I’d made in Vienna, the people who owned the rights got in touch with me and put their trust in me – they were looking for someone to organise a concert for them in Bulgaria. They turned to me to ask if I could recommend someone. At that moment I decided to risk it myself, because I believed in myself. I told them I wanted to try. I was convinced that the concert would be a sell-out. And I took a risk despite the fact that I didn’t really have the necessary experience and I just decided everything on the fly. It was a big risk but after the halfway point, when the seats started selling gradually, things calmed down a bit. A person has to go through that kind of tension to accumulate experience. That was in 2012. I’d already come back to Bulgaria, maybe 3-4 years earlier.
How did your involvement in Eurovision come about in the meantime?
What happened was that in 2011 Poli Genova got to hear about us and got in touch for us to do a song for her for Eurovision. We got together – she came to our studio in Vienna and we did ‘Stubbornly’ (‘Na Inat’). At that time I didn’t even know what Eurovision was. I was in completely uncharted waters. On location in Dusseldorf I didn’t bother with the things around that seriously at all, I just had fun instead and come what may. We were all a bit like that, no-one really knew what was actually happening and what should be done. Since then, in 2015, I’ve had the opportunity to take part once more: this time with a song for Macedonia, plus us doing the song for Austria in our studio in Vienna, which was a song actually written by German composers but they’d decided to put the finishing touches to it with us: we recorded Conchita Wurst (the winning Eurovision song 2014: ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ – e.n.).
That’s how I started to get to know more about what’s what and by the time Poli called last year (2016, ‘If Love Was a Crime’), I already knew what had to be done and I had the same feeling I’d had with the J Lo concert. Poli had tried other stuff with other composers and she rang me exactly four days before the absolutely last deadline after which Bulgaria would have been disqualified. It was a thing of wonder, terrific magic. But I already knew what had to be done – when it came to the song itself as well, and after that for the stage performance and so on. I had some consultations with BNT and Poli… and we managed to cope, with me having the feeling all along that we might actually succeed but also that we had nothing to lose. It was a really good position to be in. We had a pretty good time. There were critical, key moments, especially before the semi-final, when we had to make some good decisions and, thank God, we managed to make good choices and to come together properly as a team.
This year (2017) the position wasn’t so nice in that we already had high standards to live up to and surpass. But I was even more confident because I knew that we had to stake absolutely everything on emotion and on something that there hadn’t been up ‘til now in Eurovision. When Kristian sprang to mind, I realised that he was the performer and that he needed just the right song. I already had ‘Beautiful Mess’ from before in terms of subject matter and a sketch and as soon as I’d opted for Kristian I called Sanya Armutlieva and asked if they’d be interested. She told me to have a go and then I started to develop the song with my team especially around Kristian, both as a melody and in terms of structure and lyrics too… I mean the main idea started out with me and my studio in Sofia and when we have something like a layout, like a sketch, we sit down with my partners and think in parallel, we do something like brainstorming. For this song, like with some of our other projects, it’s me who gives the first impulse, plants the first little seed and after that we develop things together. We are a really close-knit team and that’s a really good formula because with several creative heads who communicate really well, two heads are better than one. If there are any kind of games going on between people, there’s no way for that to happen.
And how did that initial sketch come about?
That’s very hard to say – that’s inspiration… I constantly have various ideas and when some kind of image has taken shape in your mind, some kind of mood or you feel a particular emotion in yourself, you already know more or less where you’re heading with the piece, as long as you know what you want to say both conceptually and emotionally. It’s a bit like directing: first you form the scenario in your head and then you have to add a soundtrack to this scenario.
Was there a moment when you sensed that the song this year had taken on a life of its own beyond the bounds of the musical work – that its message had come alive in everyday communication?
I personally dedicated the message of the song to love as a universal force, as Divine Love is – the love of the Creator of the Universe, who lives in us, which is the driving force and which, despite all the visible destruction, holds us up and keeps us moving forward. Whatever happens – ‘even in the line of fire’ – love makes us untouchable when faced with any kind of evil. Just as in the case of Christ. That’s the truth which I believe in but I don’t just believe – I’ve seen it. And the message passes over into reality.
In the whole process from the very beginning we had an awful lot of snags, intrigues, problems, opposing sides – we had to make a coalition between so many different people… there was constantly some kind of force which seemed to want to stop the project from happening, but there was another force too. It was just like a struggle between Good and Evil, to tell the truth. Now it sounds really banal but that’s how it is, truly. And for me Love and Good won. This energy is created, and I have to tell you, Kristian for me is just such a pure being… like in the film ‘The Fifth Element’. I even envisaged him like this on the stage – something like a cross between the Little Prince and the Fifth Element, who unites us all without even knowing it, without being aware of it, to tell the truth. He hasn’t done it deliberately, but it’s something he carries within him and that is also a really crucial element. I’ve still got really beautiful memories and I’m really happy that we managed to get this to happen, because it really wasn’t easy to get this far.
Have you observed any synchronicities and chance events – beautiful coincidences which you have noticed in this regard?
I personally don’t believe in coincidences at all – I believe that everything happens for a specific purpose, and there were quite a lot of… it’s all a bit of a… firstly how did Kristian pop into my mind and then later, just when the song was ready, we were able to record it straight away the next day – because he was in Moscow, but was travelling the next day for Sofia to present his project with Pavel and Ventsi Vents, ‘Raise Level’ (‘Vdigam Level’).
Aha, precisely in order to ‘raise the level’ then 😉 So, what is your credo in life, in the broadest terms?
Like every normal person who takes an interest in the spiritual world and spirituality, I have also gone through all kinds of beliefs, theories, philosophies, searching for God, but I believe that every one of us from an early age communicates with and has his own personal dialogue with God. And once I’d got to know about everything I could – I even had my own theory about the creation of the world – at one point I quite literally experienced Christ for myself. Not by means of logic but as a feeling. Without in any way entering into the dogmas and system of the Church. Just the Source, which is what He is. And the interesting thing is, that in other faiths they also revere Him and speak of Him. Christ exists and that’s where I found myself. I especially like the fact that He is both a human being and God as well as the fact that you come nearer to Him mainly by forgiving (even your enemy and those who have hurt you) and when you sacrifice yourself to something greater than you… those are the moments when you approach the Divine.
Like the energy in Kristian’s song – it’s as if it’s imbued with something!
Yes. I was thinking of Christ in both ‘If Love Was a Crime’ and ‘Beautiful Mess’, when we did them, but I didn’t want to be too concrete about it with the actual words. There was even a moment when the end was ‘His love is untouchable’ but I got rid of it, because it’s more powerful as ‘Our love is untouchable’. I don’t want to impose what I believe in on anyone because everyone has to discover something for himself and we need to be very tolerant of all beliefs. There is a thin line beyond which you go over the top in creative work. In ‘If Love Was a Crime’ we can give some thought as to who was the first to be declared a criminal because of his love and then crucified. That is actually the whole idea. But after that there have been other examples. That’s why it would be nice for everyone to discover themselves independently. And at the start of the song, which is slightly simplified, there were some lines, but they were disguised, coded – only Poli and the backing-vocalists knew them and sang them. Otherwise you can’t hear them. And there the text was: ‘I believe in Love, I believe in Him, I believe’ – really very simple and this was discreetly encoded in the song. They knew it because it was important for them to think of it while they were singing and to believe and not just to repeat some words or other.
Something could be felt in ‘If Love Was a Crime’, yes, although with Kristian the song bursts out fully recognisable – for me at any rate! Sheer magic, the feeling of elation from which still hasn’t left me at all from the 13th of March to this day.
Yes, both songs had their own magic… (‘Na Inat’ has powerfull message as well, by the way – ed.note) It’s very important when thinking of songs with some kind of message for them to be really a bit more abstractly written, so that everyone can find his own interpretation. It shouldn’t be something too forceful and literal, you shouldn’t say: this is the truth. No. That is really important.
Namely what’s intuitive and not dogmatic – because in dogmatism direct perception is lost and things become separated out in the process of thinking…
I’ve noticed another thing with you, something rarely seen in general: when someone makes a remark in the middle of what you’re saying, you keep a respectful silence but then you don’t return to your train of thought after that, because the topic has already come and gone. Is it your Austrian upbringing or is it your individual character which you’ve cultivated that makes you speak mainly when someone genuinely wants to hear you out?
I’ve not always been like that and I don’t think it’s something Austrian. I’d say rather that one learns through experience and with time that there’s no point. A conversation either flows normally or it doesn’t. When you don’t have someone opposite you who really wants to hear your every thought, then it’s a better option to stay quiet and only say what’s essential. I think a lot of people are like that. For example, Kamen Donev, who I greatly respect. I think he’s a truly inspiring person, no matter that he has own style of speaking which might not be for everyone. Itso Hazarta is also very interesting to listen to… They’re very different from me but I like the way they stand up for themselves and what they believe in. Unfortunately it’s rare to come across such figures in the media: more often we encounter interviews with people in whom it’s immediately obvious that their ego is the main driving force…
We can observe a special purity in Kristian for whom, at least for now, the usual polarising habits such as alcohol and cigarettes do not represent an enticing way to become part of the world. Do you think that the reality of the social spiral will inevitably spin him too in the murky direction of all kinds of stimulants? Is it an unavoidable necessity – especially for artistic, highly emotional natures?
No, no and no again. I definitely don’t believe that Kristian could end up going that way. No, no. He is so disciplined… and he really knows what he wants. Maybe when we know what we want we sometimes need help to be able to do it but he’s certainly really mature for his years and I don’t see him yielding to that in any way at all.
Naturally, and I’ve told him this and he knows it, he has to be a bit careful with all these social media and the phone. His telephone is bit like a drug for him. But that’s the new generation for you. I speak as someone who grew up in a time when such a thing didn’t even exist. And at the moment it’s important for him – everything revolves around the connection to the fans – besides which he himself understands a lot about these things… The only thing I wish for him is to have the opportunity from time to time to leave his phone and be able to be independent of it. To find the balance, because it’s very important for a person to be able to cut himself off and remain by himself. But I’m sure he’ll cope.
It seems to me that Kristian simply has a mission and the energy to shorten the distance between the artist and his fans – not to be just a remote idol but a friend who shares his ideas and inspirations via social media.
Perhaps I can’t really put myself in his shoes and understand how it is to be 17 and so popular these days – there’s no way I can imagine this. But it is truly beneficial now and then to put down your telephone and switch it off completely. For example here I am having just come from the grave of St. Ivan Rilski, the place where he lived, this cave. People from all over the world respect him, I’ve even seen pilgrims come from India. This is probably one of the most special places on Earth and there I turned off my phone.
What exactly led you to the cave itself?
I read something about Ivan Rilski years ago and it was really interesting for me. I went, of course, to the Rila Monastery, which was later built in his honour and I said to myself: ‘Ok, so is this where everything started?’ It was full of coaches and tourists – I couldn’t feel anything. A beautiful monastery, but no magic, no energy. At one point I asked around and someone told me that the real place is actually a bit higher up, if you keep going for another 10 minutes. The Prayer Rock where he meditated and fasted; the place, too, where Tsar Peter wanted to go but the saint refused to receive him, saying that it wasn’t ordained for them to see each other in this life but that if he continued to exercise his power so well and helped people as a good and just king, then they would see each other in the next life. I think he did him a great favour by not meeting him because he gave him motivation in this way…
I went there for the first time in about 2009 and the moment I set foot in that place I could feel such a difference between the monastery and up there! You can’t imagine – that is something utterly different. I stayed there for hours and after that it kept me going for days. So that’s why I go there quite often and I love taking new people there who haven’t been before. Just recently I and my priest and Godfather took a really cool and decent boy who we’d just been introduced to there. The young guy is just the same at the moment – I see it – as I was back then.
There are, of course, other places in our country which are definitely very special and which I haven’t seen yet – I’m sure of it.
Anything you’d like to wish our readers by way of a conclusion?
I’d like to address a kind of request to them, especially to young people: rediscover Bulgaria and its magical places, rediscover the magical nature of Bulgarian folk music… Yesterday (8th of June, 2017) for example I was in Plovdiv and I went to a concert by the choir ‘The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices’ with Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance, mixed with beatbox too: Skiller was there, in the Ancient Amphitheatre. I have to say – the things I experienced, and in the light of the full moon – indescribable! A very interesting concert. So rediscover, read…
In connection with that, we’ve just started a project with Bobo, with the idea being to choose a verse or a quote from your favourite poet, writer or revolutionary and to render it in a modern form: something like rap, recitative, singing: a modern arrangement for young people and performed by the particular artists that young people are listening to at the moment. For the new generation who no longer reads or for whom reading is boring, not cool, not ‘awesome’. That’s my project, the one I’m working on at the moment – I’m really inspired. I want to make a compilation and produce it.
Love as a universal force
Radio LOVE, 23.05.2017
Kristian: The company is Symphonics Musicology. The guys are just incredible! They write amazing music for artists like Kelly Clarkson and now they’re offering a song to Usher. I mean they have to choose whether it’s for Kristian Kostov or Usher. It’s a bit awkward for me, because Usher for me is just an idol and I’m waiting for an answer about whether I can record this song or it’ll be Usher after all. Really, these are some of the best musicians I’ve worked with and some of the best composers, everyone in the team has their own role. It’s hard to imagine how well they sense things from each other, how they get on so well and are just on the same wavelength…
Daniel, Kristian’s brother: They’re like close relatives – they understand each other with just a few words or even with just a look…
Borislav Milanov about the critical moments, BNT, 14.05.2017:
I want to mention a really critical aspect, which started right back in Bulgaria and for which I ought to apologise to Sanya Armutlieva, because when we were working really intensely and great together as a team, I let myself be led astray into an intrigue where they tried to divide us as a team but it didn’t succeed because the message of this song is exactly that: that shared love, our love, is untouchable by any kind of malice or envy. And I must say that this was definitely the formula for our joint success. That boy over there united us. Such different people, producers, attitudes, BNT… he inspired us and we were working for Bulgaria there, and not for ourselves and our egos.
Kristian (about the problems with the sound quality): We overcame them thanks to Borislav, I’m telling you – seriously!
Borislav: That’s normal. We know how hard it had been for Ukraine to make this thing possible and right from the first rehearsal there were problems. The people there were stressed out, all the countries were complaining, but I found, let’s say, a good approach to making sure our sound was right.
Kristian (from another interview, speaking about the same problem): I’ll let you in on a tiny secret: when you are friends with everyone, you’re in good hands.
Sanya Armutlieva, BNT, 14.05.2017: I could say that at the start I approached the partnership with BNT with a certain distrust. I’m talking without any pretence right now. You know I don’t have much talent for pretending. I’m amazed by the people I worked with at all levels in BNT. Just to let you know, I’ve never been in this kind of situation… I haven’t been in such a positive cloud of energy. We really trusted each other and somehow started to love each other.
Journalist: This love will be talked about for a long time to come. Kristian even managed to win the love of his rivals.
Kristian, www.gazeta.ru, 18.05.2017: I set out with the thought that we’d be competing against each other, that we’ll have rivals round about, ones we’d have to beat. But when we got to know each other, we became one big family. I don’t know how it’d been in other years, but this year the atmosphere was the main thing in Eurovision. We all helped each other: if someone wasn’t well, the others dashed to buy him medicine; if there were problems with the sound, someone would go to give a signal to the producer, someone else would let the Sound Director know. It was really nice.
Journalist: And did anyone help you personally?
Kristian: Absolutely everyone. I’m maybe the only one of the participants who had a knack of getting on with absolutely everyone.
Sanya, Nova TV, 14.05.2017: Kristian was everyone’s favourite kid there… The heads of the delegations, the performers themselves, the people at the bar, the people who dealt with make-up and hair, the people from security… they were all wonderful. We worked with a very special Ukrainian team there, with great co-ordinators. I think that Kristian has learnt a lesson and that is namely: if you want to be successful, you have to be very attentive, very kind and good towards the team who’s working for you, because then everybody does much more than was expected of them. And all of a sudden everyone somehow got moving and started to do a lot of things for him every day.
Vyara, BNT, 14.05.2017: This is a competition, they’re going to be zeroes and there’ll be 12’s. But there’s one main thing. Kristian is the great winner for me in this Eurovision, because he’s 17 years old and he managed to overcome the tension and the responsibility he bore on his shoulders.
Kristian, bTV, 15.05.2017: This year both Salvador and I were the true winners, but the moment was his. I don’t think I was weaker than him or that he was stronger or weaker: we were just different and right at this point the public chose him. And I don’t think it was because of the information that he had a health problem. Look at his performance, the way he moved his hands: he literally touches your soul when he sings, he plays music with his body.
Journalist: A lot of people support and genuinely admire Salvador. His song is unique. In the final, after the last performance with his sister, who had written his song and who helped him, I sensed a general feeling of people being at peace. Maybe that after all was the message of Eurovision this year. That’s what they’d wanted: at the end for a common sense of peace to be heard.
Sanya: This year it was a really beautiful Eurovision because something happened there. We were absolutely privileged to take part in the whole thing. We lived there like we were in a love balloon.
Kristian (in another interview): This year Eurovision was really some kind of little revolution.