For more than 40 years, singer Darby Mills has been part of the Canadian classic rock genre of music.
First gaining widespread recognition as the lead singer for The Headpins rock’n roll band in the early 1980s, Mills has endured her share of ups and downs in the years since “attempting to pay for my dinner” as a singer.
It is that lifetime of experience as a singer and performer that Mills wants to share with the next generation of pop music vocalists as an adjudicator for the Kelowna Kiwanis Music Festival in April.
The annual festival offers an opportunity for aspiring performers to showcase their skill levels in speech, dance and music, while having their performances evaluated in a constructive and positive manner.
In 2016, the 27-day festival, with historic roots dating back to 1926 originally as the Okanagan Valley Music Festival, hosted more than 2,500 individual and group performers, and gave out more than $10,000 in awards and scholarships.
Mills, 58, said singers break down into two categories: Those who find success through working hard at their craft and those born with inherent natural talent.
“In both cases it is a roller coaster ride where people will say you aren’t good enough, but your own drive to succeed is ultimately what carries you forward,” she said.
Marv Machura, executive director of the festival, said Mills is adjudicating a new category created this year, popular voice, which will be held April 9 at the Mary Irwin Theatre in the Rotary Centre for the Arts.
“We’ve noticed that musical schools increasingly offer popular song singing as a course option so we thought we’d try it this year as a new festival discipline and see what kind of response it would generate,” Machura said.
“It’s different from the classical music genre that our festival is known for, but it’s still one that requires practice and study, just a different style.”
Machura said Mills was his first choice as an adjudicator, calling her technically one of the best singers he has ever heard.
“She has a phenomenal voice. She’s a great blues singer, but she can sing any kind of style. She can do a soft lullaby and then turn around and tear it up like a chainsaw.”
Born and raised in Vernon, her family being descendant pioneers of the community dating back to the 1800s, Mills was the youngest of four kids in her family.
She initially took figure skating for years and would start working towards her black belt in tae kwon do as a teenager.
The singing bug bit her in Grade 10 when she stepped in to sing a Heart song for a local band during a rehearsal, thus starting her musical journey.
Years singing on the bar circuit around Alberta and B.C. with various bands ultimately crystallized with her big break, recruited as the lead vocalist for The Headpins.
At the time, the group had a strong influence from the group Chilliwack, as band member Bill Henderson produced the Headpins debut album, while guitarist Brian MacLeod and bassist Ab Bryant also formed part of the Headpins quartet.
That album was smash hit, spawning hits like Breaking Down, Turn It Loud and Don’t It Make You Feel Like Dancing that remain classic rock staples today.
However, by the end of the ’80s, the band had fallen apart due to inner strife and lawsuits.
Mills recorded a solo album in 1991 called Never Look Back, but it didn’t capture the airplay or popularity of her earlier Headpins success.
“Back then video was king, and I only was able to do one video off the album so it was hard to compete with the Madonnas of the world,” Mills said.
But she remained fond with the songs on that album, and this year she has done a remaster of that music on a new CD she has titled Flying Solo.
The title is appropriate now that Mills is singing solo, having ended her on-again, off-again association with different versions of The Headpins over the years.
Mills says she calls herself a belter rather than a vocalist, a reflection of both her unique powerful voice and fronting hard rock oriented bands.
“I guess you would classify myself as a power singer, but I feel over the span of my career I’ve learned a lot about singing, about how to prepare for a concert. The mindset of a singer is similar in many ways to that of an athlete, the routine you go through in anticipation of the next game,” she said.
For more information about how to register for the Kelowna Kiwanis Music Festival, to to kelownakiwanismusicfestival.com. Registration closes Feb. 15.