I’m at the bar of a boutique hotel in Kensington, waiting for classical guitarist Milos to arrive. I’ve seen him play twice – once at Abbey Road Studios, where he performed snatches of his third studio album, Blackbird, his interpretation of Beatles songs, and the second time at the 90th birthday party of his record label, Decca, when he played Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound Of Silence, moving hardened industry bigwigs almost to tears with his dexterity and passion. He’s been described as ‘the hottest guitarist in the world’.
Milos been described as ‘the hottest guitarist in the world’. He recently suffered a major injury to his hand which threatened to take away his livelihood
When he turns up, guitar over one shoulder, every head turns to look: he has huge, dark, almost black eyes. Extravagant eyebrows. Teeth that can be seen from outer space. But it’s not his face I’m mesmerised by, it’s his right hand. Because a devastating injury to that hand, the one that earns his living, almost ended his career. And he’s still only 36.
When did he first notice something was wrong? ‘It was September 2016. My hand felt numb. I didn’t know what was going to happen, if I would play again.’ The diagnosis was tendonitis, a chronic strain due to overuse. ‘I was devastated. I wasn’t even able to hold a cup.’
He had to cancel a world tour: 210 dates. Unable to play for a year, how did he survive? ‘I had some savings. I had to learn how to budget!’
How did he fill his time? ‘I went to concerts, the cinema, opera, ballet, galleries. I went to stay with friends. I love cooking. It was like I was able to see the world in colour.’
He travelled all over the world, meeting doctors who might be able to help him. He refused surgery, feeling he’d never play in the same way again. ‘And then, after a year, the darkest time of my life, I woke up and had this realisation. I love music so much I can’t possibly imagine life without it. I picked up my guitar and I could play. It hurt, and I was rusty, but I played.’
He gave his first post-injury performance in August 2018: Milos being Milos, he went big: the Royal Albert Hall, performing a guitar concerto, Ink Dark Moon, composed for him by Joby Talbot. He got a standing ovation.
Milos is clearly made of stern stuff. When he was a schoolboy in Montenegro, the war in the Balkans was raging. Was he directly affected? ‘It was very scary. A friend might not turn up the next day at school because their father had been killed. My father [his parents were both economists] had a green military bag packed in the hall in case he was called up. Thank God it never happened.’
He started to play aged eight, when he picked up his uncle’s guitar and ‘found my best friend’. When the family gathered in the evening, afraid, electricity cut off due to the nearby war, he would play to take their minds off the troubles. ‘I created a magic bubble. In those moments I became a performer.’
Aged 14, he attended music school, but everyone told him there was no future in classical guitar. He took no notice. When he was 16 he went to the British Council in Podgorica to get a prospectus for the Royal Academy of Music in London. He secretly made a video – ‘my five best pieces, a very complex repertoire’ – and posted it. He got in, with a full scholarship.
His father travelled with him to London and stayed for the first week. ‘I could speak English, as we studied it at school, but it was as though I had landed on Mars. I paid for my lodgings by working as a guitar teacher. I was 17, teaching 16-year-olds.’
Why London, and not Spain, home of the guitar? ‘I find it scary to play in Spain! It’s their instrument, and people always think I’m Spanish because of the way I look.’
Like violinist David Garrett, Milos is often criticised for departing from the classical repertoire, as he has done with his latest album, Sound Of Silence, which went straight to No 1 in the classical chart and which includes the Simon and Garfunkel song. ‘The title also has a meaning for me. Silence is where we find ourselves in this crazy world,’ he says.
Milos is close to his family and returns often to Montenegro, where he’s a huge star
Does he have someone to come home to? ‘I want to keep that part of my life private. But I would kill to have a golden retriever. Or a beagle! When I see a dog I just melt. But then I’d have to sell my flat in Battersea and get a house with a garden. One day…’
He is close to his family and returns often to Montenegro, where he’s a huge star. Now, towards the end of an arduous tour, is he worried the injury might recur? ‘I don’t think it will. It was physical, but it spiralled. I just needed confidence, and peace in myself to resume. The fear was the most terrifying thing that has happened to me, but I won.’
‘Sound Of Silence’ is out now on Decca Classics. Milos plays Birmingham on Tuesday, Perth on Thursday and London on Saturday, milosguitar.com