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There was no real indication when an album from Boston- raised Michelle Lewis came our way late last year that it would leave such a deep impression. ‘The Parts of Us that Still Remain’, which is actually Michelle’s second album, was for many of us Europeans the first we’d heard of this exceptional singer/songwriter. In all honesty anyone with even a passing interest in the genre of female singer/songwriters wouldn’t have passed the album by; a single striking image of Michelle on the cover couldn’t totally convey just how special the music inside was, but even so there was something that drew you to the album.
But as soon as the opening song, ‘Sorry, I Forgot to Write’, starts to play it’s obvious that the music that flows from Michelle Lewis is special. Michelle writes melodies that are addictive, that despite being instantly attractive still hold their mystery and beauty after dozens of plays. Then there’s that voice. In our review of ‘The Parts of Us that Still Remain’ we mentioned Nanci Griffith and Jenny Queen as comparisons, but, while there are those who feel that a whole album of their vocals might just be too much of a good thing, Michelle has the skill to add more texture, more light and shade, to her vocals at just the right time to emphasis not only just a line but separate words too which always keeps her songs interesting.
There are the lyrics too; ‘Paris’, which wasn’t even mentioned in our review as maybe at that time it was still being overshadowed by the songs around it, is simply stunning. How can a song that deals with a relationship in trouble that begins with the lines “Lately I’ve been thinking, I don’t care if live of if I die”, actually give hope and lighten up your day? Maybe the answer is to be found in the press release for the album. “Michelle Lewis writes happy songs that bring tears, and sad songs that evoke smiles”, it states, and it’s doubtful if truer words were ever written when describing the work of an artist. Or maybe it’s the warm, organic production by Michelle and Anthony J. Resta that, along with Karyadi Sutedja’s mixing skills, really brings Michelle’s stories to life.
One thing’s certain; Michelle’s songs, her lyrics, the emphasis she places on certain words, especially coming thorough one of the most affecting voices in music just now will resonate with everyone who hears them. As is usual in these times one of the first things we tend to do when discovering an artist new to us is to check their previous work out on sites like YouTube, and Michelle’s video clips had the same fascinating effect as her album did. It’s not just the way that the visuals compliment the lyrics in a video clip such as ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ (a song that isn’t featured on ‘The Parts of Us that Still Remain’ but can be found on the ‘Broken’ EP), it feels like there’s a part of Michelle captured in her videos that few artists are able to convey from the song to visuals. Initially you’ve left with the impression that Michelle must be a very good actress as well as musician but maybe the real answer as to why her videos compliment her songs so well is revealed in one of the answers to a set of questions we recently put to Michelle. With such a strong album that has touched all who have heard it around these parts as it’s playing constantly, we took the opportunity to ask Michelle a few questions about her life and music.
PB: Do you come from a musical family?
ML: Both my dad and my uncle played guitar when they were younger, and I think I got my appreciation for music from my dad. But as far as musicians go it’s just me.
PB: When did you decide that you were going to make a career out of your music? You attended Berklee College Of Music in Boston?
ML: When I was finishing high school I didn’t really want to go to college. I knew I had a passion for music but wasn’t sure what to do with it. I didn’t know until touring the Berklee campus that I could have the best of both worlds, it was the perfect fit for me. Within the first year or so that I was there I realised music, specifically being a singer/songwriter, was definitely what I wanted to pursue.
PB: ‘The Parts Of Us That Still Remain’ has received glowing reviews in the UK and was the album that introduced your music to many, but what other releases have you made? It appears that some download sites such as iTunes have albums listed by more than one Michelle Lewis which makes tracking down your actual work a little more difficult!
ML: Yes, I do have a rather common name, which makes it tricky! Some websites separate my work and others lump it in with anyone else with the same name. In addition to ‘The Parts of Us That Still Remain’, my releases to date include ‘This Time Around’ (CD), ‘Broken’ (EP), ‘Paris’ (EP), and “In the Bleak Midwinter”, my first holiday single released this past Christmas.
PB: Are all your previous recordings still available in a physical form?
ML: I actually just sold out of my first two releases, so they are out of stock at the moment, but I will probably do a reprint for the next tour. The ‘Paris EP’ was a digital release so there have never been hard copies available. But all of my material is available for download on iTunes and Bandcamp.
PB: The acclaimed producer/musician Anthony J. Resta co-produced your latest album with you. Have you worked with Anthony on any of your other albums?
ML: Yes, Anthony and I have been working together since 2009’s ‘Broken’ EP. He and his engineering partner, Karyadi Sutedja, are just the most amazing people I’ve ever worked with. They are absolutely brilliant, so professional, and incredibly supportive. That combination is a great environment to make a record. I haven’t worked with any other producers since I met them.
PB: Why did you decide on Anthony for the producer’s job and how did it come about?
ML: A mutual friend who had worked with Anthony in the past had suggested that we check each other out. Soon after I received a CD order from him for my first album. It sounds like a small thing, but just the fact that he went to the trouble of buying my CD (instead of asking for a free copy, or not listening to my previous recordings) made the right first impression. We met and I played him my songs and the rest is history.
PB: How much of an input did Anthony have in the final sound of the songs on ‘The Parts of Us that Still Remain’. Are you very open to ideas in the studio of how the songs should progress?
ML: Anthony and I are totally respectful of each other’s opinions when it comes to production. The more we work together the more we trust each other, which makes for a really easy and collaborative process. We’re usually on the same page when it comes to the approach of each song, but it’s great to have someone that brings something new to the song that you hadn’t thought of yet.
PB: Lyrically how much of Michelle Lewis is revealed in the songs you write? Or do you just get inspiration from situations that you observe?
ML: I find inspiration from both my own experiences and those of people I know. Even when I’m writing a song with someone else in mind, I think there is always a piece of me in it. I don’t know how to write something I can’t relate to, which I think is good because hopefully other people will relate to it, too.
PB: The next stage these days after discovering a new artist is to check out their previous songs/videos on the Internet. Both ‘Run, Run Run’ and ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ have visuals that compliment the songs brilliantly, albeit in entirely different ways. Who comes up with the ideas for the clips to accompany your songs?
ML: It’s usually a collaboration between myself and director Nathan Laver, who also happens to be my husband. I love working with him because I can trust him completely and know that he has the same vision for my songs that I do. When it’s me in front of the camera, I am more relaxed knowing it’s him behind the camera. I think that chemistry comes across in the videos.
And because we know each other so well the process tends to go more quickly, we know what the other wants in one sentence rather than twenty. Not to mention he is incredibly hard-working and talented (in my completely unbiased opinion, of course). I feel very lucky to be able to work with him.
PB: Directing friends to your videos to introduce them to your music always results in the same reaction; how have they not heard of you before and that they recognise something about themselves in your songs. It’s brilliant how you can convey people’s feelings in what appear to be fairly straightforward lines; do you feel your training at Berklee helped you to develop this talent?
ML: Absolutely. Berklee’s songwriting department is the best there is and I feel very fortunate to have had the privilege to learn from them. I’ve also always felt that the best lines are simple enough for people to relate to, but vivid enough for them to paint their own picture in their minds when they hear it. It has to be the perfect balance – too specific and you’ll lose the audience, too general and you’ll never connect with them.
PB: But it’s not just the way you use words. Coming from those less talented they wouldn’t carry so much weight. It’s also down to your voice and phrasing. Do you agonize over getting it just right?
ML: I do. I think a song is not only the melody and lyrics but the mood and emotion you carry along with it. For me, every detail matters. Whether it’s a single word change, a syllable inflection, or the finger pattern on the guitar, I like to get it just right.
PB: Some of your songs are instantly addictive while others take a few plays before they are totally appreciated. I can’t believe that a song like ‘Paris’ didn’t affect me the first time I heard it as much as it does now. It seems to reveal more with each listen. How long does it take you to write a song like that?
ML: Each song is different. In the case of ‘Paris’, I think most of the chorus came to me rather quickly and I knew that was the theme I wanted to write the rest of the song around. I remember singing “Now, you know that I love you/You’re the only thing I ever miss” in the shower for days, maybe even weeks. And for me that contemplation of an idea is important, because even if you’re not “actively” writing the song, all of that thought is setting up the foundation. So when you do finally sit down with your guitar you know what you are trying to say, you just have to find the right words.
PB: Do you have a personal favourite from the songs you have written so far? If so, why that particular song?
ML: I don’t think I have a favourite. Each new song is always exciting to complete. But there are a few I play more than others, or will always end a set on. ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ was my final song at shows for a long time, I like its bittersweet beauty and storytelling quality. I wrote ‘Run Run Run’ for a friend just before the Boston Marathon bombings. It will always be a close song to my heart not only because I like the sweet and simple lyric, but because of the way that people reacted to it after the bombings. It was a real honour to inspire so many people and it will always remind me of home.
‘Running Back Home’ (co-written by Robby Hecht) has a catchy chorus. It’s just plain fun to sing. I wrote ‘Just Like a Movie’ to surprise my husband with on our wedding day, so that will always be a very special song to me.
PB: What music did you listen to as you grew up? Was there any artist or band that you feel inspired you to take up music?
ML: I think it was a number of artists, gradually and changing over time, that influenced me. It started with my dad’s record collection and the singer/songwriters of the 60’s and 70’s like Paul Simon, Jim Croce and James Taylor. I remember listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ over and over. As I got into my teen years I think women songwriters became more important to me. Artists like Tori Amos, Jewel, Ani DiFranco, Sarah McLachlan and of course Joni Mitchell really made me want to be a singer/songwriter.
PB: What’s next? The Christmas single ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ was a cool way to end 2014. Do you have any plans for new material in 2015?
ML: Thank you! I spent most of 2014 on the road touring. In fact, I put my belongings in storage and literally did not have a home for seven months of the year. I just relocated to Los Angeles at the beginning of 2015 so it will be nice to have a place to call home and be a bit more settled this year. I’m hoping to spend the next few months writing material for the next album before I hit the road again.
PB: With the excellent reception you received in Europe for ‘The Parts of Us That Still Remain’ are there any plans for you to tour outside of the U.S.A?
ML: I am making plans to tour the UK and Ireland this summer…Check back for tour dates.
PB: Thank you.
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Michelle Lewis Music
Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter and country musician Michelle Lewis chats to Malcolm Carter about her much acclaimed second album, ‘The Parts of Us that Still Remain'
The Parts of Us That Still Remain - CD
Subtle but passionate and honest second album from melancholic Boston-based singer-songwriter, Michelle Lewis
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