Hear The Siren's Song
Nice-looking, great photographer, brilliant composer, exceptional vocalist ... I wonder what more could you ask from Michelle Young, the prodigious American singer who has recently released her second album: Marked For Madness! Sounds crazy or preposterous? Well, I don't think so, and I bet you'll feel the same once you pick up a copy of this CD. But first of all let's listen to what Michelle told us about past adventures and future projects.
Igor Italiani: Hi Michelle. I've read in past articles that your journey into prog music began as a photographer for Glass Hammer. Can you explain us more about this debut of yours and about your love for photography?
Michelle Young: Sure. I used to be a professional photographer, and shot not only 35mm film but also medium format (Nikons and Mamiyas were my cameras of choice). I had a dark room where I developed black and white film and did E6 processing, along with printing black and white photos (lots of chemicals inhaled there!). I loved taking pictures of anything that would interest me ... portraiture, landscapes, architecture (using a shift lens), macro, black light and other experimental photography. Not many people know this, but I even had a photo published in the August 1995 issue of Electronic Musician Magazine (a nationally published magazine in the USA) ... it was a macro shot of a midi data tester that I did for one of the columnists. He was as much of a perfectionist as I, so we got along very well. In the early 90s I had a photography and recording studio, and invited Steve Babb (of Glass Hammer) to visit. Glass Hammer were going to be releasing Journey Of The Dunadan, and needed photographs shot, so they hired me. I remember hanging off the railing outside the church where we shot (I couldn't get a wide enough angle otherwise), standing in my high heels and shooting with one hand while holding onto the railing with the other. If I had fallen, I would have probably broken my neck. When they realized I could sing they decided to put me on the album, even though it was about 75% or more finished. I did a lot of harmonies, and some weird stuff that doesn't even really sound like vocals unless you listen very carefully. They gave me a lot of freedom for vocal experimentation, and some pretty cool things came out. It was great fun recording that album!
II: However you also love music. If I'm right you play keys and a vast number of other instruments besides having a very remarkable voice. When did this love of yours start and how was it nurtured?
MY: If the records were researched, it would probably be found that I was born with a microphone in my hand, [laughs]. Well, just kidding ... but I did start singing at a very early age (before age 5). I used to play any instrument I could get my hands on (still do) ... I started first with the piano at age 9, then picked up the acoustic guitar, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, and tenor saxophone before I finished with high school. Since then I've played several other instruments ... just whatever I need to get the sound that I'm looking for. Also, sometimes I would go to jam sessions ... they're great places to get your courage up to play something you wouldn't normally play. At 2:00 a.m. when hardly anyone is left, it's easier to get the nerve up to play drums, something I would not normally try to play in public.
II: In 1996 you left your former job to pursue the music career full time. At this point (2002) are you satisfied of your choice and what do you expect from the future?
MY: Yes, I am very satisfied to be putting my music first. It's hard to live on the edge with no security, but I can't be happy not putting 100% into my music. For the future I hope to make several more high quality albums working with musicians whom I respect. I also hope that sales continue to grow, so that someday the majority of my income will be from my solo career. Of course, I want to do more touring, I think live performances are just as necessary for me as recording in the studio. Anyone who has seen me perform live would understand that.
II: You know, one thing I really can't understand is, how can the major labels (such as EMI, Sony, etc...) ignore a voice so sweet like yours. It has really never happened that a single person from these labels knocked at your door?
MY: I'm not sure they're necessarily ignoring it (my voice) ... I think maybe they've never heard of me. But then again, how does one get heard by the major labels? By accident? By providence? So many times it's who you know, and who likes you and what you're doing. I've been very fortunate to meet and work with some top notch musicians, and to receive their respect ... and maybe someday the major labels will also pay attention. But until then, I plan to keep working as hard as I can as an independent label to be as successful as possible. And realistically, who's to say that a major label deal will really be beneficial? I've heard so many stories of artists getting shelved after they've signed a deal. It's all a gamble, but if the time ever comes, it's probably a gamble that I would take.
II: Michelle, both your records are really hard to find here in Europe. Are you working to fix this problem?
MY: I'm sorry, I did not realize that was a problem. I have several distributors selling my albums in most European countries, and I assume that anyone who has heard of me would know where to go to buy my CDs. If they can't (for some strange reason) find it in Europe, they can always (and are encouraged to) buy it directly from Naosha through my website at www.michelleyoung.com. That gets the highest percentage of profit to the label so that there will be a budget for the next album. If you have a question about finding my CDs in a particular country, I'll be happy to give you the name of the appropriate distributor.
II: I know maybe it's still a bit too early, but are you already working on your third album?
MY: Definitely! I was already writing for it before I was finished recording Marked For Madness. It's tentatively titled Three Tales For The Telling, and I plan to work again with Clive and several other talented musicians. I'm very excited about it, but it will be even a greater challenge than Marked For Madness.
II: You have already collaborated with a lot of great musicians, but if you could choose a "dream team" to do an album, what musicians would you pick up (including production duties)?
MY: Oh, that is such a difficult question because there are so many people I would love to work with. Each musician adds his/her own flavour to the music, and different combinations would have different results, with each likely being as enjoyable as the other. But, if I must give specifics ... I would of course want Clive (Nolan) on the keyboards, but I'd also like to work someday with Vince DiCola, Andrew Giddings [Jethro Tull], and Trent Gardner [Magellan]. I am thrilled with what Doane [Perry, Jethro Tull] does on drums, so of course would want him, too ... but, it might be interesting to also see what Simon Phillips would do with my material. I would love to work again with Stan Whitaker [Happy The Man], but I'd like to also work with Arjen Lucassen (I love The Dream Sequencer) and Adrian Belew. On my "dream team" Ian Anderson would play the flute, Itzhak Perlman would cover the violin parts, the London Symphony Orchestra would cover all the other orchestrated parts, and Jerry "Wizard" Seay (of Mother's Finest) would be on bass. About production duties ... I would love to work with Danny Elfman, Steve Hackett (I love Please Don't Touch), or Queen's production team. Of course, we can't forget the male vocalists for the duets ... and I think I'd have to start with George Michael and Peter Gabriel, but naturally the list wouldn't stop there. [laughs].
II: Now, talking about your collaborations, what were your reactions when Clive and Oliver [Wakeman] called you for their project?
MY: I was excited, of course! I really like the Nolan/Wakeman combination, and am very happy to be involved with both Jabberwocky and The Hound Of The Baskervilles. I was also pleased to learn that I would have a larger role on The Hound..., and look forward to working with them again in the future.
II: Another great performance of yours can be heard in the duet ("First Commission") featured on the Leonardo project. You sing alongside legendary Steve Walsh, and the song is so impressive. What can you tell me about that experience? For example I read that you had some problems with DATs...
MY: Leonardo is another project I was very happy to be involved in. I was allowed to choose the studio I recorded in, so I recorded in my own studio. I did several tracks of vocals, and because we were on a tight schedule, I played some of the rough mixes for Trent Gardner over the phone the very night I finished recording. When I called the next day to play the rest of the parts, one of my ADATs freaked out and kept giving error messages (a very familiar story to any ADAT owner I fear). Trent and I tried to trouble shoot it, but it was just not going to work (I hadn't moved it at all ... who knows why it had problems?!). This was right before Christmas that year, and I wound up calling all over, even friends of mine in Nashville, on Christmas Eve trying to find a unit to rent or borrow. Unfortunately I needed one of the newer units because I had formatted the tapes at 20 bits (taking the "higher quality" approach) instead of 16 (as I see it now, the "practical" approach), so the older units which were available to be rented or borrowed were incompatible. I wound up having to buy a new unit so I could make back-ups before sending the masters to Trent. That's what I call a forced upgrade [chuckles].
II: Switching to your solo stuff ... the lyrics of Marked For Madness seem like a sort of concept. Can you tell us more about that?
MY: The idea behind it was to recognize some of the things that can attack our psyches and drive us towards frustration and madness. Everyday we're in a battle of "good vs. evil" ... we try to eliminate or overcome the bad things that come our way, and sometimes things can get just too heavy or dark. We need to remember to reach up and out towards the light if we want to rise above the plague of evil that resides in the world.
II: Are you pleased with the reactions the new CD has got so far?
MY: Oh yes, very much so! It's great to see that people are appreciating the quality of the production and presentation, including all the talent, time and effort that went into making this CD.
II: A big difference between your first two records are the covers ... has the search for a diverse photographic approach played an important role on your second CD or not?
MY: Well, each CD has a different theme and feel, and I want the artwork to reflect the content of the CD. SOS [Song Of The Siren (1996)] had a very soft, feminine feel that was reflected in the booklet, with just a dash of rock 'n' roll thrown in on the inside, which was relative to the songs "Big Deal" and "No Excuses". MFM needed to relay a bit more mystery and hint slightly at darker things to give the listener the visual impact of the underlying uneasiness that is contained in parts of the music. I feel certain that the next CD will also have a very different cover.
II: I've seen that you have recently played a few live dates in Germany. Did you enjoy them, and do you think you'll cover up more of Europe next time?
MY: I certainly did enjoy the dates, and am due to return for a show in July. At the moment there are no performance dates scheduled for other places in Europe besides Germany, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. I would love to perform in other countries, and plan to do so in the future as opportunity presents itself.
II: You collaborated mainly with prog rock acts, but what's your opinion on prog music in general (I mean also prog metal bands such as Dream Theater or Fates Warning)?
MY: In general I enjoy listening to progressive music. I'm not usually so much into the heavier end of the spectrum or the progressive jazz sound ... but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate the artists in those particular sub-genres. I'm just usually drawn more to the symphonic/rock/theatrical side of things.
II: Before the end I would like to ask you something about society in general ... recently it seems that the attention of the media is mainly focused on image, not quality. What's your opinion on that one?
MY: It's logical that artists would want to appear in a manner that their fans would find appealing, and the media knows that sex sells. However, I'm guessing you're referring to the 12/18 year old products of the major label marketing schemes ... "musical" acts that focus far more on the erotic dance routine of the half-naked bodies that gyrate around the "artist' than the fact that the "artist" is usually mediocre at best, and has to have a circus show to entertain their audience (which is usually prone to Attention Deficit Disorder anyway). Unfortunately I believe the media is feeding much of the public what they want, which doesn't reflect well on the standards of quality the public has in general ... but it's a vicious cycle. If the people started demanding coverage of true talent, the media would have to comply. Garbage in, garbage out...
II: Has the fact that you are a woman made the (music) road harder so far or not?
MY: Being female in this male-dominated field can be either a liability or an asset, depending on the situation. It can get you more attention because of the rarity (of course you must have the quality to back up the hype), but it can also give people the opportunity to stereotype you as "just a chick singer" before they get familiar with your work and talents, and it can make you more prone to people trying to take advantage of you.
II: OK, I think that's all. There's something else you would like to say before goodbye?
MY: Yes. Thanks to all the fans and the media who have paid attention to the music! I hope you continue to share your positive feedback, and support independent artists worldwide in everyway possible.
II: Thank you Michelle. So hello from Italy ... and if you need someone to help you with your own label just give me a call! ;-)
MY: Uhmmm ... can you do filing? Well, just kidding...
Song Of The Siren (1996)
Marked For Madness (2001)