By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
A little girl with a pink tutu and a head full of cascading curls is teetering in front of me, carrying two plastic teapots filled with water. Every couple of minutes she runs across the yard to a different person sitting cross-legged on the grass, showing them her teapots and sprinkling a bit of water on their legs. Ten yards away, her dad, drummer Geoff Freeman, is setting up a pared-down version of his drum kit, while Freeman's bandmates Lucy Michelle and Eamon McLain plug in their instruments and invite their guests to head inside for more food and home-brewed beer before they play.
It's a late Sunday afternoon in August, and a small crowd has gathered in the backyard of the house in St. Paul where Freeman and Michelle live, along with Freeman's fiancée, Clara; his two-year-old daughter, Mirabella; and a few others, for an acoustic picnic. It's the kind of event that sounds too good to be true: free food, free beer, free music, a welcoming environment, and plenty of spots in the shade. In addition to the band's friends, folks from the neighborhood have gathered to listen to the music, and everyone—from little Mirabella to the sprawl of twentysomethings to the older folks seated along the edge—is excited when Lucy Michelle starts to strum her ukulele and sing.
That's the thing about Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles: Almost as if by accident, their unique songs, which combine folk and jazz with dashes of Gypsy, polka, country, and the tiniest bit of punk, appeal to just about everybody. In an average month, the six-piece can be spotted playing venues as diverse as the Cedar Cultural Center (where they recently opened for humorist Kevin Kling), the Turf Club, the Hexagon Bar, and somebody's basement.
"Children, middle-agers, punks," Michelle says of her fan base. "It's definitely not intentional. We were never like, 'We're going to play to the 65-year-old demographic. All those liberals at the Cedar Cultural Center, we are catering just to you.'"
"I think we're lucky," says McLain. "It's just how the music works out. We appeal to so many different audiences, just because of how we sound."
"Someone described it to me in a really funny way: Gypsy mountain folk rock punk jazz," Michelle says, giggling.
"We worked really hard. I think we can attribute all of the positive stuff that's been happening to that," says Freeman. "We were playing shows every week, even shows that we didn't want to play, and just getting out there every week and doing it."
The band formed last summer with a shared goal of having Michelle's songs heard by a wider audience. By fall, Michelle decided to bring her Velvet Lapelles—drummer Freeman, cello player McLain, accordionist Ashley Boman, guitar player Chris Graham, and bassist Jesse Schuster—to Mike Wisti's Albatross Studios to record their debut album, Orange Peels and Rattlesnakes.
"I feel like our older recordings sound like we're still trying to feel a lot of stuff out with each other," says Graham. "Because we had only been playing together for a few months."
"The album is good, but it's already old material," agrees McLain.
Plans are already in the works to record again, and Michelle says she'd like to have an EP out by spring. The band members say they have grown by leaps and bounds since their first recording. They have spent the last year getting used to one another as musicians and learning how to feed off of one another's creative impulses.
"When we recorded the record, we didn't know the songs, and we didn't know each other," says Freeman. "The stuff that's changed has been normal band stuff. You start to learn how to play as a band. We just got a lot better."
"We've come such a long way," agrees Michelle. "Maybe it would have been good to record a little bit later. But there's something really nice and unique about our older recordings, to hear how we've changed and evolved."
As the band develops their sound to include even more instruments and voices, the musicians are learning to share the responsibilities that come with increasing success. They have an unofficial manager who tends to logistics and a whole network of allies in the music community.
"We have this big body of friends that are willing to come out consistently and support us," says Freeman. "And we're trying to be sincere and make relationships that we think are positive."
"We all have a deep respect for the local art and music scene," he says, brushing dirt off his daughter's tutu and leading her back toward the picnic. "And it's a lot of busy people. Everyone plays in a lot of bands, so word gets around."