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Over the past half-decade, Lucy Michelle has become synonymous with the loose, freewheeling style of her band, the Velvet Lapelles. There's always been a coming-of-age feel to her songwriting, but as the south Minneapolis singer embarked on her first solo record, Attack of the Heart, she found herself wrestling with the prospect of full-fledged adulthood. She quit her job to play music full time. She toured regularly. She got married. And it all got to be overwhelming.
"I had to come to grips with the fact that I have lots of anxiety about stuff," Michelle says as she has a late-afternoon drink on Eat Street. "At the time, I was super busy and doing a million things. I took a step back and freaked out a little bit, like, 'Oh my god, what am I doing?'" She bounces nervously as she recalls the time, but speaks with her same chirpy enthusiasm. "I think the songs themselves come from that place a little bit — feeling anxious, feeling a little uncomfortable in my own skin, and sort of trying to figure out how to deal with that."
That anxiety comes through in many of the songs on Attack of the Heart, but it also produces some of Michelle's most touching moments to date as a songwriter. It's a relatively subdued record compared to what we've grown accustomed to from the Lapelles, but the laid-back, gentle vibe of the recordings is perfectly matched to the subject matter. In particular, breathless album opener "Heart Race" and the brittle-sounding "Can I Confide" see Michelle open up about her fears against a minimal backdrop, her voice a near whisper.
LUCY MICHELLE and her band,featuring Chan Poling and John Munson, play a CD-release show on Saturday, April 27, at Cedar Cultural Center; 612.338.2674
Michelle says the decision to record on her own was a pretty simple one. After the Lapelles had embarked on more experimental territory on their fourth album, Heat, which was released last summer, these songs just didn't seem to fit the band's new direction. "This is so straightforward," she says of the record. "It wouldn't make sense [for the Lapelles] to make a record like that — to basically go backwards, in a way."
At first, Michelle set out to record the album on her own, envisioning it essentially as a set of solo acoustic songs. "I was initially thinking I'd just do everything myself, and take a break from the band life a little bit. I started fooling around with recording at home, but I realized how much I needed other musicians to make it more awesome," she says with a giggle.
Once she'd convinced New Standards bandmates John Munson and Chan Poling to record with her, the record quickly took on a different shape. Songs like "Lucky Stars" and "Beat Like Mine" bear the influence of that collaboration, taking on a jaunty, barrel house flair that's rich and full — darn near bawdy. Beyond the arrangements themselves, Munson and Poling also helped push Michelle to try new things as a performer, encouraging her to play guitar rather than ukelele.
"I'm a little sick of playing ukelele all the time," she admits. "They sort of forced me out of my comfort zone a bit, which was really good for me to have someone do. [I think] it will inspire me later on with the Lapelles to do something different." In fact, when she was writing the songs for Attack, Michelle even tried pushing herself to write in a different style than usual. "I wasn't able to do it for some reason. It was like, 'Now I'm just trying to force myself to do something that I don't know how to do,'" she says with a shrug.
Yet for all the changes Michelle made this time around, the music on Attack is still distinctly hers. A familiar theme runs through these songs: home. "I'm kind of a homebody, even though I leave all the time. I really like being home. I feel the things I create are the best when I'm at home." That might come through clearest on a song like "Honeymoon," the album closer. But even here, there's an underlying restlessness that helps add fresh depth to her writing. "When I'm at home and haven't been on tour for a while, it's like, 'What am I doing?'" she says. "It's a back and forth of never fully feeling in a comfortable place."
If the new album is any indication, it would seem that Michelle has rediscovered some balance in her life. In her husband, for instance, she's found a person to help ground her. "[Being married] makes me feel better about all the things I'm doing," she says. "He's a freelance artist, too, so we live these similar lives, in a way. There's always so many ups and so many downs, feast or famine all the time. So it's good to have somebody to share that with."