Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles embrace maturity on Heat
Most of Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles' musical growth has happened with the public eye already on them. The Twin Cities sextet surged into the local spotlight while barely out of their teens, and topped City Pages' 2008 Picked to Click poll within mere months of their formation. Their plucky ukulele-led folk-pop formula showed promise on three rapidly released albums, but the pace left little time for developing engaging live tunes into a real-deal record. When the time came for Michelle and Co. to record the songs that would wind up becoming Heat, the group's ultimately stakes-raising and career-redefining fourth album, they knew they had to change their plan of attack.
"The whole recording process was much more thought out," explains Michelle, 25, surrounded by drummer Geoff Freeman, cellist Eamonn McLain, accordion player Ashley Boman, upright bassist Liz Draper, and guitarist Matt Latterell in a St. Paul bar on a recent Tuesday night. "On other records we wanted to basically just capture the live experience. With Heat we threw that out the window. The goal was to make the songs sounds as cool as possible and worry about how that would translate to the live experience later."
Realizing that goal meant wholesale changes to the band's sound: less cute ukulele and more sinewy electric guitar, fewer shuffling Eastern-European-influenced folk numbers, and more dynamic indie-pop anthems. While rustic chamber-folk accoutrements are still central to the group's arrangements — as one would expect in a group boasting a cellist and an accordion player among its founding members — Heat complements those core sounds with welcome touches of modernity, finding a sweet spot for effects-treated vocal harmonies and occasional synthesizer splashes in the group's increasingly eclectic mix. Standout track "Million Things," with its hypnotic rhythms and shape-shifting wall of sound, comes off like top-tier St. Vincent, effectively reshaping the formerly cuddly U of M street buskers as thoroughly adult art-pop provocateurs.
The band didn't make the transformation alone, decamping to New York City and recording with esteemed producer/engineer Matt Boynton, a veteran sonic consigliere for indie kingpins like MGMT and Beirut. "We wanted to work with a third party because it's hard to navigate a group of six people and it's nice to have an editor with strong opinions," explains Freeman. "We recorded the entire record in a studio here in Minneapolis with a professional engineer just to demo it completely and send to Matt before we even started recording with him. We were very careful about how we made this because we felt really strongly about this set of songs and wanting to take them somewhere special. Having someone coax us out of our comfort zone was huge."
The expansion and refinement of the group's melodic sensibilities is powerfully mirrored in Michelle's songwriting and singing. Boldly turning the triumphs and trials of her own young adulthood into candid lyrical fodder, Michelle has created a lyrical world that is evocative and resonant whether she's dissecting jealousy ("Undone"), the pains of long-distance relationships ("Oh Home"), or re-telling her own engagement story ("Puget Sound"). Dialing down the jazzy vocal flourishes of earlier efforts, Michelle's more subdued performance on Heat suits the intimate material perfectly, forgoing acrobatics in favor of added emotional heft, and in the process turning in one of the best vocal performances on a Minnesota-made album in recent years.
"The whole record is very true to my life," admits Michelle, moments before our interview wraps. She lists off the many changes in her life from the past five years: graduating from college, getting married, and the evolving relationships within the band.
"All of that factored into the record," she says. " As I was writing these songs and playing some of them out I would feel a little embarrassed at times. It just felt like I was exposing so much of myself. Ultimately I decided I was okay with that — I mean, I'm not naming any names. Without this record I would still feel a little lost and like, 'What the hell am I doing with my life?' Making this record helped me come to terms with becoming an adult."
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