An Interview with Michele McLaughlin
Words & Audio Production / Cody Liska
Photos / Courtesy of Michele McLaughlin
Music can be magic. It can console and it can agitate. I’ve known this since I was a kid listening to Nirvana in the office of my parents’ house on Resurrection Drive. I knew it again when I first heard Violent By Design by Jedi Mind Tricks. Then again when I first heard A Celtic Dream by Michele McLaughlin.
I think we all have those moments in life where a certain song or album just clicks, and it becomes a part of who we are and, in the most transformative cases, it becomes the score to our inner monologue.
I was in college when I first heard “Across The Burren.” Since then, Michele McLaughlin’s music has been a part of my life; it has helped me finish countless articles and it has helped console me during times of tragedy.
Three years ago, when my mom’s heart stopped on Christmas Eve and she was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at Providence Medical Center, my family played music in her room, specifically Michele’s Christmas: Plain & Simple I and II. Those two albums were there, in that hospital room, all three times the doctors attempted to wake her from Hypothermic Therapy— a process where a body is cooled to 91 degrees for 48 hours, then warmed back to 98.6 degrees. She woke on the third try, clutching and crying over a family photo after she fully regained eyesight.
I think the best musicians become a part of their listener’s lives because their music takes on a life of its own and becomes ingrained in the lives it touches. The music is an ambassador of ideas and conveyor of emotions, sure, but it also becomes a form of salvation—it lets you know that you’re not alone in a feeling, that there are always other people going through something similar.
How would you describe your music to someone who’s never heard it before?
I get asked that all the time—“what kind of music do you play? Is it jazz? Is it classical?” It’s none of those things. I call it musical storytelling. Basically what I’m trying to do is paint a picture of a story or an experience with the music that I write. It’s emotional and it’s passionate and it’s relatable and it grabs you in a much more emotional capacity than jazz and classical and contemporary stuff does. Musical storytelling is my favorite way to describe it.
To me, your music is very contemplative. It’s dramatic, it’s triumphant, it’s melancholy, but all of that is under the umbrella of making you think. Do you think that you try to compose melancholy music or do you drift toward making happy music?
It’s more of a situation of not trying at all. It’s whatever’s happening in my life at the moment. If I’m happy and things are going really well, then the music that I’m writing is going to follow that track. And if I’m really suffering and going through heartbreak or struggles, then you’re going to hear that in the music. That’s why you get [songs] like “Heartbroken,” which was during my breakup. And then “Stronger” was about persevering through that, and “Give It Time” was about the frustration with my son moving out. But then you have songs like “At Home,” which is me being in love and just feeling at peace with another human being. “Belonging” is about celebrating friendships and having that sense of being a part of a group of friends.
I always joke that it’s a musical diary of my life and you can always tell how my year went. Like, “okay, Michele’s had a really good year” or “Michele was struggling this year.”
So, basically, every album is a snapshot of your life?
Very much, yea.
Maybe it’s just my relationship with your music, but I’ve always thought of it as being representative of the cold. Every time I think of an image that is representative of your music, I picture windswept snow in the middle of a dark road, illuminated by headlights. It’s subtle, but dramatic.
When I do my concerts, I always tell a story of what inspired the music before I play the song. I do that with every song. I paint this picture for the audience and give them a little bit of insight into who I am and what I was feeling at the time when I wrote it. One of the most common feedbacks I get from people is that they love hearing the story and getting that picture painted for them because it makes them connect to the music so much more, knowing what it was that I had been feeling and experiencing. Every song has a story that goes with it, something that inspired it.
One of my current favorite songs off your newest album, Life, is “A Deeper Understanding.” What’s the story behind that one?
It’s actually a really cool story. I always joke that my piano is my therapy and that’s where I go to deal with my life and stress—and it’s true—but occasionally I go to regular therapy just to talk out my problems and relationship issues and self-esteem, that sort of thing. So, I started going back to the therapist that I used to see a long time ago and he and I started working on self-love and self-esteem, and I was going through a breakup at the time—which is what my song “Heartbroken” and “Stronger” are about—but [my therapist] was telling me that he really wanted me to do this therapy where they use breathing and mindfulness and meditation and yoga in conjunction with the therapy in order to work through your issues. You use your body and your mind in addition to talking things out. At first, I was like, “well that’s dumb, I don’t want to do that.” And I ended up going and it changed my life. It has been the most amazing, most incredible, inspiring, life changing experience for me.
“A Deeper Understanding” is really the connection of what I experienced when I’m there doing these yoga movements and these breathing techniques. You get this journey on the song, where it starts off kind of mellow and contemplative and then it gets big and then it mellows for a second and then it gets big. So, you’re kind of going through those movements and those experiences with me while I’m playing the song.
“Give It Time” is the last song on Life, and it ends so dramatically. Was that intentional?
Yes, because to me that piece is such a fantastic finale piece and I love performing it as a finale piece in concerts. “The Gift,” which is the opening song, is so happy and vibrant. [The album] takes you on this wonderful ride. You’ve got this piece at the end that is giant and big and dramatic and leaves you feeling like “whoa,” and then if you start the album over you’re right back into that joyous feeling. I did that intentionally, yea.
What was the composing process like for Life?
I basically spent the past two years writing [Life]. I finished [my last album], Undercurrent, in early 2015 and I started writing for Life right around that same time. In fact, “Drifting Through A Dream” was the first song I composed for this album. Whatever’s happening in my life, I sit at the piano and if I’m feeling inspired, I write. Unusually every 18 to 24 months I’ll put an album out.
This last summer, I had only six songs for this album. And I decided I needed to put my nose to the grindstone to get this done because if I keep procrastinating and not writing then it’s going to be forever until I release an album. So, I decided, in September I think, that I was gonna finish this album and I scheduled my recording time before I even had the album completed so that I could have this deadline to light a fire under myself, and I finished the remaining seven songs just a few months before my deadline.
There are a lot of solo pianists out there who reproduce classics. You compose original material, how do you find yourself in that category as a solo pianist?
Well, first of all, I can’t read music. I’ve never taken lessons. So, if I’m going to play anything of somebody else’s, I’m going to need to learn it by ear and I don’t have the patience for that anymore. I used to, I used to hear a song and decide that that’s what I wanted to play and now I just want to play my own stuff. That’s the biggest reason why I don’t [play other people’s music]. But then there’s something about writing a piece that’s specifically yours and that you can share with other people and have your own personal story to tell with it, rather than, “here’s someone else’s song that I can play for you.”
Is that why it took you so long to produce sheet music, because you can’t read it?
No, the cost of making the sheet music was my biggest reason for taking a long time. It’s expensive to do sheet music, anywhere from $100 to $200 per song to have it transcribed and then another $25 to $50 to have it proofed. So, because I can’t read and can’t write my own music in a physical, written format, I have to hire somebody to do it. Then it got to the point where people were asking so much that I decided that I would just make my entire catalog available. Now, whenever I release an album, I have the accompanying songbook and sheet music to go [along] with the release. I have to hire that out. I have transcriptionists who do my entire songbook and then I have another lady, who’s amazing, who proofs it to make sure it’s right because I have no idea (laughs).
Have you ever thought about composing for television or film?
I have thought about it. It’s something that I would definitely like to do. I’m an independent musician and I do all of my own management, booking and licensing, so at the moment it seems sort of daunting to try and branch into that world because it’s such a competitive world, but if an opportunity came I would definitely jump on it.
When did being a pianist become a full-time gig for you?
I started releasing music in 2000, I did it as gifts for friends and family for Christmas. That was the whole reason I made albums [in the beginning]. I started selling music online in 2003 and one thing lead to another and people started buying it and I ended up making enough money from iTunes sales to be able to quit my job. I was doing project management before. I quit my job in 2007. It’s been a decade now.