He’ll preview the upcoming releases with a series of “digital 45s” and Popdose is pleased to present the exclusive premiere of the video for the first release, “She Loves Love,” one of the tracks from the Crenshaw/Lerman sessions.
We caught up with Michael last week to get the story behind the new music and you can read the results of our conversation below. The “She Loves Love” single (and its B-side, “Midnight Crisis”) can be downloaded here.
We’re excited to premiere the new video for “She Loves Love.” Can you tell us a bit about the song from your perspective?
I like to be a romantic, but I don’t want to be cheesy. Basically, it’s a song about a girl who loves all things love and I think that’s a beautiful thing. So the video was shot on my honeymoon — it’s the only song I’ve ever written that I’ll openly say was about my wife. [Laughs] I am sure that there are others that are, I just won’t say it! We were traveling and we went on our honeymoon in France and it’s kind of amazing what you can do with a cell phone. We shot all of these places and sort of strung it together into a little video. It’s a romantic trip.
Was this song already written or did that come after the fact?
No, the song was written maybe six or eight months ago. I had shown it to Marshall Crenshaw, who really liked it and wanted to work on it, which was part of the impetus for this whole bunch of songs. So we did the recording and you know, we’re going to do this digital 45 sort of concept, because I don’t think that people really have the patience for an album from even their favorite artist, no less a new artist these days, unfortunately. The idea was to make sure that the songs don’t get buried and to release them a little bit at a time as people can make time for one or two songs at a time.
So this song was just part of that batch and it was one of the uptempo ones that we wanted to lead with. Then we needed a little video, because that’s kind of part of how people are enjoying music these days, is with a little visual accompaniment. So the idea that I was in Paris and it was romantic, I was talking about it with a couple of people that we work with and all of the sudden it happened. Then I edited it myself, which was another first. [Laughs] It was cool.
Marshall has had fun himself over the past couple of years putting out a series of EPs. So did he offer any guidance when it came to the idea of doing these digital 45s?
You know, I was keenly aware of his project and how he has been putting out these little three song things and he’s doing 10 of them. He does one where he [re-records] one of his classic catalog numbers, one where he does a cool cover and one where it’s a new song. So at the end of it, I think he’ll have 10 new songs, 10 covers and 10 [new recordings] of his [old] stuff and he’ll have three records. So I thought that was kind of neat and it’s certainly part of the inspiration for it, yeah. Marshall’s always been a forward thinking guy and really, I’m just honored and lucky that he was a fan of the songs and wanted to get into the studio.
I was going to ask about that, because you worked on this track and some other songs as well with a real dream team, Marshall Crenshaw and Stewart Lerman. How did those two get into the mix?
Well, the short version is that my manager is an upstate New York guy and has friends in common with Marshall and sent him my demos cold and sent him my first record. Marshall was keen to produce and he and Stewart are starting a little production company called I Love Oranges and I was the second artist that they had produced and I think the first one to put something out. You know, I don’t know, I’ve sort of stepped in good luck with producers and drummers my whole musical life — I’m very blessed that way and Marshall is no exception. My dad used to take me to see him at the Bottom Line when I was like 10 or 11. So the idea of working with him [really] appealed to me. It was a little bit full circle that way.
I love these days hearing Stewart Lerman referred to as the guy behind Boardwalk Empire and The Aviator, because to me, he’s the guy that produced a bunch of Jules Shear records that I love.[Laughs] Yeah, not to mention a bunch of other super-cool indie artists, right? Stewart is a very, very sweet guy who nurtures people creatively in a great way and he’s a world class engineer. It was cool to work with an artist and a producer by trade which obviously Stewart is.
I had this other artist in Marshall, doing all of the neurotic things that I normally do with me, all of the artist-style listening and craziness and he was keen to do it for my songs, so I was really flattered and in turn, obviously he’s an amazing producer and artist, so with him and Stewart, I sort of felt like I had somebody who was seeing it from an artist’s side and somebody who was seeing it from an engineer and producer’s side and it made for a really wonderful combination, I mean, it was a breeze, really. It was a lot of fun.
Who is playing on this new stuff with you?
I covered most of the guitar duties, Marshall played a bit — he played the bass, which you know, he’s actually a very virtual musician on a lot of instruments, so his bass playing was really kind of a highlight for me. He’s a killer bass player. Then we brought in Rich Pagano, who is a great drummer and he plays with [Beatles tribute] the Fab Faux, so he’s obviously a Beatles nut, but he does a lot of cool stuff.
Then we had this fantastic keyboard player who was coming off of his first tour with John Mayer — his name is Andy Burton and he’s a fantastic organ player. I think some of the stuff he does on “Shimmer and Shine” is exciting and on “She Loves Love,” obviously, we really feature the organ. I think Marshal really heard organ on that song, so that was why Andy got the call.
How easily was it from a scheduling perspective to work on this stuff with Marshall? It seems like he’s always on the road…
He puts more miles on his car — it’s really kind of sick! [Laughs] He’s a road dog, you know? But you know, three songs doesn’t require a block of two weeks. It was pretty smooth. Once we decided we wanted to do it, I think we looked a month or two down the road, found some dates and got in and then we took a little bit of time for everybody to go home and think about what kind of tweaks needed to be made and go back and do the mix. So it was relatively smooth. I mean, I’ve worked with other people who are well-known producers and sometimes it can be a lot of time just to get a little time. But with Marshall and Stewart, it was really easy — I think it just all kind of jived.
How many songs did you end up doing total. You’re going to put out two EPs of material in total, right?
I did three songs with Marshall and Stewart. I was also co-writing with this guy Leo Sidran, who is Ben Sidran’s son. Leo has an Oscar in his own right as a producer of some music on The Motorcycle Diaries. I’m a songwriter and I write for other artists sometimes, so my publishing company hooked me up with Leo and we started writing and instantly I knew that those songs were actually songs that I could use as an artist myself, which isn’t always the case when you’re writing with other people. I usually just put out songs that I write on my own.
So we were doing a song a day, writing and recording and getting it all done in a day and then he would just go home and mix it, so it was really, really fast. This was all going on while I was doing the stuff and talking to Marshall and setting it up and mixing and all of that stuff. So all of the sudden I looked up and I had eight tunes. Three of them of course were the Marshall/Stewart stuff and then there’s four with Leo and then there’s one other with another person and I thought, “Well, these are really two separate EPs — they don’t make sense — I could cobble together a record out of them, but it will not be cohesive.”
I felt like they were two separate things and in terms of the digital 45 concept it works out great, because the A-side can be one sound completely and the B-side can be another sound completely and it wouldn’t be the first time that an A-side and a B-side had sonic disparities.
As you say, EPs and singles are where things are at and it seems like that sets up some interesting possibilities as far as how you stage and structure the release of the material. I think that some composers almost look at it as like a series of movements which I guess that you sometimes can do that with an album, but mapping it out as a series of EPs, it kind of forces you into that thinking a little bit more than if you’re looking at it as an album.
I think you’re right. Part of it is cool because it’s freeing and you have this ability to change your medium, but obviously part of it is also a little bit heartbreaking, because the attention span of the audience isn’t what it could have been or was for many years. You know, not to be a crotchety guy, but people aren’t listening the way they once did and people are on their phone while they’re listening to records and they’re doing other things and that’s fine, but I think artists kind of have to adjust to the way it’s being listened to. We can’t demand that people listen on our terms. I mean, if they’re not going to, they’re not going to — particularly with new artists.
You’ve talked about making hi-fi records, which as you acknowledge, is a bit of a lost art at this point. But for guys like you and I that grew up with records like that, it is what we know. What were some of the important records that inspired you as a music fan and later as an artist?
Well, my age will give it all away. I’m 30 and I grew up in New York City, so in the ‘90s in New York City, I listened to a lot of hip-hop. I listened to a lot of rock and roll, all of the ‘90s rock, but really, I’ve always gravitated towards the music that my parents listened to and it was a really musical house growing up.
So I grew up with all of the great troubadours of the ‘60s and ‘70s being pounded into my brain, whether it was Leonard Cohen or Tom Petty or Bob Dylan — any of those guys were sort of pillars around the house. My dad was a big soul fan, so he was always listening to the Rhythm Revue on Saturday mornings and taking me to see Tower of Power or some soul singer at the Sugar Bar. It was always about older music and now what I guess people call “oldies.” But the music of my parents’ youth kind of became the music of my youth.
I’ve talked to a lot of folks who grew up in the ‘90s where hip-hop was a big influence. Was it interesting for you when you got to the point where you started wanting to be a songwriter, trying to reconcile all of those different loves into something that felt cohesive?
Boy, that’s a good question, because it’s true! It is difficult — I love so many types of music and they all have an important place with me. Growing up, hip-hop was like I’m out at a party and I’m having fun — that was the party music. So I obviously have a soft spot in my heart for Snoop! [Laughs] But at the same time, when you’re 16 and you’re in your first phase of deep introspection and somebody gives you Blood On The Tracks, that becomes really important too and then all of the sudden, you’re trying to make music and you’re trying to be all things at once and sometimes you just have to acknowledge that each song demands to be what it is truly and you can’t stuff all of those things in one can.
I mean, I’ve tried — sometimes there’s little hybrid stuff. I don’t think that hip-hop and rock have been mixed well yet to their maximum capacity. I fooled around with Steve Jordan once on a couple of tracks where we did some sort of organic hip-hop grooves and then sort of [added] a folk song topping and that stuff works and it’s cool and I’m proud of it, but it’s neither introspective folk nor slammin’ hip-hop tracks. So I don’t know, it’s difficult — that’s the problem with genres in general.
How early did you get into writing songs for artists? Because that’s an interesting thing, because certainly it gives you an avenue to hopefully find work, but it does seem like there could sometimes be conflict over what to give away and what to keep.
Yeah, I find less conflict with that. When I start it, it seems clear to me what makes sense for what to some extent. I finished my first record and in true music business fashion, the first person I was referred to was a lawyer. [Laughs] And that lawyer started introducing me to publishers and other writers. One thing leads to another and you’re writing songs with other people for other people. The idea that you could do an afternoon’s worth of work, walk away and it will be out there earning money is a very cool concept. It’s very hard to make it happen — you have to write a helluva song for that to happen.
So I started doing that and to me it’s just expanding your skill set, learning new things. I’ve had at least a hundred sessions with other people to write a song and no two people have ever written the same way — not even close. So in that sense, I learned a hundred other ways to write songs. I still write the way I write, but now the choices are deliberate — they’re not your default setting. So that’s important to me and it’s cool, but I can tell generally when I write a song if it’s a solo song for me or if it is a song that somebody else should sing or if it’s a song that I should sing that has nothing to do with my career or my persona as an artist and as a person, which I try to keep to be the same thing. Or if it’s a song that I write with the Slim Kings, a band that I’m in that’s a harder blues-rock thing and those lyrics have a different tint also.
Sometimes a guy like you can get this far into writing for other people and put the idea of building their own artistic brand on the shelf. Obviously with you putting out this song and these EPs, it’s evident that making something happen with your own brand is still important to you.
Yeah, it’s the thing that will be going on for the rest of my life. It’s the thing that nobody can take away from me and if everything I do feels authentically me then at the end of the end of the end, I’ll be able to know that I had a lot of other things that I did that were part of my life’s work, but this will be the throughline for me. I think that’s a cool thing. I don’t know if you saw that documentary on Harry Nilsson.
In that documentary, his friend said that they were sitting in a car at the end of his life and he knew he was going to die and he was listening to all of his work in one sitting, all of those records and I thought, “You know, what a cool thing to be able to mark your life by.” There’s very little that you can leave behind or walk away with or can help you look back at things, but I think that’s an amazing concept. In his case, he got to look back on some serious records. [Laughs] He’s a total hero [of mine].