Your Gateway to Music and More from a Christian Perspective
Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
By Tony LaFianza
With the release of Riki Michele's new record, Surround Me, the Phantom Tollbooth had a chance to talk with this founding member of Adam Again, and now a reemerging solo artist. Riki Michele, a Southern California native, started singing in church at the age of 4. As she matured, so did her love of music and her interest in the budding Christian rock scene. She witnessed the beginnings of such bands as The Altar Boys, Daniel Amos, Undercover, and of course her own band, Adam Again. Somewhere around 1984, 16 year old Michele Bunch met a 21 year old Gene Andrusco in church. He was already making a name for himself in local Christian rock, and she was a young fan. The two of them started a band and a relationship that produced big waves in Christian music for years to come. However, that relationship also produced waves in Riki Michele's personal life.
Adam Again was a rare, exotic, wonderful band led by the late great Gene Eugene, songwriter, musician, singer, engineer, producer, and one time husband of Riki Michele. One of Riki Michele's roles in the band was to complement Gene's distinctive din and lyrics with her own smooth voice. Riki's other role was to complement and punctuate the band's funky, dance beats with her perpetual motion. Mixing the spiritual with the sensual, Riki Michele was an important part of the bands sound and vision.
Riki Michele is an interesting woman who has lived a couple of different lives so far. She married Gene "Eugene" Andrusco, went through the trauma of divorce, moved to Nashville, fell in love again and remarried. She now talks of love and family in Nashville with a Southern Californian's surfer girl phrasing. She looks back with heartache and yet gratification. She looks forward with purpose. She lives here and now with serenity. Riki Michele is a survivor.
Again, the Coolest Band in the World
Phantom Tollbooth: Your real name is Michele. So where did the Riki come from?
Riki Michele: I really don't remember. I've told so many stories, I'm not sure about the truth any more.... when we started the band Gene said that he was going to be Gene Eugene, so I wanted a name too. And I liked the idea of having a little boys name so I picked Riki.
Tollbooth: What was it like in the beginning of the Southern California Christian music scene that you came from?
Michele: It was a cool scene with Daniel Amos, Undercover, the Altar Boys, Adam Again. We really did no touring, but stayed close to home playing around the area at church gigs, youth groups and stuff....
Tollbooth: Did you have an appreciation for how great the music around you at the time was?
Michele: I knew I liked it! Really, it's only started to hit me in the past few years how wonderful and special what we were doing was. We always thought it was good.
Tollbooth: How did the first record with Adam Again come about?
Michelle: The guy who started Broken Records talked to Gene about making a record about the same time he began to write the songs for a record. So a deal was struck to make _In A New World of Time_. We only did that one record for Broken because Gene and Joey (Taylor, from Undercover) started Brainstorm Artists after that, and we did all the rest of our albums for them.
Tollbooth: The first record has such a special cover. How did you get Mr. Finster to do the cover for that record?
Michele: We were big Talking Heads fans and had a few singles and record covers that Howard Finster had painted for them. We loved them. They were all different styles. Sometimes with just one thing in the picture, they weren't always filled with imagery like some of the more seen album covers... so Gene found out that Howard Finster lived somewhere near Atlanta, Georgia and called information to get his phone number. And they talked like they were old friends, he even put his wife on the phone with Gene... while they were talking Mr. Finster said, [Riki does her impression of a southern drawl here] "I've got the R-E-Ms in my back yard right now shooting some movies... I think I'm gonna put 'em up in the chapel tonight, but there sure is a lot of 'em." We thought that was so rad, he had REM in his back yard.
So then he painted the cover for us and gave us a great deal on it. At first we were a little disappointed that it looked so much like the cover he did for Talking Heads, but not for long; and not too disappointed... we loved the painting, which is huge. About 3 feet by 3 feet...
Tollbooth: Where is the painting now?
Michele: Greg (Lawless) has it right now... we've all traded it around a little bit. So I may get it back at some point for a while...years later we visited Mr. Finster's house and he had our cover hanging in his hall right between the covers he had done for Talking Heads and REM. We thought that was very cool!
Tollbooth: In those early days, Christian rock was just starting to get its legs. Was there any reaction to your band, Adam Again, having a girl in it, a girl dancing!?
Michele: Oh yeah!... well, that also depended on where we were playing. At the time we did church gigs, special occasions, youth things, whatever... and people weren't really diggin' what I was doing. I mean the kids were, the kids that were into the music and the band were fine, it seemed to be the adults, the people in charge, just thought it was too crazy, a little too wild. That didn't come from everybody. I definitely got some flack for moving around the way I did. My reaction to that was that I didn't mean any harm to anyone, or cause anyone to have a bad experience but it was a natural occurrence for me. I wasn't trying to be or do anything weird. It was just very ordinary for me to react to the music that way on stage and it probably wasn't going to change. So, if they were not digging it, they probably weren't going to like this band very much. It was difficult to know what the proper response to that would be but I knew that I wasn't really going to change my behavior on stage. Although, I did use some discretion in certain places. If I knew that it was going to be a mellower gig, I'd keep that in mind. But for the most part I just acted naturally. That's what I do, I dance. We just took it in stride. And it wasn't that big of a deal. There were just incidences that stand out in my mind, made me just go "whoa!," and hurt my feelings. But you move on...
Tollbooth: Were you and Gene dating at the time of the first record? What was your relationship at that point?
Michele: I think we had just gotten married when we were doing the first record. We got married when I was 18. That was when we were in the studio the first time... we were already married...
Tollbooth: As the band started to get some success, and the band does more records, do you two do any more traveling?
Michele: At first we did more traveling than we did in the latter years. Gene was always the boss of the band. He was the headstone and the one that did all the writing. So the more he became involved with producing and things like that, the less Adam Again would do. It got to a point where we'd do a little bit of traveling during the year, but with the last few records, because of life situations and him being involved in other things, we'd mainly just get together and do the festivals and get together for another record. So we didn't play a whole lot.
Tollbooth: As far as I know, the only time those of us from East Coast saw Adam Again was if we made the trip to Cornerstone. You never really came over to the East Coast, did you?
Michele: No, not at all. One time we came out to the East Coast because we had a festival that we did in Canada. So we road tripped it down through Buffalo. And that's the only time I remember ever hitting the East Coast. That was the only frustrating thing to the rest of us in the band. I think that musically we were exactly where we wanted to be, but we really needed to, for lack of a better term, and I hope this isn't offensive to you but, we really needed to kick ass more than we did! We needed to be more involved, to do more gigs, and be on the road more.
But eventually our guitarist [Greg Lawless] moved to Oregon and lived out there. He was the first to go. And Gene and I were really going through a hard time when I was around 25 to like 27 and being in the same band and having a broken relationship... it was a no win situation. Then our drummer [Jon Knox] moved to Nashville, and got a better gig. So it kind of left us no choice except to get together for festivals. We were all still family... through all of the troubles, and the wierdnesses, we were all still family so that's how we stuck it out as a band... When Gene was in the mood to write we'd all get back together for recording and then do Cornerstone again.
Tollbooth: Through the years you did some solo recording...
Michele: I did Big Big Town. It was kind of Gene and Joey's [Taylor] idea. And of course I was into it, but I wasn't at a point in my life where I was doing a whole lot of writing. What I did was I kept a journal and gave the journal to Gene and Steve Hindalong and all the songs that were written were written from excerpts of my journal. It was their poetry put to whatever was in my journal. That was a good way for me to start collaborating with somebody... I wasn't scared to death. I certainly wasn't ready to do my own record. It was more of a Gene project, and I collaborated with him, and consequently was the singer...
Tollbooth: You said you were into it, but did it feel like a personal record?
Michele: Oh absolutely... it felt really personal. It felt really good. And I dug everything. I was there along side the both of them the whole time. And so it did feel really personal and good. I just didn't know what I was doing on my own. I was so used to having Gene do everything. I was still young and immature in my head as far as what it takes to be up there on your own...
Tollbooth: The record is very Adam Again-like. It's full of Adam Again kind of grooves...
Michele: Yeah, it does. That's the similarity with Gene and I at that time. My whole musical history is funk. When everybody else was listening to alternative stuff I was listening to 70s. George Clinton, Stevie Wonder, all the funk... and I'm still really into that sort of groove and it's where my heart is. So that's where we always met musically and that's exactly what I still wanted to capture if I was going to do my own thing. And Gene definitely kept that in mind.
Tollbooth: Then there was another Riki Michele record called One Moment Please.
Michele: That was much later. A couple of years after Brainstorm [Artists International] started, there was a deal that was coming around through Word where they started an alternative mini label called the WAL. It stood for Word Associated Labels, and they would do a joint contract with independent labels, and they would do all the marketing for the artist. They asked me if I wanted to do another record and I did. It wasn't perfect timing for me, but I did. Terry Taylor produced it and we wrote the songs together. Gene actually wrote a song for it and I did a Mike Roe song as well.
It was kind of Gene and mine's most tumultuous time. When we were spitting up... I'm assuming you know a little back ground on that...
Tollbooth: Very little, actually....
Michele: I won't bore you with any details but it was terrible, it was ugly... as far as our feelings inside. We weren't ugly to each other... but it was not a good time for either of us... it was hard, very hard... I was working at Brainstorm, helping them out, and doing a record on Brainstorm, and I'm still in Adam Again, but Gene and I are going through this terrible and dark time. So, I'm having Terry produce the record, and probably this wasn't the best time to do a record... but nonetheless good music came out of it. I'm proud of some things, less of other things on it...
I moved to Nashville because of that record because Word was in Nashville. Through talking to them I thought it would be better for me to be closer to the record company that was doing all the marketing and could set up gigs, interviews and things like that... and I really needed to get away as well. Just because of my own personal traumas and things like that... so I sold my truck, stuffed a '75 van full of my stuff and came to Nashville.
About a month after I got here the division of Word that put out the record crumbled. That record only got three months of marketing time and then just disappeared. But it wasn't that heart breaking to tell you the truth. It was the key that got me here to Nashville. At the time I didn't know why I was coming, but I knew it was the right thing to do. I had no fear about it. I felt a peace about it being just a vehicle to get me here...
Tollbooth: Where you long split with Gene at the time, or did you pack up and leave Gene for Nashville?
Michele: No, no, no... we were split up by then for about a year. And actually he's the one that suggested it.
Tollbooth: That you go to Nashville?
Michele: Yeah, he was like, "ya know Shelly, maybe you want to try just being closer to the music." Like I said before, we were always still family. We still talked about stuff and we were having a phone conversation and I told him I was, "Needing some direction in my life. I'm feeling something stirring musically but I'm not sure what it is." He's like, "Have you every thought about Nashville." At that point we were kind of like a brother and sister with each other. I was like, "Nashville! Right! I'll be the last person to go to Nashville!" and I'm thinking, especially since it's you that suggested it... being evil... but when I hung up the phone I was already deciding how I was going to tell everybody that I was going... I really do think that God used Gene to plant this seed. I don't know if it had to do with Gene or what, but when I hung up I knew I was going. And I'm so grateful, so glad that I did.
I was only planning on staying a year. The first year was hell on wheels. I didn't really like it. Nashville was not the open, happy artist, all welcoming community that I thought it was going to be. It's sort of like a crazy... every person is a musician, and it's a saturated area. People weren't really open and ready to share ideas... my friends in the community I have now are, but when I first moved here and was a stranger it was really difficult to find my niche.
Tollbooth: It's interesting that you and Gene could split up and still work together. But it didn't come easy for you, did it?
Michele: No. it wasn't easy, but it would take forever to give you the details of how we loved each other. I met him when I was 16 and we got married way to young, obviously, and became different people when we started growing up. And that was our demise. It was awful breaking up because it was something that neither one of us thought would ever happen. It was extremely painful for both of us, but in the end we were still connected. We were still family. Both of us had this weird mechanism that allowed us to put it aside and still be around each other. Sometimes it wasn't easy for us and sometimes it wasn't easy for the people around us. Sometimes it would be tense. Sometimes it was fine, but it was always going to be. We didn't want to break up the band, or not have it. Especially since the band wasn't like an every day thing. We had time to breathe and lots of time to be alone without being with each other.
It wasn't that hard to get together because the space in between those times were far. And we had our own lives... also, Gene always wanted me to be happy. And he knew that I wasn't... And I wanted him to be happy too and when he finally saw that I'd cut the ties between us, and he was watching me become more and more independent, I think it really made him happy. It made him feel good that I was finally finding myself. I wasn't buried in his image or anyone else's. And I kind of think that's where I was a lot of the time. I felt like somebody else was running my life and didn't get my own identity until I was actually able to step out of it... and I don't wish divorce on anyone. I think it's the crummiest thing that could ever happen to anybody. There are some things that still stick with you and still hurt. But God was able to do some great, amazing things from that crumbled heap. I was able to get back up and do some things that I thought would never happen after that... an! ! d I totally attribute that to my faith and the fact that God pulled me through it...
Tollbooth: Who broke up the marriage?
Michele: I think it was mutual... that's kind of on a little bit more personal level. That was over a period of years I'm sure...
Tollbooth: When word got out about the divorce, and it was in the press, how did the fans react?
Michele: The fans were the most supportive. Everyone that had come to see us at Cornerstone, our fan base, the people that I had a writing relationship with; after getting letters, you start to be like pen pals with some of these people; they were like, "We're praying for you and Gene." Nobody was trying to get the details. Nobody was trying to figure out who was right and who was wrong. No one was trying to figure out any of that stuff. I was blown away by how loving our fan community was and how they were still willing to stick with us.
But I was completely heartbroken over a few of our friends that were in the media who wanted to put it in print the minute they heard we were separated. And we didn't think we were going to get a divorce we were separating to try and work it out. People that I thought loved me, were already hounding me to put it in print. They were telling me it was my duty and my job, and I was a liar if I didn't. My point was that it was all so personal and I was losing my love. I didn't need to have anybody else trying to help me work it out. It shocked me how persistent some of those people were, unapologetically persistent, even going to my friends and then turning it on me.
I still feel the same way too. I never changed my mind. I understand being honest with your fans and letting everybody know where you're at means a lot to the music and things like that, but while you're going through it... wow! People need to give you some space and I really needed it at the time. I was going through it and heartbroken and I needed support like my fans were giving me.
To answer your question, the fans were great, the media was a little hounding, but they actually did listen to us in the long run... but all that did blow over... I've since reconnected with those relationships and they did keep it on the down low. Not that many talked about it, to tell you the truth. I think our closest friends knew the gruesome details, everyone else just hoped that we would find peace in the midst of all of it.
I'm sure it's heart breaking. I know that there's some artists that I love and you always want them to be happy and you hope that they stick together. And Gene and I were The Couple in front of everybody so I'm sure it was heart breaking to fans, and I'm so appreciative to the ones that stuck in there and still loved us and didn't judge us too harshly...
Tollbooth: I saw Adam Again at Cornerstone '95 and at the end of a great show to close out the festival, Gene sat down and sang "Don't Cry." It was only you and him on stage and although Gene is saying "don't cry" in the song, I cried. The emotion was so thick... Gene obviously had a medium to express himself and his feelings. Did you have a way to express yourself?
Michele: We expressed ourselves just how you described it. You guys knew as much as I did...
Gene talked to me in his songs. He did not express himself any other way... and that was what was most frustrating for me. That I did not know where he was, or where his heart was, or where his feelings were, ever. He would not want to talk about it, but then he would lay a song on me that would tear me into a million bits, and I would find out how he felt through his lyrics. I'm an expressive person socially and he was not. I'm really open about my feelings, sharing with whoever will listen. Everything that he wrote was true to his heart and that's how I found out how he felt about things.
Those moments of our gigs were the hardest for me, were inwardly awkward. That's when we were letting everybody in. We were standing right next to each other and he's basically telling everyone, and me, how he feels about me. So that's always a little strange... But I'm glad for it. It's all I have now. Had he not done that I would never had known how he felt.
Tollbooth: Gene died 2 years ago now ... are there happy memories?
Michele: Oh yeah! When I moved here, and got happy, Gene was the first one to call me and congratulate me on finding love and happiness... we were always estranged because he would not share his feelings with me. But that [he would call me] said about a kajillion things to me. It's times like those that I can actually hear his voice.
Oooo... I'm gonna start getting emotional now... hang on just a second... there's a lot of other things like that too... I don't know, funny e-mails back and forth. The last conversation we had was him calling and saying how excited he was because we were going to play Cornerstone and we were going to do a new record by then and for me to get ready. He was in good spirits... I had already been married to Dave (Palmer) for a couple of years and Gene was really happy for us. If I ever had a soul mate, and if anyone ever knew me, if there ever was a perfect relationship, I've found that in Dave. And I'm so thankful that Gene was really respectful of that. And he was glad for me. Truly happy for me. So the last conversation we had he was all giddy about us playing. And we were all happy that we were going to get together on this really great level, see the guys in my band, have fun in the studio. Then there were a couple of follow up calls in regards to that, that were easy. All the pain was totally gone. I'm so glad that that happened right before he d! ied. Because that's what I can always go back to. Those moments... I hardly ever, ever think about any of the bad times now. I always hang onto the good times.
Tollbooth: How did you find out that Gene was dead?
Michele: Dave called me.
Gene didn't wake up on a Monday morning. Dave got a call from somebody at the studio that was just calling anybody and everybody that they could think of that needed to know. I found out about 11am Monday morning of the 20th of March. My best friend, Anna Cardenas, who found him, couldn't call me so she called my parents and could barely talk to them. My parents were so broken up that they had to collect themselves before they called me. And Dave beat them to it... then immediately Dave got on the phone and got me a ticket and I flew out that day. Between me and my best friend, who was Gene's business partner, and his parents, we organized the funeral, and we had it at the end of that week.
Tollbooth: How did Gene die?
Michele: Gene died by a massive right brain hemorrhage. Two of his arteries were almost completely clogged. He never ate healthy in his life and didn't get much sleep. It all caught up with him I guess.
Tollbooth: Was it a large funeral?
Michele: No, probably a medium sized funeral. It wasn't like a huge production. We had a viewing on Friday night that was a smaller event. Then on Saturday of the end of that week we had a few people speak. Terry Taylor spoke and Mike Knott. And a guy by the name of Rob Watson, he was a friend of ours... and my dad was one of the ministers presiding over the ceremony. Jon Gibson sang, and Krystal Lewis sang. Gene produced music for both of them and they were always at the Green Room, so... we mainly had people that were close to him and had good insight and were great at portraying that. Because the rest of us were a mess! ... everyone did an amazing, amazing job. My family's churches all made food for us and served it at the Green Room. So we had everybody come over after that. I think we were up until five in the morning playing Adam Again and Lost Dogs. Trying to celebrate his life without just crumbling.
Tollbooth: Then the tributes started. A couple have been put on CD including the one done at Cornerstone. The CD includes Adam Again playing those great songs with guest vocals by many of Gene closest friends and colleagues. Was Terry Taylor supposed to sing at that one?
Michele: Terry was really heart broken and it was really hard for him. I'm not sure that he even felt like he could get through it when we first approached him. So he declined to be a part of it. We were really bummed out but I totally understood. And I know Gene totally understood as well. And afterwards I think that just him being there was good for us. I was just glad that he was able to be with us. I would have loved for him to have sung, but I understood where he was at.
I felt for him because he was already kind of in a panic. And I'm sure that his life went at a slower pace after Gene's death. He probably wasn't up for... like the rest of us... it's not like we were up for performing, but we had to. We actually turned the whole idea down at first. We were like, "No way. It's too soon. There's no way we're ever going to be able to sing these words again..." It was one of the most difficult things I ever have had to do, but I'm so glad we were able to do it.
Tollbooth: You mentioned you were starting to think about a new Adam Again record before Gene passed. Is there anything on tape on a shelf somewhere?
Michele: No. Gene and Greg [Lawless, guitarist] got together at Greg's farm about a year before that I think. And there's a video coming out with some footage of that time. Well that tribute video that you saw after the gig that night [at Cornerstone], that was footage from that. But nothing really came out of it, I don't think.
Tollbooth: What about Adam Again reissues? Do you know anything about that?
Michele: I don't. You know Gene had struck up a deal with KMG before he died and they had the rights to our catalog. So they actually did reissue a lot of stuff and put some compilation stuff together. But Greg was sort of in the process of trying to get all that back. In this last year I really haven't heard a lot from either one of them on that. And I don't know if anyone is going to do it. My friend Dan Michaels who does Galaxy 21 and is in The Choir, was always thinking about doing something like that. But then if it weren't for Dan the tribute wouldn't even have happened. Dan's the one that organized the whole thing. He was like our angel. So I don't know about any of that stuff, it may or may not happen... I'm kind of out of the loop on it...
Tollbooth: Let's switch gears and talk about you moving to Nashville and then meeting Dave Palmer...
Michele: The most wonderful man in the whole universe...
Tollbooth: How did you meet Mr. Wonderful?
Michele: I knew him from before. He was an Adam Again fan. In fact, something that's really eerie is that he had a picture of himself at 18 years old back stage at Cornerstone between Gene and I. He's this skinny, gangly kid all sweaty and we obviously just came off stage because we're the same, and we all look like kids and he kept that picture forever. He worked at a record company in Chicago and I worked at Brainstorm. When I moved out here I was on my own and he sort of took me under his wing. He moved out here a year before I did. He was working for Reunion Records at the time.
We were best friends, and we didn't even considere each other. Not one moment did we consider dating each other. We were best friends for like six months before we realized, hey he/she's kind of cute. That was great. It was wonderful to have that trust in each other. I wasn't in the mood to have a relationship with anybody. I was still learning and growing, hobbling along and we became really good friends. I loved what he was doing and we all just hung out... and then someone kissed somebody. He says it was me, I say it was him. I know he kissed me first and it was all over at that point... we fell in love.
Tollbooth: Even still it took a while for you to like Nashville....
Michelle: Yeah... I missed the ocean. I missed my family. I've got two siblings. My sister is five and a half years older and my brother is eight years younger. They both have families already and I have nieces and nephews that I miss terribly. I missed all that and when I found out that Nashville wasn't everything that I thought it would be, I thought I was just going to stay out here for a year. But during that year I fell in love with Dave and decided to stay a little bit longer. As we stayed we rooted in a little bit deeper and deeper. We had a whole community of friends that I knew from California that had moved here too. And we sort of built a family of people for ourselves. Now we've got a great support group and community of friends here.
Tollbooth: Did you start that exodus of friends and musicians from Southern California to Nashville?
Michele: Nooo. Heck no. I kept watching them leave and going, "Suckers, they'll be back..." I didn't think I'd go. What are they gonna find there? Even though I liked visiting. I had good friends here but I didn't want to move here. But now, it's great. We've got a tight knit group of friends that we hang with.
Tollbooth: Is that the people helping you on the new record?
Michele: Oh no, that's like a couple of ripples out... I always compare it to like a ripple in a pond. In the center is our tight knit group of friends that we practically call every day. If we're going to go out to lunch we always go out together. The next ripple is the people that we see a few times a month. The next ripple is the people we see at gigs or at concerts or whenever this other group gets together. The amazing thing about it is that they all know each other. All the ripples are connected. They all know who each other is and they all get together at different times. So you have this amazing sense of history, and people who know each other, and if you have a big whopping party you can invite them all and they all know each other. I never had that in Los Angeles. It's so rad! It's very wonderful and it's the one thing that keeps us here.
Tollbooth: Does a Christian musician have to go to Nashville?
Michele: Nooo. In fact I would encourage them not to.
There's probably a lot of record executives that would argue with me. And I know that musicians get a lot of work out here. You just have to stick with it. There's a five-year rule that seems to actually be the case. I thought it was a bunch of bull when I first heard it. You have to be here and stay here, and around the fifth year things start happening for you. But I just think it's too much hassle. You probably will have more fun in your talent and your music, and you'll probably get more work if you just stay where you are. I did way more session work and stuff in California. I thought there'd be sessions galore and lots of stuff. That's just now starting to happen and I've been here for eight years.
Tollbooth: Have you been trying to get studio work for eight years?
Michele: Well, not trying that hard. I worked at a day job when I first got here so I could eat, but I got really involved in that so music took a back seat as far as pursuing session work and things like that. But if you came here and pursued that, it's still pretty hard even if that's all you did. It would take a few years for things to really happen for you. It's like going to Hollywood to be an actress. It might be necessary but it's going to take some time. If you want to be a professional musician, if you want to make lots of money then you're supposed to go to Nashville to do it. But if you want to have some fun, be creative and not worry about things like that, go somewhere else.
Tollbooth: So, you decided after about eight years to make another record....
Michele: Yeah, and I decided it on Memorial Day after Gene died. My friend Dan Michaels came over. We were having a barbecue. When he first got there we were just chit chatting and stuff and then he said, "I think it's time you made another record." I laughed at him and said, "There's no way! I'm not ready for another record. Not right now... it's too soon, my head's still kind of spinning from Gene... blahbitty blah blah blah..." and by the end of the day I was planning on making another record. I guess with me it just takes a little seed to be planted and then I run with it.
Tollbooth: It sounds like the first thing out of your mouth is always "no," but then you'll reconsider...
Michele: exactly... it just takes a little bit of thought. I hooked up with Julian Kindred who is totally great and he had worked with Dan and did some engineering on the Choir record. I wanted to do something a little more electronica. I knew that was up his alley, so I did it with him. It was a completely different experience than I thought it was going to be. I thought I'd just start writing and write all the material and just keep handing him stuff and deciding what was going to make it and what was not. We ended up writing together, actually. It took a year to make....
Tollbooth: You wrote most of the lyrics and then you two wrote the music?
Michele: Yeah. He would come up with some musical riffs. Julian and I would sit on his floor at his house, he has all the equipment in his house, and we would kind of dink around with beats and stuff from different songs that we liked. He's like a chronic music buyer. Everyone on staff at Tower Records knows him because he has to buy music every day. I don't even know how he puts food on his table. He knows everything about music and knows all the latest stuff. He was my greatest influence on where I was headed musically because he had all this great new stuff to play for me. I hadn't heard much of Esthero, I hadn't heard much of all this electronic music that I love, what he played for me. That's why we started writing together. He would get out his synthesizer and keyboards and stuff like that and we would go over chords and start choosing and choosing. He would come up with a chord progression and I would come up with the melody and the lyrics. That's why it was a longer pr! ocess than I thought it was going to be.
Tollbooth: Is it hard for you to write a song?
Michele: A little bit. Sometime it wasn't and sometimes it was. It's always excruciating for me to write lyrics. I had a lot to draw from and kept really tight journals this time. It was a process. I'm glad I had the time to work on it. I'm glad it wasn't really pressured. I think that was my saving grace.
It helped to have Julian be a really good sounding board. He's a lot like Gene. Some people say that he reminds them of Gene and that those particular things put me at ease or I related to them just like I did with Gene, so they were pretty creatively inspiring.
Tollbooth: Where does Julian come from?
Michele: Canada. But don't hold it against him...
Tollbooth: I won't. But, I'm sorry, I mean musically...
Michele: Oh. His father is an amazing guitarist and musician. Julian grew up in Canada. He's a piano player, a keyboardist guy. He came out here and studied recording engineering. He did that as long as he's been out here and engineered a lot of projects. He worked on Rebecca St. James' record and did a lot of work for The Choir. I met him because I was playing in a band with a room mate of his, and then Dan told me he was good to work with, so that's how we crisscrossed. He and I have the same love for Kate Bush and Jane Siberry, and Stevie Wonder. Then he turned me on to all this new electronica stuff that is rockin' my world right now.
Tollbooth: Compare coming out from the back of the band to the front...
Michele: Oh my gosh. Terrifying. I am a kind of a ham-y person. I don't mind being able to express myself in the front or in the back. But what's terrifying to me right now is that I didn't realize that I was so comfortable being behind Gene and having the rest of the guys with me. And now I'm going to Cornerstone. It's a whole new ball game. It feels different. Going into the rehearsals and everything. There's no one there to do it for me and I'm finding myself being almost nervous about it, and excited.
I did a gig at GMA and I was nervous when I got up there and completely on cloud one million and six when I got off. So it's definitely where I want to be. Or where I feel like I'm supposed to be. I just have to kind of scoot in and get comfortable.
Tollbooth: Okay, once you started putting the new record together, at some point you call Steve Hindalong [The Choir]...
Michele: I always see Steve around. He's probably a third ripple out. We see each other twice a month or once a month sometimes and he's my old California crony. I know and respect his writing, I trust him. He doesn't make me nervous when I write with him. He knew Julian from working with him and he was really happy to work on this record. I thought we would just have him write a song for it, but we ended up being in the studio at the same time one day and we wrote "Forever Bright" together. He had the lyrics and the chords but no melody. I laid down a melody for him and we tweeked it and put it down as a demo that day, and I decided that I wanted to put it on the record.
Tollbooth: He plays most of the drums on the new record and he's phenomenal.
Michele: Yeah. He's so good!
Tollbooth: And "Treasure You" is a great song that Steve wrote.
Michele: I love that song. He said, "I've got this romantic lyric that you've got to hear." He said that he'd gotten the new Sade record and listened to it about a million times in a row and after he got done he had all these really romantic lyrics floating around in his head. I think that's how "Forever Bright" came out too. Being inspired by that record. He gave us the lyrics and that's all we had there were no chord changes or anything. Julian and I already had the music, or bits and pieces of it, and I said let's try and incorporate Steve's lyrics into this. And that's how that happened. Julian was really the mastermind on that one because I had the melody I'd already made up and he took the melody that I had, and flipped it on its back for the chorus and it made a world of difference. Then we brought a bass player in that played that wonderful bass part on the chorus that just makes you cry, it makes me cry anyway. It turned out to be one of our favorites. And I'm so glad! to hear that it's other people's favorite too.
Tollbooth: Speaking of bass players, how did you get Tim Chandler [The Choir, Daniel Amos] on the record? More interestingly, why is he only playing part of a song or two? He's such a great, great bass player!
Michele: I'm so glad you
think so. He's a good friend of ours and one of the sweetest guys I know.
Tollbooth: Do you have a favorite song on this new record?
Michele: I love "Giving Up" for the instrumentation. It's sort of my story of moving here. I love "Take It On " because it was a different approach in writing. It makes me so happy when it kicks in at the end. I feel like I could dance all night.
Tollbooth: Yeah, it kicks in with a disco beat...
Michele: I totally love that. I guess those are my favorites. But I think that "If I Remember" is the best tribute that I could ever do. It's a personal little note or message to Gene...
Tollbooth: Tell us about that one...
Michele: That was an amazing happening. I was in the shower one morning just thinking of how I wanted to talk to him on this record. I didn't want to get too personal. I didn't want to let everybody in on any sort of weird details or anything that I say in my head, but I wanted to say something. "If I Remember" came to me in the shower, the melody, the words and everything. Then the next night in the studio Marc Byrd was in there playing around on the guitar and he starts playing it! Big tears came to my eyes and I'm like, "I can not tell you what you're doing." He said, "What? I'm just messing around." So I said, "play exactly what you just played." And I sang it to him and we all froze. Because it was the exact chord progression, the timing, everything ... that's why it was so simply done and it was Marc and me. I'm still so grateful. You'll see in the liner notes that I thanked him just for that because it was so special and precious.
Tollbooth: Marc [Byrd] and the other guitarists on the record do some fine and unusual things.
Michele: There were three other guitarists. Julian's father did a lot of the atmospheric high-pitched guitar parts. Kevin Robinson and Charles Garrett did a lot of swirly type of noise and Marc Byrd did most of the cohesive guitar parts. He just did an amazing job and when I had my record release party he was there and he was like, "I'm so happy!" I said, "I told you that you would be. You were rad! You were so rad!" He said, "Well, I have to say I'm really happy with what I did." I said, "I'm glad you appreciate what you did. We love it."
Tollbooth: Is there a theme through the record? Do you want people to learn something from it?
Michele: They're taking my emotional ride with me. The whole thing mirrors my whole new existence here in Nashville. Having found love and life and freshness and happiness and forgiveness. All of those things. Finally finding myself. I really feel like this is a debut record because I had everything about me to do with it. From the writing to what I wanted in the production. There's an openness that I never thought I could communicate to everybody else... I don't want to put too much into it; I like for people to make out of it what they want to make out of it.
I was in my pottery class the other night and this lady came up to me. I had given her a CD and she said, " I want to get three CDs because I want to take them to my career counseling sessions." She thinks that the song "Mystery In Me" could be a great song for the theme of career counseling. I was like, "Bazaar. OK, fine. If you think so, fine." I love it when people can interpret it and get something out of it that I never even thought they could.
Tollbooth: Are you looking forward to playing Cornerstone Festival 2002 this summer?
Michele: Yes. I'm going to be playing Friday night and I'm going to be sharing the stage with the 77s and the Choir so my cronies are going to be there. I won't feel so scared. We'll be at the Gallery Stage. And hopefully I'll be doing a broken down version, an acoustic version, on another stage at some point during the week.
Tollbooth: Do you have a live band together already?
Michele: No... not exactly.
But by Cornerstone, I'll have it goin' on. Just the way I want it.