An Interview with Michelle Young

A rare thing in the world of Progressive Rock, a woman. And not just any woman. Michelle Young has a voice which stands out. It’s reminiscent of Kate Bush’s voice, but with an overall sound quite her own.

And, she’s a very talented songwriter. Michelle’s new album, Marked for Madness has just been released. For this occasion, Michelle has answered some questions for us.

Her answers are honest and come from the heart. Probably the most personal interview I’ve ever had the pleasure to conduct. Enter her world.

Guitar Noise: Could you tell us a little of your background?

Michelle Young: I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and at age 5 moved to Dunlap Tennessee, which was a very small town. I’ve been singing since before age five, and when I was nine years old I took a few piano lessons – that’s where I learned to read music. I quit practicing (got tired of the same old primary songs) but picked up the piano again when I was 15, being inspired by some singer/songwriters in school. I started writing my own music, playing in bands, and competing in talent shows, and when I was 17 I moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee to attend college. I continued playing in bands, and took voice lessons for a couple of years, but my life was really changed when I joined the band “Glass Hammer”, and I entered the world of progressive music. I released my first solo album, “Song of the Siren”, in 1996 on Naosha Records, a label I created specifically for releasing my own material, and have recorded on over 14 albums so far in my career. Finally, my second album, “Marked For Madness”, is poised for release on September 24, 2001.

GN: Marked for Madness is an interesting title (as much for the album as for the song). Could you tell us a little more about it?

MY: This image was the original cover for “MFM”, and I believe it speaks volumes. It’s always reminded me of a Clive Barker book cover, and sometimes I feel like I could be living in one of his stories too. My life can be very fantastical in both good and bad ways. Of course, I’m not the only one who has lived a very crazy life – that’s why I believe that many people will relate to this album. We all have dramatic things happen to us that can help shape our personalities, whether we understand that or not. This album is as much of a social statement as it is autobiographical – especially if you consider the song “Melissa’s Demise”, which is based on an article I read in the newspaper about a girl who was killed by a classmate. He told the police the reason he killed her was “Nobody liked her…” And living in that kind of society, as we all do, who cannot be prone to madness? We’re all judged every day by the people around us, sometimes before they’ve even met us, and most of the time before they’ve really gotten to know us. The song itself contains dream images, some of which are re-occurring themes in my dreams …”men in coats with guns in tote”…I can’t tell how many times I’ve been hunted down in my dreams…I don’t try to over-analyze my dreams though, because then I WOULD go crazy. In general, “MFM” is much darker than my first album, but I was careful to place a thread of hope throughout the album, because we have to keep hope in our lives if we are going to continue to exist.

GN: You have quite an impressive list of personnel on this album (Clive Nolan (Pendragon, Arena), Peter Gee (Pendragon), Peter Banks (Yes), Karl Groom, Doane Perry (Jethro Tull)). How did you come up with such a lineup?

MY: I first met Clive in 1997 at ProgFest in California. I had met Paul Wrightson there also, who at the time was singing for Arena, and he heard my album and said “Clive has got to hear this! He’ll want to work with you.” Well, Paul introduced us at the festival, but it wasn’t until Clive returned home to England and actually listened to “Song of the Siren” that he called, and we had our first conversation. It seems he’d been looking several years for a voice like mine to work with, and we were finally brought together. The funny thing is, I had no idea of Clive’s status in the progressive community when we first started working together. I did, however, really like what I heard of his work, and just knew that our talents would compliment each other very well.

During my subsequent visits to England I met Peter Gee, who lives in the same house as Clive, and Karl Groom, who works with Clive at Thin Ice. I have nothing but high praise for these gentlemen, both personally and professionally, and I’m very happy to have them involved with “MFM”.

During one of the visits to England, I met Pete Banks at the studio. Clive was compiling some material for an album Pete has since released, and we hit it off very well. He’s a great guy, and during our conversations he said something like “Well, if you ever need me to do some guitar parts for you, just let me know”. How could I turn that down? He brought his beautiful new bride to the recording session, and we had a great day in the studio.

I first met Doane when I drove to Baltimore, Maryland to see my first Jethro Tull show. Ian had seen an article on me in Progression Magazine and had Kenny, his production manager, to call me and get a copy of “Song of the Siren”. Ian really liked it, and during our brief correspondence I decided to catch them on the road. I was backstage after the show when I met Doane. We talked for a while, and I realized that he also liked to do other projects, so I gave him a “Song of the Siren”, and eventually got my nerve up to write and ask him if he’d be interested in working with me. I didn’t hear from him, and didn’t even see him until the next Tull concert I caught – but my fears of getting the brush off were totally unfounded. When he saw me he smiled and gave me a big hug, and said that he loved the album, and would definitely be interested in working with me. We immediately started talking equipment compatibility, because we knew the chances of us being in the studio at the same time were very slim. In fact, he did his drum parts in California, then sent them to me. I am so grateful to have had his input on this album.

GN: How was it working with such an ensemble?

MY: It was exciting to have such talented players working with me…but, it was a long, drawn out process. It took four or five years to get everything recorded because I had to coordinate my schedule with Clive’s (one of the busiest people on the planet), and between the two of us we had to coordinate the rest of the recording. I have to say that I’ve learned a lot from working with these people – I consider them to be absolutely some of the best in their fields!

GN: “Toujours ensemble” features you singing in French, where did that idea come from?

MY: I’ve always loved studying foreign languages, particularly French. (While in college I sang in several different languages, and I found it very alluring.) As fate would have it, during a trip to Paris I met a young musician/singer/songwriterfrom Quebec, and we eventually recorded music together on his first solo album. When I wrote “Toujours Ensemble” I wanted to express that even being on the other side of the world, speaking two different languages, we could say the same thing, and always be together in the music. Music has a very strong bonding power, and has brought millions of people together all over the world. That’s the reason I wanted to end the album with this song – I want to touch people’s lives in a positive way, and always be there with them in the music. By the way, I did have some help from a very nice Frenchman in making sure my French was correct in the song. Thanks Denis!

GN: Was the end result similar to your expectations?

MY: Wow…..that’s a hard question, because I wasn’t sure what to expect. I tried to go into this experience with an open mind. By handing the producer’s hat over to Clive, and just being co- producer, I had to stand back and just watch things happen. I could put my input in at any time, and of course I surely did, but I tried to let Clive do his job without much hindrance. Many of the sounds are very different than the demos that I brought in, but some of them are still very similar. Overall I can say that I’m thrilled with the results – they were just as I expected in that they are much better than I would have done alone.

Making MFM has been an exciting, long and trying process – not for the feint of heart. But, it’s also been very rewarding, like another dream come true. I always liken making an album to childbirth (I don’t have any children of my own, so my songs and my instruments become my children). There is the conception of the idea, the gestation period of producing the album (usually with complications), and at the end there is the birth of a beautiful child that you will have to live with for the rest of your life – even if it’s not perfect. And that is what I have to pass on to the world, that will hopefully exist long after I’m gone.

GN: You have obviously been influenced by Kate Bush. Could you expand on that?

MY: I first started listening to Kate Bush in 1986, and kept listening all the way up to “Hounds of Love”. I used to love to sing along with the first album – it was great for warming up my voice for my voice lessons – plus, it was nice because I could sound so much like her. But, there was a deeper appeal – the expressiveness of her vocal techniques was something I deeply craved and was in tune with. I love to use the same exaggerations in the voice, and the same sense of extremities (low to high pitches, deep rumbles to soft sighs … variation is the key). I guess in a way, that style of singing is very theatrical – deeply sensitive but hard hitting at the same time…and that’s me – full of extremes!

I don’t actually try to sound like Kate, but the comparisons are inevitable (and that’s a high class voice to be compared to). Hopefully people will see a much broader range of my voice on “MFM”, and will start classifying my voice in a place of it’s own. Who knows…maybe someday someone will say “that girl sounds a lot like Michelle Young” – then I’ll know my individuality has been recognized.

GN: Do you find it more difficult as a woman in a male-dominated art, to make it or does this, instead, play in your favour?

MY: Whew, this can be for or against you, depending on the situation. There was a time where I wouldn’t pick up a tambourine in public because I didn’t want to be classified as the stereo- typical singer. I wanted people to know that there is much more to me, and to give me the respect I deserve. I guess at that time I felt I had to prove myself…but now, as people see that there is more to me, I’m not as sensitive to that. But, if you were to see me just singing on stage, how would you know that I play several instruments, write, engineer, produce, etc…? Of course, I have always been fortunate to gain respect as an entertainer/vocalist by people that have seen me perform live – I just don’t want to be thought of as “just a singer”. God has given me more talent than that, and I do my best to use it. Would it surprise you to know that I have been called the “fluff factor” for one band I was with (by one of the band members) – they didn’t care if I picked up an instrument or not, they just wanted me to sing in the band because I was female and would draw males in to listen. And that’s not an isolated case.

I’ve found that it is also very difficult sometimes to be female and the label owner too. I know certain men that have not taken me seriously because I was female…but, in the end, the victory is mine because I am succeeding. I work very, very hard – most people I know and work with see that, and respect it.

I guess being female can initially open some doors or draw attention that wouldn’t normally be given if you were “just another guy” in this business. But people, especially of the caliber that I’ve been working with, don’t work with you just because you’re “pretty”. If they don’t see a talent there that they appreciate, it’s not going to happen. Sometimes I have to remind myself of that (or my friends will remind me), because I tend to underestimate or downplay what I’ve done…in fact, sometimes when I listen to my music, I almost feel like a stranger listening – like that was someone else…how could that be me? Oh, and I guess that’s part of the madness too.

One thing I would like to see improve in the future is more artists, both male and female (especially in the progressive field) reaching out to each other for work and/or friendships. I have been very fortunate to have made some wonderful friends in the music industry, but sometimes we get lost in our own careers and we forget to reach out. Of course, there is the fact that you have to have a pretty strong personality to survive in this business, and sometimes people with strong personalities tend to be loners – and extremely busy (not much time for a social life in general). But, I still dream of “peace, love and happiness” – I mean, we’re all in this together. I don’t believe we’re necessarily in direct competition with each other. If everyone in the world only had enough money to buy one CD a year, then yes – that’d be competition…..but, as it is, we’re just making available to the public a vast treasure of music for their listening enjoyment.

GN: Do you find that some people take you less seriously because you’re a woman?

MY: Again, sometimes that is the case, but usually when people see my determination and my “where there’s a will there’s a way” attitude, they start to realize I’m serious, and therefore will take me more seriously – especially when they can see that I don’t just talk, I “do”.

GN: Progressive Rock is a style of music which generally tends to attract men. How is it you found your way to the genre?

MY: I had started a photography and recording studio around 1990/1991, and I was asked to do the photography for the first Glass Hammer album, “Journey of the Dunadan”. They heard my voice and realized I could sing, and decided to bring me in on the project, even though it was mostly finished. I did many backing vocals, and a few more prominent parts (Piper Kirk was already involved in the project). When I first heard the music, and realized I was going to be involved with the album, I was on cloud nine solid for two weeks! I was so impressed by the quality of the music these guys were doing – and I was allowed to do many strange and experimental things in the studio, aside from the regular backing parts. I was hooked! I wound up joining Glass Hammer for a total of three albums, and performed with them live. But, in 1996, I released my first solo album, and that was pretty much where our paths diverged. I have to say that one reason I love the “progressive genre” is that you can be as creative as you want, and there are no real restrictions. Also, there’s a standard of quality that is usually higher than in other formats you’ll find. That doesn’t mean I don’t like or appreciate other styles of music – quite the contrary! But, I believe I have found a home for my music, where people are more willing to embrace the unusual, and my voice can be used to it’s fullest capacity.