Michele Karmin is an alternative, soul singer/songwriter and electronic artist. She shifted musical directions in the last few years after teaching herself piano and embarking on a new writing approach. This effort of re-discovery proved to be the missing piece of her evolving artistry as it catapulted her to a new height as an established songwriter and musician.
Previously, she independently released three albums from 2006-2008, however it wasn’t until the 2009 release of her first piano composition, “Six Years” that Karmin set the mark for the future of her sound. The single garnered much attention for its haunting melody, and soulful vocals which led Karmin to her first music video and debut sound. The track was shortly followed up by the recording and release of “I Need”, a lounge style ballad, with an ear-grabbing piano hook and emotive delivery. Karmin’s sound has been compared to the iconic female artists Jewel and Tori Amos, yet her style of performance is uniquely her own, combining her early influences of alternative rock with an innate soul behind her voice.
Michele, tell us about your journey.
Well, it’s been a long, beautiful one so far! My mother involved me in music before I started school. She has been a professional vocalist for years, so I was acquainted with music at a very young age. She took me to her lessons, and her performances.
Soon after, I was performing shows with her and my brother and sisters. My dad always hoped we would become another partridge family or Jackson Five.
You just sat down a few years ago and taught yourself the piano. What was the thing that had that happen?
I really always wanted to play but it’s seemed like such an impossible skill when I was younger. I also found that part of the struggle in “finding my sound” was due to the fact that the core production of my songs were so reliant on someone else’s musicianship. I worked with very talented producers and musicians yet not knowing an instrument myself made it difficult to find a starting point and for years it just seemed I was spinning my wheels, jumping from genre to genre.
The reality of playing piano seemed beyond farfetched but in my heart I had this inborn sense that I could. The vision was most important. I eventually bought my first board and after a year of staring at the keys and praying to God for ability, I took some baby steps. From that point on it was all I did – I was beyond addicted and I willingly put myself though my own musical boot camp. I studied scales and chords and made up my own practices, which is how my first original song on the piano, “Six Years” came about. I became so determined to have the option to play shows on my own and then strangely enough, towards the end of that first year, one of my guitarists had to cancel a gig the day before my first NYC show at Rockwood Music Hall. I saw that as my opportunity to jump in the fire. It was also the starting point of what was to come. It took me years to get there but it’s quite rewarding to look back now.
There is such a difference between the styles you are working in, and each done well – what had you go from singing ‘Trance’ electronic dance music to the wonderful minimally produced singer/songwriter thing?
Although it is a stretch, it’s really a perfect kind of crossover for a singer-songwriter. I have been a fan of Sarah McLachlan’s “Bloom” album since it came out, and she demonstrates how awesome that transition can be. For me, it’s another alter ego at the moment, but I have been working on a way to blend both styles harmoniously.
I watched your video of you singing solo at the piano and you have a strong personal presence. Do you think modeling gave you the confidence to make such a risky jump?
I think it may have helped, but I feel that confidence is built through practice and passion. It’s an on-going process for me. If I don’t work at it, I start to lose it. I find that I build my strength through performing – starting from the first time I ever took the stage as a kid. I have always been a nervous wreck prior to going on stage, but I try to find ways in my practice to “put on the show” and deliver – regardless of my butterflies. A former NBA player once told me he had the worst nerves throughout his career. However, he said while in his last year on the courts he didn’t have them at all. He quickly followed that by saying that it was his worst year he ever played and assured me that jitters are a good thing.
You are out gigging quite a bit – what would a fan expect at a Michele Karmin Show?
The solo shows are more intimate. I can’t always perform with a band, so when I play solo, the songs have the ability to take on such a different shape. When I have more musicians on a show, naturally it gains more momentum and power and it’s a lot of fun. There is such an awesome energy when playing with other musicians on stage with you. We feed off each other.
I’m still moved by listening to your solo work. Your songwriting is crisp and well crafted, but what rocks me is your ability to transcend the lyric with your vocal performance. It seems you write with a great deal of discipline and sing it just as deliberately. Tell us a little of your process from the lyric to you sitting down at the piano and performing the song.
The writing process is different each time, and usually is very haphazard. I never know when inspiration will strike, so I make sure I have some kind of notebook and recording device around me at all times. Ideas happen throughout the day and come from many sources. So, I end up with a lot of pieces of music and lyric that later have a way of connecting themselves in time. They are like spiritual pregnancies to me, as odd as that may sound; I always have a ton of buns in the oven. Of course some song ideas are born premature, but grow up to be just fine. When I sit down and sing “Six Years”, it takes on a much different shape than the first time I performed it a few years ago. It conveys much more conviction and wisdom, yet each performance still varies in its delivery. Vocal nuances and inflections are not quite planned or rehearsed.
“I’m in love with the craft of writing music and all the art that comes along the way. I don’t necessarily stay within the lines, but I never cared to. If something is brewing inside my heart, I set it free. When words are not enough, I let my soul speak”. — Michele Karmin
I love this quote. I think it’s worthy of a deeper look – tell us a bit more.
It’s easy to get consumed in what is musically “current”, and this is the kind of industry that becomes overly saturated with commercial ability rather than artistic ability. Every artist wants to succeed in some way, but I think the happy medium of those two aspects is a very fine line. I personally find great joy in giving my songs room to breathe and grow on their own terms. I’m not in this business to “crank out hits”. I’m cranking out the core of myself, because that’s where I find my happiness. I have hopes that it will hold value to others, but it’s a process that takes time. There’s really no need to think inside or outside of the box. We should all just throw the boxes away, have a big bonfire, and let ourselves go.
“Six Years” and “I need” where your first piano/voice pieces. That rocks me. You weren’t new to songwriting and you were rockin’ out some pretty cool R&B, but still? – tell us what went into the decision in you writing these two songs and presenting them as a solo songwriter/performer.
“Six Years” began one day while I was reminiscing and I started to hum the idea of that song. It was the first time I ever went to the piano in attempt to block out the chords and it turned out the melody I was singing was very similar to one of the practices I created to train my fingers. I’m assuming that’s how it got in my head in the first place. My hands were not coordinated at all at that point, but once I started to build the song around the idea, they began to click a bit more. I started out with very basic ideas on the piano yet something so real came out of me while I was playing them. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to push it. People speak of peeling away the onion layers, and this was a huge one for me. When “I Need” first came about, I still had a hard time playing and singing at the same time, so I took a Mac and used GarageBand to record the piano part. Then I sang the vocals separate, ad-libbing the song through the first take. When I listened back to the randomness I was singing, some of my words didn’t make much sense to me at the time – but they were there – so I kept them. A short while later, I was able to understand the meaning better, as the song seemed to foreshadow a pretty big movement in my life. Both were turning points for me and unveiled parts of myself of which I was unaware. In high school I wrote, “music is the heart’s way of listening to the soul when she speaks”, and years later I find those words to be even more true.
Forget your fears
It’s time to take a chance
And learn to dance in the rain
Just let your spirit heal
Through the colors of a tear
There is a sweet longing and introspection in your lyrics – but I also not a little ‘advice’ mixed in – is a personal story that paints hues into your prose?
I find that a lot of my music comes about from a spiritual direction. ‘Forget your fears’ came to my mind, and I’m thinking ‘geez, you’re right…’ The spirit knows no judgment. It only knows your greatest potential, and in my discovery, it will do its best to help you get you there. This piece in particular is based on the process of how a rainbow is formed. Light must be pushed through the prism and bent in order for the colors to appear. Its simply advice to look beyond what is going wrong in life so you don’t miss the beauty of the outcome or the lesson inside of it.
And it pulls you under
And it keeps you under that wave
And then you feel it stronger
And you know it more today
Six years gone, gone away
This is from ‘Six Years’ how about giving us a little songwriting workshop on this song?
In a nutshell it’s about suppression. I internalized that by the ways of the ocean. Being stuck in a storm, getting caught under a wave, etc. – and unknowingly drowning parts of yourself enough that you grow numb to them, until the day you realize it. It’s about understanding that aspect of life, accepting it, and allowing you to resurface. It’s also a bit reflective of the idea that you cant save anyone if you don’t first learn how to save yourself. We all swim against the currents at times, but it’s up to us if we choose to grow strong from it or allow ourselves to sink.
Your voice is rich, powerfully affecting, and your vocal choices are flawless – I’m reminded of the acting method of using ‘sense memory’, every note and word you sing seems attached to something deep in you. A gift that – Is that intentional? Something you have always done? If not when did that show up for you?
Perhaps it’s always been there. Music is my source of expression, so I can’t see myself performing without connecting to the core of it. It’s something that is felt for sure and I feel that it’s different every time. My mother was always extremely emotive when she performed, too, so I think part of it is also because of her.
Listen to three songs by Michele[mp3player config=michele-karmin.xml playlist=michele-karmin.xml]
What’s coming up in the future?
Now that I have found my sonic niche, there will be A LOT of new music! I write daily, so I have hundreds of unborn song babes on my digital recorders and computer just waiting to be set free. So, I will be sharpening my skills every chance I get to keep them coming and keep them interesting.
You are most certainly a Renaissance Women and I’m delighted to have had a chance to chat. Thank you Michele, Dave and I will be watching your career expand, as it most certainly will.
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