Today on the show we’re talking with Michele McLaughlin, a contemporary solo pianist who has recorded 18 albums – roughly one each year since starting to release her music in the year 2000. She is one of the most popular solo pianists on Spotify and was recently interviewed in Rolling Stone magazine.

Her music may sometimes get classified as “new age”. However, as you’ll hear in this conversation, that’s a misleading label that doesn’t do justice to the emotional variety and powerful storytelling of her music.

It was fascinating to hear about her improvisational approach to composing and there are lots of ideas here for anyone interested in being more creative or expressive in their playing.

We talk about:

  • The concert she attended at eight years old that inspired her to start creating her own music
  • Her “100% emotion” approach to improvising and the process that takes her from improvising to a finished piece on an album
  • How she thinks about learning and improving her skills year by year

You’ll love hearing Michele describe her music but you must go listen to it too! We’ll have links in the shownotes, including for her latest album, Memoirs, or you can find it at michelemclaughlin.com.

This is one of those interviews that will have you itching to run off and spend some quality time with your instrument exploring new possibilities – enjoy!

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Transcript

Michele: Hi. This is Michele McLaughlin, and this is Musicality Now.

Christopher: Welcome to the show, Michele. Thank you for joining us today.

Michele: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Christopher: I’ve been really looking forward to this one because as I mentioned to you a moment ago before we hit record, I’ve just been geeking out on your music over the last week, and I love it in a very deep and genuine way. So the chance to actually get to talk to you and hear where this music has come from is really exciting for me. I know that your backstory is in some ways typical of children learning music, and in some ways quite different. So, I wonder if we could start there and you could share with our audience where did Michele McLaughlin come from as a musician? What were your early experiences in music like?

Michele: I started playing when I was, like kindergarten, maybe five years old. And we would sing songs like at kindergarten class and I would come home and recreate those songs by playing them by ear on the piano. And then I would show off at show and tell every Friday, and I would play those songs back for the class.

And then from there I just, music that I would listen to through television or movies that I watched, radio, I would just learn how to play those melodies by ear and I just was drawn to the piano. It was where I wanted to be.

Christopher: That’s so interesting. And were you in a musical household? Was it kind of taken for granted that you’d be dabbling at the piano at that age, or what kind of environment were you in?

Michele: No.

Christopher: No?

Michele: No, nobody in my family played. I had an uncle that we saw occasionally that played guitar, and another uncle that played drums. But my immediate family that I lived with, nobody played piano. We had an old upright piano in our living room and I think that it was my Grandma’s maybe. And I wish I still had it today. Looking back, I wish that that had never left our family. But yeah, I was the only one.

Christopher: Fantastic. And put a bit more detail on that, if you would. If we paint that picture of you at that age coming to the piano with the song you were singing in school all day and you figure it out by ear, you play it by ear, what did that look like? Was it trial and error? Were you figuring it out note by note? Were you able to just kind of rock up at the piano and pay it straight off? What did it look like?

Michele: It was very much trial and error. It was sitting at the piano and figuring it out note by note, and knowing sort of like, okay, the next note is up, the next note is down. How far up do I need to go? How far down? And just making the mistakes and figuring it out. And the early days it was really just right hand melody. There was no left hand pattern to go along with it. It was just that minimal tune is what I would sort of play. But yeah, it was very much, I’m sure my family hated it.

Christopher: Got you. But thankfully they didn’t discourage you in in any way. You did, I think, take some lessons at that time. What was that like? Were they kind of formal strict lessons? Was it more of this play by ear approach? How did that go?

Michele: It was formal strict lessons. And my Mom, so at this point I’m in second grade, and my Mom knew that this was something that I was passionate about, because at that point I was playing all the time, all kinds of melodies and really incorporating a lot more skill into, there was growth involved. So, she thought, well, we’ll put her in lessons. And it was very classically-driven, very strict, very scales and lots of things that I didn’t want to be doing at the piano. I just wanted to play. It wasn’t, I didn’t want it to become work. 

And when I would practice and I didn’t want to be at the piano, then it was a fight with the family because I was a difficult child and I wasn’t supposed to, I didn’t want to do the things that they were having me do. And so, it took all of the fun for me out of playing, and it made the piano sort of an unattractive thing. Which was a shame. So, I basically said, “I don’t want to do this.” And he didn’t force me. Which was nice.

Christopher: Got you. But that experience didn’t discourage you from the piano generally. It just discouraged you from that particular approach. Is that right?

Michele: Right. Yeah. Yeah. Because I didn’t enjoy classical music. And there were a few songs that I liked, like Für Elise and Moonlight Sonata. Some of the slower, prettier, more I guess what we would consider New Age music for back in that time. That’s what I was drawn to, and I just played those by ear and just would listen to them and just, and I didn’t want to have to be rigid and technical and practice the scales and be perfect. I didn’t want to do that.

Christopher: Yeah, it’s interesting. The way you tell that, I can imagine that it was probably a bit frustrating for a child who was quite capable in one way of playing the piano to kind of have to go back to basics in presumably the sight reading and notation approach. You were probably being taught to play things much simpler than you were already playing by ear. Is that right?

Michele: Yeah. Well, it was really difficult. Like even back then when they were trying to teach me how to read sheet music, it was very difficult for me to grasp that concept. And so, even today like, I know where middle C is and I know where G is on the treble scale. And then I had to figure it out note by note, and then I had to memorize again. And so, I really, I can’t read sheet music. It takes way too much time and it’s really frustrating for me. So.

Christopher: It’s funny. There’s that kind of 13-year-old version of me in my head, whenever I’m doing an interview and the guest who is a very successful musician says something like, “I didn’t want to play scales, so I didn’t,” or “I wasn’t good at learning sheet music note by note, so I stopped doing that.” I feel like someone’s going to bust the door down and  tell us off. “You can’t tell people that! You have to tell them to do their scales.” But that is just the 13-year-old version of me that unfortunately went through many more years of that kind of approach that you seem to have gotten away with, which is fantastic.

And so, you start with the piano, but in your own way, how were you thinking about it? Were you thinking I want to get better at this? Were you just playing for pure enjoyment? Did you think this could be a career? I better extend my skills and figure out what that looks like? I realize going back a little bit, but if you can imagine what was your perspective on piano at that stage?

Michele: At hat point in my life it was just something that I was connected to and I enjoyed, and for me it was just a place to go to kind of clear my mind and just be in the music and find this little bubble of emptiness that is just me and the music. And I had no aspirations or thoughts, or I had no drive whatsoever or dreams of even doing this as a career because I was so embarrassed about playing in front of people. And when you think of, at that age, when you think of being a professional musician, you think concerts. And for me that was like, no. No, no, I’m not going to do concerts. Not ever. And so, yeah, for me it was just, it was my quiet place and my happy place. So.

Christopher: It’s a really lovely way of describing it. And you mentioned playing by ear. These days improvising is a big part of what you do, and you’re obviously composing in a sense, putting out finished versions of tracks as it were. When did those things enter the picture and relate to playing by ear? Did you consciously think, and now I’m going to create my own stuff at the piano? Or did it emerge naturally?

Michele: It emerged naturally when I was about eight. It was after I saw George Winston in concert. And I remember sitting there, we were in the front of the audience on the left-hand side, so I could see everything that he was doing with his hands. And he would reach in and pluck the strings. And it was so fascinating with that, and I loved his music so much that I played his music by ear, and then I started trying to write kind of my own songs in that same fashion. 

And they were little. They were short. Like maybe 15-second songs, 30-second songs. Maybe a minute. And I had gathered, I would record those with a tape recorder. Like an actual cassette tape recorder with the tape in there and I would hit record on the piano and I still have all these tapes of these old recordings. And it was just, same thing. Trial and error, just trying to figure out what sounded good to my ear and kind of emulating other things that I had heard through George Winston and the radio and television and stuff. 

And once I started doing that and once I started composing on my own and doing, that’s what I wanted to do more than anything. Playing other people’s music became sort of a second thing. And then writing my own and coming up with my own melodies was what I did at the piano most growing up.

Christopher: I see. And I’m always fascinated to talk to someone like yourself who comes from almost purely, maybe purely an ear background. In music, we talk a lot about improvising and playing by ear, but we almost always approach it assuming that the student is sheet music trained, and kind of understand how to play what’s written down on the page, and they want to add this skill to their repertoire. And so, we always approach it from the angle of after we break it down to the point where there’s no sheet music in sight anywhere. But we’re kind of still coming from that perspective of how to play the notes you’ve been told to play, now figure out this other thing. And I’m always fascinated to talk to someone like yourself and ask what’s going on in your head when you come to improvise?

And maybe you can think about it in those days and a little bit now too, if it’s changed. But if you’re not thinking in terms of scales or chords or notation, or maybe you are, what’s active in your mind as you touch the keys?

Michele: For me, it’s 100% emotion. It’s how I’m connected to those notes. And I always tell people it was kind of like the Avatar movie where they connect their brains together and then they’d be kind of one mind. That’s sort of what it’s like for me at the piano, and I just sit at the piano and I play notes, and some notes sound better with different chords and some don’t. And some things are really atonal and kind of off and so you know not to go there. And I just kind of play around.

And now in my career, I mean I know my scales a lot more than I did back then. But it’s just, for me it’s just what feels, more than anything, what feels right, and what sounds good to my ear than, “Okay, this is a D major scale and we’re going to go from whatever this note is to here because that’s the proper way to go.” I don’t even really understand it because I’ve never grasped the theory the technicality behind the music. So, my brain doesn’t really understand it in that way.

Christopher: I see. That’s so fascinating that emotion is at the heart. I have read it said of your music that, that is the most striking thing. That it is purely emotion and storytelling, and it’s not all of this kind of clever wizardry in terms of theory or structures or what a lot of solo pianists maybe get pigeonholed into, particularly in Jazz. Like I’m thinking of Jazz, if we’re honest. But that very kind of theoretical, analytical approach to deciding what notes to play and I guess I want to ask this question that might be on the minds of people watching this or listening to this, which is, is there any kind of conscious knowledge or patterns or rules of thumb or anything to let you know, “Okay, now I want to make it, say, happier. Or I want to introduce some tension. These are the notes I should play.” Or is it we’ll let the kind of instinctive subconscious kind of silent, wordless level?

Michele: It’s probably more along the instinctive subconscious. But I know that if I’m going to write something happy, and that’s the thing is I don’t really sit down and try and write anything happy sometimes. Like more sometime I just go to the piano and what happens, happens. But if I do say, “Okay, I’m going to write a song and I want it to be happy,” then I know that I probably should be in a major scale versus a minor scale. Although you can write happy music in minor scales. 

But, and I try to tend to be more light and fluffy and jumpy and dancey on the keyboard, versus kind of slow and paced and, given that that just kind of anticipation and the patience. And that to me is more saddened or more pensive or thoughtful music. So, happy is more dancing. And so, I’m basing off of how it feels, again when I write something with that mood in mind. 

Christopher: Got you. It’s really striking how many adjectives you have at your fingertips there for describing the way you play. I say that because I mentioned to you before we started recording why I’ve been enjoying your music so much, and it’s not just that it’s great music, is that it reminds me of when I first discovered this kind of style and artists like George Winston that you mentioned. And it made me realize how much was possible with just a piano. And that sounds rude to say. It’s not “just” a piano, obviously, but I think when you immerse yourself in listening to music like yours, and you get such a vivid feeling for how much emotion can be conveyed and how expressive the instrument can be. And any instrument, I suppose. 

But it almost makes me laugh because then you come back to say, mainstream music, and you hear a pop song, and it’s just so heavy-handed. There’s no subtlety to it. The singer is literally telling you what the song is about. And when you realize how much depth and complexity in terms of sophistication and how much variety of emotions is possible with just the pure music of a piano, it’s really a wonderful thing. 

So, I just find it really interesting that you clearly think about music in such a sophisticated way in terms of the emotion and that comes through in your playing.

Michele: Yeah. Well, to me it’s all about having to feel, right? When I listen to music, I mean any kind of music, it can be Rock music. It can be singer/songwriter music. It can be Country. It can be anything. As long as that music grabs me and makes me feel and like, my sister and I always call it, “It hurts my heart.” And we’ll listen to something, she’ll say, “Ah, this song hurts my heart.” And I’ll do the same thing and that music is what connects to me the most. The stuff that really grabs me emotionally. And so, when I’m writing, that’s the kind of music I’m creating because that’s my favorite. I’m basically writing what my favorite style of music is. I’m just writing songs for myself.

And so yeah, the emotion and how it makes me feel is really the most important.

Christopher: Fantastic. And so, you mentioned that seeing George Winston in concert was a turning point for you and kind of unlocked this idea that you could create your own, and you were recording on tapes and so on. Where did things go from there? What were you doing learning or practicing or exploring that led you to be this very proficient and expressive and versatile performer on the piano?

Michele: For many years, from starting at composing at age eight all the way through to my 20s, I wrote music and I would record it and keep copies of it, but I didn’t, I never played for people. And I was very shy and I didn’t think that I was very good, and I didn’t believe that anyone would want to listen to the creations that I’d made.

And so, I didn’t do anything with it. I just, I wrote and played for myself. And then in the year 2000, my Mom wanted me to make her a tape of the music so that she could listen to it in her car. And so, I was like, “Oh okay, I’ll make you a tape.” And I borrowed a digital piano from my aunt and on the top of the piano I put a, like a regular tape recorder, and I created a recording of 20, the songs that I had written over the years. And I thought, well, if I’m going to make a tape for my Mom, I’ll make one as kind of a Christmas present for people.

And I named it Beginnings, and it had, it was a cassette tape and it had this super makeshift album cover that I had designed. And the song, I kind of didn’t know how to title songs back then, so I just, this song sounds like water, so this one’s Waterfall. This song sounds like winter, so. And I gave it as a present for Christmas presents for that year. And I was not sure what I was going to, the kind of feedback I would get back from people. But what really kind of changed everything for me is that everyone that received it was like, “Whoa! First of all, I had no idea you even played.” Or, “I knew you played, but I didn’t know you’d written all these songs. And you need to do more of this. And your songs need to be longer,” because my songs were so short. 

And I was just totally inspired. Like, “Wow, people like this. And so, I want to do another one.” And I bought a digital, like a Yamaha Clavinova digital piano that I could record midi. And I spent maybe four months, that was it. Yeah, about four months. And I recorded and wrote 16 songs for my first official album release which was Elysium. And I gave, so basically the goal was every year, I was going to give a Christmas present, and it would be an album of my music. And that’s how it started. It was really just this unexpected thing, and now people like it, and so now I want to be able to give something to them because they liked it.

Christopher: That’s wonderful. And I want to circle back in a moment and talk about your song writing process and what it looks like to say, come up with 16 songs for the next album. But before that, I know that if our listeners haven’t come across your music before, they might be wondering what were those tracks like? What kind of piano are we talking about here? 

And they probably have in mind the classical piano like Für Elise that you referred to, that kind of very carefully note-by-note written down on paper and then performed with great accuracy and seriousness and the music of several 100 years ago for the most part. And not really have in mind things like George Winston maybe where they’ve heard more, maybe more freeform or more expressive or more emotive piano playing. How would you describe your own playing? And I know that New Age is a term that comes with some baggage and preconceptions. So, I don’t want to throw that in there and complicate things. But maybe we can talk about that too in a moment, and where you would categorize yourself or if you would.

Michele: So, for me it’s definitely emotive and expressive and freeform. It’s very difficult for me to play to a metronome, so I’m not on time. I’ve had people tell me that are drummers, like my music is really hard to play along, because I don’t play on time. But it’s definitely not technical. And any technicality that you might hear in it is just things that I’ve picked up by listening to other musicians and other different types of music through the years. It’s just me emulating them and mimicking those things that I heard. 

But, but yeah, New Age, I like to call it more contemporary instrumental. Or contemporary solo piano.

Christopher: Got you. And why not? Why not New Age?

Michele: Well, New Age tends to, that’s the genre that we fall under. In the mainstream genres, there’s only a certain amount. And solo piano kind of either falls into Jazz or classical or New age. And New Age is kind of an unfair category for us to be in because New Age typically tends to be more ambient and chill groove and slow drums with strings, and stuff that you hear at the spa.

And solo piano is, it’s very different from that. So, there might be a little Classical influence. There might be a little Jazz influence. There might be some Rock influence. And so, the solo piano itself I think deserves it’s own category because it’s so much of all these different genres all in one.

Christopher: Absolutely. Yeah. I’m reminded randomly of Japanese anime, and I went through a phase of watching anime and had a similar realization that most of the world views it as this category, like that is an animated Japanese show, therefore it’s anime. But actually it’s more of a medium. Like you can do any genre of television in the format of anime. And they do romance. They do drama. They do action. It just made me realize how unfair it is to apply that kind of actual label and pretend it’s all the same thing.

Michele: Yeah.

Christopher: And it sounds like a similar thing is going on here. And I love that you made that distinction of ambient, too. I think that’s a really useful word to distinguish with, because I think a lot of people would assume solo piano is kind of a background thing. It’s just kind of freeform and flowing and just goes on and on. 

Michele: Yeah.

Christopher: But that’s obviously not at all what you play. And yeah, I guess for me the other stand-out word when I was listening to your music was “storytelling”. Like there’s a lot of structure and story and substance to it compared to some of the kind of ambient piano you find on Spotify.

Michele: Yeah. And I think it matters on the composer because certain composers have a certain format or a flow that they follow. And if you listen to certain people, you can be like, “Oh, this is a George Winston song,” or “Oh, this is a Jim Brickman song.” Or “This is a Michele McLaughlin song, or a Louis Landon song.” You can kind of tell people’s style. But for me particularly, like I have a very specific, if you listen to music, I’ve got kind of like there’s a theme and then I kind of repeat that theme maybe an octave higher or lower or something, and I might add something in between there. But I have this theme that I kind of follow. And then I kind of break away for a little bit into something that’s different, but similar. And then it’s sort of like a tie together, and then I go back to that theme. 

And that’s generally a very consistent structure that I have in my music. And you can kind of pick that out on different composers and the way that they do things.

Christopher: if you’re coming from this improvisational mode and sitting down and playing what you feel, how do you get from there to a finished album of 16 songs? So, how do you think about the difference between improvising and composing or when it’s time to take the seed of an idea and say, “Now this is what this song is.”

Michele: For me, it’s instantaneous. So, if I’m at the piano improvising and something catches my ear and I’m like, “Oh, this is awesome.” Then that’s what I will focus on. I’ll take that theme or that melody or that line that I’ve discovered right there, and I will start to work on it consistently and repetitively until it becomes under my fingers and in my brain. And then I’ll work on that and do that with that structure. It’s like, “I got my theme. I got my idea now.” And then I’ll kind of work with that back and forth on keyboard wherever I’m going to go with it.

And then the part that I usually struggle the most with is that segue away where I’m kind of going to go in a different way for a little while and then come back to that main theme. That is for me the weakest link in the writing process. It’s the hardest for me to grasp. It’s the hardest for me to bring it back in.

But the bare bones of it happens pretty instantaneously. I’ll just, I hear it, I feel it, I’m excited about it and that’s what I work on. 

Christopher: Wonderful. I love the way you talk about that. It sounds like a really fascinating exploration that you go on. You kind of see what’s possible with this starting idea and then raking it in and give it more definition. I wonder are there other, you mentioned there that, a theme and then an exploration of different and then coming back to the theme is kind of, I guess a mental model you have for how you structure things. Are there any other kind of ideas or approaches that you use or that you could say characterize other solo pianos that you admire? Any other kind of, I don’t know, tells or characteristics that you’d pick up on?

Michele: In particular, I’m going to answer that with Chad Lawson, and Ludovico Einaudi. I think that’s how you say his last name. Einaudi. I’ve said it wrong many times. Anyway, those two pianists, they’re so spacious, and there’s so much silence between the notes, but it’s not just silence. It’s emotion. It’s anticipation. It’s beauty. And I really admire the stillness and the patience in between the notes when they’re writing. So, when you listen to their music, there’s a subtle just hhhaa, breath in between the notes. And I admire that. It’s really hard for me to play that way because it’s not my, I tend to be a lot more heavy-handed and all over the keyboard and I really admire the pianists that can bring in that space. 

Christopher: So, one advantage as it were, of the kind of book-based learning approach is that there’s a very clear path ahead of you. If you say, “I want to get good at piano,” there’s umpteen method books that are going to promise to lead you step-by-step towards that level of mastery. You obviously outside of that way of thinking piano. Has there been any kind of guiding principle or ways you’ve gone about approaching that of how will I be better next year than I was this year? At any point in your journey, how do you think about improving when your skill-set is not handed down to you from on high?

Michele: Well, this is a struggle that I go with every single time I release music. I’ll release an album or a single and I’ll think how am I going to top this? How am I going to do better than this? And sometimes I have to take that thought out of my head because it’s not about being better. It’s about just evolving and growing. And so, if I had an idea in my mind or I have something at the piano where I really kind of struggle to maybe stretch or play fast. Like my left hand patterns tend to be very similar.n so I say to myself, “I’d really like to strengthen my left hand capability.” Or, “I’d really like to be able to strengthen my eight hand ability to run up and down a piano.”

So, what I do is I will try and write something that kind of pushes me outside of my comfort zone and takes me outside of that box so that I can gradually and slowly try new ideas and techniques and concepts. And then I just practice and practice and practice and kind of put myself into rather than reading a book that says, “Okay, you’re going to practice these scales and you’re goin to do it at this pace and this tempo,” like that’s, I do it in a more, I’m forcing myself to learn something new, but on my own terms sort of a thing.

Christopher: And is there any kind of input to that process in terms of listening or studying? Or is there anything you’re taking to that practice, as it were, apart from the kind of exploration you’ve talked about? Or is it purely I’m going to explore, but I’m going to do it having in mind that I want to be more creative with my left hand patterns, for example?

Michele: Yeah. It’s more of a, like this is my goal. I set these goals for myself and so every time I’m at the piano and I do my improvisation time where I’m just sort of messing around with ideas, that’s when I practice those. And I see what I can do. And sometimes it’s frustrating and sometimes I don’t have the ability that I want to have. And sometimes I’ll walk away from it for a while because it’ll just, it turns me off and then I’ll come back to it and so, it’s very much a, let’s see what can happen today sort of a thing. 

And sometimes it takes years. Sometimes there’s, I have a song that is in my head that I want to write, and I know what I want to do with it and my hand will not. And so, for years I’ve been practicing this one particular composition idea, and someday, someday I’ll get there.

Christopher: Cool. I want to pick up on something you said there which is you sit down and say, “Let’s see what happens today.” If you’re not learning from books or you’re not following a syllabus and if you’re not I don’t know. If you’re not feeling obliged to do things in a certain way, do you sometimes sit down and noting comes? Is there a frustration of, I guess what I’m reaching for is relying on inspiration and something that you can’t quite explain? Or do you have kind of practical, pragmatic things that you can sit down and kind of get into it with?

Michele: Well, I can always write. So, I started this Monday morning improv series on YouTube a couple of years ago, where I just, I force myself to sit at the piano every Monday morning and I record, first try, first take, whatever comes up. And I did that to kind of force myself to compose an entire song in the moment without really thinking about it. I did it also to strengthen my ability outside of my comfort zone because sometimes I’ll try and write a piece in a key that I’m not proficient at. Or that I’m not comfortable with. Or I’ll start off a piece in a very energetic way so that it’s, I’m really having to do something fast. 

But I can do that at any time. I can sit at the piano and just make something up, a song anytime. But what happens in the middle part is when it really grabs me emotionally, that’s when it becomes a piece that I release. Something that speaks to me internally and really makes me feel, those are the ones that become pieces that are singles and pieces that are on the album. The rest of everything just kind of is I have them recorded, but they don’t really speak to me. And it’s funny because my boyfriend will sit on the couch while I’m playing, and he’ll be like, “Oh wow, that’s awesome.” And sometimes I don’t even record them. He’s like, “Did you record that?” And I’m like, “No, it’s gone.” Because it’s gone. Forever.

And he’ll get really frustrated, he’s like, “Oh, that was such a good piece.” But for me, it didn’t speak to me. So, it’s not something that will ever be again. Know what I mean?

Christopher: Yeah. And one thing I love about your music is there’s always a story behind each song, and you share them sometimes in the liner notes so that the listener can understand and appreciate where you’re coming from with the emotion, with the storytelling. And I wanted to ask do you sit down with that story in mind and say, “I’m going to play this part of me?” Or do you find your way there through improvisation and be like, “Oh, that’s what I was expressing? 

Michele: It’s almost always after the fact. So, very rarely do I sit down at the piano and say, “Okay, this song is going to be about this idea or concept.” It’s always just I write and then as I’m going to either release it as a single, I listen to it and think okay, what is this telling me? Where did this come from? What was I thinking about? Where did the emotion come from? And then I’ll put together that theme for the song.

Same thing with releasing albums. It’s just kind of all comes together later. Titling songs is the hardest thing ever and coming up with that concept. But normally, I can listen to a piece that I write and I can say, “Okay, this song is pensive and it’s thought-provoking and it’s melancholy and it’s got all these attributes to it.” And so, I’ll kind of draw from those attributes and say, “Okay, this song,” like my song Alone on the new album, “This song is about loneliness. This song is what feels to me to be utterly lonely and kind of just really wishing you had somebody to share your life with.

And so once that kind of, that seed plants in my brain, I’m like, “Yes, that is what this song is about.” And so then I release the music based off of that idea and theme.

Christopher: I see. And maybe you could share a few more examples from the new album Memoirs, kind of what the piece sounds like and the story behind it. 

Michele: Yeah. Beneath the Surface is another one that really just came to me actually as I was composing it. I was writing and I did this weird, it’s kind of the one of the little segues away from the theme, but it was like an off note that shouldn’t have really been where I was going. But it sounded so cool and I was like, “Oh, I got to go with that.” And the more I played it, I’m like, “This I like squids and octopus and underwater life.” Like I could just, I could see the ocean creatures kind of just floating under the water. And as I was writing the piece, that’s what it became, so I released it with the theme of, it’s called Beneath the Surface and it’s all about ocean creatures. 

And another one would be My Life with You. As I was writing that song, I just could continually see my boyfriend and I in the future, 80 years old and we’re sitting on a porch on a rocking chair and we’re holding hands and we’re looking out at a field. We’re in the country for some reason. I don’t know why. But we’re old and reflecting back on our life. And so, that’s where that song came from.

And Little Love came from all of the inspiration and the joy I was feeling from, my son had a girlfriend who had a baby and they were here all the time and we got to spend the first year of this little girl’s life with her and she just brought so much joy to me. So, I wrote a song and dedicated it to her because that’s what the song reminded me of. And stuff like that.

Christopher: Terrific. Thank you. And I think that paints a really good picture for people of the variety in your music and how expressive the piano can be and the range of things it conveys. 

Christopher: And where did that come from to you this idea of having such a clear story behind each song? Was that something you always did?

Michele: No. I used to just write music and whatever the music sounded like is what I would title the song. It wasn’t until I started performing and sharing the stage with colleagues I would see them tell stories about what their music was about, and I thought, oh, I need to have a story to go with all my songs.

And so, I started having themes of the music and then themes of the albums. So, when you start listening to my music starting about my album Dedication is when all the songs sort of have a story to go with it. And certain albums have themes, like Out of the Darkness is all about my journey to recovery and healing after my divorce. Celtic Dream was on my trip to Ireland. Breathing in the Moment is all about my kind of myself and getting back into the present after my divorce. Life is very much just all of the struggles and everything that I’ve gone through over the two year period of kind of finding myself and getting back to where I needed to be in my life. 

So, the music is very much a musical diary of my life, and you can kind of tell like Michele had a really good year because this album’s really happy. And Michele had a hard year because this one’s kind of sad.

Christopher: I wonder if we could leave people with some advice. You come from such an interesting perspective on approaching the piano and improvising and composing that I think a lot of people don’t often get to hear about or relate to. And I wonder if there’s any advice or guidance or insights you might share with people if they want to explore this direction themselves. Maybe we can assume they’re coming from this strict note reading approach and they love the idea of improvising or expressing emotion and they’re not quite sure how to find their way there, would you have any advice for them?

Michele: The main thing I would say is never, ever give up and don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to follow the path. And you’re never too old. You’re never too inexperienced. All of these false beliefs that we put into our minds about I’m not good enough or I’m not strong enough or I’m too old, and I should have started years ago or, let those go. Just sit at the instrument and play around with ideas. Play around how it feels. Play around with how it speaks to you. And then just practice. Practice is, it takes an extraordinary amount of patience. And just continually trying and trying and trying, and the more you do it, the better you’ll get. And what once seemed like it was unattainable will becomes something like, “Wow, I can play that without really even trying.” 

And, but the biggest thing is just don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to try and don’t let the negative talk in your mind get in the way.

Christopher: Wonderful. That is such fantastic advice for everyone. Thank you, Michele. Thank you for joining us today, and thank you for leaving our audience with that really, really important message. Don’t be afraid. It is possible and you just need to get in there and try it.

Where can people go to hear your music? To learn more about you? To find out where  you’re playing concerts?

Michele: The best place, number one place for everything is my website at michelemclaughlin.com. And Michele is with one L. And then the best place to listen, just to hear the music, any of the streaming sites: Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music. And then if you want to see all of my videos and in follow me there, I’m on YouTube as well. 

Christopher: Fantastic. Well, we’ll have links to all of those in the show notes of this episode of musicalitynow.com, and I will just for anyone rushing to type this into their web browser, I will just spell out, Michele McLaughlin is M-I-C-H-E-L-E, Michele. And then McLaughlin, spelled M-C-L-A-U-G-H-L-I-N. M-C-L-A-U-G-H-L-I-N. Not like Sarah McLachlan, different spelling, different person.

So, michelemclaughlin.com is the place to go. I highly recommend listening to some of Michele’s music, and listening with that question of how is she bringing this emotion and storytelling, because I think that’ so much there for all of us to learn. Thank you again, Michele.

Michele: You’re very welcome. Thank you so much for having me.

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