An Interview with Jeff Michaels...
Updated: Apr 28, 2020
Local TV director in Boston-area public access media, Mike Cultrera catches up with Boston-based singer songwriter Jeff Michaels and talks about the release of his new album, Better When I'm Older.
So, Better When I’m Older is your first album release since 2015’s triumphant romp known as Townie Paradise. What is it exactly that you find better now that you’re older? Your musical inspiration? Your outlook on life? How does the new release answer this question?
Great question to start! I’d say, everything. There is a lot I’m really thankful for, including my family and our newest little addition, who is approaching two. I also think a lot of this album was derived from a changed outlook in that I’ve been looking at the world from a place of understanding, verses a desire to achieve some objective. There are a lot of songs dealing with that viewpoint.
Since Townie Paradise, you’ve become a family man. Has parenthood shaped your artistic approach in a different way?
Yes, I can only write in short spurts! That has made my process much more streamlined. Aside from working in the studio when it came time for the actual recording, I’ve had to carve out hours where I can write, which forces you to just “get the job” done. You tend to find the truth in a song much faster knowing you can’t play around with lyrics and structure forever.
On Better When I’m Older, you’ve reunited with your former songwriting partner Scott Barkan, who worked with you during your days in the band Even Elroy. Due to Scott’s presence as a producer, are you hoping to return to your musical roots with this album? On tour, passing the strawberry fields, 2008
Yes, and no. Scott and I met on a camping trip through our good friend, Jerry Becker, touring keyboardist and guitarist for the world-renowned band, Train. At the time, I was looking for a guitar player to help support my band’s first record, and I often tell the story of how Scott walked into the rehearsal and played everything perfectly after only listening to the album once on the car ride to the rehearsal. He is without a doubt one of the most gifted musicians I’ve ever worked with, and Scott co-wrote our 2008 album, No More Rainbows. The song Another Rainbow was definitely a nod to our older material, but pretty much everything else on this new album is a new direction, at least recording-wise for me. Scott and I have been working on a lot of country material over the years together, and a lot of that American and roots influence made its way to this album.
In the 2010s, you had a full band sound with the Lost in Boston and Townie Paradise releases especially. The new release, however, is departure from this as it is 100% a studio album with no live drummer. However, it still rocks out with that good old Americana sound that has become your signature. Will fans be easily fooled by the lack of a band?
In the studio with producer and former bandmate Scott Barkan (Philadelphia, PA)
I don’t think fooled is the right word, but we did this intentionally simply because a band wasn’t available, or needed. The drums we used are samples from libraries and Scott played every hit, so it’s nearly an exact representation of what a drummer would’ve played if one were available. Many bands are doing this these days, and in some ways the recordings can come out even better because you can control more of the sound. That being said, there are a couple of songs I’d love to rock with the full band!
Can we still expect a complete band to be in full force at any upcoming live shows that are performed for this album?
Well, back in October I did play with a trio in San Francisco, with my long-time bass player Ben Reynolds, and our old friend from Even Elroy Ryan Machamer on drums. We talked about an East Coast show, but given the current cancellations and lack of certainty in live performing, we might need to post pone until next year—really, just following the lead of Taylor Swift here who I was so bummed had to cancel her tour this year!
Now, getting onto some individual tracks. You say that the first one, “Annie”, is taking shots at the current presidential administration. You’re certainly in good company among artists who are voicing their fury these days.
Annie is definitely a political song, and a sad one. I love the vibe on this, and the desperation that the lyrics convey. Scott managed to develop that really forlorn guitar sound that makes you feel like you’re staring across the dust bowls of the Great American dream. I didn’t really want to get too descriptive in this song, but the general feeling of being helpless I think is one that many people relate to daily. I just hope the song helps acknowledge that we’re still all in this together.
The fifth track, “Love Is a Safety Word”, is a pop tune that is admittedly not your typical pop/soft-rock song. It compares the beautiful human emotion of love to an old man who dies alone, and to fish that slips through your net, among other metaphors. I detect that someone was tired of the same old, tried-and-true love song format played ad infinitum on the radio?
You know, I set out a goal on this album to not write any song with any limitations. I didn’t care if there were no licensable tracks, or any tracks we could pitch as a single—I just wanted each song to be the best it could be. I think Love Is a Safety Word is a great example of pure, songwriter material. I actually had a whole different set of lyrics for the verses in the demo, yet when Scott laid down the tracks it shifted, and I ended up with some of these metaphors, which I just love. But to your point, not everyone is likely to get this one. Our mastering engineer flat out said he loved the song, but didn’t care for the lyrics. Haha. But in the end, I absolutely love this song, and it’s my name on the record.
Even Elroy once released a single titled “No More Rainbows” on an album of the same name. It was definitely one of the most “poppy” songs in the Jeff Michaels catalog, and that’s no insult! On Better When I’m Older, we have “Another Rainbow”, which is track #7. Is there any connection between the two tracks, theme-wise? The newer track seems to have a more uptempo, hard-driving, early ‘80s rock influence, which totally adds variety to this album!
Another Rainbow was definitely a nod to our previous track, and the idea of continually chasing rainbows just felt like a great song concept. It also is pretty much auto-biographical, line for line.
Tell us--what are the plans for promoting the new album? Do you have any musical festivals or favorite venues on your radar, once we’re out of the woods with the pandemic?
I’ve been playing regularly at the Renaissance Hotel on the Boston Waterfront regularly, and hope to get back there. They recently redid their venue, the Capiz Lounge, and I played their grand opening. It’s a great spot to grab a drink and listen to some live music. I’d also like to keep doing some Bay Area dates as my band is mostly out there now. Other than that, I’ve been working on several videos for the new record, which will be released shortly.
Which songs from the album have been chosen for these videos, and where are they being shot?
For now, my friend and I have been working on a video for Live Forever, shot all over the Boston area with drone footage, where we’ve managed to thus far avoid being arrested. I also made one during the lockdown for Steel Turns to Rust using just my iPhone. I hope to have another as well for the title track, Better When I’m Older.
Finally, what do you hope people will take away from Better When I’m Older? Do you want the album to make people think? Do you want them to be in touch with certain feelings? Above all else, do you want them to see an ever-evolving Jeff Michaels?
When I sat down to write this album, like I said I had no intention other than writing the best songs that were flowing through me at the time. I spent a lot of time working on this alone, making sure I was choosing the right material, and saying what I wanted to say. When I presented my little apartment demos to Scott, he commented that I must’ve been really inspired, and he was eager to dig in and see what he could do to record these, and he nailed it! I will say, Scott is not easily impressed, so I knew that the few years I took to write this album was worth it.
I did feel there was an evolution here, and these songs got away from my standard piano tunes, and even my more light-hearted material. Some of that still made the album, like Watching the Girls, but if I had to categorize this record it’s much more of an Americana, roots album, and I hope people just take away the messages of hope, peace, and a sense of perhaps acceptance.
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Mike Cultrera is a TV director in Boston-area public access media, voiceover artist, and business manger for Jeff Michales' previous releases, including Lost in Boston and Townie Paradise.