“Make art everyday” challenges fascinate me, not least because I’ve never finished one. So when I had a chance to talk with The Real Michael Lee, who wrote a song a week for 20 weeks during the pandemic, He’s Iowa-based, which is outside my usual New England stomping grounds, and writes a wild mix of genres. Check him out on Bandcamp, where you can take a listen while you read.
I had know: what’s it like to work all the way through a songwriting idea every single week for months?
I consider those 20 weeks to be a “songwriting bootcamp” wherein I really learned what works for me when writing. When I started it took me days to write a song. Now, thanks to those 20 weeks, I can usually write a complete song in about 2 hours. When it started, I was working a week in advance, with the prior week’s song already completed. That lasted about two weeks! So very quickly I had to learn how to get these songs done in practically no time.
What about the urge to perfectionism?
I grant you the tracks are not perfect, and some weeks were definitely better than others, but I think there’s a certain charm to songs written under pressure like that. The brain does some interesting things when writing under a strict deadline. You find little bits of subconscious bubbling up which leads to a lot of character in the content of the songs that might not be there otherwise.
Would you do it again?
No, I don’t think so. While I learned a LOT from the experience, I’d like to focus on applying what I learned to my work to refine my sound and produce better recordings. Recording a fresh song every week in a short amount of time doesn’t leave much room for much technical refinement. It’s a lot of “good enough” with not much time to ask “what can I do to make this better?”
Sometimes “no” is the right answer
What was an important moment in your development as an artist?
Way back pre-pandemic I was sitting with my brother in a restaurant, and he mentioned he was curating a local street concert. I asked if I could perform at it (mind you I had yet to perform in front of people). He (very nicely) said “No.” and it was left at that, and we went on to a new topic. I was bummed, but the more I thought about it the more I realized exactly WHAT I was asking to do and that diving in headfirst was not the way to go about it.
From that I decided to start doing open mics and hone my live skills. This led to my finding the amazing Hambones group who are ultra-supportive and have helped me grow my stage presence each week at the open mic. Not only did I gain comfort in front of people, but I also worked out my strengths and weaknesses when playing live. I shudder to think of how that show would have gone down if my brother had not been wise enough to tell me no!
New music coming!
You’ve got a new release coming up in June. What’s up with that?
My June release, Synthetic Man, marks the first time I’ve worked with another person on a song. One of the mixes was produced by the amazing Jeff Soule, who went above and beyond and took my song into some strange and exciting places. I loved what he did so much I was inspired to rework a version of the song to contrast his and I will release both! Folks can pick whichever version strikes their fancy at the time. Want more of an electro-synthy sound? Give the Digital Soul mix a spin. Looking to rock out with some driving guitars? Hardwired Heart is your jam! I’ve always liked having multiple versions of a song to pick from and I’m very excited to be able to offer that with my works.
What’s next, looking beyond that?
Beyond that I do have my next project lined up. I can’t say too much now, as it’s still early-phase, but I will say it’s a collab and I’ve been given a style to write to… One that before now I really haven’t touched. My collaborator gave me certain parameters and I’m very excited to see where this takes me musically.
Because I have the heart of a troublemaker, I had to ask–if you could yell at anyone in the music industry, what would you say? I think Michael Lee speaks for a lot of indie musicians with this one.
If I were given a magical megaphone that could get me heard by anyone in the industry, I’d use it to shout at any of my influences and say “Hey! I’m here! Let’s work together!” For me, getting on their radar would be worth far more than anything I could say to a record label.