"Michelle Young: Marked For Success"
When she's not on stage or at work, she is the poster girl for casual dress: loose T-shirt, jeans, little or no makeup. And she has the personality to match: down to earth, ready to laugh at any silly attempt at a joke. In fact, if you had never seen Michelle Young perform, you could walk right up to her and strike up a conversation without knowing you were standing next to one of the most talented & versatile vocalists in the Tennessee Valley. But once she steps up to the microphone (after a change of outfits and a minimal amount of mirror time), all eyes and ears are focused on her. Whether she's belting out a 1950s rockabilly tune or pouring her heart and soul into singing one of her own creations, Young goes all out to capture her audience with her movements, her facial expressions, and especially that voice. But it's evident that she is not just putting on a show...though it is a great show. It's more like she has found the place where she feels most at home, and can revel in the rare freedom of expressing all the joy and anguish of being human. She invites her audience to share in that freedom, and enjoy her gift of music. That they do.
And it's not just the people who've seen Michelle perform live that are impressed. Clive Nolan, producer and member of the European progressive rock bands Arena, Shadowland, and Pendragon, was so taken with Young's musical talents as displayed on her first solo album Song of the Siren (1996, Naosha Records) he asked to collaborate with her on a joint project. He offered to fly her out to his studio in England. "He actually flew me out there the first time just to see if we could work together," says Young. By the end of her second visit overseas, the two found themselves working on a Michelle Young solo album. "I hadn't intended it that way, but it wound up being that way, and I'm glad it did because Marked For Madness wouldn't be what it is if it wasn't for Clive."
The list of credits on MFM, released in September, attest as much to Young's talents and hard work as to her apparent ability to meet the right people in the right place at the right time. Through connections she had made at festivals and concerts, Young was able to include performances by some heavy-hitters on the album. These include Doane Perry (Jethro Tull) on drums, Pete Banks (Yes) on guitar, and Bobby Kimball (Toto) on vocals. Rounding out the lineup of top-notch contributors to the project are Nolan's partner Karl Groom, bassist Peter Gee, guitarists Stan Whitaker and Chattanoogan Jon Colston. Sian Roberts read some of the spoken verse. The album was put together in a process that took four years, with parts being recorded in studios in Chattanooga, Nashville, England, and Virginia. The final mixing was done at Abbey Road Studios (yes, THAT Abbey Road).
Another "brush with greatness" on Young's list is the duet she did with Steve Walsh of Kansas on an album called Leonardo--The Absolute Man (Magna Carta, 2001). The album features artists from several progressive rock bands, each singing the part of a "character" in an as-yet non-existent musical drama about Leonardo da Vinci. Due to the magic of digital recording, Young and Walsh did the duet without ever meeting. Their parts were recorded in separate studios in different parts of the world and assembled later. Judging from the glowing comments by Trent Gardner (Magellan, Explorers Club), composer and producer of the album, the duet seems to be one of his favorite cuts, and not only because of Walsh's multi-platinum voice. Gardner describes Young as "an amazing solo artist, who just has the most stunning female voice I've ever heard. We were excited to have her involved."
Young's recognition among some of the luminaries in her field seems to be the product of a lifelong dream--or preoccupation. "I was born up North in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but I was raised in the South, in Dunlap, Tennessee, 30-45 minutes outside of Chattanooga. The strange thing is that I never fit in growing up. Most people that I was around weren't interested in anything but social lives. I loved to read; I was always reading growing up. I was just always the oddball. When my sister was laying out in the sun, I was inside playing the piano and writing music." Young's early tastes were no doubt influenced by the only music her parents listened to outside church: country. She has fond memories of filling in a fourth part while singing along with recordings of the Gatlin Brothers. Her interests broadened with time, though, to include more sophisticated genres. By her second year at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, she had a Music major and Art minor. "And I remember my first true-life exposure to classical singing, I laughed...out loud! It was embarrassing. It was one of those nervous laughs, like, you don't know how to react, so you giggle. Which is not necessarily the best thing, and I hoped nobody saw me or caught it. But it [classical music] was something that I liked, and I really enjoyed training classically at the university. I loved that."
Young's style seems suited for the dramatic. MFM has the feel of a theatrical production, which, given the budget, would be her ideal mode of presentation for a tour. It would include "a full array of musicians...dancers, costumes--let's think Princess Amadallah or whatever her name is," she says with a laugh. "I would want major costumes, lighting...just a humongous theatrical performance so that people walk away going 'Wow, I've never seen anything like that...and you've moved them and taken them to another world and back again...that's what it's all about." The dramatic touches on the album, such as the surrealistic montages of sound effects and bits of dialogue between songs, are reminiscent of those on her first album and in the early work of Chattanooga's progressive rock ensemble Glass Hammer. This is no coincidence since Young was part of the band for a time, and fellow members Fred Schendel and Steve Babb worked with her in producing Song of the Siren.
Compared to her first album, MFM has stronger themes of light and dark, good and evil, and ultimate spiritual and psychological struggle. "This album is a lot darker than my first album. It starts off 'You're hoping for heroes and looking for saints/Don't you know by now he's not out there.' That's a pretty dark statement, pretty negative, to start with. But we all have our high points, our low points…I tried to make sure there was a 'hope' theme running through. In fact, there are three movements: there's 'Hope: Realization,' 'Hope: The Darkest Hour,' and 'Hope: Encouragement'…and so it gives you that bit of light at the end of the tunnel."
Young's exploration of the not-so-sunny side of life is reflected in the striking cover photography by Atlanta's David Stuart and artwork by local talent Joe McCullough at Red Hot Idea. The photo session turned out to involve a real-life ordeal. She says the shoot was an exhausting day of dressing in elaborate period costumes designed for beauty, not comfort; at one point she was burned while a dress she was wearing was steamed. Young also lost some skin while getting "un-taped" from the corset she wore for the shoot. She laughs about truly suffering for her art.
Corsets aside, Young's writes about experiences most people can relate to, but from a specifically feminine point of view. The song "Mystery Man Summoned" expresses frustration with the search for romance; as is true for most songwriters, this is a common topic in her work. "The story is, a girl comes in from a date, she's been out with a guy who isn't necessarily interested in her as a person so much as her as a physical being, so she starts singing 'fingers that reach out to grope for flesh' you know, 'lust that can't afford a sweet caress.' Basically, she's looking for love and romance not just someone who's out for a good night. And she's tired of putting up with guys who are not interested in having a more in-depth relationship."
But on MFM, as in Young's life, the theme of hope in the midst of struggle remains. In the same song, the line "I'm tired of casting pearls to those ungrateful swine" is an apt biblical reference that reflects more than a literary interest. "There are definitely Biblical influences on this album. I'm a Christian, I believe in God. I believe He's given me everything I have, and He's given me all these opportunities, and if it weren't for Him I wouldn't have anything. And that's a part of the light and dark going through the album. There's a section in one of the songs ("Walk In The Light") that says 'O, Keeper of the Universe/Watch over me.' Well, obviously, the 'Keeper of the Universe' is God." So, she says, the interplay of light and dark on MFM depicts her vision the struggle of living: "a mixture of being human and grasping for heavenly things, but having to go through the tortures of being human and all the trials and tribulations that we go through."
In Young's case, it seems the tribulations have not only failed to hinder her from pursuing her dream, but they've steeled her resolve to move forward despite the obstacles. One result is a well-crafted solo album charged with passion, intensity and a sense of drama that elevates everyday life to the level of the stage. Another result is an optimistic attitude and a commitment to her art that, with a little help from her friends in high places, should allow her to continue to find success...with little fear of losing touch with reality in the process.
Oh, you give it a show
--Michelle Young, "Walk In The Light" from Marked For Madness