“Step Outside and Take a Bow”
Who is Michelle Vidal? An exciting musician, an astral traveler, an Iron Maiden fan. What more could you possibly need to know?
Possibly, you could need to know more: Ms. Vidal contributed to one of the very finest albums of the year, “Where We’re Coming From” by the mighty EAGLE WINGED PALACE, an unbelievably enjoyable trip through the harbingers and harmonies of psychedelic folk sure to please any listener looking for depth and songcraft, and not coincidentally, one of only a few albums that effectively squeezed literal tears of joy from the stoic recesses of the “Revolt of the Apes” psyche (only a few tears, I assure you. I’m tough as nails!).
At the same time, Ms. Vidal has begun work on her first solo LP … while also performing with the legendary Linda Perhacs. If that’s not enough to pique your interest, well, there’s just no pleasing some people. For those who can be pleased, please know that you will be pleased to know that Michelle was pleased to answer our questions below. Enjoy …
What music first captured your attention in your youth?
In my decrepit old age, I will try to remember that far back …
I was very sheltered from rock music as a child. The only music I heard as a kid here in the US was chorale, fairly formal church music, and mom’s Edith Piaf cassettes. The church music wasn’t gospel or soul but very formal chorale music. It did have an effect on me as far as singing, though. I loved to sing, especially Amazing Grace, which incidentally, was not taught at school. That song was different somehow … it was the first full song that I learned on the piano. I would also sing Christmas carols every year.
I traveled to Peru a lot and listened to Andean folk songs called Huyanos from my aunt and Spanish classical guitar from my uncle. It must have had an effect on me intrinsically as I love Flamenco rhythms and all kinds of folk music.
Then I heard Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” and it was all over. I started learning all the classical pieces on guitar. This was way before I ever had even heard of Black Sabbath. All that finger picking was awesome. This is where the guitar playing came in. I think I was a better guitar player at 12 than I am today.
My mother thought all my music choices were of the devil and inevitably would lead to a harlot’s life of drug abuse and blood worship, and so naturally I sought out music all the more. When I was 12, I would hide my radio in my bed at night just so I could listen to what I wanted.
Then I heard the Doors. That was probably my first connection with any kind of other worldly experience through music. I was also concurrently discovering LSD around the time when that Oliver Stone comedy came out. My dad mentioned once how he and his buddies would go see them play on the Sunset Strip back in the day, which is how I became aware of them. I loved songs like the “Crystal Ship,” and the guitar on “Spanish Caravan” … “Alabama Song” … and total primal awakening from songs like “My Wild Love,” “Five to One,” and especially “Not to Touch the Earth.” Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin … all early intros to classic rock, British and American.
When I was 17, I started working at a record store and that was when I really was able to access a lot of music. Even in college I worked at a record store and had a radio show just so I could get free CD’s. So, I have to stop there because I could go on for pages about music that captured my attention for one reason or another over the past 25 years, music spanning centuries and crossing geography and style. From hip hop to industrial to Americana to Native American flute music, there is music that has made an impression on me. It never ends.
How does that music affect you now, if at all?
I think The Doors are probably the reason that I love keys and like Wurlitzer on my songs. I am still rediscovering “The Soft Parade” and digging the re-masters on all the albums. A lot of music that I was into early on didn’t stick and falls into nostalgia. Some stuff is timeless. There has been an epic journey filled with music that affects me or has affected much more than in early childhood … the first time I ever heard Tina Turner or Otis Redding … Nick Cave or Pentangle, for example … Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt … The Allman Brothers … you name it. Going back to when I was 17, I was really into Bauhaus, the Legendary Pink Dots, Psychic TV, Doorag … there are way too many moments of affect to mention, and memories with all of them. Some music is just groovy. Some plugs you into an energy sphere, a direct connection to the universe. As an adult, I revisit this connection in certain songs and love the moment when that happens. For the scientific and the spiritual alike, music is boiled down to energy waves. I got to explore this “energy sphere” with “Brethren I” and “Brethren II” (off of the Eagle Winged Palace LP, “Where We’re Coming From”). Those songs are very mantra like, somewhat like ritual chanting with a wurly. And singing with Linda Perhacs is pretty cosmic. She is all about entering the energy sphere with her music while the words deliver a poignant message, and it’s always special when we perform. I have a lot of sonic experimenting to do and will do so again, I am sure. But the current songs on my record are very much coming out of the earth and its people and less about the universe and our cosmic threads. Storytelling is big part of these recent songs.
When did you first realize your talents – both vocally and as a guitarist – and who was the first to provide you with encouragement to pursue your potential?
When I was 7, my mom made me take piano lessons. I got bored very quickly with the do-re-mi’s and since we had a piano at the house I would play it for hours and just get lost. No structure, just sounds and rhythms that I liked. Piano was a divorce casualty when I was 9 so I didn’t have an instrument other than my voice until my mom was able to get me a little acoustic guitar.
Most support along the way has come from a desire within and the people that I have been making music with. Now it’s getting to a point where I am getting support from friends, unexpected sources, musicians that I respect and admire, and people on the same wavelength as I am.
I never thought about talent. I just liked to play and I liked to sing. Keep in mind, other than a very short-lived band I had in 2000, I have only been playing music with other humans since 2007.
Story alert: Playing music had always been very personal for me. As a teenager, I would do it by myself like I was a junkie. Lock myself away in my house and play for hours. Write endless poetry. But my family was constantly struggling with money and so I felt very pressured to do something more “stable” with my life so I went pre-med in college and worked my ass off to get scholarships, as was the case for many first generation Americans in my boat. And lo and behold, it wasn’t medicine that interested me … it was conceptual and theoretical sciences that obsessed me for years. Astrobiology, origins of life, ecology, theoretical physics … I was completely uninvolved with music for years as my brain was obsessively all-consumed with science masturbation. I would spend hours studying, trying to unlock the secrets to silicon-based life forms in alternate gravity and pressure scenarios … my music at that time was math and the sounds of nature. Maybe now I can make a record in Antarctica (believe me: I have looked into grants to do so) or score a space origins documentary. As much as I loved the intellectual stimulation, I would ditch out on O-chem and sit in the arboretum for HOURS watching egrets and red winged blackbirds, turtles and butterfly mating dances. I love music, but I love silence just as much. I guess I just couldn’t see myself living day-to- day as a researcher, and I was getting depressed at the lack of time that I had to play music. At this point, a very dear friend of mine was shot and killed in Venice, CA. He had just turned 30. It turned my world inside out. I was managing a record store at school and dropped out to take some time to reconnect with what makes me happy on a day-to-day basis, as if each day would be my last. I finally went back to school to fulfill my self-imposed obligation to finish, this time opting for a degree called “quickest way out.” I finally graduated in 2006 and immediately started playing music with people in LA.
“Where We’re Coming From,” the album released by Eagle Winged Palace earlier this year, is a pretty magnificent piece of work – at once wholly unique and yet somehow familiar on first listen. What are your thoughts on the album now that there is some distance between its conception and release?
I’m glad that you like it. I think we all made a beautiful album, one that I love listening to. It took a lot for us to be able to do the limited run vinyl pressing. But that is how I enjoy listening to it best. Our first song took us a while to record, and all in pieces. By the time we got to the last song, it was tracked in one day and we knew each others weaknesses and strengths and each took the role needed to make the recording happen. So it is a progression of the band learning how to make music together, guided by the concept and myths of CA history and folklore, as was the 2009 EP [“Hand of Doom”]. That storytelling ties the whole LP together and I think that it is a record that should be listened to as a record, not just song by song. I think you’d get a better experience out of it because all of the stories are part of a bigger idea. The vocal harmonies and dual acoustic guitars, to me, make the album. It’s got dreamy fairy tale qualities as well as baroque, folk influences, and most definitely reflective of the music that came out of Laurel Canyon in the 60’s … once again, that California theme.
Is it right to pick up on at least a slight sense of humor in the music of Eagle Winged Palace? The fog of the mystic, the crystalline harmonies, the resolute vision – it’s all there. But it’s not every neo-psych-folk masterpiece that gets away with using the word “shitbirds.”
I am VERY serious about mystic fog. Cashew and Rhea were apparently watching The Wire a hell of a lot when “shitbirds” came into the song. I would say we liked theatricality more than seriousness, and we had a lot of Scorpio energy in the band. I am amazed we didn’t destroy each other. So yes, we had to balance that out with humor. Sometimes I think life is like “The Far Side” and the universe is really run by Monty Python. How else can you handle existential crisis?
You have recently had the good fortune of singing with Linda Perhacs, and being a part of her return to the fold, for lack of a better term. How did you first become aware of the particular magic of Ms. Perhacs? What has been the most surprising thing about revisiting her music in the “now”?
Meegan from Eagle Winged Palace introduced me to Linda’s music after a few songwriting sessions together. Her and I both love country and I think it was right after I picked up this great old banjo that she came over to just have fun and play around with some music ideas that were different from the album concept. Some of what we came up with reminded her of Linda’s music and she asked me if I’d ever heard the “Parallelograms” album. I borrowed it for well over a year, to her dismay (thank you, Meegan!). Fast forward to October 2009. I find out my buddy is playing with Linda for her first ever show at the REDCAT in Los Angeles and shamelessly asked if he could get me tickets for my birthday … and instead, he brought me in as a singer which began what has now been a year of collaboration with the Linda Perhacs Band, singing songs off “Parallelograms” and recording new songs. “Parallelograms” is just so beautiful and there are so many sounds going on and so many overdubs, yet they all blend into one warm and bubbly sound bath. And since we have been recording new music, the new songs stick with me.
Revisiting her in the now has been nothing but rewarding. The new music is honest, powerful, and not limited by any era. When you think “seminal psychedelic folk album” usually people tend to not think of electronic drumbeats. But her new music embraces technology, and what she has to say is very different from what she had to say in the 70’s. It definitely poses the question of what exactly is folk music today? On a more selfish level, Linda is such a calming force of nature that every practice and every show makes me feel more centered.
What symbolic importance does the eagle hold for Michelle Vidal? The eagle has long been associated with a connection to a spirit above and beyond the earthly plane – the ancient Greeks believed that Zeus kept a golden eagle at his side, a symbol of strength, courage and justice; the eagle holds similar stature in most Native American cultures, representing a close connection to (or in some cases, a messenger of) the “Great Spirit in the Sky.”
Yeah, some people really hate the Eagles. I think they were a great band. Take it to the limit, man.
Every culture has symbols, and what means one thing to one culture may hold a completely different meaning in another, and yet you will still find commonality in geographically different symbols.
I love Native American culture, starting from when I was first exposed to it through a Lakota sweat ceremony when I was 16, later in life spending some time with Yuma tribe elders, going over disputed sacred land, learning about their dream circles and their disappearing language. It makes sense after being so immersed in ecology and sensitive to the interconnectedness of all living systems and energies that I would hold certain Native American cultures dear to me. Subsistence farming, hunting and gathering all require an ecological and universal awareness and symbiotic relationship. And the imagery of what little folklore I know of is striking, as is the music, dance, and ritual. As for eagle symbolism, I am more drawn to wolves and owls. Oh yes, and the albino raccoon which tormented us on Cherokee land last year in Georgia. Anyway, going back to the owl and what I said earlier about commonality of symbolism … In Pallasca, a highland town in Peru where my father was born, the owl is believed to foretell death and is considered a negative omen. Polish folklore and Cherokee beliefs also link the owl to death, although the owl was revered to the Cherokee as also having attained (along with the cougar) the highest level of sacredness and purity. In Wicca, I believe the owl is often associated with the Crone Goddess, with the aspects of death doubling as change and wisdom. Greek Athena, goddess of wisdom, would hang out with her owl on Friday nights. So I want one too, dammit. As long as my wolf doesn’t eat my owl, we are golden. Eagles are magnificent creatures of the animal kingdom but to tell you the truth, sadly, when you say eagle, I think of the Federal Reserve … NOT an association I want to condone. Just for the record, Eagle Winged Palace is a line from the Grateful Dead’s “China Cat Sunflower.”
What music have you been listening to lately? What album or artist would we perhaps be most surprised to find in heavy rotation in Vidale-ville?
Thanks to this interview, I have been listening to a lot of Sabbath. Yesterday I checked out the new Ray Lamontagne album (the dude sounds like Otis Redding. More power to him). So let’s see … last week I have been listening to a lot of older stuff: Townes Van Zandt, Delaney and Bonnie, Erykah Badhu, Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” Link Wray, Nick Cave, Willie Nelson. Newer stuff: Sleepy Sun, Tame Impala … and first attempts at drum tracking for half of the songs I want to put on my record. Surprises from Vidal-ville? My music reach has no bounds. Plus you guys don’t know me so I don’t see how anything I would listen to would be surprising. Today? I listened to the Fleet Foxes in front of my holiday lights with hot cocoa. Cozy. This was after watching the 1985 Iron Maiden “Live After Death” concert and old Stevie Wonder videos.
You’ve recently begun work on your debut solo album. What can you tell us about your ambitions for this music, even at this early stage? What can you tell us about the sounds we’re so anxious to hear?
Yeah, I am anxious to hear them too. At least, out of my head and onto a recording. The songs that are going to be on this record are songs that I have had for a while now. I feel like I need to document them because I want to move on to new songs. There is a straight-out gospel song on the record, a Spanish tale of a wandering horse with Cossack and flamenco rhythms, a French café piano tune, a couple of cowboy type ballads … most everything is written on guitar, and so far all on acoustic guitars. One song has two guitars, vocals, piano, and horns in the arrangement, another is just one guitar and vocals. I would say it is an eclectic mix of songs, but they all make sense together when you hear them. A couple of the songs definitely have a darker vibe. One is a murder ballad influenced by Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, and the Bear Country Jamboree.
Like most people who don’t live there, I harbor a fairly intense fascination with the state of California. What does California mean to you? California music? Singer-songwriter Randy Newman (no stranger to California-centric thought) once attempted to puncture the myth of California as a place to go with flowers in your hair, stating, “It was all more sullen and boring and small and vile. You know, barfing and stuff, making fun of ugly people. There wasn’t any of that fairyland stuff that I’ve been seeing. It was social castes, where you ate your lunch, standing around looking tough, or whatever the fuck you were supposed to do.” Your thoughts?
Randy Newman also has “L.A. loves Randy Newman” on the opening page of his website … so apparently he doesn’t care that much about whether or not the Californian’s buying his music and watching “Toy Story” make fun of ugly people or not. Remember, he loves L.A. (although I would be interested in knowing if that song was tongue in cheek or not. I had never really thought about it before now).
Sullen, boring and vile are words that I have heard people use when referring to Los Angeles. I hear people from all over shit-talking LA. How everyone is so fake, how it’s impossible to find real relationships and how much better it is back home. Well, go home then. It’s not my fault you find only what you seek out.
Los Angeles is a city driven by the entertainment industry, where people come from all over the world to climb some predefined ladder of success, consistently looking over one persons shoulder for something bigger and better. Yes, there are people who are preoccupied with appearance and social ladders, “standing around looking tough” … I can see where that is vile and repulsive. However, it is so diverse and rich in its people. You have to seek out what you want to find here, if anything because the geographic sprawl demands it of you. If you want to see vile and repulsive, that is what you will find. It’s all here: independent thinkers, artists, political activists, junkies, actors, housewives, taco trucks, vegan trucks, fads, nature, spirituality, assholes and good humans … you name it, it’s here. You have to know what you are looking for and then seek it out.
I think the myth of California is so much more than flowers in your hair. Yes, San Francisco was pivotal in the 60’s for music and movements, and I don’t think anyone can dispute that. And there is definitely a rich musical history from that same period what with the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, Santana, Crosby, Still, Nash, Neil Young, The Doors, Love, Big Brother and the Holding Company, SF Fillmore shows, Laurel Canyon, the 60’s psychedelic scene … but the spirit of California lies within the land. This was frontier. And I think that the music is born out of the frontier spirit and, let’s face it, pretty ideal weather. California has always been an idealization combined with a frontier spirit. A fairy tale land where gold could be scooped up by the armload, promises of a better life, adventure in exploring the unknown, ideological reform, and dreams, dreams, and more dreams. The frontier spirit, the desire to explore, the need to make good of this life and at least try to follow a dream, these are things that marked California then, ideologies that brought a migration to San Francisco and Hollywood in the 60’s, and still aspects that define California now.
And to go along with that spirit, breathtaking and awesome land: Yosemite, Death Valley, the great Redwoods, the misty fog banks of Big Sur, the Sierra Nevada’s, coastal wetlands, southern chapparel, Bristlecone Pines, the San Andreas Fault, the Pacific shelf, the Mohave Desert …
So I tell you what, Randy Newman: You take .000000001% of your “Toy Story” money and give it to me so I can record another record, and I will personally take you on the most epic California adventure you never imagined was possible. Hell, I’ll even wear flowers in my hair.
What’s next for Michelle Vidal?
I’m hungry. I need to go buy groceries. Oh yes, and I am pretty sure I will be playing a show at the Silver Lake Lounge on Monday the 27th, and another one on January 14th at HM-147.
Just for you, our dear, tender and gentle reader, Michelle Vidal has put up a MySpace page, for you to follow her upcoming journeys. Not much action there currently, but get in on the ground floor for when her LP release leads to much more activity.