Michelle Lewis is trying to break your heart
The Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Michelle Lewis doesn’t mind if her songs make you sad. She’s made peace with the fact that tear-jerkers are sometimes what flows out of her pen. Life is heavy and intense, and sometimes those feelings associated with powerful experiences are the ones that stick with us. Depending on your constitution, a song that makes you sob might be more memorable than a song that makes you get out on the dance floor. Lewis, who just released “All That’s Left” in mid-October, said she doesn’t set out to make a sad song — she doesn’t even really think of them as “sad songs” per se, she calls them emotional songs.
Lewis grew up just outside of Boston, and she attended Berklee College of Music to study guitar. And you can hear the central role that fingerstyle patterns and picking play in her songs. She’s not much of a strummer. Lewis came of age listening to the classic folk/pop singers of the ‘60s and ‘70s: Paul Simon, James Taylor, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.
I spoke with Lewis by phone last week while she was in Oakland, California. Lewis plays a show at Joymongers Brewing in Greensboro on Nov. 6. When I asked her about formative connections with music that had an emotional punch, Lewis said she remembered sitting in her basement as a 14-year-old listening to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” over and over again. That’s a song that might cause some people to pull out their hankies, but it’s about more than just the sadness, vulnerability and emotional wallop of that big chorus: it’s also a song of hope and uplift.
If there’s an overarching theme to Lewis’s music or a throughline of meaning to many of the songs, she said it might be something like this: “Life is hard sometimes, but we’re gonna be fine, and there’s hope.”
Lewis’s music is a hard-to-peg blend of elements. There’s the lilt, melodicism and emotional heft of folk, the narrative focus of country and the carefully cultivated sonic surface of pop, but Lewis isn’t making music that fits easily into any of those slots.
Her songs often cover terrain fraught with the pain of love that’s faded or vanished, or of trying to maneuver through life’s surprise turns and dead-ends. “It’s the last time I fool myself into thinking it’s forever,” she sings on “That’s What They Say,” the first track on the new record. Regret, loss and emotional isolation pervade many of Lewis’s songs.
One of the most emotionally stark songs on the record is “Scars,” which is based on details from Lewis’s grandmother’s life. The song charts the story of a woman who loses a husband along the way, raises kids, watches them grow up and move out, ponders the passing of the years, faces her own physical frailty and basically confronts impending mortality.
“I only had to kind of imagine how she might have felt,” said Lewis of how she explored aspects of her grandmother’s life that were only partly revealed to Lewis while the older woman was alive.
With fingerpicking patterns that bring to mind Fleetwood Mac or Cat Stevens and somber, subdued accordion in the background, Lewis lets the bare autumnal feeling carry the song. The delicate nature of the guitar playing pairs nicely with Lewis’s delicate singing.
On “Please Don’t Go” the subject of impending death returns, with a living loved one trying to hold on to someone whose life is about to end. Death and dying are not subjects that are alien to folk and country music, certainly. But there’s something about the way Lewis comes right up to the moment of death that catches the listener’s ear. She’s unflinching.
Lewis said she wants her songs to be relatable, but she also values the emotional fire-power songs that stir feelings.
“It hits me on a deeper level,” she said.
Even a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” probes the song’s more somber depths. The Boss’s recording of the song has that peppy beat and the bubbly keyboard sound, and a video that seemed to focus on its driving energy. But beneath all that the lyrics are really about loneliness. Lewis’s slow cover highlights the darkness that was right there all along.
But Lewis doesn’t always dwell in shades of blue. There are a few clear spots of hope and light fun on the record. “You and Me” is a fizzy piece of pop about love that endures and sustains. And the single “Push On” is a song about finding reserves of strength even when physical and emotional fatigue set in. It’s a poignant type of uplift that hints back to Lewis’s formative teenage experiences with “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Album closer “Lay On My Pillow” is a quiet and gentle song about how we persevere sometimes with little more than simple companionship.
“When you write so many sad songs, a happy one is bound to pop out every once in a while,” Lewis said with a laugh.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
Michelle Lewis performs on a bill with Jess Klein at Joymongers Brewery, 576 North Eugene St., Greensboro, on Tuesday, Nov. 6.