Mike Michel is on the mend and ready to rock


Mike Michel
Mike Michel in his studio space in Minneapolis. Michel's album, 'On The Mend,' comes out May 20, 2017. (Nate Ryan | MPR)
Mike Michel describes how 'On The Mend' came about
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  • Mike Michel describes how 'On The Mend' came about 01:44
  • Adam Wahlberg of ThinkPiece Publishing talks about the theme of 'On The Mend' 01:19

Imagine a carpenter suddenly developing a debilitating allergy to wood fiber, or a chef suddenly having a painful olfactory response to the scent of seasonings. Those unlikely scenarios give some sense of what musician Mike Michel has experienced over the past few years.

Michel — a career musician who has lived in Minneapolis for 20 years — is about to release a new album, On The Mend. But the road to the album's release has been painful, distressing, arduous … and ultimately uplifting.

Nearly four years ago, Michel was feeling distraught following some unpleasant litigation with a former business partner. Then he got kicked while he was down. "About Thanksgiving of 2013, I literally woke up and started hearing these noises emulating from my head," Michel recalls.

Following a visit to his general practitioner, Michel was told he might have tinnitus. Although he remembered a familial genetic link to tinnitus, "I started freaking out because the noises were pretty intrusive right away," he recalls.

"Tinnitus is where you hear the electromagnetic highway of your internal body," Michel explains, citing the circulatory and digestive systems as examples. "Your gating systems in your brain shut those noises off. In tinnitus, those gating systems kind of open, and you start hearing the sounds you're not supposed to hear in your body."

At the time, the medical response to Michel's conditions was there was nothing he could do, and that he should probably look for work in a different field. Exacerbating the situation, Michel began to develop hyperacusis, which is extreme sensitivity to sound. "I started panicking because I've been a professional musician since the early '90s," Michel says, "so really I had no other option or occupation other than doing music and teaching music for a living."

In response, Michel began to withdraw from the world he knew. He couldn't go to the grocery store or to restaurants, much less go see or perform live music. Even strumming an acoustic guitar became painful for him.

Michel began to realize that, at the heart of his struggle, were some mental-health issues that remained unchecked. Primarily, he faces an obsessive-compulsive disorder of intrusive rumination, so once his tinnitus was diagnosed, Michel says his OCD made matters worse by constantly thinking about it. And then another health issue emerged. "I developed severe depression," Michel recalls. "That's where I told a lot of my student roster no longer will I be teaching, gave up all my gigs … and that was intense to get out of, because all of a sudden, you're dealing with finance, and I was looking into disability, I was looking into bankruptcy, I was looking into many things."

Ironically, it was Michel's OCD that provided some early help. "Fortunately, miraculously, the good thing about OCD — and there is a good thing — is that you generally are a very thorough personality and you're very proactive.

"Even through the depression where I wasn't eating and there wasn't a sense of purpose at all, I still had this little spark of 'I see the higher life lessons in this'," Michel continues. "I knew I was going to somehow find out more about this and change this."

So Michel set to work researching his condition, and he began to find answers. He found management tools in a combination of Western and Eastern medicine, including counseling therapy, mindfulness, medication, acupuncture, and a regimen of cranio-sacral therapy. "It's brain massage, where your cerebellum fluid is equally distributed through your brain for healing," Michel explains. "So I started doing that."

Michel also found more advanced research on the subject of tinnitus in Germany and in England. Closer to home, he came upon a helpful book by Kevin Hogan of Eden Prairie, Minn., a psychologist who suffered extreme tinnitus in the early 1990s. Critically, Michel learned he wasn't alone. He discovered that approximately 50 million Americans have some form of tinnitus, and that many returning war veterans struggle with tinnitus and hyperacusis. Michel learned about and draws inspiration from musician Ryan Adams, who manages tinnitus having had Menière's disease. Michel also learned there were a lot of people he knows who have tinnitus, too.

Through his research and by connecting with the right people and resources, Michel set to work re-hardwiring his brain, noting that sound is processed in the brain — not in the ears, as is commonly thought. "It's about retraining your brain, period," Michel says. "It's not different than stroke victims or people with Parkinson's retraining new neural networks. It's very similar stuff."

As Michel made strides managing his depression and his auditory cortex, something vital happened: he saw the old, Spanish acoustic guitar that had been in his family as long as he could remember. "I just pulled it out because a classical guitar has nylon strings, they're really soft, and I started strumming my little G chords and my little D chords and I was like, 'Oh!'"

And he began to write music again.

Mike Michel
Mike Michel with the acoustic guitar that brought him back into music. (Nate Ryan | MPR)

"It's really cliché when artists say, 'I just channeled the music and it just came out of me and I wrote a song in 30 seconds'," Michel says. "I've never done that, but I sure did this time. Those started coming out. And then I think for my personal case of being an artist, is that sense of purpose is number one. The number-one treatment actually counteracted my depression. It sort of reinvigorated my desire to further research the brain and these conditions and not take no for an answer."

At the time the darkness of his depression began to break and music began to re-enter his life, Michel was contacted by Adam Wahlberg, founder of ThinkPiece Publishing LLC, which promotes mental health advocacy through the arts. Wahlberg originally met Michel during Michel's days with the band Iffy. "He added this element to Iffy that I always appreciated," Wahlberg says. "I saw him millions of times back in those days and I just thought Mike was so tasty to listen to."

Wahlberg got in touch with Michel because ThinkPiece had committed to releasing Adam Levy's record, Naubinway, which was inspired by the loss of Levy's son Daniel. Because it was the first music project ThinkPiece had undertaken to that point, Wahlberg sought Michel's insights as a professional musician. "Then he told me his own story about tinnitus and how he's using mindfulness to rewire his brain," Wahlberg recalls. "I reached out to him for music advice about Adam Levy and by the end of it, I was like, 'Dude, we've got to share your story with people.'"

The resulting album, On The Mend, releases Saturday, May 20, with an all-ages show at 3 p.m. at Icehouse in Minneapolis. "In Mike's case and with so many people, when you get to do something you thought was taken away from you because of a condition, it's a rebirth," Wahlberg says. "So On The Mend is about Mike returning to Mike."

Michel says the creation of On The Mend saw him hone his craft as a songwriter, part of which was allowing himself to be autobiographical and therefore a bit more vulnerable. He also worked out the arrangements for acoustic guitar performance, whereas he'd always performed on electric guitar throughout his career. During the recording process at The Terrarium in Minneapolis, Michel was grateful to work with Jason Orris because Orris, who had dealt with tinnitus himself, provided valuable coaching. And although Michel hadn't originally planned to sing on the album, he worked with vocal coach Libby Turner to develop a more soulful vocal style.

Each song on the album has a theme, and each has a specific story about going through chronic illness. But Michel wants the music to come first. "Whether people even groove on the lyrics, I don't know," he says. "A lot of people don't listen to lyrics, so I wanted a groove so people feel, I wanted a bassline so people feel, and I wanted a vocal melody that is hooky, inviting, memorable."
(story continues below sample tracks)

Sample tracks from On The Mend

Set A Spark
"'Set A Spark' is about master teachers in my life who taught me about resiliency," Michel explains. "I had these miracles keep popping up. And that's when you know you're going to come through something, when all of these unique experiences come out of the blue, you know something special is going on. You just keep grinding through and keep finding ways to survive and get better."
I'll Tell You The Truth
"This song is about a description about 'Do you really want to know that I'm not well right now?,' so for mental health," Michel says. "Let's say you're keenly aware you have mental health issues; you wonder: Do people want to hear about it? Do people want to talk about it?"

And now, Michel looks forward to sharing that music with people. "If there was something at the forefront of this experience, I realized that I am a natural performer," he says. "It is something I have to do. It chose me. It is vital to my actual mental survival, is that I perform on a regular basis."

Michel also hopes to advocate for people facing mental health struggles, and he says he wants to strip away the boundary between mental and physical health, noting that what happens in the brain is cellular and chemical — and therefore physical. But there is one distinction he maintains. "The one thing I will say for anybody struggling with mental health is they're not the weakest people; they're actually the strongest people," he says. "No offense to anybody that does have an obvious physical injury, but I'd rather go through the pain of that than having 24-hour consistent mental anguish. To come through that or to deal with that or to manage that takes the strongest person."

Mike Michel will perform an all-ages, album-release show for On The Mend on Saturday, May 20, at 3 p.m., at Icehouse in Minneapolis. Troubadour James Rone opens.


Mike Michel - official website

ThinkPiece Publishing

3 Photos

  • Mike Michel
    Mike Michel in his studio space in Minneapolis. Michel's album, 'On The Mend,' comes out May 20, 2017. (Nate Ryan | MPR)
  • Mike Michel
    Mike Michel in his studio space in Minneapolis. Michel's album, 'On The Mend,' comes out May 20, 2017. (Nate Ryan | MPR)
  • Mike Michel
    Mike Michel in his studio space in Minneapolis. Michel's album, 'On The Mend,' comes out May 20, 2017. (Nate Ryan | MPR)

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