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Lucy Michelle embraces motherhood and uncertainty on ‘Womanly’

Lucy Michelle
Lucy MichelleJaida Grey Eagle for MPR

by Macie Rasmussen and Jaida Grey Eagle

July 12, 2023

The word “manly” is typically thrown around to describe stereotypical hyper masculine characteristics, but it’s uncommon to hear “womanly.” The St. Paul musician Lucy Michelle grew enamored with the adjective after hearing folk rock artist Bill Callahan singing "It's pretty womanly in here," on the mid-aughts song, “A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to Be a Man.”

“It's just an interesting word that I kind of glommed onto when I sort of thought about these songs as a whole thing,” Michelle explains when talking about the title of her first solo release in a decade: Womanly. The term relates to her experience as an artist and mother, and the implicit understanding she senses when speaking with friends who are women about the challenge of caring for others more than oneself.

Unwavering familial love summarizes the artist’s new album. “My kids are such cool people, and they’re so interesting, and they have such amazing observations and ideas and thoughts that just being around them allows me to like see everything around me in a totally different way — or like in a way that I forgot about because I'm no longer a kid,” Michelle says.

We’re sitting outside a coffee house on a cloudy evening with our decaf drinks, which feels like a fitting set-up to discuss other themes on Womanly: Observing oneself aging, seeing a younger self as invincible, and navigating the anxiety-inducing responsibility of raising children. But Michelle wouldn’t have it any other way.

Michelle’s musical career began in her college years when she hit the road with her band the Velvet Lapelles — and continued by leading friends in the pop-rock band Little Fevers, with whom she continues to play. Michelle doesn’t love the label “singer-songwriter;” it’s not the most fitting title to characterize her entire catalog. She views Little Fevers’ pop-rock music as a bit more abstract. “I think when I write Little Fevers songs, I go in the mindset that I want people to move, and I want it to be kind of funky and fun.” Her more-introspective solo work leads with Americana and folk rock.

On a phone call, Michelle’s long-time friend and musical collaborator John Munson (Semisonic, the New Standards, Trip Shakespeare, the Twilight Hours) attributes her prolificacy to the work she does with Little Fevers. “The two different groups are like two different ways of thinking about music,” he says. Munson produced Womanly and recorded bass; he played an even greater role outside of the technical production process by offering interpersonal motivation.

Michelle calls Munson her “musical mentor,” but Munson considers Michelle his musical mentor, with whom he shares mutual respect and admiration. The collaboration has given Munson insight into the distinct shapes that a song can take and freed him from traditional song structures he was once attached to.

Womanly has been in the making for a while. Michelle released her first solo record, Attack of the Heart, in 2013 and began writing the sophomore album soon after. Womanly’s opener “The Living” and closer “Something’s On Your Mind” were recorded first, about eight years ago.

Yet each of the 11 songs spanning a decade still feels relevant to the artist because of the album’s focal point: her children. “I think this particular album expresses how much I love and care for them, but I think there's also this sense of overwhelming responsibility.”

Many songs are a meditation on the volume of labor in parenthood, matched with the need to recognize the importance of self-care. The breezy, horn-grazed song “Am I Right” is based on a trip to California, when Michelle was away from her children for four days. “I felt kind of guilty for feeling so free for that amount of time,” she admits. “But at the same time, I was like, ‘No, I really need this to be a better parent and to be a kinder person.’”

Michelle agrees with the saying, “Nobody has it all figured out” — the notion that at some point in our lives, we’ll solve all of our troubles and live comfortably in the moment. “There’s this big dichotomy between caring for [children], and then caring for yourself and figuring out how to create that balance, which I'm still figuring that out,” she says.

Processing emotions by making music is essential to self-understanding and acceptance. She sets aside a few hours of writing time, which she considers “therapy in itself,” in the early morning without distraction. “There's just so much that you can't predict, and I think writing about that helped me overcome the sort of anxiety of uncertainty, in a way — and just sort of live with it, really.”

Even with uncertainty permeating all aspects of her life, Michelle accepts the inevitability of death — which she is fascinated by — as an abstract idea and how mortality affects everyone’s reality. She captures the universal experience of coming to terms with the idea of death when singing, “I was reminded / The other day / By my little boy / That we’re all going to die someday,” on “American Mom.” Reflecting on her own childhood realization, she continues, “I remember that feeling / Of impending doom / On the old couch in my parents’ living room,” over a catchy meld of lively drum and string progressions.

Now in her late 30s, Michelle looks back at a younger version of herself who slept on dog beds while touring and released unfinished songs. “When you're in your early 20s, you kind of feel like you can do anything. You’re like, ‘Yeah, I can stay up super late and get this project done and work all night long.’” A decade later, she began asking herself, “Oh no, this is what life is? This is what I have to do?” On the chorus of “American Mom,” she goes on to sing, “Just gonna be a freak / Just gonna dance all night /  Like the earth won’t turn / And I’ll never die,” in a tone that reflects the feelings of invincibility she once had.

While creating the new album, Michelle and John Munson bounced ideas back and forth over text. “I would send him voice memos, and he would be like, ‘Oh, I like this part.’ And he would then play a part on his bass and send it back, like, ‘Does this work over this?’” she says. “It was like, I have a little musical lifeline that we can just kind of go back and forth together. It was kind of a little bit of a lifesaver, like [an] artistic lifesaver.” To continue making progress on the record during COVID quarantine, Michelle sang on Munson’s outdoor deck while he recorded from inside the house.

Munson and Michelle emphasize the necessity of musical collaborators who pushed Womanly forward. Richard Medek served as the recording engineer, drummer, baritone saxophone player. Chris Koza contributed backing vocals and guitar stylings. The lineup goes on to include Dylan Hicks on keyboard and guitar, Chan Poling (the Suburbs) on piano, Noah Levy (Golden Smog, The Honeydogs) on drums, Erik Koskinen on backing vocals, and Matt Darling and Stephen Kung on horns.

“It was just such a celebration of Minnesota musicians, and I felt so lucky to have them on there; I think they just amplified everything by a million,” Michelle says.

More thoughts from Munson arose after our call, so he followed up in an email: “One of the things about Lucy's ‘take’ is that it is pretty unvarnished and I like that. The hard parts, the fun parts, the sexy parts, the desire, the loneliness, the loss are dealt with directly, not prettied up. I feel like her obsessions are with feelings, not language. The feelings come through less as poetry and more as a conversation.”

The conversations Michelle has with herself express deep love and hope in the face of uncertainty. She asks herself, "How can I educate my children to be warm and welcoming people [who] are kind and can advocate for others, or can be part of a community that upholds high standards for how we treat people?’” It’s pretty womanly for an artist to translate complex questions into an intimate album that will likely be meaningful for her in a decade to come.

Womanly is out on July 14. Lucy Michelle plays Parkway Theater on Sunday, July 16. Tickets here

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.