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INTERVIEW: Michelle Mandico

Hi Michelle, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

I’ve been good, and busy! Transitioning from teaching at an elementary school to working a summer camp and preparing for shows!

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Giant Love”?

At shows, I always preface this song by saying that I’m going to sing about “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which people often find amusing. It helps that I’ve been a school librarian for the past two years and one of my ex’s is named Jackson! But in truth, I’ve always loved how fairytales transcend time with imagination. When I wrote it, the lyrics and melody fell out pretty naturally because I had a story to reference, and I wanted to tell a “grown-up” version while still keeping it light-hearted.

Did any event in particular inspired you to write this song?

The inspiration for Giant Love was mostly about transitioning to and from relationships, while noticing the rise and fall of being really into someone and putting up with stuff that in the next relationship you won’t. At the time of writing this one, I was settling into being single again, and allowing unconditional love, which can be found in a higher “Giant” being (for me, God), to flow inward and satisfy our human longing to love and be loved.

Any plans to release a video for the single?

I would like to! As of now, there’s not one in the works for Giant Love yet. But Water Bearer and Ptarmigan both have music videos that I’m excited to release.

The single comes off your new album Ptarmigan – what’s the story behind the title?

Ptarmigan is a bird native to the Rocky Mountains that changes colors from black (or dark red/ brown) to white. It became a metaphor for the seasons that we pass through of darkness and light, which echoed my journey of recording the project. I wrote the song, Ptarmigan, to share a true story in reflection of being alone; struggling to find myself and to fall into my senses, while seeking places where everything becomes clear and bright again.

I first learned about a Ptarmigan bird on a ski trip with my mom because it’s the name of a ski lift at Loveland Ski Area in Colorado. My mom taught skiing and inspired me to also become a ski instructor at Loveland…I spent plenty of time in contemplation up the slow and steady Ptarmigan lift. As a Colorado native, I also just loved the idea of a bird taking flight, since this album in many ways is a tribute to my crossing from the Rocky Mountains to Music City.

How was the recording and writing process?

Giant Love is a single-take that we tracked live in a home studio and it was the first time the players got together. There was no click, no tuning, and no comping because my guitar and vocals, upright bass, pedal steel and banjo were all in the same room. The cherry on top was having Luther Dickinson overdub mandolin! I definitely got lucky with some magic musicians as they brought the song to life with the same playful energy I felt when writing it.

The rest of the album was recorded in a similar way; In total, 4-5 days of tracking and 2 days of mixing and mastering. Time in the studio was quick, but spread out over 9 months.

What was it like to work with Luther Dickinson and how did that relationship develop?

I met the Dickinson family through the school I was teaching at. I also took care of his sweet daughters, so I got to know him in a comfortable and natural way. Luther is one of those people who just warms the room because he’s got great energy…working with him on music was fun and special! I also learned how to “commit” and stay present during those crucial moments of the recording process. It was easy to trust him because he’s a true musician and humble person. After each time we talked, I felt like I was running away with little gold nuggets of advice. I always learned something new, even if it was just to “lighten up!”

How much did he get to influence the album?

I listened to his solo album Blues & Ballads on the test vinyls before it was released and I was really inspired! I let him know that I wanted to make a record like that! So I chose to record partly at Zebra Ranch, the legendary studio of his father, Jim Dickinson. (There were a lot of vibes to soak up there!) And I tracked with his amazing engineer, Kevin Houston, who I co-produced the record with. Luther helped in mentoring me prior to the recording days, recommending that I track it live, practice with friends, and no more than 10 or 12 songs. He answered a lot of my questions, mostly simple things, but coming off of a pop record I knew that tracking live and the choice of instrumentation would be his biggest influence. Of course his playing on a good number of the songs was influential, especially the first two tracks, Water Bearer and Ptarmigan.

What role does Nashville play in your writing?

I didn’t play guitar until I moved, so in that sense Nashville did a lot! This city plays a role in the content of my writing; I’m not shy to mention “Nashville” and “Music City” in my songs. It’s an inspirational place, just to be surrounded by talent and legends. As far as co-writing goes, I had never done that until moving here, but I still mostly write by myself. I have a “pop” approach to writing since I grew up playing piano. Now I write more pop-folk-americana and I normally like to be free of outside “rules” when it comes to making a new song. But of course I want to follow what sounds good and someday write a hit!

Where did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

In my daily life and in the lives of friends and family. The songs on Ptarmigan are different from most of my music leading up, because of how specific it is. There’s a song for my mom, one for my sisters, scenes of true struggle for me, and I’m only using real places and stories as my lyrics. So in that sense, my inspiration for Ptarmigan was my familial and Rocky Mountain roots, and the experiences I had in 2015 and 2016.

Any plans to hit the road?

Yes! I have some shows in Colorado, New York, and Wisconsin (for Mile of Music). All my shows are posted on my website: michellemandico.com/shows

What else is happening next in Michelle Mandico’s world?

Getting this album (Ptarmigan) out! I’m really looking forward to my hometown album release show in Colorado Springs. It’s special to be able to play for family and friends who have watched me grow up.

I’m writing more songs of course, I have plans to record this summer and I’m working on a couple collaborative projects. Lately my friends have been playing Half Captive, my piano-pop EP that came out in 2015, and it’s made me want to make some pop music again!

I teach yoga at two studios here in Nashville year-round, and in the fall I’ll continue teaching middle school art. I used to make a lot of ceramics, so that’s another goal for the fall… it’s so therapeutic!

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About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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