Recently I had the pleasure of connecting with Michelle Katz through a dear friend of mine. It was amazing to hear her story and the meaning behind her music. She has such a beautiful soul, and to top it all off Michelle also works in television and advocates for causes such as bullying and LGBT.
The passion behind what Michelle creates with everything she does shines bright. I was able to see this in several conversations and in listening to how she describes her life, her music, and her career. There is no need for me to explain, because you will definitely get a good feeling for what I mean when you read her interview.
I can go into an entire introduction; however, I will let Michelle tell you the story as she goes into great detail that does it much more justice than I can. I hope you enjoy getting to know Michelle as much as I did, and please also look for her PSA and future collaboration with Bullies Keep Out.
Please also check out her music. It is incredible and from deep within the soul.
Dana Jacoviello: I know you are a woman of many talents from what I hear. Tell me a little about yourself and your music career?
Michelle Katz: I grew up in Staten Island New York, the youngest of three children. It was a very unique American childhood, in that both my parents are European and survivors of the Holocaust. This background has really informed every aspect of my music, career, and personal life. I think I wrote my first (bad) song when I was 12. I loved music from a very early age — my oldest brother used to play lots of 70’s folk music, and that’s when I really became obsessed with Carole King’s Tapestry, Minnie Riperton, and artists like Dan Fogelberg from a very early age. That’s a genre I pull from a lot. When I was around 8 I asked my parents if I could have a piano, but since I seemed to have a history of picking things up and quickly getting bored with them(as most kids do), they wanted to see me demonstrate that I really was going to stick to the piano. So I went to various neighbor’s homes, and played their piano, during dinner time or after school for a while. It was kind of embarrassing and gave me the motivation to prove that I would stick with it. At that same time I took piano lessons, and shortly thereafter, my parents did buy me an upright piano, which is still in the house I grew up in. As predicted, I became bored with lessons quickly and quit, but never stopped playing. Even as a kid I was anxious to move from the “learning part”, to the discovering my own song part.
As soon as I would pick up a new chord, or progression, I would turn it into something of my own. Unfortunately, I am not the most disciplined musician, as there’s always a new song bubbling over inside of me. Growing up the child of immigrants, there was a great emphasis on education, financial stability, and success in a stable career. This really seeped into the deepest part of me, and I went on a career path and personal journey that I am still correcting to this day. I studied Political Science in college, and then worked briefly in a law firm in NYC. That taught me that I needed to find a profession that could satisfy the creative part of me, yet still be somewhat respectable, but that it couldn’t be law:) So, I decided to go to NYU graduate school and study Film and Dramatic writing. It was a really wonderful experience, and allowed me to be more “myself” than I ever had been.
However, I never stopped songwriting and even while I was studying at NYU. I often spent hours in the piano rooms at the music school. It was during that time that I recorded my first songwriting demo. A friend of mine worked as an engineering assistant at a pretty impressive recording studio in the city and I found a singer, so we went in during the night and recorded it. This was long before I had the courage (or skill), to sing my own tunes. I still have that demo. It sounds SO weird now in comparison to where I’ve ended up musically. Anyway, not long after that I decided to move to LA. I was burned out on NY and was still struggling with my identity on many levels. I thought the distance and the sunshine would be the answer, and in some ways it was. I’ve now been here for 17 years. I pursued film and TV production as a day job, hoping it would give me the freedom to write and record music during the times I wasn’t working. This worked in theory, but I’ve learned over the years that songwriting is much more than the free time you put into your craft, it’s a mindset and an emotional freedom that comes from knowing that is what you were meant to do in this world. It’s only been recently that I have understood that on a deeper level and am moving towards making it my full-time job.
After being out here for a short period of time, I connected with a film composer named Michael Shapiro and he took a liking to some of my early songs and helped me produce another “songwriting demo”, using a singer I had also met in LA around the same time. It was really exciting for me because Michael allowed me to realize my songs through his ability to arrange string parts, guitar parts, and percussion. That’s when I first understood what a record producer does. Being in that studio and hearing my songs played by a live string section was one of the most exciting moments of my life. Then, that practicality that was drilled into my head resurfaced and I let several years go by without music. So, I abandoned songwriting once again, until I wrote a song that encourage me to keep going. It’s called “Drive Away”, and I wrote it about a young man who had worked as a PA for me on a television show in 2001 when I was a production supervisor. He had such an unfiltered view of Hollywood and was excited just to be part of the show, as nothing more than a PA. His exuberance for simple expectations was refreshing to me — shortly after the show wrapped Travis was diagnosed with Leukemia, and I got a call from a mutual friend explaining that he had to drive himself back to Minnesota where his family was from so he could be taken care of. When I hung up the phone, I had the overwhelmingly sad feeling he might not be coming back. That’s when I sat down at the piano and wrote “Drive Away”. He was able to listen to it just before he died, which is a gift I will always have.
Once again, I went into the studio, this time with a different producer and the desire to sing my own material. It was tough, I took voice lessons, and struggled with the fear of singing for a long time but it was really important to me to sing those songs myself, and I’m glad I did. A good friend of mine threw me a wonderful CD release party at her house, and I performed Drive Away, which was one of the most joyful renditions I’ve played. I struggle with stage fright, but on that night it seemed everything was magical. At that point, I decided to start my own band “The Michelle Katz Band”. We mainly did my original music, and it was a really fun time of discovering what it meant to collaborate with other musicians. At that time, I wrote strictly on the piano, and many of my songs were long, dramatic, almost theatrical tunes that had really wild, syncopated rhythms, and it was always fun for me to create a drum part on the piano that my drummer could then bounce ideas off of. It was then that I realized I loved the sound of the Toms. We played around LA for a bit, but then my life took another turn, that took my away from music professionally. I turned back to Film and TV production for a feeling of stability (amazing that anyone would think of that as stable but compared to songwriting it is).
During this time, I decided to learn how to play the guitar and began writing songs on the guitar. My first guitar song is called “Maybe Tomorrow” and is on the Michelle Katz EP. It’s simple, but fun. It made me long to become a great guitarist, which I’m still working on, and it changed my style of songwriting in a pretty big way. Several years later, in 2009, I moved into a house on the East Side of LA and it was a little place nestled into the hills surrounded by nature. It was the perfect songwriting retreat, and the moment I walked in I knew I would make great music there. I also knew that I needed to devote the next couple of years to songwriting and give it a shot. So, I decided I needed a great musician and songwriter to partner up with. Someone who could compliment me and fill in the gaps where I needed some more support, and that’s when David Baldwin entered my life. He is the other half of Katz and David, my current band, which is a folk duo. We immediately hit it off musically and doors just started flying open creatively.
I could write a song and start playing it for him and he would immediately begin writing the most beautiful guitar licks and vocal harmonies. We knew we had something special so we started playing out and recording. That’s when we recorded my second EP “Cuts on the Moon”. We had a great time playing all over LA. We had a CD release party at the House of Blues and we played at places like the Mint as well as scary dives in the Valley. It was all such a learning experience but after two years I think we burnt ourselves out and decided to go our separate ways for a while. And as usual, I fell back into the world of TV Production. In January of 2014, David and I decided to reunite and shortly after that we recorded my recent single “Can’t Go Back Now”, which I am extremely proud of. Working with him has lit up my passion for music again, and has me convinced that songwriting is the real deal for me.
DJ: What inspires and motivates you and the subjects you choose to sing about as I know they are based on causes close to your heart?
MK: When I write a song, it could be about anything. A relationship, a moment in time, or a story that really touches me. I think subconsciously, my goal when I write a song is to find a way into someone else’s heart and mind and catch them off guard. Music has often been healing for me, and sometimes the best kind of healing is the kind you don’t realize you’re getting. Maybe you hear certain lyrics in the car, and it’s only later that they resonate as something special or meaningful. My hope is that I can touch enough people who are struggling with whatever I was during the writing of that song, (or even something different), and join them on their journey even just for a passing moment…just long enough to let them know they’re not alone.
My most recent song “Can’t Go Back Now”, was inspired initially by my shock and sadness over Hurricane Sandy. As a native New Yorker, it was tough to be so far away during that tragedy. Then once I started crafting the lyrics, not long after that, the Newtown shootings happened, and I thought… what the hell is going on in the world. And as the constant hum of conflict was happening in the Middle East, I layered some of my lyrics with that observation as well. While all this was going on and I was crafting the song, I was in a relationship that was starting to crumble and that’s in there too.
My loneliness, fear, and isolation were at work underneath it all. The song is very important to me, because it has the bittersweet tone that I really wanted to capture, with a nice optimistic hook in the chorus. That chorus was almost meant to be a lullaby to all of the women, children, and anyone who is trying to make it through a really long night, or terrifying moment in their lives. The confirmation that they will survive is what I wanted to send out through those lyrics. I am very saddened by our lack of humanity at times, but I’m always so humbled by the heart in so many artists, and activists who are really making a difference. Crimes against women and domestic violence really strike a chord in me. I am particularly moved by those who are on the receiving end of some kind of abuse and victimized by people stronger than them. That is bullying, and it’s really at the heart of our current world crisis.
DJ: I know you have done work with and support other anti-bullying movements or organizations. How do you feel about the bullying situation on and offline in our society? Have you ever been bullied yourself?
MK: I think bullying is a systemic issue, not only in our school, online, but also in the home and within the international community. Countries and cultures who reduce the people of other neighboring cultures to victims and perpetrate unthinkable crimes against humanity are bullies, and at the heart of any bully is fear. I think I am lucky in that I was never bullied, but having been the child of Holocaust Survivors, I have a deep empathy for victims of bullying (because let’s face it, Hitler is the ultimate bully!).
DJ: What are you future projects or plans for yourself and your music?
MK: Since I have about 10 songs just ready and waiting to be heard, Katz and David will be recording a full-length album in January and we’re very excited about it. Until then, I plan on circulating my music, and am especially interested in finding a great home in a feature film for some of my tunes. I am looking for that wonderful, touching story that could be complimented by my songwriting.
DJ: Do you have anything you would like to add?
MK: I just want to thank you for the work you are doing with BKO, and I hope more people stand up for those who can’t always stand for themselves.
DJ: Where can people find you on social media and your music?
Interview done and written by Dana Jacoviello: Founder, Writer, Coach/Mentor, and Cyber Bully Investigator, of Bullies Keep Out and host of La Bella Vita.