Michael Lyon is a Southern California-based singer-songwriter whose music has been compared to that of Cat Stevens, Neil Young, and Ben Gibbard. His fourth album, WHAT COULD BE, is about to be released. Michael’s songs raise your expectations in turn. Check out the exclusive interview below:
1. Can you tell us a bit about where you come from and how it all got started?
MICHAEL LYON: Many moons before my family moved to California where I live now, I was brought up in Arlington, Virginia – a suburb of Washington, D.C. The love of music started for me bright and early on school mornings with my parents blasting show tunes throughout the house – our family’s version of an alarm clock. I’d be in the middle of dream and suddenly there’s Ethel Merman (from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun) blaring, “I got the SUN in the morning and the moon at night…” Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady) imploring us to, “GET me to the church on time…” or even, say, Carol Channing (in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) making it crystal clear that “DIAMONDS are a girl’s best friend…”
2. Did you have any formal training or are you self-taught?
MICHAEL LYON: It’s been a bit of each. In the early years, my parents made piano lessons available for my older sister, my younger brother and me. I was too restless – and into sports like tennis – for that to succeed at the time (the pressure to “nail it” at a piano recital was still too steep a hill to climb: I’d practice a piece, thought I knew it, then crash and burn when it was time to try in vain to play it note perfect in front of an audience) but those lessons DID lay the foundation for continuing studies – on the piano, guitar, violin, and voice – when I got older. The big fork in the road moment took place several years after I’d earned a college degree (in political science). I was working at the time in Cambridge, Massachusetts and came back to California for what I thought would be several weeks enjoying my father’s company in Carmel Valley before returning to work on the East Coast. On the drive along Route 1 to the Monterey Peninsula from the San Jose Airport I spotted a sign for Cabrillo College. I’d never heard of it before. Out of curiosity I stopped off there and picked up a copy of their course catalog (for the new semester beginning in a few weeks). Flipping through it, it hit me: For less than a hundred dollars I could become a full time music student – studying music theory with THE go-to Santa Cruz area piano teacher, Fred Squatrito, ear training with world-renowned choral conductor Anthony Antolini… and I could even do what I previously thought to be impossible as an “adult” and learn how to play violin – in a group strings class, courtesy of inspirational Vince Gomez, who soon proved to be perhaps the best teacher I ever had. When I reached home, I’ll never forget my father’s reaction (rising from his Lazy Boy chair in front of the TV) at my announcement that, “Dad, I’ve decided to become a full time music student.” In total shock, he told me, “Michael, I think you’ve lost your mind.” (In the end, as always, he came around.)
3. Could you describe your creative processes? How do you usually start, and go about shaping ideas into a completed song? Do you usually start with a tune, a beat, or a narrative in your head? And do you collaborate with others in this process?
MICHAEL LYON: There are not as many piano songs on the new album, WHAT COULD BE, as I wanted to include (more coming next time!) but for a song like, Justice Day, track #5 on the album, it generally begins just fooling around at a keyboard, fishing for a melody that I can see myself coming back to. https://youtu.be/AHIKICNUXP0 Now if it’s a guitar-based song, usually it starts, perched on the edge of the bed, with a few successive chords or notes played based on how I’m feeling at that very moment. If I feel like publicly celebrating something (as in songs like “Love,” track #3 on the album, https://youtu.be/7nPdwphQW2I or “Carried Away,” #10) the rhythm tends to be more on the lively side. If the feeling is more of a private joy (say, “Big Dream,” #9 or “Want To Be A Flower,” #2 https://youtu.be/3Qo9P_WdmcI ) the path forward will be more deliberate, perhaps with less strumming and more finger-picking. Quite often it’s the music that comes first and after that (within a few days) at least some sort of lyrical direction becomes clear – maybe a title and first line or two; sometimes a complete verse. Getting lyrics to flow used to be more challenging, but as with a lot of things, the more you do something, gradually the easier it becomes. Once there is definitely a full-blown song there (multiple verses, a bridge, beginning/middle/end, I’m feeling good about the lyrics, etc.) it’s time to begin collaborating with my recording engineer Paul Horabin at ReadyMix Music in Van Nuys, California (also reaching out to longtime Santa Monica guitar teacher/mentor, Kit Alderson, for his thoughts) through multiple sessions over a period of weeks/sometimes months – eventually getting to where we’re able to look back at each step along the way and think, “you know what, we gave that song the love it needed.”
4. For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and music maker, and the transition towards your own style, which is known as FOLK?
MICHAEL LYON: There’s this memorable quote from Carlos Santana: “You can take things that Jimi Hendrix took, from Curtis Mayfield or from Buddy Guy for example, because we are all children of everything, even Picasso. But if you want to stand out, you have to learn to crystallize your existence and create your own fingerprints.” For me, that’s meant that though I’ve long been heavily influenced by the golden age of the singer-songwriter – Chuck Berry, Lennon/McCartney, Cat Stevens, Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby Stills Nash & Young (with the luxury of seeing most of my heroes perform live)… if there’s one thing they’ve taught me above all: whatever unique melodies, harmonies, rhythms, lyrics… you have bottled up inside (totally different for each one of us) for goodness sakes, the love of God, whatever you believe in: by all means, get them OUT and into the world – keep writing song after song, gradually developing your unique (in my case, acoustic folk) sound.
5. Who were your first and strongest musical influences?
So many compelling genres to choose from, but when thinking about “first” and “strongest,” allow me to sum it up in these words: long live rock ‘n roll. We’d just moved to California before my senior year in high school and the family was invited to a get-acquainted barbecue at the local church. My attendance at that gathering was definitely not optional. The only problem was: Chuck Berry happened to be performing at the Monterey Fairgrounds the very same evening, and considering it would be the first “rock concert” I’d ever gone to, I was desperate to go. After an argument with my parents stretching over a number of days, they grudgingly agreed to drive me over there. Talk about a call to action (standing on my chair at the show) cheering on THE indisputable duck-walking Father of Rock ‘n Roll: “Looked at the clock and it was almost one, I said, ‘Come on baby, let’s have us some fun’ and we reeled. Reelin’ and a-rockin’ and rollin,’ child. Reelin’ and a-rockin’ rollin’ ’til the break of dawn…” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ca2jxk6o3Rw
6. What’s your view on the role and function of music as political, cultural, spiritual, and/or social vehicles – and do you try and affront any of these themes in your work, or are you purely interested in music as an expression of technical artistry, personal narrative, and entertainment?
MICHAEL LYON: When I’ve played in community orchestras, it’s always been the awe-inspiring feeling of “being part of something bigger than yourself” to become immersed in the pure musical world of “the masters” like Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. But given what seems like the constant state of crisis we’re living in these days, I’m unable in good conscience NOT to address the consequential (often “life or death”) issues of our time directly. So yes, on the new album, I think it’s fair to view songs like Justice Day, How Long It Takes, One Man’s War, How Much More… in your words, very much as “political, spiritual, social vehicles.” https://youtu.be/njNnXVWnXrw
7. Do you feel that your music is giving you back just as much fulfillment as the amount of work you are putting into it or are you expecting something more, or different in the future?
MICHAEL LYON: In my experience, music gives, and gives and GIVES as much – and often more – fulfillment than the amount of work put into it. Sometimes, when I’m being pulled in too many directions at once, and I only have, say, 15 or 20 minutes to get into the writing of a song, the inner glow of what happens in just those few minutes can last for hours, if not days. If what I’m doing makes ME happy, whether or not anyone else “gets it,” honestly, what more can I ask for?
8. With social media having a heavy impact on our lives and the music business in general, how do you handle criticism, haters, and/or naysayers in general? Is it something you pay attention to, or simply ignore?
MICHAEL LYON: Mick Jagger put it well when he said you have to be sensitive to the right things. What I take from that – and from many of the experiences I’ve had – is that you’re never going to please everyone, or even the majority of listeners. Why not aim instead for pleasing yourself? Let’s face it: people are so wrapped up in the drama of their own lives it’s often asking a lot for them to take the time and empathy to tune into yours – especially if they don’t know you, didn’t grow up with you, are different from you in any number of ways… Sure, you take note of criticism, especially when “constructive” in some way. But when the hating happens, as many psychologists will tell you, that thing being hated is generally not so much you as it is the personal issues consuming the person doing the hating.
9. What has been the most difficult thing you’ve had to endure in your life or music career so far?
MICHAEL LYON: Instead of “difficult things,” I view my relationship to music a bit differently: a never-ending work-in-progress – a succession of What Could Be’s throughout life. Early on, my concept of what could be from music was limited to: attending concerts, taking lessons here and there, being a DJ and helping promote concerts in college… and that was all fine and good, because there were a lot of other things to worry about, for example, trying to earn a living (in interesting ways)… But as I was gradually able to move music-making more “front & center,” raising my sights to include being IN an orchestra, as an active participant in some of those incredible musical conversations going on there (rather than, as before, on the outside looking in) and realizing more and more clearly (especially during the pandemic) that life isn’t forever so if I want to get my voice heard, it’s pretty much “now or never,” right? And if that’s the case, what the hell am I waiting for?
10. Do you think is it important for fans of your music to understand the real story and message driving each of your songs, or do you think everyone should be free to interpret your songs in their own personal way?
MICHAEL LYON: Your question reminds me of an interview I was listening to recently with Paul Simon (upon the release of his 15th album, Seven Psalms). According to him – and I couldn’t agree more: “…aside from what I’m saying lyrically, there’s what I’m saying musically. And the combination of that is saying something that’s ineffable. You can’t really get a hold of it or pin it down. It’s elusive, and that’s sort of what’s pleasurable about it when it’s right. And then the listener takes it in, and as I’ve thought for a long, long time, the listener completes the song…” So definitely, YES, everyone is warmly welcomed to interpret my songs in whatever way they desire. I know it’s been said “many times, many ways,” but above all, THANKS for listening!