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“Michael’s songs create a rare phenomenon. …this cavernous space feels almost too intimate.” – Willamette Week (Portland, OR)
Michael The Blind is Michael Levasseur, a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist living in Portland, Oregon. Think Leonard Cohen, but not so low. Elliott Smith, but not so high. Suzanne Vega, but not so female. John Fahey when acoustic, Paul Westerberg when electric. A lyrical style that is both e.e. cummings and Mother Goose.
Following up three solo albums and countless shows performed at bars, markets, coffeehouses, basements and festivals throughout the nation, the new Michael The Blind album "Are’s & Els" (recorded at San Francisco’s Tiny Telephone and featuring the Magik*Magik Orchestra and Levasseur’s newly formed band The Els) will be released by Alder Street Records on June 5th as a deluxe 180-gram vinyl LP, CD and digital download.
“I’m always somewhat amused by the reactions I get to the name Michael The Blind,” Levasseur says. “I knew that it would be difficult from the start and that’s one of the reasons I’ve so stubbornly held on to it. I have poorly designed eyes. Doctors have asked if they could show my eyes to their colleagues because of the way that my combination of lens, cornea, and retina barely manages to do the job within the framework of their design flaws.”
These design flaws haven’t prevented Levasseur from seeking out and finding the best of America’s regional music scenes throughout his life. Among other places, Levasseur has spent time in the Northern Georgia town of Toccoa where, at the time, the core of what would become Saddle Creek was preparing to move to Omaha. He lived in Athens, Georgia, mingling with the REM scene during the height of that band’s career. And he arrived to live in Portland, Oregon for the first time just as Elliott Smith was ushering in a new era of singer-songwriters there. All of this began for Levasseur as a child in the world’s cultural epicenter of New York City.
“I got my start in music when my folks bought me a decent guitar after I proved that I could play some songs on the cheap one that was collecting dust in my bedroom,” Levasseur remembers. Growing up in the poor Sunset Park section of Brooklyn, New York, Levasseur and his mother, father and sister soon moved to the even poorer triangle in South Carolina where it connects with North Carolina and Georgia.
“It was clear right away that the folks of Westminster were not going to accept a Coke-bottle eyed Yankee as one of their own,” he says. “The upside to this was that I could pursue my musical interests in solitude.” With his singing, Levasseur did manage to find some like-minded friends. Performing with large choral groups led to mixed chamber choir singing and eventually, small group singing via a doo-wop ensemble.
“By the time I reached high school, I had started performing solo with my guitar at the local Rotary Club and even at beauty pageants and funerals. I also performed as part of a folk duo at every function we could book.” It was around this time that Levasseur first began to experience his musical upbringing away from home and he began to find his own voice along the way too.
“In 1993, my first rock band was starting to get shows in Clemson, South Carolina and Toccoa, Georgia where there was a burgeoning scene that would eventually move west and become the core of the Saddle Creek phenomenon. I did a lot of street performing there too, and by the time I was 16, I was sneaking off to perform on the streets of Athens, Georgia. I was so taken with Athens.”
The small college town of Athens, Georgia was experiencing a musical revolution not seen since the formation of The B-52s in the late 1970’s. REM’s career was at its peak and the small local label Kindercore was ushering in a new pop sound at the forefront of the indie imprint explosion.
“I convinced my parents that if I had to go to college it would be in Athens at the University of Georgia,” Levasseur recalls. Unfortunately, the workload, paired with late night parties and sleep-depriving experiences aboard REM’s tour bus led to Levasseur dropping out after only three semesters.
“I had discovered by then that misery and uncertainty treated my lyrics better than happiness and security did, so it’s quite possible that I left school to pull the rug out from under myself,” he says. “By the time that I left Athens for Portland in 1995, I had written about 300 songs and could play the entire catalogs of Bob Dylan, REM, Sex Pistols and The Cure.”
When Levasseur arrived in Portland, he got a dishwashing job, started a band called Tomorrow’s Telephones and began hearing about a local songwriter named Elliott Smith. “When I heard his guitar playing, I instantly understood that my technique was insufficient for getting across the kind of emotion that I wanted to express,” he remembers.
Less than a year after his arrival in Portland, Levasseur crisscrossed the US again, spending two weeks discovering America and stationing himself back in Athens for a spell before relocating to Boston where he spent three years making four-track recordings that he would shop around to the best of his ability. “The extent of which I knew how to do this mostly involved copying down address lists from the backs of books that claimed to tell you how to ‘make it in the music industry’,” he jokes.
Unsurprisingly, this effort was to no avail. “The amount of competition that I encountered in Boston in the late 1990’s was staggering,” he recalls, but he at least managed to get out of the food service industry, landing a job at Boston’s Tower Records location where he helped run its Jazz, Classical and World music sections. It’s a job he excelled at and Levasseur does the same work for Everyday Music in Portland today.
“I had always kept a place in my heart for the climate of Portland and soon I stumbled into a studio apartment downtown with little more to my name than my old guitar and a typewriter. I began playing shows and writing new material, but as good as things were going, I still felt that I needed to return to the place that my parents had tried so hard to get us away from when I was a child.”
Exiting the Northwest city for a second time and wearing a groove in America’s highways, Levasseur traveled back to where his life in music began. “I don’t have a lot to say about the time I spent living back in Brooklyn. The misery I had always channeled into my writing was there in such full force that I began to question some basic premises that I’d previously based my life upon.”
Regardless, Levasseur continued to write and perform while living in New York (featuring at the infamous Sidewalk Café), and thanks to the kindness of a stranger who retrieved his tape player from a spill onto the subway tracks, he was able to return to Portland for the third time to record the material that became his first Michael The Blind album "Secrets & Lines." Levasseur began to see some minor success when one of the album’s songs was chosen for inclusion on a compilation of Portland-based music as well as being featured on NPR's website.
After immediately heading back to the same basement studio to record his next record "Names & Numbers," Levasseur began to attract the attention of the local media, being interviewed by local Portland alt-weeklies the Portland Mercury and the Willamette Week. Songs from Names & Numbers were again included on local compilations and also in the award winning film festival favorite “Somewhere Between Here and Now” by filmmaker Olivier Boonjing.
Looking to follow-up "Names & Numbers" and more inspired than ever, in 2007 Levasseur set out to write and record a new song every week which he would then post online each Monday. Several of these fifty songs (Levasseur only missed two Mondays and one of those fell on the day of his wedding to Rachael Renee’ who now plays autoharp and sings in The Els) were eventually re-recorded and released in December of 2010 as Michael The Blind’s "Days & Days" album.
The release of "Days & Days" coincided with a visit from Levasseur’s old friend Rory Carroll who brought the exciting news that that he had found a partner interested in recording and releasing a professionally produced Michael The Blind album.
“I decided I wanted it to be a rock record, so it became clear that I needed a band,” Levasseur says. “I had been playing folk songs with my wife during the past year, so we decided to install a pickup in her autoharp and started rehearsing with a drummer.” Levasseur continues, saying, “We started performing live and the feeling of playing with a band again after nearly a decade of playing solo was so thrilling that I didn’t want it to go away.”
Levasseur then began to form a permanent group, recruiting his oldest friend, Nathaniel Leigh to play drums, and upgrading the pickup on Renee’’s autoharp. A mutual acquaintance, Elwood Johncox, joined the group on bass. “The immediate connection when we took the stage together brought back the feelings I had when I was singing in a choir. I was soaring on the sounds we made,” Levasseur exclaims.
Soon, it became clear that the new band needed a name and with all the band members having names beginning or ending in “el,” the group was cleverly and quickly dubbed The Els. Levasseur, as Michael The Blind, and his new band The Els rehearsed extensively over the course of the following months before entering San Francisco’s Tiny Telephone studio (owned by musician John Vanderslice) to record "Are’s & Els".
In the meantime, plans were made for drummer John Masters to join Leigh on drum duties and for conductor Minna Choi and her ensemble the Magik*Magik Orchestra to participate in the recordings as well. Levasseur explains, saying, “Among the songs that we’d chosen were two that had been written with larger ensembles in mind. Working with someone on the classical theory-based aspect of my own songs was a new experience and I look forward to working in that way more in the future.”
Summing up the life experiences that brought him to the making of this record and the making of the record itself, Levasseur confesses, “I can’t explain why I have done what I’ve done up to now. I think it is probably nothing but fiction when we try to describe the reasons for our past actions. When I listen to the record, I'm amazed by what we were able to create out of so much random timing and perfect coincidence.”
Upon further reflection, Levasseur remembers a key moment that solidified his musical identity, explaining, “When I was living in Portland for the second time, I became fascinated by a recording by The Kronos Quartet and the liner notes which talked about a 15th century rabbi who believed that it was the duty of the Jewish people to fix all of the broken things in the world. I was miserable and cold in this empty apartment and listening to this caterwaul of a composition wailing with the string quartet wheezing like a concentration camp accordion, and the clarinet practically a scream.”
Levasseur continues, “I was feeling so broken, and then suddenly it felt like the music was stitching me up. The composition is called ‘The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac The Blind.’ I had been toying with the idea of making my stage name ‘Michael The [Something]’ for some time as my last name begins with ‘Le’ or ‘the’ in French. I tried it out and it stuck. It was only later after I’d gotten into the blues that I realized how many great blues singers are blind.”
Levasseur’s unique way of seeing the world can be heard when Alder Street Records releases the new Michael The Blind album "Are’s & Els" on June 5th, 2012 as a deluxe 180-gram vinyl LP, CD and digital download. The album is preceded by the single “Another Circle of Fifths,” streaming now.
Release date: Jun 5, 2012