A transplant from Houston, Texas, to Utah, Michelle Kennedy has a lot on her hands. Not only is she a law student, she also is a singer, composer, and performer otherwise known as Calm Paradox, and releases music on her own music label. Inspired by classical as well as indie music, philosophy, and literature, Michelle has gained as much of a reputation for her raw, honest lyrics as she has from her intuitive tonal style. Juggling songwriting and performing with other pursuits can take a toll on a musician, but Michelle has not let that stop her from releasing an album of music called How to Mind, which is now available for purchase in several outlets. In this interview, Michelle tells us about her songwriting influences, her lyrical style, and her unique approach on How to Mind.
So Michelle, since you have a degree in philosophy, tell us what you think of William James’ Pragmatism. Don’t hold back.
A: William James and the Pragmatists are quite interesting, but that is all I have to share on the subject. Philosophy is a very personal pursuit of mine, and thus one of the few things that I’ve learned to keep for myself.
Listeners might notice that your lyrics are a bit… “spicy” compared to many other LDS musicians. Can you explain this or is the question too vague?
A: In my songwriting process, lyrics to songs often come to me in fairly full form. I don’t try to write songs, I just try to capture them. That being said, I don’t censor myself. I’ve tried, but I’m just never comfortable with the results. The songs I wind up with come from real emotions- whether they be mine or those borrowed through empathy. To me, empathy is the currency of real art. I don’t like pretending that grittiness doesn’t exist, and I don’t think that mentioning an unpleasant reality will lead me into a self-destructive cycle of focusing on negative and harmful things. I guess I’m just very protective of free expression. Furthermore, some people take the songs at face value only, instead of contemplating the possible underlying commentary. For instance, in Boots the character has an affair with a married man. One could solely focus on the initial “immorality”, but it’s a very myopic approach. I mean, the main character is not happy throughout their relationship and doesn’t find happiness until she leaves him for someone that loves her. There’s a positive message, sometimes one just has to dig for it. I like challenges and hope others do too.
I’m wondering how it’s possible for a person to be a working musician and record an album while in law school.
A: It takes a lot of micromanagement and gelato. First year law students are advised not to work because of the intensive course-load. But is something “work” if you really enjoy it? (Yes.) Calm Paradox became my life outside school for quite a few months. It was my outlet from the stress of school and the overwhelming life-possibilities that accompany coming-of-age. And I needed a “healthy” vice such as gelato to get me through the semester. (Not that an addiction to gelato is really much better than coffee, but at least one doesn’t run afoul of the Word of Wisdom on its face…)
Your bio on your website mentions The Strokes as your primary influence. Care to explain why The Strokes?
A: The Strokes were the first band I had ever heard that just really hit “home.” Discovering them was like discovering a cornerstone of my identity. It’s my go-to album when I’m in need of re-alignment. Is This It was a brilliant success because the songs were charged, catchy, and relatively simple. The album doesn’t meander to me, it has a pulse, a charge. And that’s the feeling I try to capture in my music.
Any other important influences we should hear in your songs?
A: I used to sing along to Regina Spektor for hours every day in high school. She helped me transition from the operatic-broadway sphere to “regular” speak-singing, if you will. Consquently, I’m often told that I sound like her. But in all honesty, I have a really random assortment of influences from Billy Joel to Shania Twain (“Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” somewhat inspired my song Boots) to Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Franz Ferdinand. And I’m only 20, so I’m still trying to find “my voice”– whatever that means.
I lived in Katy for a while in my childhood and then served my mission in Lubbock. I can definitely say that Texas has a very unique mindset compared to elsewhere in the States. What do you think you have taken from Texas and what do you think you left there?
A: I feel like I left everything in Texas when I came to Utah. I left Texas because I didn’t want high school part II. I wanted a “fresh start”, so I was open to new ways of being. I’ve grown and developed in many ways in the time I’ve spent here (in Utah)– I’ve found calmness, softness, and solitude– but I’m finally reclaiming my Texan toughness and angst. Musically, I think I’ll be able to “own” loud and gruff sounds (that is, I won’t be as bashful about putting them forward.)
Similarly, what is your affiliation with the Church, and how does this relationship influence your music?
A: I was born and raised in the Church, but I think that anything worth believing should come under a great deal of constant personal scrutiny. While I don’t censor my music, I do take into account what I’m “promoting” or how listeners might otherwise be affected. If I’m not comfortable with the message, I definitely stop to examine my own life and the choices I’ve been making to figure out why certain ideas are cropping up and whether I need to make changes at the root of the cause. Regardless of where I ultimately end up in relation to the Church, I intend to always keep up with this practice. We have to be tuned-in to ourselves.
Would you call your music “spiritual” in any way?
A: Spiritual? Yes. Religious? No. I do not believe that spirituality is exclusive to religion. Spiritual music can be described as honest, open, and uplifting. Therefore, a wide variety of music may fall under the umbrella term of “spiritual” that wouldn’t be deemed religious. Religious music, such as that in the Mormon faith, may have similar qualities, but is also reverent and self-referencing. I have a great appreciation for hymns, seeing as they are the only thing (aside from candy in Sunday school) that made a three hour session bearable as a child, but my music wouldn’t be found on an EFY album. (Sorry Mom!)
How do you feel your new album, How to Mind, is being received?
A: It’s only been out for two months, so it still has a ways to go. But I’m pleased with the progress it’s made. The album is charting at various indie stations across the country and may possibly get some exposure on a few tv shows. Still figuring things out, but I’ll be sure to post the news on the Calm Paradox facebook page.
Listeners might notice stories in How to Mind that sound like personal experiences. Are they your stories or your imaginings?
A: For my mother’s sake, I should probably come clean: I am a good kid! I promise. Sorry to spoil the mystery everyone. *Nerd. That being said, most of the songs are based on real situations in some respects– even the naughtiest of them all, “Boots.”
Tell us about the record label you started. Are you working in conjunction with other artists or is it a label for your own work?
A: The only artist currently under Local Pariah Records is Calm Paradox. I would eventually like to develop other local talent, because there are so many fantastic musicians here in Utah. Someday I will have the time (and the money, hopefully.) For now, one artist is a handful!
What does “Calm Paradox” mean anyway? I’ve been sitting here, silently pondering its inner meanings for several minutes now.
A: Calm Paradox is the only term I’ve found that can adequately and accurately describe (a) me, and (b) truths of existence. Regarding the latter, Oscar Wilde says it best: “Well, the way of the paradoxes is the way of truth. To test reality we must see it on the tight-rope. When the Verities become acrobats, we can judge them.” (p64, Dorian Gray).
Where can interested listeners buy How to Mind or find out more about you and your music?
A: The album is available on iTunes, Amazon, and most other popular online retailers. It’s also available for sale on my website (with an option to pay what you want.) Three free singles are also available for download on my website.