Shortlist shortcut to Kelly McMichael's Waves

The St. John’s-based artist tells us why her song ‘Montreal’ is the perfect gateway to ease into her Polaris-shortlisted album.

The St. John’s-based artist tells us why ‘Montreal’ is the perfect gateway to her Polaris-shortlisted album

Kelly McMichael's debut album, Waves, is on the 2022 Polaris Music Prize short list. (Jill Willcott; design by CBC Music)

To help music fans get to know the 10 Polaris Music Prize-nominated albums, CBC Music presents the Shortlist Shortcut series. Every week, we will ask a nominated artist for a recommended track off their shortlisted record. Perhaps it's a song that best represents the themes on the album, or maybe it's the most important, difficult or rewarding song they wrote. The question was left to the artist to interpret, but the hope is that the selected track will give us a pathway into their work.

In the second instalment of this series, we spoke with singer-songwriter Kelly McMichael, who has been nominated to the Polaris short list for the first time.

Kelly McMichael on 'Montreal'

St. John's-based artist Kelly McMichael chose "Montreal" as the best introduction to her debut album, Waves, for obvious reason: it's the song people have connected with most when she's performed it over the past decade.

It's one of the oldest songs on her now Polaris-shortlisted album, as McMichael wrote it around 2013 in what she admits was a more carefree time of her life. After years of refining and tinkering, McMichael released it on Waves in May 2021 in the middle of the pandemic, which was apt timing for a nostalgic, mid-tempo song about a city that people love to visit.

"It was a song about sort of looking back, reflecting on fond memories," she says. "Being at shows, hanging out with friends; it felt like a nice mental state to be in when it was actually being released kind of during lockdown."

McMichael's "Montreal" has the lure of a city in mid-summer that can offer you anything: close friendships, unpredictable nights, a clean slate. McMichael and co-producer Jake Nicoll honed in on a gritty guitar tone with a '70s influence for those relaxed chords that are both inviting and soothing, and "tried out the classic Beatles [artificial double tracking] tape-chorus effect," as Nicoll wrote via email, on backup singer Maria Peddle's vocals for that enveloping sound. But it's McMichael's voice luring you back to that perfect weekend that really seals the deal:

It seemed we never tired, or not enough that 
We couldn't be cured by an afternoon nap 
Was it just my age? We were so young 
It's never been the same, but I still want to come

The album has a variety of moods and genres that veer from the "Montreal" sound, but McMichael's skilful arrangements and talent make Waves feel cohesive. The album is technically a full-length debut for McMichael, who is originally from Peterborough, Ont., and moved to Newfoundland about eight years ago, but the singer-songwriter has been helping other artists perform and realize their art for years. She's currently in Sarah Harmer's touring band, and has been part of Gentleman Reg, Rouge and Thelma & Louise, and has released some music under her own moniker, Renders. But getting to her own art was always the challenge.

"I gave up on pursuing my own personal music project," she explains candidly, of a point not that long ago in her career. "I just didn't really have the band leader personality. I didn't want to take on organizing things. I didn't have the administrative skills to write grants. I didn't really have the self-promo business kind of personality and skills. And I had tried to give it a go with a few different EPs here and there, sometimes under my name, sometimes under other project names, and I just didn't really get traction and it was easier for me to play in other people's projects."

She took a bit of a break, working in a record store and gigging at bars, and some of her work led her to Jake Nicoll, a fellow St. John's transplant and her future co-producer on Waves. She developed a "really amazing working relationship" with Nicoll, and with some help writing grants and some generosity at the start — "I didn't really have any funding at the time, but [Nicoll] was like, 'You know, we can figure something out, make it work'" — the album was finally on its way. 

"I got to go 100 per cent me, with my gut," she says, of the recording process. "What feels right, and really just explore what feels the most fun and satisfying…. I didn't want to think too much about what other people were going to think of it. I just wanted to be happy with it myself."

Exactly a year after Waves came out, McMichael released a deluxe version of the albumwhich has a new opening track and three live versions of previously released songs, recorded at St. Patrick's Church in Woody Point, N.L. It was the perfect push for an album that, because of its May release, was technically eligible for the Polaris Music Prize two consecutive years. 

Now, with her Polaris shortlist debut, two Music NL Awards and one East Coast Music Award under her belt in quick succession, plus multiple tours supporting Sarah Harmer, the Burning Hell and her own project, McMichael has finally started to get the attention she deserves. 

For more Polaris Music Prize coverage, head to CBCMusic.ca/Polaris. You can also tune in and listen to The Ten, a Polaris Music Prize radio series where host A. Harmony takes us through each nominated album, track by track, every week until Sept. 18. The Ten will air on CBC Music every Sunday at 6 p.m. ET (6:30 p.m. in Newfoundland).     

The 2022 Polaris Music Prize gala will take place on Sept. 19. (CBC Music, Polaris Music Prize)


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