“It’s hard to choose between messing with knobs and dancing” a talk with Michelle Miears

 

This is the latest in a series of articles about some of Houston’s most fascinating female members of our music community. I’m not sure I meant for it to become a series but what began with wanting to showcase people who live lives in and around our community, juggle responsibilities, manage what often seem like conflicting goals, led me to the women you’ve read about here at Cathedral Records.

I’m inspired by people who live with their feet firmly planted in different worlds; musician and parent, spouse and business owner, band member and athlete, songwriter and business executive. That duality and those seemingly diametrically opposing forces are where the magic happens and where I find reassurance that my own ambitions are not impossible to achieve.

So with that, I give you this article about Michelle Miears. Her debut solo EP, “Who Will Save You” is amazing but you probably already know that from the incredible love she is receiving both in the press and from audiences who have been fortunate enough to see her perform.

This article, I hope, will shed a little light on the lady behind that powerful voice and those incredible arrangements. Her story is one of balance, of persistence, ambition, bravery, and certainly talent.

Her musical journey began, like that of so many of us. Her grandparents were avid musicians who performed regularly both on stage as part of multiple bands and in their homes for their children and grandchildren. One of her first memories of being attracted to commercial music was as a young child riding in a car with her mother as Enya came on the airwaves.

By 10, melodies were becoming imprinted in her mind and one of her first musical fascinations arrived on radio and TV in the form of three talented brothers from California, Hanson.

“I formed a little ‘band’ with my best friend and we would write songs while jumping on the trampoline day-dreaming about making it big” Miears explained.

The ambition and determination that have marked much her evolution as an artist began to take root early on as Michelle described her feelings at the time, “I took myself very seriously inside and I really thought this could happen for me and it was around this time that I taught myself piano.”

Piano led to flute in junior high band which she continues to play this day. During her high school days in band, Michelle even participated in the drum line challenging herself by competing and performing with players with many more years of experience. She cites the challenge as one of the “best and most rewarding times of (her) life.”

This notion of a sense of reward and empowerment through challenge and perseverance is a common refrain throughout her life and musical journey.

As the discussion turns to her influences she cites a long list of varied artists, two of the first being Paramore’s Hayley Williams as well as Imogen Heap.

“The first artist that made feel completely gutted inside (in a good way) and made me desperate to perform was Hayley Williams. I was living in California listening to (Paramore and Imogen Heap) on repeat. These two women taught me how to sing.”

A couple of start-stop band experiences led to an opportunity to join her brother’s band where she found her place within the word of electronic music.

“I had spent a lot of time listening to a few electronic bands in the past but in working with ZolotiNatioN I dug deeper into it. From that point, I felt like stylistically my voice fit better in this world than the pop-punk world that I had previously day-dreamed about.”

Shortly thereafter, hungry for a new band after ZolotiNatioN ended, BLSHS was born which further deepened her love of electronic music, composition, production, and expanded her horizons as an artist and performer. It was during a lull in the band’s activity that Michelle decided to take the massive step of writing, producing, releasing, and ultimately performing an EP of solo music.

When asked about the inspiration for the songs she doesn’t really have any artist or bands to rattle off.  Rather, her muse is born from the emotions and reflections of past relationships, her role in them, and how they have shaped her life and outlook moving forward.

“The songs on this EP were inspired by my own self-exploration and discovery of my relationship patterns, past and present, and my tendency to be codependent. I have a habit of assuming the role of caretaker, so far. Unfortunately I tend to measure my self-worth through feeling needed.”

These stark self-observations belie the powerful, passionate woman who commands the stage but give further insight into the high-wire act she walks between seemingly opposite forces: co-dependent and insecure but at the same time masterful and confident; inexperienced as a solo artist but having the focus and sheer force of will to craft an entire stage show while teaching herself an entirely new medium of performance in using Ableton Live.

The songs on “Who Will Save You” are meticulously crafted with a polished production that mask the fact that they were composed on an old keyboard with initial demos recorded not in Logix but on her mobile phone.

By day, she sits at a desk managing accounts for a staffing agency but by night Michelle becomes MIEARS as she anxiously races home, leaving her “civilian” life behind and embraces the world she much prefers, a world where “anything is possible.”

When the time came to perform the songs found on “Who Will Save You,” Michelle had a decision to make. She could perform alone, singing to her pre-recorded tracks or she could create something else, something more. The decisions to include a live drummer as well as a keytar were born of the same kind of duality that has defined so much of her musical journey.

“I don’t have the best self-esteem at times. I think the idea was originally conceptualized from my fear that people would be bored watching little ol’ me on stage by myself. I was actually terrified at the thought of being on a stage all by myself. The thought sounded very exposing and I couldn’t think of a more vulnerable position to be in.”

These words sound surprising coming from a woman with such masterful command of the stage as well as the creative vision needed to arrange the songs in such a manner that would allow space for live drums and in-the-moment performance using her cherished key-tar. “I love my keytar. I feel naked without it!”

That key-tar might as well be Thor’s hammer. As soon as she puts it on, the shy young lady I met in a parking lot outside Rock 4 Recovery becomes the incendiary performer who takes the stage night after night.

When asked how her busy performance schedule has been and how the process has evolved she expresses nothing but enthusiasm. The insecure, even shy young lady loses ground to the master craftswoman who values the kind work ethic that many fans or aspiring musicians may not realize are needed to reach the measure of their ambition.

“I’ve performed both with and without my drummer and I have received positive feedback in both circumstances. I am glad that I’m still pushing myself out there totally solo because it forces me to work on my confidence and stage presence.”

When the topic turns to Houston as a community Michelle’s passion is once again ignited. The environment’s collaborative and supportive nature that is often overlooked by outsiders is a huge source of inspiration.

“I am lucky to be emerging as a female solo artist at a time when there are so many other strong women surrounding me. I am so excited that there are women taking charge of the music scene like Mandy Clinton (of the Lories and Pearl Crush) who has a booking collective called DAMN GXRL which advocates for inclusiveness and diversity in the music scene. Teresa Vicinanza (Tee Vee) and Vicki Tippit (Black Kite) are pushing the boundaries of creativity and how an audience experiences live music. Black Kite recently wrapped up a series of immersive theater performances called Red House which completely blew my mind.”

Michelle quickly catches a breath and begins again:

“All three of these artists produce incredible music and I am a huge fan. Kam Franklin is touring Europe with her band, The Suffers, and taking on the globe one venue at a time. There are so many, it’s hard to name them everyone. These women are inspiring me daily with their creative journeys. I feel super empowered to be a woman in music and a woman in the Houston music scene right now.”

With the perspective and outlook Michelle has developed an audience may think her career is decades long when in fact Who Will Save You is her debut album (though the follow up is nearing completion). As I often say however, it’s not the number of years, it’s the number of miles and in Michelle’s case she’s logged enough to understand that the life of a musician, male or female, is not one to be entered into lightly.

While she can see no other life for herself because the thought of not pursuing her passion provides more pain than that of continuing and facing all struggles the road may bring, she is quick to offer both strong words of caution as well as a call to arms. (There’s that duality again)

“Being a musician requires a lot of time, work, dedication, and some thick skin. Somehow you have to force yourself beyond any doubt that you may feel. You have to put yourself out there, even when it’s scary and unsure of the outcome.”

Her advice to aspiring musicians?

“No matter what your age is, you can start any time. The time is now!”

Her words of encouragement ring as a sort of carpe diem, an anthem calling even the most trepidatious to step up to the microphone or piano or computer.

“Just take that first step. Whether it’s sharing a demo with a friend, finding a way to materialize the ideas in your head, learning to produce on your own in a DAW, learning to record at home with some basic equipment, learning an instrument or finally singing in front of people you have to take that jump!”
She concludes with a bit more self-reflection:

“I finally realized that every day I let slip by without taking another baby step is a day that I’ve lost at growing and being productive towards my dreams and passion.”

Oh and if that’s not enough to endear you Ms. MIEARS…she’s a Beatles fan…be still my beating heart. 🙂

 

 

Come on over baby, whole lotta cakin’ goin’ on…A Conversation with Renee Main

A community is comprised of individuals. Our beloved community includes more than just the folks on stage or behind the sound board. These people are fans, spouses, retailers, luthiers, friends, and everyone else.

These individuals all have their own passions, perspectives, and stories and from time to time I like to highlight them.

This time I got the pleasure to speak with Renee Main, a wonderful woman, mother, wife, passionate music enthusiast, and one of the most talented “cakers” you’re going to meet here in Houston.

Our conversation took several twists and turns as we discussed everything from her growing business to her gorgeous son, her marriage to Ronnie Main (also a dear friend of the Cathedral) and of course music.

I found our conversation to be truly fascinating and inspiring. Like many of us, she strives to balance relationships, a family, her business, and every challenge all those bring. I thoroughly enjoyed the insight into her life and approach to work and family.

I hope you all enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed preparing it and, in the true spirit of community, I encourage you ALL to think of her whenever you need baked goods….which should be OFTEN haha…you can NEVER have too many baked goods. Seriously…has anyone ever said “nah, I really don’t want yummy baked goods?” Hell no.

Tell me about your business. When did baking become something you began doing as a business as opposed to something you did for yourself and your family?

It’s funny calling it a “business”… perhaps, because to me it’s just a really fun hobby! Though, if you ask me that same question at 1 am as I’m cutting out tiny fondant bits, working into the wee hours of the morning after my son has gone to bed, THEN, it is “work”. Ha! “Renee, the ‘businesswoman.'” I just never really acknowledged a change in the process as it grew as a passion and business. I still mostly make them for family, friends and friends of friends, so perhaps not much has actually changed.

How long have you been doing it? What are your favorite recipes? Are you a mad scientist or do you go by “feel?”

I’ve always loved baking, even considered going to Pastry School when I was young… but, that went the way of my dreams to be a Forensic Scientist, a Veterinarian, a Marine Biologist and several other “I don’t- know-what-to-do-with-my-life-so-hopefully-I-can-just-marry-a-rich-rock star” ideas. My first decorated cake was for my brother (a dodgy looking turntable) in 2010…the cake that started it all.

I have a go-to shortbread cookie recipe that people really dig. As for everything else, I have Pinterest and Google to thank. Even when I come up with an idea, I always Google to confirm that it’s a good one and realize I’m not as original as I thought. Going by feel and smell are definitely my thing. I never set timers (unless it’s a scary new recipe). I can smell when a cake is done, as anyone who knows me can tell you, I don’t deal well with time restraints….living on Tennessee Time.

What inspired you to become so enthusiastic and artistic with your baking?

Growing up, I loved anything art and music related. I always felt that I wasn’t good enough at anything I tried to actively pursue. And in typical me style, if I thought I might fail at it, it wasn’t worth trying.  I used to spend hours sketching and doodling. All of my schoolwork had doodles in the margins. I always needed an artistic outlet, but it wasn’t until I found caking that I could apply what bit of talent I had with my love of food. Best thing about it, is even if it sucked, it’d be eaten anyway. Luckily, my family and friends have been so supportive and absolutely willing to eat my mistakes.

Was there a particular moment, a particular recipe you pulled off where you thought, “I’m really good at this!”?

When I really started getting into cake decorating and pushing myself, I had a few big moments that stood out. I ended up making it through to the video entry round for the first Cake Boss cake competition show. Around that time, I also won 1st place in a cake decorating competition for Country Woman magazine (Haha, the country woman that I am) and was featured in the magazine. Another boost for the ego, I managed to snag 2nd and 3rd place in a cake decorating competition. It was just a series of pretty fortunate events that gave me the confidence to stick with it. Can’t lie, having Shure share my microphone cake and The Zombie Research Society share my half dog from Return of the Living Dead probably surpassed the actual awards!

What are you most proud about? Was there a particular event/family member/recipe that you pulled off under a tight deadline, perhaps there was a lot of drama swirling around at the time…something that really sticks out….

Easily, the time I was able to provide a cake as a Sugar Angel for Icing Smiles. It’s an amazing organization that pairs children with serious illnesses and their siblings with volunteer bakers. When called upon, you get the opportunity to create a child’s dream cake. With hospital visits and ailments, sometimes just having a bit of fun and cake is just what the doctor ordered. The cake was Pokemon themed, for a 13 year old named Brayan. Seeing his reaction when he saw the cake, seeing that he was just a regular kid having a great birthday, meeting his wonderful family that welcomed us in for dinner and the most delicious Horchata, feeling the love and happiness that surrounded us, is something I will never forget.

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You just had a baby, bought a house, and moved…how to juggle all the hats you wear: mother, baker, wife, operations manager of the Main home, etc?

I drop a lot of balls. And the ones I catch are usually out of order, barely snagged between fingers or at the absolute last moment. At least, that’s the way it feels. I think, prior to having a kid, I truly valued my simple life. I finally got to a place where I had a job I enjoyed, Ronnie and I were having fun, and I lived a relatively stress-free life. I baked and danced in my kitchen for hours. Baking was my release, my brain shut off everything else and I just baked… and sang, while dancing poorly. Fast forward to life with a 14 month old and baking has become another big mess to clean up, gets stretched out over days instead of hours, and mom brain just never shuts off. I still truly enjoy it, I just can’t shut out the world like I used to. My sweet boy wants to be with me when I’m in the kitchen and I love that, but when I’m in a crunch for an order, a toddler throwing a tantrum while attached to my legs is the last thing I need. So, my late nights of caking have become even later nights. I am really looking forward to showing him the ways of cake in the years to come… or perhaps I’d be better served showing him the ways of dish washing. As difficult as doing any sort of work from home can be, I am extremely grateful that I can be home with him. I don’t want to miss a thing. As for the wife part, I have to admit that I feel like I drop that ball the most. Perhaps, it’s normal when you create a tiny human, but after 12 years of just us, I miss him. Caking takes my evenings with him away and that sucks, but we also need the money. Being a grown-up is tough.

I always tend to tie things back to music and songwriter. I love cooking as well, though I’m not much of a baker. For me, it’s very similar to music in that I love my tools (in the kitchen it’s knives, pans, oven/stove etc while in the studio guitars, mics etc) and the recipe is sort of the lead sheet guiding me in various directions but I like to put my own spin on things as if I were “covering” a song. I listen to music while I cook and I even get lyric ideas while I’m in the kitchen.

How about you? Where do your recipes come from? Do you listen to music while bake or is it a distraction? If you do, what are your favorite albums/artists for baking?

As Ronnie would say, “I’m too cautious.” It’s probably from a lack of confidence, but I usually like to start with a tried, well-rated, recipe before I start experimenting. I haven’t taken the time to learn the base recipes for different baked goods… I probably should, but I have a shit memory, so it’s just easier for me to look things up. I do enjoy cooking, as well. I am quicker to experiment there, because the science of baking isn’t necessary. I always listen to music when I cake. For the last couple of years, it’s been either my Amos Lee or Valerie June station on Pandora. It’s always folky music that I can sing and dance along to. The smooth sounds calm my caking nerves. I always hate whatever I’m working on along the way; nothing is ever as great as I think it can be while I work. It’s usually not until the borders and final decorations go on that I can step back and appreciate it (I say “appreciate” loosely… I’m usually still critiquing, stressing and nit picking).

What kind of prep do you do before going in the kitchen? Do you have any rituals or specific routines that you have to do before you “get in the zone?”

Usually, it’s a whole lot of pacing and bitching. I go in and out of the kitchen, overwhelmed with the task ahead of me. Scatter brained, I try to gather a few tools or ingredients while I huff about it. But, once I get going, with my music playing, I am “in the zone”. As long as Euen isn’t pulling at my apron strings, the rest of the world fades away and I cake.

Do you make up your own recipes? Where do you pull your inspiration from? Are there particular chefs that got you into this? Do you watch Food Network?

I love Food Network, currently watching it as I type. I have always liked Duff Goldman and his crew. Always seemed like a fantastic kitchen to work in. Can’t stand Cake Boss. I follow loads of amazingly talented cakers on Instagram and Facebook, that inspire me, and make me feel completely inadequate. Currently really enjoying seeing Cakes by Cliff and Yolanda Gampp’s work. I wish I could make-up my own recipes. While cooking, I can. Baking, not so much.

What is the process for someone when they decide they want to have you bake something? Is there a consultation where you help them figure out a design/style/flavor combination/etc?

Usually, I do all of the legwork via email or messenger. I will be the first to admit I am a victim of mom brain. I need every detail written down and quite honestly, I hate talking on the phone. So, it usually begins with “What did you have in mind? How many people does it need to feed?” Most people will start with “How much do you charge?” but until I know the number of servings and amount of detail involved, I can’t answer that. So once we have a general idea of theme and size, I get a quote and if confirmed, we finalize the details. If it’s a custom design, I will work up a sketch to help get the final details sorted. The most popular flavors are the classics like vanilla, chocolate, Red Velvet, marble, my personal fave Cookies & Cream and since I do a lot of kid’s birthdays, they tend to be safe bets for crowd-pleasing.

What separates you from grocery store bakeries?

I don’t get my cake layers from a factory or my icing from a bucket. My buttercream is made from real butter, powdered sugar and vanilla… that’s it. I use real ingredients, things I would allow my son to eat. There is nothing mass-produced, everything is handmade, I have to put in every bit of the effort from start to finish. It’s an edible piece of custom artwork.
14961296_10211545860870443_1939684879_n14962451_10211545861270453_155964264_n 14996402_10211545861110449_1275367474_n (YES…those are CAKES!)

What are some tips you can give people when they are trying to decide on what they may want for any given event?

Be realistic and open-minded. If you want to feed 10 people, a 5-tiered cake is probably not an option. If you’re on a tight budget, a highly ornate hand-piped design isn’t going to fit in it.  I don’t want cool cakes to be something for only the most special of occasions. I like to think I’m reasonably priced for the work and willing to work with a budget. The best creations come from trusting the artist to do what they do. I always feel like I do my best work when I’m told the general theme and likes and told, “I trust you, make it awesome.” I love being able to try new things and create a truly special cake.

There was a recent Facebook post shared by Jeff Klein of My Jerusalem where he gave a lot of credit to a mechanic shop in Austin that provides discounts to musicians in the area. As an independent business woman with a foot in the music community, where do you see non-music businesses in terms of playing a role in supporting that community or any community in general? Do you currently or anticipate in the future that you’ll actively market to musicians or to any other specific target audience? 

I offered to bake logo cookies for my husband’s band several times, but I think he thought it was a silly idea. I, on the other hand, think baked goods should be a part of any good marketing plan! Who needs another damned sticker, people won’t just toss a rockin’ cookie or cupcake in their back pocket to be washed and forgotten. I think every person and every business has a reason to celebrate, to share and to treat. I don’t have anything worked up, but would love some cool projects!

You are married to Ronnie Main – guitarist, GM at Guitar Center and a man who has been known to rock a kilt on more than one occasion.

As a musician myself, and having done more than one tour of duty in retail – I can attest to the challenges such a life can pose to a happy relationship and family.

Tell me a bit about how that’s been for you? How do you guys navigate all the time constraints involved with his and your schedules, shifting priorities? What do you say to people when it comes to how best to balance all the different parts of your life and making sure everyone is happy.

I think we did it right by waiting until out thirties for a baby. We spent our twenties going to shows several nights a week, did all the boozing, schmoozing and partying we could. Honestly, I can’t hang anymore. Even before we had Euen, I had become an old fuddy duddy. I’m glad we spent our twenties focusing on us and having the fun we could. It just sort of happened that Ronnie’s band fizzled out, and things settled down for us once the thirties rolled in. If Ronnie was out playing shows now, I know I’d be upset that I couldn’t make it or that we’d have to manage getting a sitter and so on. Though, I do really miss seeing him on stage, I can’t even recall the last show I went to. I do miss being surrounded by music… and nights out with the hubs. I think the most important thing is to support your spouse’s endeavors and hobbies. Sometimes it’s hard to be open to him spending the day skydiving when I’ve hardly seen him and need a wee breather from Euen, but I also know he works his ass off for us and he deserves the time to enjoy himself. I love that he is passionate about music and skydiving and that makes me passionate about it, too.

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You and Ronnie have what I think is an amazing story about how you met, your courtship, marriage and now enjoying your son. Tell me about it. When you look back what are your thoughts and favorite parts of it?

We met way back when, on my first Dell computer during freshman year of college. He sent me a message in an Alternative Music chat room on MSN…says he liked my name. I was all about meeting people from all over the place, the whole world had opened up to me and I was obsessed with chatting with new people (Sorry, real life friends, I would trash (all of them) for online ones). I always say he just harassed me in to loving him.

He had this bold, bright red Comic Sans font and he’d message one after another “ding-ding-DING!”  I had to turn off the sound on my messenger. He even said “love ya” after our first conversation… a bit much.

I lied and told him I didn’t have a webcam, but he turned his on and all I see is this giant, glowing white forehead, glasses and red hair, looking down as he typed. So, we chatted and phoned, but I couldn’t understand him so I would lie and say the connection was bad.

After a few months, he asked if he could come over and visit, I said yes, thinking “yeah right”. He wouldn’t be the first online pal to suggest meeting. He ended up getting a ticket, so had to get my parents to agree to having a strange, Scotsman stay with us. Luckily, they said yes and things weren’t crazy awkward when he arrived! I said “Love you” online, but couldn’t do it in person.

He actually brought an engagement ring and brought it with, but didn’t ask that visit because of my “Thank you” replies to his “love yous”. A few visits back and forth, an engagement and a wedding later, we started our amazing life together.

We have had our ups and downs, as any marriage does. But, thankfully loving him has been easy and the ups far outnumber the downs. We truly enjoy each other and had a solid 12 years of just us to build a sturdy foundation before shaking things up with a baby.

Getting pregnant was a surprise to say the least. We were thinking it just wasn’t in the cards and were pretty ok with that. I had an amazing pregnancy and delivery, and couldn’t have done it without Ronnie’s amazing love and support. I keep saying that I thought I couldn’t love him anymore than I did, but then I saw him as a father and my love grew exponentially. He is an amazing man, husband and father and I thank my lucky stars he’s mine.

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Are there bands that are must-see for you even if you’ve seen them a dozen times?

I don’t think you can see too much of a band you enjoy. I would love to see Amos Lee again; he put on an amazing show. I’ve also been aching to see Karnivool and Biffy Clyro. I really hope they’ve got Texas in their next international tour plans!

Who are some of your favorite artists – local or otherwise?

I’ve been in a long folk kick, so I am really enjoying Amos Lee, Ray LaMontagne and Valerie June lately (along with bands of the like that come up on Pandora). I love me some Blind Melon, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull to name a few. I feel so out of the local scene, it’s a shame.

Finally – and everyone gets this question – Beatles or Stones?

Definitely, Beatles.

To contact Renee for all your baking needs you can find her on Facebook or Instagram.

 

Remember – support local artists of all kinds, all the time.

Be Well and Kind,
Jason