Jazz Vocalist Michelle Lordi owns a voice tailor-made for delivering love songs, which was evident in mid-October at Detroit’s Dirty Dog Jazz Café’. She treated the audience to music from her fantastic discography, including original gems from her new recording “Break Up With The Sound.” All evening long, her voice was authentically angelic and inviting enough to make the devil blush. After her final set, half the attendees lined up to purchase CD’s she was selling. She's from Philadelphia. On the jazz scene there, she’s a household commodity. Before she started singing professionally, she worked as a photographer, a product designer, and a medical device sales rep. To date, she’s released three albums “eidolon,” “Dream A Little Dream,” and “Break Up With the Sound.” The latter hit nationwide November 1st on Cabinet of Wonder Productions, and the album shows her in her natural habitat, performing love songs and backed by a neatly stitched band drummer Rudy Royston, bassist Matthew Parrish, guitarist Tim Motzer, and saxophonist Donny McCaslin. She put a new finish on songs by Cole Porter, Hank Williams, and Mick Jagger. Her four originals are the best overall. A few weeks after her Dirty Dog performance, she talked to I Dig Jazz about the making of "Break Up With The Sound," getting a late start as a professional singer, and encouragement she’d offer up and coming musicians.
The title is interesting, “Break Up With The Sound.” What does that mean?
That’s a good question. That's a line in the song “Poor Bird.” And I think I chose that as a title because some people ask, is that a negative thing? Sometimes they're really good things that you need to break up with like people who aren't right in your life. So, what the title is referring to in that song is the idea of being in love with your sadness or being stuck in a spot that is not fruitful. So that's where that came from.
Listening to the album and hearing you at The Dirty Dog, I believe you have an affinity for love songs. That’s what stood out to me. Do you consider performing love songs your forte?
I feel like everything's a love song. You know, there are love songs that are about love between two people, and there are love songs to places and love songs to memories, and ghosts. So, yeah, I love to sing, and I love making music with the people I make music with. My whole musical journey is like a love story; just being able to have a life in music is a love story to me.
I've never thought of it in that kind of context.
Well, I only will sing about things that I that have a good feel for, so you can read that however you want.
Is it true you’ve only been singing professionally for five years?
I've made an album, like a little demo thing when my oldest son was born, and he's 16 now, but I didn't pursue music full time until about five years ago now.
What did you do before then?
Oh, a lot of things. I've been a photographer. I’ve been a product designer. I've sold medical devices. I've sold pills legally. I have three kids. So, I had a bit of a road to get to the music.
What was the turning point? What happened to make you decide to drop those occupations and focus on singing professionally?
That's a good question. Nerves, I guess. None of it was practical. None of it was easy. For me, I needed to do something full-on, and this is what I wanted to do. It'll be two years ago in December my house burned down. And this whole new album comes out of that experience of losing everything, but nobody was hurt, which was great. But what I lost was a lot of music I hadn't put out. I lost a lot of writing that I had never made into songs. I lost pieces of songs I'd never produced. And this whole album comes out of that experience.
When the dust cleared literally and figuratively, and everybody was okay, I realized what I had lost is all those opportunities to get something out in the world. Maybe it wasn't perfect, but to get it out there and that if you're an artist, it's your job to make things. I was holding up and not putting things out. This is the first album with some of my original music.
I've been a student of the American Songbook, which is great. You could spend a whole lifetime interpreting those songs. But what I was always driven to do is to write. But I had barely ever done a thing until the fire.
Honestly, that's the more significant turning point in this album, which was recorded about a year after the fire. It's probably the most meaningful piece of art I've ever made. I'm incredibly grateful for what the musicians on the album brought to the project. And my musical director is also the producer. That's Matthew Parrish, the bassist. Everybody gave their heart and soul to interpret my songs and to the way that we did the standards. That's been like the most significant change or direction for me artistically.
It sounds like it was a painful album to do, given you had to revisit that period.
No. I think kind of the opposite. As far as losing, you know, we got back on our feet, and we had insurance. So, it was an incredible inconvenience and a year disappeared, but it wasn't as bad as it could have been. But what was lost is all the artistic output that never got out.
I was grieving that until one day I just realized, okay, so you can grieve it for the rest of your life, a lifetime of photographs, a lifetime of drawings, a lifetime of music that you didn't get out in the world, or you can make it again and make it better.
The process of making those songs was easy and happy because I realized that it wasn't like a one-time thing. Also, the artwork from the album that's all recent as well. I hadn't made art since probably my twenties, so it all came together.
How long have you been writing songs?
Oh, my whole life. But like I said, this is the first album of any originals.
Who're some of your musical influences?
Well, first the musicians that you hear on the album. Their music is what I hear. I follow them. I follow their careers. So, they’re my influences because we work together so much. As far as stars from the past, I've always loved Chet Baker and Peggy Lee and of course, Ella Fitzgerald.
.I wasn't exposed to jazz very early, but once I got into it, I would find a song, and then I'd find every version of the song, and follow a song from Mel Torme to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. The musicians I'm around right now are extraordinary. Those are my influences because we're creating together. I love country music, and Patsy Cline, of course, is a beautiful storyteller.
I wouldn't listen to jazz as a kid. I was listening to punk music and alternative music. But I've been drawn to artists who are artists like their whole life, like Patti Smith, for example, and Chet Baker. It wasn’t even his singing that got me. It was his horn playing.
You know how difficult it is. We're in the same industry, so you know. But here's the difference is when you know that you have something important that you want to do, it's easy to do, whatever it takes. We could talk for hours about how messed up the music industry is, but that's boring.
So, we all need to figure out as improvisers, how to make something happen, you know, whether it's a side gig or finding a way to connect with your audiences in a way that it's different and gets them to do more than stream your work. Yeah, but I'm right in it. I've got this new album coming out and everything. It feels like everything's changed since the last album.
You know, even how people buy CDs and, or don't. But I had to do a CD for this album because jazz radio still demands them. I mean, that's not bad for me because I grew up collecting records and then CDs. It's comforting to say, "Here's my album," and have it in my hand, but I know that that's probably just an illusion. CDs don't sell much.
How do you like performing in Detroit?
The audiences in Detroit were very kind. I love the Dirty Dog. I have been there before to hear musicians, and I was so grateful to get to play there recently. I love your city. What's the name of the club highly rated for their barbecue?
Bert’s Market Place.
Where else in the world can you walk in and there's like five or six world-class singers just sitting-in. Detroit is such an amazing town. I find reasons to get to Detroit. And I have fun every time. It's always an adventure. And everybody's very respectful that I'm from Philly because we have got a deep musical history here.
I was able to go to some small places in Philly like Baker's in Detroit, where you could catch Shirley Scott and Mickey Roker. And I thought that was just what everybody's jazz sounded like. I felt that all jazz is that good. That's what it felt like walking into Bert’s
It's like that all the time here. When you go to The Dirty Dog, you'll be surprised who’ll show up. You were lucky the owner, Gretchen, was sitting at the bar enjoying your set.
I've run into her a couple of times. Talk about somebody who's a fan of the music. It was good to be able to sing for her, and she was very positive. I've played at Cliff Bell’s a couple of times before. I love your city. It feels like a perfect home for artists. I hope it treats everybody well. It’s wonderful to play in a place with such a history.
If an aspiring artist familiar with your musical journey wants to quit their job to pursue their art full-time, what advice would you offer?
I might blow up your interview here, but I would say follow your passion. You find musicians who are a hell of a lot better than you, and you play up to them. You don't ever play down, you know. I have a lot of advice musically on not being afraid and about creating your own opportunities.
I've run a jazz session for five years, every week so that I could play with the best musicians in Philly. Sometimes I don't make a dime. Sometimes I pay to do it so that I could play with certain people on the regular. And it's become a way for people of different generations to connect. It's a way for me to know who's 17 and amazing and who’s 87 and amazing.
So, I would say you can't sit back and whine and wait. You can't sit back and wait for something to come. You must make it happen. And if it doesn't work, you must keep going. I don't know if I could give advice and say quit your job and run off to the circus.
But you could start by developing. You learn your craft, make a sound, and then find a way to get out and play on the regular. And it probably means screwing up. I have done that. I've screwed up a lot.
But then you screw up in new and more interesting ways next time. I would tell somebody to go and get good at what they do and find ways to create music in unique spaces that they can get behind.