When I first saw Michaela Anne at a South by Southwest showcase, she was hard not to miss, despite standing five feet if she was wearing high heeled boots, and weighing 80 pounds if she was soaking wet. Michaela was dressed in a full length embroidered frock that looked like something inspired in a Nudie Cohn dream, with brown hair pouring out from under a Western-style wide-brimmed ranch hat like a modern day incarnation of Annie Oakley. It wasn’t just her appearance turning heads though, it was her earnest and fiercely classical country songs and style.
From a strict military family, and first getting started in music as a jazz student at the New School in Brooklyn, it’s not exactly the trajectory you would expect from a neotraditional country singer. Michaela may not hail from a well-recognized hotbed of country music, but she is not really from anywhere exclusively. Like the members of most military families, she moved around quite a bit growing up. The Southern mud may not be eternally embedded under her fingernails, or the Western sands ensconced behind her ears, but perhaps she has that lonesome heart that can only come from having no home to speak of, and constantly having to leave behind the people and places you know that eventually led to her love for country music.
It was in Brooklyn, NY where Michaela was first introduced the the power of old time music while deconstructing the harmonies of Bill Monroe songs with well-respected bluegrass guitarist Michael Daves. Michaela had found her calling. In 2014 she moved to Nashville where her studious attention to composition that accompanies a proper accredited degree in music met with the necessity to learn a deeper understanding of songcraft in the city known for harboring some of the best songwriters in the world.
Out of that winding path comes Michaela Anne’s third full-length release called Bright Lights and the Fame. The respect Michaela Anne found in Nashville can be seen in some of the people who chose to work with her on the project. Producer Dave Brainard, known for collaborating with Brandy Clark (and for being the victim of a vicious assault in 2015) co-writes two of the songs for the new record. Banjo maestro Noam Pikelney also plays on a song, and Rodney Crowell is even rustled up to lend vocals on a track.
Where many of the learned textures of Michaela’s jazz and bluegrass study made their presence known more profoundly on earlier records, Bright Lights and the Fame is more about the hard tack style of honky tonk music. This is music where the cutting realities of love and heartbreak are explored in tear-soaked stories of tattered hearts unfiltered.
More stylized songs like “If Only” and and the waltz-set “Everything I Couldn’t Be” speak on how timing can have so much to do with love, and makes the loss of it that much more hard to take. “Bright Lights and the Fame” and “Won’t Go Down” are more of your classic style of honky songs, with the latter being the most autobiographical, setting the parameters of how Michaela is no prude, but is not willing to put her future in jeopardy by crossing some important and self-appointed lines.
I’m a dreamer, my heart’s on the line
My fingers bleed for every nickel and dime
Some sell out for that dollar sign
But you can keep your money ’cause I’m doing just fine
A song like “Worrying Mind” explores more heady subjects of how the modern experience is so busy and priority filled, it’s important to take time and remember to live life as it passes by. There are more upbeat moments as well, like the Western-inspired “Luisa” where Rodney Crowell appears.
Some may question at the beginning of Bright Lights and the Fame if Michaela’s voice has enough strength and uniqueness to hold your attention, and a couple of cliche lines in the first song may make some squeamish to proceed. But Michaela and Bright Lights ultimately display a lot of depth and diversity, with the melodies becoming more enriching with each listen, and her voice displaying incredible strength and emotion in moments, especially when she holds out notes in the higher register. Michaela Anne is more than just a pretty-faced firecracker in some vintage-inspired duds. There’s some really developed songwriting, structure, and themes here, while not forgetting to have a good time.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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