Rethinking the uke: Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles

Lucy Michelle and Eamonn Mclain in front; Jesse Schuster and Ashley Boman in the middle; Chris Graham and Geoff Freeman in back.
Photo courtesy of Lucy Michelle
Lucy Michelle and Eamonn Mclain in front; Jesse Schuster and Ashley Boman in the middle; Chris Graham and Geoff Freeman in back.

If you think of the ukulele at all — and let’s be honest, some of us sometimes go a whole day without pondering the four-stringed instrument — you probably think of it as something of a musical novelty. If you’re of a certain age, you might remember TV pioneer Arthur Godfrey strumming one, and if you’re of another certain age, long-haired 1960s oddity Tiny Tim’s ukulele-accompanied warbling comes to mind.

Someday, if all goes well, St. Paul’s Lucy Michelle might be another name associated with the Hawaiian instrument.

Listen to her “The Color Salmon” and you’ll find that a ukulele can be played with delicacy. Here, the tenderly plucked strings lend stateliness to the pretty, wistful song.

Her playing of the instrument is a bit more conventional on “With You” (she even whistles along with the tune; Godfrey would be pleased), though her other favored instrument — her voice — provides a keening, girlish roughness that yanks the tune right back out of that square box of conventionality.

Listen to “Traffic,” Michelle puts her distinctive singing right in your face — you can almost feel her breath — and you might flinch. Her pitch is irregular, and that’s clearly not only OK with her, it’s being used as a musical device of its own.

In fact, don’t take a listen. Take a few listens and see if the idiosyncratic vocalizations don’t begin to endear themselves to you, charming you as they take you on bumpy rides through mostly upbeat songs.

Her singing style is, in part, a distillation of her musical influences, she says. (She lists Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Cat Stevens, Françoise Hardy and Andrew Bird, among others, as influences.) “I listen to a lot of different music and I guess [my singing has] sort of become, I guess, all of these things I listen to.”

Dylan, she says, “doesn’t have the most amazing voice, but the way that he phrases things and the words he uses, they really crack.”

Here’s her take on Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.”

Michelle and her band, the Velvet Lapelles, have only been together for about a year, but they’re already releasing their first album, “Orange Peels and Rattlesnakes,” at 7 p.m. today (July 25) at Bedlam Theatre.

The Velvet Lapelles are Geoff Freeman (drums and vocals), Chris Graham (guitar), Ashley Boman (accordion), Eamonn McLain (cello) and Jesse Schuster (bass and guitar).

Michelle is studying graphic design at the University of Minnesota, so naturally the album covers on her debut CD presented an opportunity to show off her artistic skills as well.

“We decided we’d take on hand-screen-printing all of our CD albums. I don’t think we realized how much work that really is,” she says with a pained laugh. “I hired a couple of my friends to do it…it didn’t work out so well.”

She’s hoping to have enough copies to take with when the group embarks on a mini-tour of the Midwest, including August dates in Chicago, Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa. The group also has a nice gig lined up for early September at the Cedar Cultural Center, opening up for storyteller Kevin Kling.

Not bad at all for a band really still in its infancy.

“Those shows kind of keep coming to us. It’s really nice because I’ve never actually had to book any of the shows we’ve ever had,” Michelle says. “They’ve all been people asking us to play. So that’s been really nice for me because I can either say, ‘Yeah, we’d love to’ or ‘No, I don’t know, probably can’t do that.'”

When you think about it, that’s a pretty amazing claim. Elvis, the Beatles and Dylan? They all scrounged for gigs early in their careers. The same is true of U2, REM, Nirvana, and virtually every other successful artist you can think of.

“Isn’t that strange?” Michelle says, when asked about her ability to turn the business end of music on its head.

“I would say I have a lot of friends and I’d say that makes it easy for us to have shows. The networking is really important. I don’t know what it is, though, we’ve been really lucky with having people just contacting us.”

A few minutes later, Michelle let slip that she has a manager. And that he’s been booking shows for the band.

“He did help book the tour and stuff,” she admits. “He did a lot of the emailing and contacting of people, which is really nice for me.”

So up is still up and left is still left and right is still right and unknown artists still have to call (or pay someone else to call) around for gigs.


Upcoming pick

Madison, Wis.-based Crustacean Records, recording home to Killdozer, Mad Trucker Gone Mad, The Gusto, 26, Things Fall Apart and others, holds a DVD release party for “Crustacean Records: Drown Out the Daylight,” at 8:15 p.m. this Saturday (July 26) at Stasiu’s Place, 2500 University Ave., Minneapolis.

The event features a showing of the main feature from the DVD documentary about Crustacean bands and Midwest metal music.

It also includes sets by label bands Droids Attack, Awesome Snakes, Ouija Radio, Birthday Suits and Drunk Drivers. Admission is $8.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Reggie McGurt on 07/25/2008 - 10:18 am.

    Nice article. Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles are great. Can’t wait to pick up the new album!

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