BWW Interview: Michelle J Rodriguez Opens Up About MICHA MUSICA: IN TRANSIT at Joe's Pub
Chris Struck and Michelle J. Rodriguez discuss Micha Musica: In Transit, and what it means to her to share her upbringing, Latinx experience, and to bring her Buena Vibra spirit to the five boroughs.
Chris: Hi Michelle, so, you've got "Micha Musica In Transit" going on tour in only a few days and then coming to Joe's Pub at the end of the week. Tell us a little bit about the process and what it's been like?
MICHELLE: Hi Chris! Thanks for asking me about process. The process has been really about being gentle-I feel like the start of 2020 has been an exercise in being gentle with myself but rigorous with my work. And a big part of that for me is assembling the right collaborators. Once Miriam Elhajli (guitar) and Reza Salazar (percussion) rehearsed with me for the first time, I knew I had assembled the ideal team to create Buena Vibra, good vibes for this tour; they are both phenomenal performers in their own right and it's a delight to bring Latinx artists together and create more community with this work.
My producing team from Joe's Pub and the Mobile Unit (who are co-producing the tour) is incredible and Roxanna Barrios especially has been so great about guiding me towards the purpose and reminding me of the intent behind the Mobile Unit ethos. The idea behind the Mobile Unit is that culture is for everyone, and with this show, I'm able to be of service to the communities of New York City with my music. We'll do a couple of private shows for community partners, including a show at a women's correctional facility upstate, then we're on tour in the five boroughs of NYC February 20-27 and then Joe's Pub is on February 28.
Chris: I'm curious to know whether Micha is a stage character or a nickname. Could you elaborate on this project of yours?
MICHELLE: Micha is my dad's childhood nickname for me, and I have always felt that Micha is at once me, but "Michelle to the nth power" at the same time. Sometimes to get outside of yourself is to get to the essence of yourself. But also connection with my childhood self; when I think about who I make music for, it's for 13-year-old me. I hope she would connect with what I'm making. I started performing under MICHA when I lived in Chicago. I've played shows in all kinds of formats: solo, 9-piece band, pop concert, intimate acoustic, with this project and it's nice to feel that it is ever-changing as I change.
Chris: So, I read that you're a combination of southern soul and Latin pop flare, how did you merge these two things together and what are you influenced by?
MICHELLE: Place really influences me. I was a Puerto Rican kid growing up in Washington State and Kentucky states that gave me a lot with their strong old-time and folk music traditions. Playing the violin growing up I got hooked on bluegrass, Irish and Scottish fiddle tunes. Playing fiddle so young, I feel, gave me my strong melodic sense that I have now. I also grew up listening to r&b in the 90s so that mixes in a lot in what I write and how I sing. But mostly I was listening to Barbra Streisand, Joni Mitchell, Chavela Vargas, Agustín Lara, Caetano Veloso, Selena, great interpreters and composers of music that have shaped my ear and my voice. Veloso is the huge one for me, vocally. Latin pop flare- that could be a result of Latin rhythms I'm drawing from and focusing on writing in Spanish. I'm proud to represent that heritage, and sometimes I wonder, wow, what's the thing that unites all of these disparate influences together? And then I remember that it's me. Other musicians blowing my mind right now and pushing me artistically are Rosalía, Lizzo, Devendra Banhart; Half Gringa and Caroline Campbell and VV Lightbody and NIIKA and KAINA and Sen Morimoto and NNAMDÏ Kenneth Leftridge and a zillion other friends from Chicago. I lived in Chicago for a while, I could write a whole book on how Chicago and the Chicago music scene influenced my sound and artistry... because of the people. I'm a combination of everywhere I've ever been, everyone I've had in my life, so it all comes out in the music.
Chris: Tell us a little more about your show. Can we expect to hear some of the influences that you mentioned?
MICHELLE: Yes, you can! As I mentioned before, it's an acoustic show, no mics, and the songs are mostly in Spanish, cruising between my own music and covers of classics from all over Latin America. Definitely some folk-forward tunes, some boleros, some r&b, a bit of Brazilian rhythmic stylings, I've been obsessed recently! There might be a Fleetwood Mac cover in Spanish in the set... The "In Transit" title came with the tour, but now that I think of it, [the title] really pinpoints a lot of the music that I'm playing and describes parts of my life - there's desire, and longing, and distance, and songs that are prayers and incantations towards having beautiful friendships, and for healthy boundaries, and for the ways I want to live, and the for the world I want to live in.
Chris: It's a huge achievement to be bringing a new show to Joe's Pub. Not your first one, right?
MICHELLE: Thank you! This will be my fourth time playing at Joe's Pub, it's the one place I've played MICHA shows in the city other than in people's living rooms, so it feels like a creative home at this point. My last show there, in July of 2019, MICHA: VISIONS, directed and choreographed by my dear friend and collaborator William Carlos Angulo, was a full-on gay Latinx pop fantasia with me, a full band, and six dancers on that tiny stage, with all original music written by me. We had Britney Spears-esque wireless mics and everything, we had so much fun! The "IN TRANSIT" tour is very stripped-down compared to that. But I won't even say it's the opposite of it, because I'm doing acoustic versions of some of the songs from VISIONS, and part of the MICHA concept is exactly that, that versatility.
Chris: I'm excited to see it. Has this project helped inspire you further? Do you already have new ideas in the works?
MICHELLE: Yes, it has inspired me in the sense of how I prepare and how I listen. It's pushed me to perform on the guitar and to continue the deep dive that I've been on for a while there. Miriam and Reza have inspired me so much in rehearsal; they both bring so much musically to the table, and I can't wait for that to continue on the road. Latin America is a huge diverse place with so many cultures and rhythms and folkloric music styles, and it's so fun to share in that joy and exploration with great collaborators.
I've also been commissioned to write a new musical for the Mobile Unit. After composing music for the Mobile Unit's production of The Tempest directed by Laurie Woolery in April of 2019, I now get a deeper chance to engage with this program by performing on the road. I think the experience will greatly influence what I'm writing.
Chris: I know that a lot of different people get into cabaret for different reasons. What brought you to this art form?
MICHELLE: Cabaret! I hadn't thought about it for this show but I guess that's what it is! The storytelling element around songs always sparked my interest, ever since I went to old-time music concerts as a kid or heard my dad playing guitar in church and preaching while playing and setting up the next praise-and-worship song. So, I interacted with cabaret a lot before I knew what it was, really. My earliest teachers of cabaret were The Bengsons, who cracked open my whole world of possibilities of performance, writing, being a human, everything. I think that's why I got into writing musicals, because it's a medium that is built for songs being strung together into a narrative, and it's okay for that narrative to be loosely or not so loosely based on your experiences! But cabaret is such a personal format, and the songs don't always have to drive plot, I can use the songs to dig into a moment in time in a different way; it makes complete sense for me.
Chris: Do you feel like this art form comes naturally to you?
MICHELLE: Yes! Sometimes I get bogged down by needing to be very understood, as a person, or as an artist, but that falls away for me when I'm performing when I'm singing. For me, when I'm performing, it's more about listening, and channeling energy and music, projecting your heart out there, it touching someone else's heart and making a connection. Connection is different than understanding. I hope people will connect with the experience somehow. I've been thinking about spaces where I don't feel the need to explain myself to anyone, let alone explain myself to myself, where I can just be, and I find that in the woods, at the ocean, drinking tea in my sitting chair in my room, and onstage.
Chris: Well, thank you Michelle for taking the time to chat. Is there anything else you would like to share about you or your show?
MICHELLE: My dad was born in North Brooklyn and my mom was born in the Bronx, and I live in Brooklyn now, along with so many other threads that tie me to New York, so it's a strong Nuyorican heritage that I come from and it feels full circle to be able to present music in these and all of the boroughs of New York City. And I am proud to continue a legacy of music-making on a guitar my father gave to my grandfather! One last thing: bring your tía, bring your primas, invite your visabuela, or el novio de tu abuela! They will all probably love this show.