Rising star plays music that's old-timey and new

Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles performing at a music festival in Minneapolis in May 2008.
Photo courtesy of Lucy Michelle via MySpace

There's an "old soul" quality to Lucy Michelle's songs, whether she's singing about doomed relationships or setting to music illustrator Edward Gorey's poem about a funny looking bird. Maybe it's because she sounds like a crooner from the 1920s.

Michelle didn't take songwriting seriously until college, which for the 22-year-old wasn't that long ago. Her grandfather, a banjo maker in Oklahoma, made her an instrument that awoke her muse: a ukulele.

Lucy and her grandfather
Lucy Michelle and her grandfather, a banjo maker in Oklahoma, who made Lucy a ukulele and awoke her interest in music.
Photo courtesy of Lucy Michelle

"I was playing saxophone for a while, and I really wanted to teach myself how to play something, and I felt like guitar might be a little too hard," she said. "And I figured four strings is just enough for me to handle, so I taught myself ukulele, and I've been writing songs ever since."

"I listened to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald when I was growing up," she said. "A lot of early jazz - Billie Holiday. A lot of Bob Dylan. A ton of Bob Dylan. My mom's obsessed with Bob Dylan. Johnny Cash."

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"I take from a lot of what I've listened to, growing up and everything," she said. "It was never purposefully, but I feel as though the songs that we play have this sort of old timey feel in a way, but yet this sort of new feel at the same time."

"When she's onstage she's very natural and very adorable and very relatable."

That old timey feel is driven home by The Velvet Lapelles 'all acoustic' accompaniment. In addition to ukulele, there's an accordion, a cello, and Lucy Michelle's whistling, which is it's own instrument.

"Victrola Punk" is the term Mike Wisti coined to describe Lucy Michelle's music.

The Minneapolis musician and engineer produced Michelle's critically praised 2008 debut CD "Orange Peels and Rattlesnakes."

Wisti understands how some might view Michelle and the Lapelles as a novelty band.

"The yukulele, the whistling, the band - they're a way in for a potential audience," he said. "But I mean to me, the biggest draw was simply the songs and probably Lucy's voice."

Mike Wisti
Mike Wisti, frontman for the band Rank Strangers,and producer of Lucy Michelle's 2008 cd, "Orange Peels and Rattlesnakes."
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"Her voice is so distinctive, and I think the first time I heard it I didn't like it."

City Pages Music Editor Andrea Swenson eventually grew to love Michelle's voice. But Swenson was more immediately impressed with the detached, somewhat writerly narrative in many of Michelle's songs.

"She kind of has this distance with which she speaks about the people in these stories she's telling that seemed more mature than what I was expecting," she said.

Lucy Michelle is part of a wave of throwback folk bands that are saturating the local music scene, groups that turn down the volume and turn back the clock stylistically.

At the hoot
City Pages Music Editor Andrea Swenson (right) and Stacy Schwartz at a Mad Ripple Hootenanny in 2007. Swenson says one of the reasons Lucy Michelle is so popular is her likeable stage presence.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

But being in vogue isn't the only reason Michelle and her Velvet Lapelles have become one of the most booked local bands around, according to City Pages' Andrea Swenson.

"Another thing that I think has to do with her popularity is that she's so charismatic when she's singing, and when she's interacting with people at these shows, and when she's on stage she's very natural and very adorable and very relatable," she said.

Swenson says Michelle's likable stage presence makes you want to hang out with her, and go see her shows over and over again.