Michelle O'Neil • Happiness Is Real

Mixing Newfound Confidence With Innate Vulnerability, Debut Release Offers a Beautiful Musical Journey

    icon Feb 02, 2023
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One of the many charms of Michelle O’Neil is the sense of mystery that drives the musical talents of this lanky long-haired soulful blonde guitarist and gifted vocalist - a complex blend of contradiction consisting of deeply personal and introspective songwriting mixed with a carefully controlled vocal range that can milk the last tear of sadness from a note in one moment, only to soar to the stratosphere with power and confidence the next.

Having performed throughout the region for nearly a decade now as a solo artist and also as a duo with her musical partner Melissa Curry - who’s exuberance is equally stunning when both of their voices come together to design an architecture of vocal harmonization reminiscent of a female version of Simon & Garfunkel - Michelle has now reached a new milestone in her career with the release of her first album of original compositions.

Titled Happiness Is Real and recorded and produced by Andy Reed at Reed Recording Studio, the 14-songs featured on this amazing debut chronicle a roller coaster ride of musical achievement ranging from overcoming deep personal conflict to celebrating the durability, power, and wisdom of love.  With a stellar line-up of A-Class musicians backing her up that include Reed, Cody Busch, Joe Balbaugh, Todd Miller, Loren Kranz, Duncan Ferguson, and Kyle Volz, the album begins with the buoyant Happiness Is Real title track and segues through a range of musical styles, including the plaintive and beautiful ballad Hunger, which is one of many standout cuts.

Insofar as the last time we sat down for an interview was back in January, 2017, a lot of water has flowed down the stream over that expanse of time. In terms of her own growth as a musician, what is the biggest evolution Michelle feels she has achieved artistically from where she was at five years ago?

“I would think it comes down to accepting myself and my craft and what I am capable of doing,” she reflects. “There is always going to be someone better, and I hold myself to high standards; but I’ve learned not to be so hard on myself.   It took me a long time to release these songs, because they are so personal and confessional that it put me in a very vulnerable position.”

The process of writing the 14-songs that comprise the material for Happiness Is Real actually began over a decade ago. “I started writing these songs about 11 or 12 years ago,” she states. “Actually, most of these songs came from a creative spurt I experienced back in 2010-2011 and for a long time I only played them for myself. I allowed them to incubate and then would bring them to Cody or Todd, whom I’ve known the longest, and they would help me flesh them out.”

“It was a question of confidence, which was the hardest thing to overcome.”

Although she has always possessed a natural gift in terms of vocal range and intonation, this newfound confidence became immediately apparent the first time I saw Michelle perform at White’s Bar after a two-year break from the isolation of the COVID lockdowns.    Musically, her guitar playing has become more definitive, while vocally  the emotional nuance in her voice possesses a newfound strength, mastering the ability to move from a posture of power and indignation to smoothing the edges with softly healing sustenance the next, all within two simple lines of a verse depending upon the nature of the lyrics and the tenor of her heart.

Indeed, Michelle confirms that much of this newly discovered artistic confidence and maturity was quite paradoxically a by-product of the Pandemic. “Since I wasn’t able to go or play out and had all this time to be with my kids and family, I worked a lot on the album with Todd and Cody. We worked on the songs and shaped the backbone of it. Basically, I went to them and said, “I have these songs and know they’re special. Let’s do something with it”

As for her musical and artistic goals with the new album, and what she hopes to achieve artistically with it, Michelle says that in terms of an artistic statement she always wants to promote love. “That’s my thing,” she explains. “When I wrote those songs it was during a real hard time of my life. I was going through a rough time mentally with bi-polar disorder, so this was a way to express myself and feel better in those moments. When I can sit down and play this song I created it makes me feel better and keeps me going.”

Michelle also attributes much of her newfound musical confidence to the experience of working with Andy Reed and his musical Wrecking Crew in the studio. “I learned about the process of bringing these songs to life and the layers involved with opening them up and realizing I could do this,” Michelle asserts. “Andy helped build up my confidence for sure and always encouraged me after and during takes to get what he knew would sound best and help guide me that way.”

Michelle is also incredibly excited about her upcoming CD Release show for Happiness Is Real at The State Theatre in Bay City on Friday, February 24th .  “Everybody who recorded with me on the album will be performing and backing me up, including Loren Kranz, Andy Reed, Todd Miller, Cody Busch, Melissa Curry, along with her sister Melissa O’Neil on backup vocals.  “We don’t plan on playing live together other than for this show because they’re all so busy, but I’m so grateful an blessed they were on this album. Now I have a tangible piece of art and that makes a huge difference.”

Michelle says the reception towards Happiness Is Real has been strong that she finds it interesting the songs people gravitate towards, citing Eat You Alive, Rebel Woman, and Lillian as the most downloaded tracks. As for her personal favorite she cites Be Still. “That’s the newest song on the release that I wrote about four years ago, but I also love Eat You Live. They’re all great!”

While she doesn’t do as much solo work as she did prior to the Pandemic, when she was performing five or six nights a week, Michelle says it became too much. “My children Lillian and Miles and 10 and 8-years old now, so I want to be home with my family so I geared it back a bit. During the shutdown I realized I wanted to be closer to home and re-evaluate what’s important.”

As for new original material she is working on, Michelle says she finds her sound continuing to evolve. “The new songs I’m working on are not topically that different, but have a lot more guitar work happening because Cody has helped me write a lot of these songs and we’re collaborating more and writing melodies together. I’ve written some on my own as well because it’s a vulnerable process letting those melodies and thoughts come out.”

“The most challenging thing at this juncture of my career is composing lyrics and asking what do I  have left to say”, she reflects. “Jewel and Alanis Morissette are two songwriters who always inspired me, but how much do I want to share? You have to really open yourself up to do that, but you get a lot back from it, too” I’m just really happy to be doing this.”

“I believe I am meant to do this and believe God gave me this gift to share it with the world and feel it’s my calling to serve and encourage others through music,” concludes Michelle.

Happiness Is Real is available on Amazon Music and all the streaming sites and physical CD’s will be available at the ‘Record  Release Show’  happening Friday, February 24th at The State Theatre in Bay City at 7 PM.  General admission is only $12.00 and tickets can be purchased by visiting statetheatrebaycity.com

To listen to the title track from Michelle's new release, click here.




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