Welcome to my first post in the “At The Barricade” interview series! I’ll be talking to people from all different parts of the entertainment industry. From musicians to bloggers to record label workers to everything else, I will be talking to as many people as I can to give a realistic view of:
a) what jobs are out there
b) what it’s really like
c) perks and challenges of different careers
Our first interview is with Michelle Owen, lead singer of Harlow and assistant at an indie label/management company. We’ve been friends since we were 3 years old and somehow both ended up following very similar career trajectories. Her mom is like my second mom and vice versa. She’s uber talented and has seen every episode from season 2 of CSI: Las Vegas at least 10 times each (I should know, I was there). She constantly forgets her phone/keys in public places but I think it’s just because her genius brain is so preoccupied with music. Without further ado…Michelle Owen.
This is already good.
I’m being interviewed.
I’m interviewing. Things are going well.
So, Michelle. You are on both sides of the industry at this point. You make music and you work in music. What would you say you enjoy most about each side of that?
Well… on the musician side I wouldn’t even necessarily say there’s something I like best, music is my passion and something I feel like I need to do in order to survive this crazy world. I mean, I guess writing music would be my favourite part of being a musician and loving music. On the business side, I would say my favourite part is educating myself and really understanding the different components of the music business, like publishing and how labels operate and management and also obviously helping other artists pursue their dreams because I understand how important that is, being a musician myself.
Would you say that there’s been any detrimental kind of effect on you from seeing the other side of the industry as an artist?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say detrimental, but I would say it can be a little disheartening seeing the business side of it because it’s not as simple as having a passion for music and sharing that with people. Music is a business so people need to earn money. I feel like the fact that I’ve been able to educate myself and really understand the business side of the industry is beneficial but there’s something that isn’t as… it kind of takes away what is special about having a passion for music when you have to discuss budgets and timelines and marketing plans. I mean, I’m fortunate enough to work around people who share the same passion that I do and are committed to music but there are things that come with being in the business that aren’t necessarily fun to experience as a musician.
Would you say that there’s things you would change about the music side of what you’re doing or just the business side from what you’ve learned? Like would you change the way you do your music to market towards what you see working or would you just change your business side of things?
I would say knowing and understanding the business side is important to me because I have a better understanding of what people look for in an artist. However, I think that being business-focused can actually take away from what is important, which is having a love for music. Sometimes I find myself thinking about how to market myself, how to use social media, how to attract attention, and at the end of the day it’s still about writing great music and being the best musician you can be. So to answer your question, I’m trying to think less about marketing and more about chords progressions and melodies.
What do you think has been the most beneficial thing that you’ve done for gaining a fan base? Is it mainly people finding you online or people finding you at live shows or finding you…
Yeah, I suck at social media so that definitely has nothing to do with any small successes. In our live shows, I’ve always noticed people’s initial reactions to seeing a girl and I like to prove those people wrong and put on a kick-ass show. I’ve received positive feedback after shows, especially from those who respect what I do and share the same interests. I like when I can meet people and be on the same wavelength. I totally forget what the question was.
That’s okay, you said wavelength and I thought about our grade 8 trip to science camp. Sorry. My question was just about finding fans.
Right, that’s what it was. I would definitely say live shows have attracted a lot of our fans. Hamilton has a pretty cool music scene so we’ve received a lot of support from people who come out to see our shows. Also, putting out music that people like – and that doesn’t even necessarily mean being commercially accessible – but making music that people can relate to, which is something that I’m really focusing on at the moment. When we released our first EP, it was a lot of storytelling that wasn’t necessarily coming from personal experiences and I’ve been doing a lot of really personal writing that I’m excited to share because I think that’s the kind of music people want to hear, y’know? Like… you know the song “Here” by Alessia Cara, she’s huge because people hear that song and they’re like “that’s me”.
That is me.
Yeah, she just summed up something that a lot of people feel.
I know, the first time I heard it, I was like “finally a song that’s not about actually enjoying the party”.
I know, I remember sitting on my couch and seeing the video and hearing the song for the first time and I was like “yesssssssss. YES! Oh my god, this is amazing. These lyrics are amazing”.
And she’s from Canada too, I feel like there’s so much coming out of Canada right now. Who would you say is your favourite Canadian artist currently?
Yes, like obviously we all have our favourites from like-
I knew you were going to say Alanis! I was going to say Alanis.
Alanis is my favourite Canadian artist, obviously anyone who knows me knows. Currently… like I said, Alessia Cara is really cool, I’m really liking her stuff. I’m a horrible Canadian, it’s taking me too long to answer this right now. I’m sure people are hating me for not saying Drake or The Weeknd.
Which is fine.
Of course, they’re great. “Can’t Feel My Face” is an incredible song.
Yeah, but there’s other things happening.
The company that I work at has great Canadian artists that are doing really cool things. Like The Glorious Sons, they’re a rock band out of Kingston. They’re great musicians and they have some incredible songwriters in the band. I don’t know, I can’t think of a Canadian act that I’m completely blown away by right now… I love music, but it really takes a lot for me to become obsessed with a band, artist or album. Although, I just listened to – she’s not Canadian – but I listened to an album by Ani DiFranco for the very first time because someone compared my voice to her and I pretended like I knew who she was because I was awkward, and I listened to her album “Dilate” and it was one of those albums that completely blew my mind. I really do relate to and love a lot of female singer-songwriters…but I mean, Canadians are ridiculously talented. I feel like the Canadian market is really underrated and is finally being recognized because of the international talent that is coming out of Canada.
For sure. Even artists like Shawn Mendes and people that are finding their fame through things like Vine.
Totally. I found an article that was talking about how for the first time I think in history, 4 Canadian artists have the top 4 Billboard positions.
Which is so wild. You mentioned female singer-songwriters which brought me to something else I wanted to ask you about. I know that even from my own experiences, sometimes being a female in this industry is really hard, and there’s always a little more work that you have to put in compared to your male counterparts and for just part of the reward. Would you say that you face more issues with that on the music side or on the work side?
Funnily enough, I feel like most people would expect me to say on the business side but I’m actually lucky enough to work at a company that really respects intelligent women. I work with some really smart, hands-on women who are doing great things in the industry, but I can definitely sympathize and understand where those challenges come from because I’ve seen it elsewhere. I would say it’s always been more challenging for me as a woman in a rock band. It’s hard to gain respect because most people don’t take you seriously until you prove them wrong – which I love doing – but it still pisses me off that I don’t get the same respect as a man does. And also just knowing that the rock market has no female representation right now on a larger scale, I mean… there’s The Pretty Reckless who sometimes you’ll hear on the radio, there’s female bands that pop up here and there but there isn’t really a predominant female voice in that genre right now, in Canada at least.
Also, it’s kind of interesting how most of the time – with the exception of a few bands like The Summer Set – when there is just one female in a band, they’re always the singer. It’s never like “oh, this girl plays bass”. Nobody really sees their space there.
Our band used to have a female drummer and I loved it. I loved walking on stage and having people kind of squinting and being like “two girls in a band?” and just watching her impress people… and it shouldn’t be that she should have to impress people but…
Well that’s the funny thing is that guys always seem to…even if they go out there and they’re terrible, it can be passed off as “that’s just the rock thing, he sounds bad on purpose, he’s supposed to be out of key, it’s grunge“. But if a girl does it it’s about “what is she wearing, what is she doing, why is she doing that, she’s just trying to look the part, what a poser”. It’s like there’s this whole other level that you need to reach.
Totally, and I’ve encountered some shitty and misogynistic people. I’ve had men come up to me and tell me to stop and to quit, and that there’s no point in continuing because I’m a woman. And those people are ridiculous idiots, you just have to ignore that nonsense and believe in yourself.
Okay, we’re going to do a couple of quick hit questions.
What is your all time favourite album? Wait-
Jagged Little Pill.[laughing]
I knew! I was going to ask “is it Jagged Little Pill?”. I knew.
I’m a broken record.
What was the first album that you ever bought?
Probably the first Spice Girls album, it had such a huge impact on my life. I know that sounds so lame.
No, I’m the same. I feel like our generation had a great service done for us by having the Spice Girls teach us about girl power from age 6.
And as much as they were a pop band, I agree that those messages definitely resonate with younger girls. I definitely wouldn’t say that I’m interested in that kind of music now, but it had a major impact on my life. But I also remember my dad being a huge fan of Garbage, or Billy Idol “White Wedding”… I’d make him play it every day on the way to school when I was 6.
I made my mom do that with the Barenaked Ladies, so like a little bit different but-
But still good.
Who is one artist that you try to emulate in your live shows, or you try to bring aspects of them into your on stage persona?
In my live shows, I mean I don’t think I particularly emulate anyone. I get lost as soon as I get on stage and sometimes I even blackout and it’s the end of the show and I’m like “whoa”. And it’s weird because I’m told by a lot of people who are close to me that I almost become a different person when I’m on stage. It’s such a release and the energy is like nothing else, so I don’t think I ever try to be like anyone. I definitely have people that I admire for their live show and I admire how they perform vocally and physically, but I don’t think that there’s actually anyone that I’m trying to emulate.
I didn’t mean like totally trying to be them, but things where you’re like “oh, that’s cool, I like that thing that they do” and you try to bring it into what you’re doing. Like is there anyone where you see them and feel like “that’s the energy I’m going for”?
Yeah, definitely strong females… like when I see a woman walking across the stage like she owns the place, I love it. But at the same time, anyone who comes across as genuine and I think that’s something that’s really important to me. Anyone who doesn’t seem completely rehearsed and allows for organic moments in the set. I recently saw Paul McCartney and it was such an incredible experience. He made the audience feel like we were all one for those short few hours. Alabama Shakes has a great live show. Even a band like July Talk, how much Leah stands out in that band because of her stage presence is pretty cool.
I really like the clash between their voices. He’s very gravely and then her voice is like an angel.
Yeah, I don’t think that separately I would particularly listen to either of them, but there’s something really special about them together.
What is one song that always makes you cry?
There’s definitely a few songs that I listen to where I just have distinct memories of them really tugging on emotions. Obviously like… “Stairway To Heaven”, I just get completely lost when I listen to that song and it just takes me on a roller coaster but there are definitely tons of songs that make me emotional. I don’t know if there’s one in particular that’s like my go-to sad song. I have the worst memory ever.
I feel like I used to always tell people that I never cried. And then I realized I have a list of 20 songs that make me sob like a baby. I was like “I need to stop telling people that, because I cry a lot”. But music will do that to you.
I definitely have a playlist that’s close to this… I’m going to take a look. [note: she never got back to me on this]
While you go through that, who would you credit with being somebody who helped you to find your way with music or helped you to foster your love for music?
I’ve definitely been lucky enough to have some amazing music teachers in my life that really inspired me to want to become a better musician. When I was growing up, I had a phenomenal piano teacher. His name was Marcel. I wish that I was more passionate about piano at the time because he was an incredible musician and an all around amazing teacher. I had an amazing high school music teacher who was probably one of the best teachers I ever had, and he was the perfect balance of tough and fun to be around. In regards to actually opening up my eyes to different music and listening to music, my brother actually… my family didn’t really listen to music. I listened to what my mom or dad listened to but I never found my own. I listened to a lot of musical theatre when I was younger and that’s what I performed back then so I didn’t really even know what was out there to listen to. I remember I would hear these songs and I would stop. Like the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit”… I still lose my mind when I hear that drum intro, and I remember my brother used to listen to Red Hot Chili Peppers, Led Zeppelin, Guns N Roses and I was always like “that’s really cool”. And also you.
You completely had a huge influence on what I listened to because you were always listening to music when we were growing up.
Yeah, but I got you listening to Bubba Sparxxx.
Black Eyed Peas, all that good stuff.
Yes, good high quality music.
Stripped by Christina Aguilara was an awesome album.
It was. Oh my god. I used to play the entire album on piano just because.
I know, I remember.
Even when we were in middle school, our grade was really obsessed with music in a way that our siblings’ grades weren’t. They didn’t have the same passion that our grade did. How would you describe your need to make music to someone who doesn’t have that kind of passion and doesn’t really understand it? How would you make them understand?
I’ve always been really thankful that I do have a passion, because I’ve met people who are still trying to find theirs and you can’t really make them understand what it’s like to need something in order to function in life. The closest I can come to explaining it is needing water and food for your body to survive. And that sounds dramatic but it’s the truth.
I feel it.
100%. And I think all passions are probably people who feel the same way but… there’s an emotional connection that music creates between people who are passionate about it that is unlike anything else, and music is so universal that it’s pretty cool when you’re able to do that for a living.
I know you have some changes that you’re working on with your music, your career, and all sorts of things. Let’s say that this is like a time capsule that you’ll open a year from now. What’s one thing that you want to add to what you’re doing by then, what’s one thing you’d want to change and what’s one thing you want to remove?
One thing I want to add to what I’m doing would be more positivity. Sometimes it’s really hard to be positive. As much as having a passion is incredible, sometimes it feels like a curse because it comes with an emotional roller coaster that can be really challenging. Sometimes I can gravitate towards negative thoughts. Especially as you get older and you feel like you should be accomplishing things, when you really can’t measure your career by individual successes. If you’re passionate about music, then it’s what you should be doing regardless of the outcome. Something I’d like to take out would obviously be any negativity that I’m drawn towards. It’s hard because sometimes it’s something I can’t control. But as much as I look back on things and might wish that I’d done them a different way, I don’t think that there’s anything I’d change. I wouldn’t be where I am if I did, and I’m proud of where I am, I guess.
I guess. That’s the negativity coming in.
I’ll interview you again in a year and you’ll leave that out. Well thank you for sitting with me and talking about your hopes and dreams. I feel like I’ve gotta have one last question though… something fun… no wait, two questions. What is one festival or show that you want to see, either in the next year or in your life?
I was really upset when I knew that Garbage was coming to Toronto and I couldn’t get tickets so I would love to see them, but who knows when they’ll be coming around again. I love Shirley Manson. Festival-wise… to be perfectly honest, I’m not a big festival person. I like to soak in one band at a time.
I feel like sometimes when you’re so into the music, it can be really overwhelming and draining to see so much at once.
I just wanna be like “fuck you! I wanna be on stage!” and “Oh my god you’re incredible” all at the same time. Sometimes I wish I could have a time machine to go back-
No, that’s the next question.
NOPE. JUST KIDDING. Okay, Garbage is my answer.
If you could go back and see one show that you couldn’t see now, either because the band broke up or because someone is no longer with us, who would you choose to go see? Also, are you going to say Nirvana?
Maybe. There’s so many. A festival lineup in the 90’s that includes Alanis, Nirvana, Blind Melon and Rage Against The Machine would be unreal…
I’m going to be honest with you, I’m really sad that the lead singer of LFO died. I would have really liked to hear them sing “Summer Girls”.
Oh yeah. Totally. Or to go back to the 60’s and go to Woodstock. Obviously. Pretty typical answer but who wouldn’t want to do that?
There’s a reason it’s the typical answer.
I would just live inside a time machine if that was possible.
What is one thing from 2015 that you think is going to be the Woodstock of our time? The one thing that 40 years from now, everyone will be like “ah, you should have been there”?
Honestly, this is gonna sound like a really pessimistic answer, but I feel like people have such short attention spans now. There’s always some “hot new thing” that grabs people’s attention for however long it lasts – a day or a week – so I unfortunately don’t believe that there are those moments that are as impactful and historical as things were in the past. We have access to everything instantly now. And I really don’t like that.
Okay, NOW I will leave you alone.
I feel like we should have our own podcast.
Let’s have a radio show.