Death By Sunshine, the new release by Michael Lee Jackson. This is a rock release that relies on finesse rather than a sledgehammer. Finely woven layers of instrumentation and melody with vocals telling the tales of life…sometimes with a humorous slant. MLJ gets funky and soulful on this one too. You could say there is something for everyone here. Frankly, I love this record…great tones and great tunes. I can recommend it without hesitation! At the bottom of the page is a podcast audio player that you can use to listen while you read. It features some tracks from Death By Sunshine and some older work by MLJ. Who is this Michael Lee Jackson you ask? I could probably answer that with a book length answer but I won’t. Michael Lee Jackson,” I had my first music lesson at the age of ten, and it was on piano. The woman threw me out and said I had no musical talent whatsoever and that my fingers were fat. My mother said something to the effect of “never mind her, let’s get you some ice cream and a guitar…” and I haven’t looked back. Fast forward to adulthood and he formed a band called Animal Planet. Animal Planet went through multiple line up changes over the years and included some outstanding musicians including several of whom had toured with James Brown, Rodney Appleby – a monster talent on bass and background vocals, Percy Jones on keys and BGV’s for a while, Paul Zablotski on keys and BGV’s for a while, Geno McManus for a tour or two, and Tommy Z for one tour. It was through AP’s producer, Armand Petri that MLJ was introduced to Nick Blagona. Nick has been involved with Michael Lee Jackson ever since. MLJ,” I was introduced to Nick by Armand Petri, who produced a few records for me way back when. The first time I met Nick he mastered Animal Planet’s “Dawn” in Toronto. I told him I’d keep paying his day rate just to hear his stories! We were very fast friends, and he and Armand did the follow up record for Animal Planet, called “Toast.” I haven’t recorded a record without Nick since then. When we put the ‘gone fishing’ sign up on Animal Planet, Nick called after a bit and said we should make a record, a guitar record, and no you can’t rely on a large ensemble…That’s how “In a Heartbeat” came together. When I started working with Ian Gillan, Nick was the only guy on the list to produce and record Gillan’s Inn. Nick and I have occasionally written and recorded some music for television as well. And then a few years ago, he said it was time for me to make another record, so we got started on what became Death by Sunshine. Aside from his vast and varied experience and genius abilities to bring the best out of people he works with, he’s a dear friend and we are so musically compatible. It’s important to have a few people in your life who can tell you an idea isn’t developed enough or that it just isn’t very good. I trust Nick without reservation on things like that. In between the music projects, we are just good friends. Nick and his lifetime partner, Mary Jane Russell, are frequent participants in raucous family dinners at my parents’ house in Buffalo when I’m back east, and they’ve become good friends as well. We’ve been fortunate enough to share a lot of laughter over the years. What could be a better foundation for making records than that?”
While Animal Planet was on hiatus, MLJ replaced Rob Buck in the 10,000 Maniacs for a tour of the U.S., Panama and some USO dates. He then went back to Animal Planet.
After touring with the USO for a few years, MLJ decided to knock AP on the head. Up next was a solo record called, In A Heartbeat. It was produced by that Nick Blagona guy. MLJ,” I played the rough mixes for Ian one night and he particularly loved Texas State of Mind and Have Love Will Travel. And one day when I was in southern France, Ian phoned and asked how the record was coming along. I said, “great except for the singer…” He kindly offered to sing on a few tracks, and said he’d have offered sooner but didn’t want to encroach on my project. I said I’d have asked, but didn’t want to encroach on our friendship. So, gem that he is, Ian flew into Toronto ahead of a Deep Purple tour that was starting in Montreal, I believe, and he sang backup on Texas State of Mind and Clean and Dirty, and we shared the vocals on Have Love Will Travel. What a treat that was for me. As we were finishing up, he was fiddling with a dobro I had at Nick’s house, and I said “that’s yours now, matey.”
It was about this time that MLJ began working for Ian Gillan as Creative Manager for his solo projects. MLJ was involved with the recording of Gillan’s Inn record and performed onstage with Ian during the Gillan’s Inn tour. A DVD was recorded and released of the HOB Anaheim show (check it out!). Ian followed this up with the 2008 release, One Eye To Morocco. MLJ was an integral part of this recording as well. A couple of years later, MLJ wrote the score for the indie film Bad Penny. Making a long story short…you are now up to the making of Death By Sunshine and you almost feel like you’ve known MLJ your whole life…right?
I recently had the chance to ask MLJ some questions that will shed a little more light on the inner workings of his musical world.
Indie Pulse Music: It sounds to me that your lyrics are life stories…some introspection?
MLJ: That is inevitably true. We only have our observations and experiences to write from, some are my stories and sometimes I draw from other people’s experiences.
IPMM: Explain your process for composition. Lyrics first, Melody first, a riff etc?
MLJ: For me, the music usually comes to me first. That said, for a few of the tracks on this record I started with the vocal melody and lyrics first. I frequently use the recorder in my phone to catch melodic, lyrical or musical ideas when they pop into my head. Until this record, my songs always started with guitar, but I started with bass for a few of the new ones, such as I Won’t Fight, Funk You, and Careful What You Wish For. Having said that, I’d sketched out most of I Won’t Fight and Careful What You Wish For in my head, music, lyrics, melodies and arrangements, before I recorded them. I remember last year flying to Asia with pretty much only the bass and a scratch drum loop for the verse of Funk You recorded, and I wrote most of those lyrics on that flight, laughing as I went. I saved the second guessing of myself (“Is that too stupid? Too clichéd?”) for later and decided it was a fun romp I hadn’t heard before. Generally, to put down a vocal track I can live with I need the music to be substantially done, so I’ll usually build up the tracks considerably and record vocals last. Occasionally, I’ll go back to the music beds after the vocals are written and make a few tweaks to better match the vocal melody and cadence. And Randy Cooke is so good, that I went back and re-recorded many parts after he recorded his drums. Jesse O’Brien recorded most of his keyboard tracks on this record after the songs were substantially complete.
IPMM: For the most part, does composing come easily for you or is it a tedious process?
MLJ: It’s usually a blast for me. I get lost in it when the ideas start rolling. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly easy, because I usually try to push myself and make the most of the idea, frequently asking myself “Is this really done?” after getting over the initial infatuation with a new idea. Sometimes things need to percolate for a while before I can envision where to take an idea. Writing lyrics always and the lead vocal line almost always takes the longest. Before I had a home studio, all the ideas came from jamming, and I’d record everything. The happy accidents were often the best parts of those jams, and those would become parts of the songs. I recorded everything in those days, so I’d listen to the rehearsal tapes for ideas. With a home studio, I find myself sometimes getting a groove going with drums, and I’ll sometimes jam along on guitar or bass, waiting for the happy accidents which often lead to what comes next in a song, not that some thought doesn’t go into the writing as well. On Feets on the Ground, I wasn’t happy with my musical ideas for the chorus, and one night when Balazs Antal was over working with me, I bounced that one off him and said “Where would you go for the chorus, and he came up with the first bit of the chorus where it riffs from G to A and perhaps a bit more, and then it was easy to finish. The lyrics and vocals on that track came much later. Geno McManus had major influence on Some People and Road to Salvation. For Some People, he recorded a scratch version of a vocal at a whisper late one night at his home studio. I so loved his approach and melodies, much of it remains in the final version. We wrote those lyrics together from his first notes, and we challenged each other on some lines, some of which survived and some of which didn’t. On Road to Salvation, Geno got quite fired up when he heard the rough track, and suggested what the chorus should be, words, melody and choral response. Much of what he suggested is in the final version, and he helped me a lot with the vocals on the entire track pushing me to do a better job and with his background vocals.
IPMM: I love the guitar tone throughout this cd. My observation is that you play a Gibson most of the time but I think I hear some Strat work on Death By Sunshine. Am I hearing things? Any unorthodox instruments or recording processes used on this cd?
MLJ: It wasn’t mostly Gibson. The tele is more often than not the first guitar I grab for tracking. It only takes up the bandwidth it needs and cuts through the mix superbly, and for some reason it’s always in tune! I frequently will double track guitar parts with a tele or strat on one side and perhaps a les paul on the other, or some combination of those, and always through different amps. And I try to keep it a little loose so it doesn’t get too antiseptic. All the guitars on this record were recorded through a Kemper on which I have a nearly infinite choice of amps with very faithful renditions, though I have my go-to’s like the Marshall JCM800 (which sounds and behaves just like one I used to have which was sadly stolen), a Marshall Plexi, Fender’s and all kinds of designer amps. Like anything though, one has to play with it a bit and tweak for your own ears and find what sounds best for the song you’re trying to record. I like to record guitars totally dry, and the rhythm guitars sound especially good hard panned left and right when recorded this way. You can always add a little ambiance later if the track calls for it, but the less you use, the more room there is for all the other things in the mix. For lead guitar, I’ll sometimes add a little quarter note delay and then Nick will sometimes add some other effects from time to time which I usually hate at first and then love when I recover from my demoitis.
IPMM: Clearly there is a California influence on the track Woman Who Eats. Overall, has living in California had an effect on Death By Sunshine? If so, how?
MLJ: You caught that, eh? Again, my lyrics are always inspired and informed by where I am or where I’ve been and what I’ve seen and heard. That particular song is something a lot of people who’ve been here can relate to. As for living here having an influence on the album in a bigger sense, I don’t really know. The musicians who played on it are from LA, Tokyo, Hamilton, Buffalo and so on, and Nick Blagona mixed and mastered the record in Hamilton. If anything, being here made me take longer to finish this record, because there’s so much else to do!
IPMM: Is there a particular track on DBS that has special meaning or significance to you? Why?
MLJ: They’re all my children, so not really. That said, I’m particularly chuffed with how catchy Woman Who Eats, Funk You and Careful What You Wish For came out because ultimately if your music doesn’t draw people into it, no one will hear it.
IPMM: You have some interesting guest musicians on this disc. Is there a musician(s) that you would really like to collaborate with? If so who?
MLJ: Everyone on this record, with the exception of Jennifer Forbes and Jerry Best are people I’ve worked with for a long time on other projects. They’re superb musicians and I’m lucky they take my calls. As for collaborations, I’ve been extremely fortunate in having the great opportunity to collaborate with such amazing players and artists I’ve been awed by over the years and I’d welcome the opportunity to collaborate with any of them again any time. As for people I haven’t worked with that I’d like to work with, there are many. When I think about artists I’d like to collaborate with now, I think mostly about great singers. I’d love to make a record with my comrade in arms, Geno McManus, one day, with him doing all the lead vocals, and I think we’ll get around to that one day.
IPMM: Any musical influences that you care to name?
MLJ: I had a steady diet of great blues and folk music as a child as it was part of my father’s life and he was on the board of the Newport Folk Festival in the 60’s. Going forward, I’ve always been partial to the bluesier side of rock and roll and artists who improvise and keep it dangerous, such as Deep Purple, ACDC, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, and the Stones to name a few. And of course the Beatles have always been a thread in the music I love. I suppose it all goes into the soup of the music that comes out of me. The older I’ve gotten, the more respect I have for the craft of songwriting as well, whereas when I was younger it was mostly about the virtuosity. Now, for me it’s all about songs and melody, and I’ve learned that restraint is one of the best weapons in music and life generally. But there are, of course, times to just let it rip!
IPMM: Any humorous, interesting or unusual stories that have ties to the songs or the recording of DBS?
MLJ: Too many to tell, and the best stories are between the lines.
Feel free to make some up yourselves folks…
You can purchase Death By Sunshine on Amazon, Itunes, Deezer and Google Play!
Some of my notes about the songs on Death By Sunshine:
Feets On The Ground, a damn catchy opening track. The first glimpse of that glorious guitar tone and a funky bass line.
Woman Who Eats, is also damn catchy but the lyrics steal the show here….you’ll laugh out loud…OMG…LOL!
Funk You, growling vocals over a funky groove…go figure!
Room With A View, fantastic guitar work! Eerie phased vocals…Randy Cooke on drums, need I say more?
I Won’t Fight, a catchy / funky rocker with some soulful backing vocals and keys …nice!
Some People, Stellar guitar picking & strumming and soaring vocal melodies.
One More, Heavy blues baby…
Road To Salvation, Blues, wah-wah solo, soulful vocals…got the picture?
Careful What You Wish For, What a solo….and the fat lady sang…
Instru Mental, as the name implies…no lyrics…but he makes those guitars cry & sing!