Chief Community Builder Katie Anne Mitchell sat down with Standing ‘O’ artist Michael Fracasso for a casual conversation.
Katie: I’m sitting here with Michael Fracasso who I met last year at WoodyFest. Michael, welcome. Thanks for doing this podcast. Been trying to pin you down.
Michael: Yes, thank you. Yes, I’ve been a little evasive. I’m glad to do it really.
Katie: I’m so glad it have you and it was such a pleasure to hear you last year and great to hear you this year as well at WoodyFest and at Folk Alliance. Been seeing you all over the place. Alright, let’s just start out with a little bit of basics. How’d you get started in music? Tell me your background.
Michael: Oh gosh. Well, ok, no one in my family played music. And I had always fallen in love with music. My mother would sing to me often and then she told me even though my name is Michael and my dad was Michele.
Katie: True Italian.
Michael: Yeah, yeah. She did not name me after my dad, she said she named me after this singer who she had fallen in love with who went to war and died in Africa.
Katie: Oh my God.
Michael: But she said he was the best singer and that’s who she named me after. She told me this at a very young age, before I started singing. I think some of his spirit embodies me. I don’t know. I never met the guy of course.
Katie: She called his spirit to you in some way. You’re a little bit of that Michael’s child too apparently.
Katie: Ok, so when did you start singing?
Michael: I always sang it seemed when I was in grade school.
Katie: What type of music?
Michael: I gravitate toward anything that had acoustic guitar in it. So of course Bob Dylan or if the Beatles played, “If you’ve got to hide your love away”. I loved the acoustic singer/songwriter guy, so whoever was doing that I always listened to that.
Katie: Then where did you go from there? So you started picking up the acoustic guitar?
Michael: My older sister started dating some guy who was really quite talented musician and he was in college and I asked him to give me lessons. My dad bought me a guitar and I started learning. I always was known as a singer for some reason. There was nowhere to perform.
Katie: Where were you?
Michael: In Steubenville, Ohio. A mill town. Football, mills, and not a lot of cultural things going around.
Katie: But you gained a reputation as a singer.
Michael: Yes, people looked at me when we went to the woods to get high. They’d ask me to bring my guitar and sing Neil Young songs. You know, that sort of thing.
Katie: Did you always want to be a singer? Did you always want to be a musician?
Michael: I wasn’t sure, you know? I always knew that I could write songs oddly enough. I remember the feeling, not the song so much, but I remember the feeling of composing a song like on the spot and it being a really cohesive song and I was maybe in fifth grade or something. The feeling was really powerful, like I got that I did something that I took something out of the air and made something.
Katie: Almost like a spiritual experience. That feeling of being embodied.
Michael: It was. It very much was.
Katie: It may be the spirit of Michael. But taking it out of the ether, that’s really interesting that you knew from a young age that it was something that was unique to you and your experience.
Michael: Yes. I did. I recognized it. I didn’t follow up on it other than learning how to play the guitar. Then learning other people’s songs so I could sound just like them.
Katie: Did you often perform your own songs?
Michael: That’s what I was saying; there was nowhere to perform. The first time I performed was I was a junior in high school and it was an Activities/All-the-Clubs Day, or whatever you want to call it. I was in the French club and I was playing guitar for this woman who was singing the Beatles Michelle song in French so I was her backup and we did that. The program ran too short so one of the nuns said, “Michael, go out there and sing some songs! We can’t let everybody go home.” I’m like, “Ok” and I just walk out there and the first song I sang was Arlo Guthrie’s “Coming into Los Angeles”.
Katie: Oh my gosh.
Michael: I just remember when I finished, the whole auditorium gave me a Standing O, as if I was now totally addicted to the whole thing.
Katie: No kidding! The first time going out there and you get that!
Michael: I was entertaining people and singing a song and getting a Standing O. I was like, “Oh, this is what I want!”.
Katie: Shot of adrenaline right there.
Michael: So that happened. Then I started performing songs that I composed. In the next year, it was Earth Day I remember and I wrote this song called “Pollution Blues”. Silly song, but anyway, I went up and performed that.
Katie: That’s great. So then you went to New York?
Michael: Well, I went to college actually.
Katie: Where did you go to college?
Michael: The Ohio State.
Katie: Oh, The Ohio State. I did some work in grad school there.
Michael: If you don’t like it you say “The (tha)”. If you like it you say “The (thee) Ohio State”.
Katie: So “Tha” is a little more…
Michael: Yeah it’s a derogatory usage. Yeah, so I went to Ohio State and I got a degree in environmental science. Then went to New York.
Katie: Why environmental science? Was it the pollution song?
Michael: Yeah, yeah. Thank you. You just realized a connection that I never put together. That has to be it.
Katie: Did you do anything with the environmental science after that?
Michael: Only that when I moved to New York I needed a job. So I went to this hospital and said, “Look I have a degree in environmental science. I think I can work in your bacteriology lab.” And they did, they trained me. They didn’t pay me, but I was there for six months training then I became a bacteriologist and virologist. Then I left after two years. I couldn’t keep the hours. I was, at that point, starting to make connections in the New York music scene.
Katie: So you were doing that as well on the side too.
Michael: Oh yeah. I was going out every night. Then showing up to bacteriology like, “Oh my God. I can’t do this.”
Katie: And somehow you survived.
Michael: I survived and really it was an odd scary time because the AIDS virus had just been discovered and all this crazy. You know, scary.
Katie: Did that have an influence on your writing?
Katie: I appreciate your blatant honesty and not trying to bullsh*t me here.
Michael: Not at all. Not in the least.
Katie: What was it like when you first started writing in New York?
Michael: Well, it was interesting because I went there with a batch of songs and I had been performing in college a little bit. I was really influenced by Brazilian music and Paul Simon. There was a bunch of people like Stephen Bishop. I was doing this kind of mellow Brazilian-ish thing that I liked and I gravitated toward. I got to New York and I had songs that I had written in that style.
Katie: Any reason why Brazilian music?
Michael: Oh, I love Brazilian music. I still do to this day.
Katie: Just a random connection or were you exposed to it at some point?
Michael: No. Whenever I hear it I just gravitate toward it. I love it.
Katie: One of those connections from the ether.
Michael: Yeah, it’s so beautiful to me. I had seen this movie, Dona Floor and her Two Husbands. A Brazilian film. The woman, Simone, did the sound track. I know that right after I got out of the movie theater I went and bought her album and I put it on. I used to lay on my floor and listen to that record.
Katie: Just be a little bit in love.
Michael: Yes! I was totally in love! I couldn’t be more in love. That was like the greatest experience. I didn’t understand a word she was saying, but it didn’t matter.
Katie: You had that heart-to-heart connection.
Michael: Anyway, but I had written a lot of stuff before I got to that point. By that point I wasn’t getting any gigs in New York. I was part of this thing called the Songwriter’s Exchange with Jack Hardy, who was prominent in starting that. So you had to have a new song to perform that Monday night at the Cornelia Street Cafe. So I remember it was Labor Day right around this time of year and I had just been in New York for three months at this point. Like I said, not getting anywhere, and not having written anything either. So my friends that I had made were like, “Hey! Come camping with us in the Adirondaks and it’s Labor Day”. I was going to go and then I thought like, “You know, I moved to New York to be a songwriter. I’m just going to stay home this weekend, I’m off, I’m going to try to write a new song.” So I worked my ass off and I wrote a new song and I went and I performed it. When I was performing it, I realized that I found my voice. It wasn’t anybody else’s voice. It was me. For the first time.
Katie: That’s got to be gratifying.
Michael: Yeah. I really found my own voice. My own style.
Katie: Because you were talking a lot about imitation when we first started.
Michael: Yeah I mean I imitated people all the time. That’s how you learn. It’s fine. But there I found my own voice and then I started getting my own shows.
Katie: So other people recognized it too.
Michael: Oh yeah. It ended up being on this record that got reviewed in the New York Times. They totally gravitated toward that song. I remember getting some jealousy thrown my way because of the kind of review that I got. It was a compilation record so it was final.
Katie: I’m guessing that had an impact on your writing style after that?
Michael: It did. I started writing all the time.
Katie: Did it change your writing process at all?
Michael: Well, I found the process. That too happened in that period where I worked at something. Not directly, sort of indirectly, but knowing in the back of my mind, that I was working to write a song but I had to get there first. You just can’t like write a song like, “Hey, I’m going to write a song!”.
Katie: So, would you say that you became more conscious of your process after that?
Michael: Yes. I did. I had a way of warming up to the actual doing the painting. A series of exercises had to exist before I could get there.
Katie: What were those exercises?
Michael: Like I would sit and practice music. Practice guitar. I’m a terrible site reader. I still am. But I would sit there and read music and try to play it. One of the weird things that would happen is that I’m dyslexic. So I’d read it incorrectly. So when I was reading it, I’d be like, “Wow this sounds really great!” And it wasn’t even the right thing. I was playing something completely….
Katie:…so you inadvertently invented something new because of your dyslexia!
Michael: Yeah! I was making mistakes and I would hear things that were oddly great to me. That was part of it.
Katie: Wow. So inspiration to anyone with dyslexia out there.
Michael: I think that’s really important to discover. I remember working with Charlie Sexton, he produced a couple of my records, we were in the middle of recording something and I was like, “Oh Charlie, I just made a mistake” and he was like, “What are you talking about Michael?” and I said, “Well, I turned that around” and he was like “No, no that was genius!”
Katie: So happy mistake.
Michael: So just knowing where your mistakes are just as valuable.
Katie: So talk to me a little bit about the mentor you found there in New York too. Doc…
Michael: Oh Doc Pomus? Well you know who he is. He’s just the most famous songwriter, wrote all these Elvis Presley hits, “Save the Last Dance for Me”. My first show with a band was in this club called Kenny’s Castaways on Bleecker Street and I had never played with a band. That too was a strange story because I was going to the Monday night open mics, around the same time period we were talking about, and wasn’t getting anywhere. So I asked the sound man, because he was the guy in charge of advancing you. If he liked what you did, then the following Monday you would get a half hour slot instead of just two songs. So I finally after getting nowhere I said, “Well, man, how come I can’t get a gig here?” And he was like, “You really want to know the truth?” And I’m like, “Sure.” And he goes, “Well your song sucks. Your voice sucks. Your stage presence sucks.” So that is the whole summation of the music business and he like slammed me.
Katie: Did that have an impact on you? Were you paralyzed for a little while? That sounds terrifying to me.
Michael: I was horrified. My heart sunk. My friend Martha was with me and she was like, *Gasp*. But, you know, I went home that night like, “Fuck that guy!” and I wrote this song that night and went back and played it the following Monday and while I was playing it, Pat Kenny, who often was drunk, this is a story I’ve told before but anyway, his head was leaning down on the bar because he had too much to drink and in the middle of the song I hear this, “That’s a fucking great song, Michael!” After that I didn’t have to do the half hour. He started hiring me to play.
Katie: That is great. Wow, so you showed him within the span of one week.
Katie: That’s fantastic. But yeah, talk to me a little bit more about Doc though.
Michael: Oh yeah! I forgot, so I met him at Kennys because now I was playing there as a regular. Like I’d play there once a month and I’d play there with my band and Doc was always there and he took a liking to my songs. He invited me to his apartment to hang out and maybe to write. I just got to know him and I was like, “Man. I have made it.” I didn’t make a penny yet, mind you, but I felt in my heart that I’d really made it.
Katie: Well, if you get the recognition of someone like that that has such a reputation and longevity in the industry, it’s very reaffirming. Especially after that point too which I’m guessing was after you’d found your voice.
Michael: Yeah, so I was starting to get some confidence that way. Doc took me under his wing. We didn’t write together, I’m sorry to say. He was getting more ill and he was already in a wheelchair. He always had to have somebody helping him at this point in this life.
Katie: But still to have someone have that confidence in you that makes a world of difference whether you write together or not.
Michael: It gave me all the confidence I ever needed to be recognized by a hero like that.
Katie: So then what took you to Austin? And you so strong identify with Austin. It’s so interesting to me.
Michael: I do. Karen Berg, who was A&R for A&M record and I think even Warner Brothers, she was a big A&R person. She signed Lou Reed and all these other huge stars. At that time, this was mid to late eighties, I was playing at CBGB’s a lot and she would come to my shows and we became acquaintances. I wouldn’t say we were close friends or anything but we would sit and have lunch or something. And she took me aside and I had been signed to several production deals in that period too. This last one was with a couple guys who owned a studio and they were going to shop the demos around and they hired all these hot shot New York musicians—Will Lee and Stephen Gaboury, all these really great, great players had me playing my songs. It was just like another bad demo to me. It just wasn’t me; I was getting squashed by somebody else’s idea of how to make me a star basically.
Katie: Yeah, instead of you being the artist that you are.
Michael: Yes. So we did that one demo and I’m like, you know what? I want to give it one more try but I want to hire the people that I want to use. And I did and I found this really great Irish band. Actually, one of them was playing on the street, Rachelle Garnier, and she’s a great accordion player and stuff and just a great musician to this day. Anyway, I made a demo with her band as my backup and it was way better, but it still didn’t get me a deal. But I gave it to Karen and Karen was like, “Michael, this city isn’t right for you. You need to go somewhere where you’ll get some recognition and get your career going because you’re just going to keep going up against the wall here. This is not top FM radio stuff.” I had already given the production company six months to get me a deal or else I was leaving town. And that’s how I moved to Austin. I was like, “I’m moving somewhere else.” I had gone to LA a bunch and to Nashville a bunch and neither of those seemed like the right move.
Katie: Talk to me about why, what it is about the music community in Austin that you love so much?
Michael: Well, we were talking about this the other day and it is the most supportive community to be around. I was talking to a woman at Hardly Strictly, Peggy Jones, and people really support each other there. No one has jealous inclinations toward you. They really work with you. Right now I’m out with Betty Soo who is one of the great singer-songwriters that I know.
Katie: She’s fantastic. We just interviewed her on Art of the Song as well.
Michael: Yeah, I mean, she’s fabulous and she’s here supporting me. She has no other interests at the moment but to do that for me or with me.
Katie: That’s really wonderful too. You also, since I had interview Rain Perry before about The Shopkeeper, you were also involved with Congress House for a little.
Michael: Yeah I did my first full-length record there.
Katie: Oh that’s so funny.
Michael: And I worked with the owner Mark Hallman in a band with Iain Matthews who was an original member of Fairport Convention and we had a band together called Hamilton Pool and we made a record there. I actually made, well I guess those two records, and I guess some other little projects. I produced a band there.
Katie: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I wanted to ask you too, since The Shopkeeper was really touching on how the music industry has changed in Austin, obviously you’ve felt supported from then until now, do you feel like the industry around you has changed?
Michael: Oh definitely. As you know this industry is just insanely different.
Katie: Yeah, but in Austin specifically. How would you say you saw things change?
Michael: Well, it’s a little more expensive to be a musician there. The cost of living has gone up dramatically. Finding a place to live, etc.
Katie: What about getting gigs?
Michael: Getting gigs, there’s a ton of gigs there, but there’s way more competition too to go with that.
Katie: Yeah. It’s become a more saturated environment.
Michael: Very saturated. That’s a good word for it. So it’s changed in that way as well. It’s sort of like a little bit of clubish attitude or clickish. The people that have been there a long time like, who I mentioned before, Charlie Sexton or like my friend Mark Patterson who’s drumming with me on this tour, we bond together. We just had a bunch of benefits for our friend George Reiff, who has cancer. He’s worked on almost every one of my records. He’s the most talented bass player. I mean, amazing.
Katie: That’s got to be a little bit of a shocker too.
Michael: It is. He was very healthy living soul. Never did excessive partying, to my knowledge anyway. He stayed in good shape, he ran, he worked out, he meditated, and one day you wake up and you have cancer.
Katie: Yeah. I would imagine it’s a little bit of a shocker too with music being how intimate it is to play with other people, I could imagine that would be heartbreaking. I’m sorry.
Michael: I cooked dinner for him and his family before I left town on this trip and he’s living with his brother and sister-in-law and his brother insisted that I get the guitar out and he gave George a bass and we did a couple songs. George had just had brain surgery less than a week—-maybe five days before….
Katie: And then he got right back into it!
Michael: And then we were playing but we were both choked up. It choked me up and I know he was choked up. Yeah.
Katie: I’m sorry about that.
Michael: We’re all wishing him a good recovery. God’s speed.
Katie: Well, on lighter news, you were saying that you mentioned you had cooked for them too. You doing cooking as well. Doing cooking along with singing and performing for people.
Michael: Yeah, as you know, this music business is not that lucrative. I have two young, well they’re middle school children now, but I try to make money how I can.
Katie: Have you always been a good cook?
Michael: Yes, I have.
Katie: Is that just something from your Italian heritage?
Michael: Even when I was in college I was writing recopies down. I know you’re way too young to know what Fortran cards are, but I was taking Fortran in college and you had to punch cards to do a computer program and I was so terrible at it. As you know me a little bit, you know how bad I am with computers anyway so this was no better, in fact, horribly worse. I was writing recipes or lyrics. I have a bunch of those Fortran cards with recipes on the back or lyrics.
Katie: Did you ever write recipes along with lyrics? Do you find it’s a different creative process for you?
Michael: It is. I never married the two.
Katie: Interesting. Like it comes from a different place.
Michael: Yeah. In a way they’re similar in the sense that I absorb something. Like I absorb music and when I read a recipe, like if I’m trying to make something I’ll read like five or six different recipes of that dish. Then I can feel it. I understand what’s going on and I pick what I want to do within that or add whatever I want to add. So, in a way, I absorb things that way, music and cooking, but I think that’s the only similarity that I have. I know cooking is relaxing to me.
Katie: I was going to say, what’s the difference between performance versus serving your dish to people?
Michael: I’m like a different person on stage actually.
Michael: Yeah, I’m not the same person.
Katie: Ok, how would you describe yourself on stage versus how you would describe yourself in person?
Michael: In person, like now, you can just figure out, I’m kind of soft-speaking I think and not really direct. On stage, those guards, whatever guard I have going right now is gone on stage.
Michael: I don’t know and I wish I was always that person, I really do. I wish I was that person on stage all the time but I’m not. I say things on stage I would never, I don’t even think about.
Katie: It’s just that you’re possessed by that certain amount of confidence or assuredness?
Michael: Yeah, that guard is down. There is no guard for me. I couldn’t get up on stage if I had a guard basically. So that’s the difference. So, when I get up on stage it seems to vanish. I don’t know exactly.
Katie: But it’s magic and you can leave it at that.
Michael: I just get up there and I’ve blurted out some things that I’m just like “Oh my God…”
Katie: So you never had performance anxiety?
Michael: Always. To this day.
Katie: But does it vanish once you walk on stage.
Michael: Once you walk on stage.
Katie: So it’s a little meditation. You can have all of your anxiety beforehand and then you go out and it’s like ‘Ok’.
Michael: Hopefully it’s gone. Yes.
Katie: Talk to me about your most recent album “Here Come the Savages” which, by the way, I adore. I listened to it a few times this morning. It was brilliant.
Michael: Thank you.
Katie: So how’d you come up with the concept for it?
Michael: I think on all my records the concept occurs to me later.
Katie: So you write and then you interpret.
Michael: Then I see like, whoa, I really have designed something that I didn’t realize I was designing. Like a lot of those song are prescient to what had happened in my life. So I didn’t know what I was writing about until after the fact. Like, I would get to the end of the song…
Katie: …and you don’t know what it’s about until after you write it and then you’re like, “Oh yeah. That’s what it’s about.”
Michael: Right. So I will often write a song and not know what part of me it’s from.
Katie: Yeah, like the words just come out in a cohesive way and then you figure out later.
Michael: Oh yeah, I mean, again, there’s work involved. It’s not just like “Oh, well I just write a song.” But yeah, I was surprised by the outcome. But it’s weird because it’s almost like I’m writing the future for myself. And this one was a dark future to be writing but it was all really correct. There’s some things of hope.
Katie: But maybe it’s just that you’re subconsciously observant of where the trajectory of your life is going.
Michael: Right, but as an artist I like to place myself in the future because it’s a scary thing to do. It’s like getting on a tightrope.
Katie: Like it heightens your vulnerability. Fascinating.
Michael: So the more I do that, the more interesting my songs become. To me, anyway. They’re just interesting and to me I hope that other people will be able to get into them. That’s the thing. I don’t ever write really linear. It’s always more like you have to kind of figure out what I’m trying to say. Just like me. I’m trying to figure out too.
Katie: I get that though, I think that’s a beautiful way to do it too because then you’re not limiting yourself, right? Because if you’re trying to write so linearly then you have to be really dogmatic about it. Then you can’t really pull from the ether. As you said, you put a lot of work into your songwriting process but you’re also, it seems, allowing for the ether to speak to you.
Michael: Yeah I don’t mean to sound pretentious but I look at myself more as an artist, like more as a creator of something. I love music and, of course, that’s the thing that spurs me to write but, musically, I’m ok as a musician, but I think there are so many great musicians and I’m not one of them. But I am an artist I think.
Katie: Well, I would disagree with you on that. I think that if you, out there, listen to his music, you would too. But, I will say, it seems that you’re just creatively inclined in general from your cooking etc. and it’s just that music is the medium that you’ve chosen to put yourself out there.
Michael: Yeah, it’s been the one medium that allows me to work.
Katie: Find your course. Alright so we’re kind of running of time…
Michael: Ok good. Not good. Thank God! No I didn’t mean it that way. No but it’s been fun!
Katie: So you’ve been doing this for a good amount of time, what advice would you give to songwriters starting out in this day and age in finding their voice?
Michael: I think that that’s important. I think there’s a difference. I know because I’ve done it. I’ve wrote songs that were not me. That meant nothing to me but I felt like “Oh I wrote a song, yeah this is great!” But it isn’t you. It’s not coming from you. You’re just copying another song to write that song.
Katie: And you can feel the difference when that happens.
Michael: Yeah, the difference is really. You can feel it.
Katie: Like your baby. So your advice would be for songwriters to maybe look for that feeling?
Michael: Of course. Look for that feeling and really take it seriously. I think songwriters often don’t edit their own work enough and that’s what I would advise. Really take a critical look at what you’re doing.
Katie: Because that’s important. Goes in with the hard work of it.
Michael: Yeah it is. It’s a lot of hard work.
Katie: And I would imagine editing is a very pivotal part of it.
Michael: A great big part of it. Some people get lazy and forget that they’re taking shortcuts.
Katie: Well, Michael Fracasso, thank you so much for joining me today.
Michael: Thank you so much for having me. I’ve enjoyed it. I’m sorry it’s over.
Katie: Well, I’m sorry it’s over too. Thank you.