Michelle McAdorey, best known to Canadian music fans as the enigmatic singer of Crash Vegas (1988-1996), returns after a 12-year absence with a new solo album, the eighth in her overall discography, called Into Her Future. It reunites her with old friend and collaborator Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo, who helped her adapt a cappella lullabies into a full-band, countrified psychedelic pop record that—not coincidentally—most recalls Crash Vegas’s perfect 1989 debut, Red Earth.
McAdorey was unlike any other female frontperson back in the day: she wasn’t a quiet folkie (though she did that very well), she wasn’t a grungy rock chick (though she could also do that very well), she wasn’t the flighty artsy girl (she would become that later). She was all of that and much more: she was bold, mysterious, captivating and just as captivating as peers like Gord Downie, to whom she should be rightly compared, as opposed to just her female peers.
After Crash Vegas, guitarist Colin Cripps went on to work with Kathleen Edwards, Jim Cuddy, and now Blue Rodeo. McAdorey released two albums with avant-garde guitarist Eric Chenaux, 2000’s Whirl and 2003’s Love Don’t Change. I hear McAdorey’s influence in everyone from Sarah Harmer to Jennifer Castle; indeed, Castle wrote to me from a tour stop in Munich to say this about McAdorey: “I can't remember what made Michelle stand out, but I noticed her all right. Loved her tattoo and the way she was. Used to listen to Crash Vegas's cover of [Neil Young’s] ‘Pocahontas.’ [1995 single] ‘On and On' was a true summer jam for me and my friends, back when we'd take the yellow ghetto blaster in the boat, paddle to the middle of the lake, strip to naked and float in the night, teenaged. Then I saw her years later with Eric Chenaux playing truly weird and beautiful music in Toronto at Ted’s Wrecking Yard and she stole my heart again.”
Despite my 25 years of fandom, I’d never interviewed McAdorey before. Needless to say, this was a thrill. Her album release show is tonight, Wednesday, November 18, at the Monarch Tavern in Toronto.
November 11, 2015
Let me ask you the most obvious question: it’s been 12 years since your last record. How old is your son?
I imagine that’s part of the reason. Were there others? Life?
Sure. Yeah, life, in a big way. The last record I made, I was pregnant. It came out after I had my son. I remember being asked to tour. I maybe stopped [to think] for a few minutes, but I had this baby. I just said no. I had no idea what that would mean, how it could change me. It was very good for me to just surrender completely into mothering.
Did you have any peers at the time who juggled music and parenthood?
No, I really didn’t. Other than knowing about Julie Doiron, and always wondering how [she did it]. Of course, there’s no one way to parent. I knew that it was important for me in ways I could not have predicted, to be a stay-at-home mother. I didn’t have a plan, but it was really good for me to do that. So I did that for a while, and then, yes, other life stuff happened too.
What was your relationship with music during that time? Creating? Appreciating? Did you turn that off for a few years?
I did keep writing. It became about these quiet a cappella songs for a while, using that nursing time. There was so much that was tiring. I found that opposed to fighting it, I embraced it. Another experienced mother I respected, said to me, “It’s just tired, that’s all it is.” Somehow that was a mini-epiphany! To go with it, rather than thinking, “Oh god.” I always record stuff, if just in a crude way with a hand-held recorder. I had these melodies. I’d show these a cappella tunes to the people I made the last record with, Eric Chenaux and Ryan Driver. It was a slow time, but there was a lot going on personally, too.
The two records you made with Chenaux are very different than everything else in your discography. After Crash Vegas ended, it seems to me the material with Chenaux was an unlearning of sorts, the result of stepping off the hamster wheel of being in a rock band on a major label and searching for new processes, carte blanche. Melodically, those two records to me are vastly different than your earlier albums or this album. Do think that’s fair to say?
I would say that more about the second record, Love Don’t Change , maybe not as much about Whirl . The thread for me is melody informed by folk-rock of the British Isles, which I’ve always been really obsessed with: droning, lilting melodies with lots of minors and seconds. I would agree that this record feels like a continuation [of Crash Vegas]—the fact that I’m working with Greg again. I don’t know if I analyze it in that way. But I like what you said about “unlearning” or stepping off. Post-Crash Vegas I was opening myself up to more improvisation in the songs. It was freeing and interesting doing that, and I loved the sensibility of those incredible players, great people to spend time with. It was an antidote to a fatigue I had felt with some of the music business. And yet, through that time, I also knew that I also loved playing in a band. With these [new] tunes, one way to realize them would be to have them played where there are set parts and arrangements, strong choruses and melodies, and then to try and chase after some of those British Isles records of the ’70s. Our touchstone would be Fairport Convention, sonically, and not being afraid of those sprawling arrangements.
A cappella writing naturally builds strong melodies, no? As opposed to finding four chords you like and kind of flatlining through it.
You’re relying on the voice and the melody and even some of the words. I thought of them as charms, or spells. I was reading this African writer who talked about whispering ideas into the baby’s ear all the time, like charms. I loved that idea: “I’m whispering to you who you are and the things to remember.” They would talk about this long lineage of things that had been whispered over time.
When did you bring Greg in, when did it begin to gel?
I had all the songs. I’d say “The Remainder” was the one I involved Greg more in the writing. That might have been three years ago now, in the winter. He’s someone I really trust, in so many ways. I’d play him a song and he’d respond really positively, but he’d say, “Well, let’s just add a chord here,” or, “Pick up the tempo!” Because a lot of them were quite slow. He helped shape them more for the band.
Was that the first time you’d worked with him on that level in more than 25 years?
How was that different? How has your relationship evolved? You’ve known each other an incredibly long time, since you were a teenager.
We really, really have. (laughs) It was really wonderful. We’re really close pals. It was a bit of a heavy time I was going through, so it was a balm to be able to go out to his place and play. It was magical. He was very passionate about what he was hearing. I really heard this as a band, and he introduced me to most of the people that are playing on the record. That was great, because my longtime buddy pal Eric Chenaux had moved to Paris, and it’s wonderful to make new musical friends, to cultivate new relationships. I felt very lucky.
It sounds like it was very cathartic, too, coming from a place of pain and creating something productive out of it. It can have a very restorative effect.
It was. I want to say: it wasn’t just from a place of pain, but there was a lot going on, and a lot of energy. It was great to have this to pour all that into. And I was really in love with these songs.
What excited you during those years away? What did you discover during those years, musically?
Woah, that’s huge. There’s so much I’ve been listening to. I just got more into those British Isles folk songs. A lot of those artists I love, they haven’t always authored the tunes they’re playing. They play these really old songs. Sonically, I love the sound and all the players. But it didn’t seem to be about persona or images, as much as: “Here’s this ancient tune. How does it go? OK, let’s just get on this thing.” That’s all you have to do: get on it and you do it and it does it.
Have you ever sung those songs?
Just to myself. Some of them I knew of during Crash Vegas, but more after. I don’t know if you know Steeleye Span, or Nic Jones. Martin Arnold is a [Toronto] composer, so brilliant, and he has one of the most extensive record collections ever. He’s responsible for expanding my exposure to more and more music—and his own music. He takes old folk tunes and places them in an experimental context. He treats them in a way that to me is so beautiful, without being too cerebral. It feels visceral. Then another friend was making me mixed CDs. There was a lot of what I’d call pop: songs with structure and strong melodies. There were many songs I knew, but many I didn’t, spanning all eras. Whether it was listening to a demo of Stevie Nicks singing “Dreams,” which is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever heard. Or these Lenny Breau songs, where he sings: "FiveO’Clock Bells" and "New York City." Music from Beirut. A lot of psychedelic pop stuff. All over the place. It’s all seeping in there. It’s fantastic to have those friends. I still love listening to a record from beginning to end, but I really appreciate those mixes. Lately, I like the Steve Gunn record. And my good pal Jennifer Castle, and Ryan Driver.
You grew up in Toronto?
For parts of it. I went away to boarding school a couple of times and had adventures there. Eventually I moved to London as a teenager.
What do you remember seeing here?
My parents were quasi-hippies. I went to the Riverboat when I was really, really young. I saw Kris Kristofferson. He sang to me. I think I was 7. He wanted to talk to me after and give me a kiss, it was a scratchy, alcoholic kiss, but I was still smitten with him and he wrote me this beautiful autograph. I’d go to lots of festivals with my parents.
Were you a Mariposa kid?
A little bit. But do you know the band Perth County Conspiracy? (laughs) There were, like, mushroom circles, mushroom tea. At the Bathurst Street United Church there would be [events there], and I remember being a kid and trying to find places to hang out while your parents were into this weird performance art or whatever. Then I’d sneak into bars when new wave and punk was happening. Lots of great shows at the Palais Royale: Selecter, Specials, Gang of Four. Then going to Maple Leaf Gardens, where I saw Bob Marley a few times. A friend had an older brother who had a great record collection, and he—I don’t know why—but he’d take us to these fantastic shows at the Gardens. I saw Springsteen there, in the concert bowl. Queen, with Thin Lizzy. Things that would blow my mind.
Did you go to Britain to be a musician?
Maybe. I lied about my age to go to theatre school there. And so much of the music I was obsessed with came from there. There were music paper ads asking for singers.
Is that how you found Kirsty MacColl?
No, that was happenstance. I took a trip to Spain. I might have been in the U.K. six months, and a friend said, “Hey, you should go to Ibiza. A friend has a recording studio there.” “OK, sure.” So I went, and the Yellow Magic Orchestra are there, these Japanese guys who came up to me, very formal, and would say, “Secret meeting?” And I’d think, “What? Does that mean what I think it means? I’m going to go back upstairs and have some marmalade and bread.” But it was on the plane trip back where I was held over in Valencia, and Kristy MacColl and her pal get on the plane and start drinking. We start talking and singing and just formed a friendship. She said, “You should be my background vocalist!”
Did she have much going on then, or was she just beginning? That was 1981?
She was more or less just beginning. She might have had one record out before. But this was the record…
Did it have “The Guy Down at the Chip Shop Thinks He’s Elvis”?
Yes, I sing on that.
“Blanche McAdorey” it says in the credits.
That’s right! It was just all silly. We were always pretending to be in Streetcar Named Desire and fooling around with Southern accents. Her thing was cool, she loved to layer all these harmonies on top of another. And I’d never been in a recording studio before. It was fantastic to be there with her. I had no idea who her father was [Ewan MacColl, most famous for “Dirty Old Town” and “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face”].
Then your band Corect Spelling, a.k.a. Cold Fish…
Yes, that was hilarious. (laughs) I had met a guy named Speedy Keen. He really looked out for me and was encouraging me to write. He was my first songwriting coach. I had this band, Cold Fish, and he loved it. His band was Thunderclap Newman and he wrote a song called “Something in the Air.” (sings it) This was his huge hit. He was such a character. He’d also produced Motorhead. He was a good pal of Lemmy’s. He knew Pete Townshend. He had these stories you’d tell, and you’d occasionally meet some of these people. He was a big drinker and really into gambling. He was broke. He spent all his money. He was one of the most kind-hearted, generous, sweet people. Very funny. He took this band, Cold Fish, into a really fancy studio owned by his friend. We did these demos that I wish I had. I was really into the B-52’s at the time. One song was called “American Salad.” We had this glass bowl and thought we’d just smash it against the wall and record it—because the lyrics was, “I’ve got American salad on the wall!” (laughs)
Please tell me you have that demo.
I don’t think so. I do wonder about that. I purged a bunch of cassettes a while back, which I regret now. So after that demo, interest started to develop in the band. Speedy would say, [adopts accent of old, crusty British man] “Watch out for the sharks! They will destroy you!” But for us, these fancy people were coming around and we were taken in a bit.
Was everybody else in the band as young as you were?
No. They were a little bit older.
So it wasn’t a teenage band.
I was the only teenager. Eventually Midge Ure, who I met through someone else, this manager Falcon Stuart, who had been managing X-Ray Spex and Adam Ant. He was kind of a creep. He wasn’t so ethical. It was a weird thing. We went into the studio. I remember getting the finished product and thinking, what is this? It sounds like Ultravox. I think it’s my voice, but maybe it’s Midge’s voice. It was such a weird time.
Did you come back right away?
I stayed there for a while. It’s a hard place to survive. Also, the drummer of that band was my boyfriend and then he became the drummer of the Clash, after Topper Headon.
The Cut the Crap era?
Yeah, he did that record and toured with them just before that. He at least got to play with Mick Jones for a while. Pete Howard was his name. The rest of us were Clash fanatics. It was bizarre. It changed things quite a bit. We were a couple and I went on the road a bit and did that, but we parted. I started recording with other people and made some interesting recordings that I liked. More experimental, odd. I became more disillusioned at the hardness of trying to exist, just working all the time trying to figure out how to live. I’d still talk to Greg now and again. We’d known each other since I’d sneak into bars and see the Viletones and the Bopcats and the Hi-Fis.
Exactly! I thought those bands were incredible.
Somebody told me, maybe Margo Timmins, that the Sharks’ Sherry Kean was so incredible, that they’d never seen a woman on the Toronto scene front a band like that before. It was a very dude scene.
Yeah, she was strong. There weren’t many role models, really. Blondie, Chrissie Hynde, Slits, B-52s. There were others, too, but not in that edgy, tough way. And Sherry Kean had that.
What made you want to come home?
The Brits have this cynicism, it’s critical thinking but it can sort of degrade into a cynicism and get stuck there, it’s just anti-everything. I think I just wanted some more sunshine. I wanted things to be easier. And Greg was saying that he’d felt a similar thing in New York. Suddenly he found himself in Toronto [in 1985] and he said, “It’s great, Toronto is like nowhere. You have this space you can afford, and only work three or four days.” I felt like London was the centre of the universe, and I wasn’t sure how I would find my form of expression here, my aesthetic.
When I think of Toronto at that time, I think of you and Mary Margaret O’Hara and Margo Timmins and Jane Siberry and all these strong women who didn’t really fit traditional archetypes. Then the scene got a bit more dude-ish in the ’90s, but for a time there so many of my favourite Toronto artists were women. Sherry Kean’s children, if you will.
I think that’s true. There’s a nice long lineage of strong, incredible women musicians, singers, songwriters.
I feel like Crash Vegas stood out during that time, that you didn’t fit any archetype: your voice, your stage presence, and I really got the sense that Crash Vegas was a band, not just a singer with backing musicians. Did it feel at all like you were square pegs in a round hole?
I don’t know if I was self-conscious about it. I was definitely questioning what it was to be a woman, what that meant. Do you have to shave your armpits? Wear makeup? A lot of the women I thought were really cool didn’t do that. I thought you could still be beautiful and sexy and powerful without conforming to that. I was thinking too of Martha and the Muffins, they were great. A lot of women I liked were androgynous and played with their image in a way that was not so cliché. It bugged me that we’d go to do some TV thing and they’d immediately descend on me to put on all this makeup, while the guys are just sitting over there. I hated makeup, too. It made me feel kind of allergic, like I was going to start breaking out or get itchy. For me, music was always about not being self-conscious. That was probably one of the harder parts of being in a band that gets attention: suddenly people are looking at you or you have to get your picture taken. As much as I dig parts of that, I’d feel uncomfortable, too, because of the way women get dissected—and because I was dissecting myself, too, and noticing that and trying not to fall prey of that kind of evaluating. Ultimately, it’s just about trying to lose yourself. I mean, Patti Smith would take a piss on stage! I didn’t necessarily want to do that, but I liked that she was doing that. When the parameters are so wide, I’d rather veer more toward that than wearing heels and foundation.
You had proximity to Blue Rodeo as they blew up, and you toured with the Tragically Hip at the absolute height, in 1993, when their fans were so rabid and reverent in ways I still don’t think I’ve seen with any other act since. What did you observe or learn being that close to that level of stardom?
First of all, it was so much fun. As a band, we were really lucky that some fantastic bands dug what we were doing—and liked our company (laughs). That’s one of the things about being on the road; you want to be with people you like. Gord [Downie] would always stand out; that band was a machine, very reliable, and they provided a platform for Gord to do this kind of shamanic spell work. People needed a way to express and move the spirit, and there is Gord almost giving you permission. He’s doing this thing, or talking in tongues, or freaking out, so I guess we have permission to freak out. That’s one of the best things about music, is that it can transport you. It would definitely confirm that we could keep doing what we were doing. Being in the moment in the live experience—you are going to play the same songs, but where can you take it? We would have improvisation, sections would become extended, we wouldn’t know how long or when. It’s one of the most exciting things to listen to or be a part of. Suddenly there is no age, no time. It just breaks down a lot of structures.
That was around 1993. Was Crash Vegas almost done when Sony asked you do “Pocahontas” and then make another record?
We parted with our record company, and then Sony suddenly wanted us to do this song, and then they liked our versions and wanted to offer us a record deal. So we thought, “Uh, okay, let’s try this one.” It was like a factory, recording in their building. But at least you’re cloistered; nobody really came in. And the engineer there was fantastic, Lenny DeRose. So great to work with.
The band split a year later, after Aurora?
When did that come out? 96? Maybe, I don’t remember.
What did you think you wanted to do right after? Did you feel like the rug was pulled out or were you ready for something totally fresh?
I just wanted to kind of stop. Meanwhile, Gavin Brown and Eric Chenaux were in the live Crash Vegas, and Eric and I were already starting to try some stuff. I was a big fan of Lifelike Weeds; I didn’t know Phleg Camp as much. Lifelike Weeds were just incredible. I felt there was a box I was in, and wasn’t sure how to reinvent myself in it. It was a good time to just stop. I remember being told by a manager, “Okay, we should get you a deal now for your solo album.” I remember taking a moment and thinking, “Oh, is that the good business choice?” I knew I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t even sure that was the model anymore.
But you knew you weren’t suddenly going to take a day job?
Oh yeah, maybe naively. I should have prepared more! I was really getting into yoga—not like yoga now, though!
You prefer yoga’s earlier work.
Definitely! Also, I was living in a warehouse, an interesting community of people. Art was looming for me. I wanted that to be more a part of what I was doing, whereas I felt like the emphasis on the biz part of music, I didn’t have the balance right in my mind. I wanted to step back and feel the excitement of something. It was important to do that. I had a friend who was riding freight trains. It was like, what? I didn’t know people were still doing that! I had a lot of things I wanted to do.
The lyrics here are very much about a life of experience. It’s not a young person’s record, per se. Do you think there’s a thematic thread?
I think so. Nothing I planned. That’s what’s interesting about songs: what they reveal, and what you don’t necessarily want to tell people. I feel: what life is there left to live? What is life now? The idea of optimistic melancholy, how to still conjure or call forth the life. And of course, love. Love not really being romantic love, but the thing that really animates us, or is so intrinsic to the connection of life experiences—to reach for that. But it’s a paradox because you can’t reach for it and grab it: you have to let go. Again, coming back to the idea of incantations: maybe if I send out these little messages, I can call forth life. How to thrive: that’s also been a question I have as a parent, and as a musician. Can I thrive as a musician? I don’t know if I really can. Thriving and doing something we love is an important thing we have to show our kids.
As a parent, one learns early on that you don’t want your own poisons or toxicity to pass on to your children, to be witnessed by your children.
Yeah. You don’t want to drag your child down the rabbit hole with you, but at the same time I realize that I’m going to make mistakes. I’m going to screw up, and it’s okay to show them that, and how you make your way out of that. My boy is good at helping me to be better than I could have been, [helping me at] owning my own shit, or knowing that I need to choose different things sometimes. It’s definitely different than when I was a single person responsible only for myself.
I hear a lot more optimism from you in this record than I have in the past. I was listening to everything in the past week. On the first record you sing about “If I could bury her with my two hands.” On the second record, “With today’s amazing murder.” Or “My mother died of childbirth because her husband had a gun.” There’s a lot of darkness on those records. I don’t see those clouds here.
I think you’re right. I think we can’t control many things—most things—but perhaps we can choose some things. Given the choice between feeling really gloomy or trying not to, we can choose to love. Through becoming a mother, that’s where I’ve learned so much about love, in so many ways, and what I’m reflecting. The importance of that. The responsibility of that. The echo. Another thing in the record is about freedom. What is that? It’s not the same for each person. There’s something very rebellious in me. I’m trying to have a peace with that.