about the artist //
Michigander’s lead man Jason Singer is a musician through and through. In fact, he insists music is all he knows. Foregoing any effort or intention to settle into a 9 to 5 day job, at age 23 Jason has given everything to his music. Whether he’s playing at his church, with friends, in bars throughout the Midwest or doing a session at Daytrotter, this singer and songwriter from Michigan is chiseling out a life of music and community, ignoring trite warning signs from naysayers, and making beautiful music as a way of saying “just see what I can do.”
When I was first introduced to Michigander’s music, I watched their cover of Sufjan Steven’s “To Be Alone With You” and immediately knew there was something special going on with this group. There was a level of emotion and authenticity that’s necessary when you cover someone like Sufjan. It wasn’t flat or dull. It was honest and believable. And as I watched and listened to more of Michigander’s music, that honesty was there, in every song, inviting me in.
I spoke with Jason online late one evening in February of 2016. Our conversation was refreshing and easy. The more we talked, the more questions I had and the more eager he was to share his answers. I hope you are as struck as I was by the sincerity of this interview. Like so many hardworking artists, Michigander wants nothing more than to make great music that people can relate to and rally behind. After all, isn’t that what art and music is all about? Bringing people together.
Photography by Ben Marsh and Alex Furtaw (live blue image) and Mathew Pimental (second live show image)
BC // So tell me a bit about yourself—where are you from, where are you living now?
M // Well, I'm 23, born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I grew up in Saginaw and Midland, became who I am in Kalamazoo and now I'm back in Midland for the time being.
BC // What brings you to Midland?
M // That's where my family is. It’s a free place to sleep.
BC // Amen.
M // (laughs) Yeah.
BC // Do you remember the first time you picked up a guitar? Was there any sense of what was coming? That you had found something special?
M // Yeah, I found it in my parents’ closet. It was an old dusty Yamaha classical guitar. Then a guy from the church we were going to at the time got me a chord chart poster. I didn't have any musician role models then, just the older guys at church. My parents used to have to ground me from playing guitar because it was the only thing I really cared about.
BC // How old were you?
M // Ten or eleven.
BC // Did you know that you had found something special at the time? Were you destined to become a musician?
M // Nah, I used to want to be an actor as a kid. I did some stuff in a local community theatre. Guitar was just something I did for fun. I loved it. And I was good at it. I wasn't really good at anything else. Still is kind of the case today. So it just makes sense.
BC // So when did it become more than just something you did for fun?
M // I think in high school. Everyone was talking about what they wanted to go to school for, and I kept saying I wanted to be a musician, and my teachers were like "Well, maybe you could be a music teacher?" But I sucked at school. It didn't interest me. I was just excited for the end of the day when I could go jam with my friends in the band room.
BC // What were you listening to then?
M // Coldplay. The Stereophonics. Oasis, White Stripes, and John Mayer. Lots of Coldplay. And The Killers. And U2.
BC // How much influence did they have on you as a songwriter or musician at the time? Were you mainly playing covers or writing your own music?
M // Lots as a musician. I barely wrote anything until my senior year. You could name a John Mayer song and I can play it—well, a very sloppy version of it.
BC // People like to hate on John Mayer, but technically he's an incredible musician.
M // Insanely great. Great songwriter.
BC // When did you start playing music with other people?
M // At church, probably around eleven. I had a crappy high school band. We'd play lots of covers and convince people to let us play shows. It was awful.
BC // But informative? Did it feel crappy at the time?
M // No. We thought we were the best thing out there.
BC // Of course. You have to at that age to keep going, right?
M // Yes. We were jerks (laughs). We just played pop covers.
BC // So when did the flip switch? When did you go from playing mostly covers to writing music, developing your own musical style, and paving your own path?
M // I think once I saw everyone leaving town for school.
BC // Why was that the impetus for that change?
M // I realized I had to make it happen for myself and that I can't wait on other people. I had to "prove people wrong." I had to—have to—be right. I have to make it work. I didn't and don't have a Plan B.
BC // How long ago was that now?
M // Five years ago in 2011, when I graduated high school.
BC // So what's your process of writing music? Do you start with lyrics or the guitar?
M // It used to be lyrics. Now it's more music. My iPhone is full of voice memos of little ideas. The original lyrics to a song always change. And for every 5 songs I write only 2 of them end up going into a show. Most of the time I think that is where the song will stay—it probably won't get recorded.
BC // What goes into that decision, whether a song gets performed live or goes into a record? Most musicians play music from their previous records, yeah?
M // Yeah, but since I don't really have a record I just play what I have. I did a solo thing a while ago, so I've been doing those live. But it's not really the sound I want. So I'm just trying to find the balance between "what I want to sound like" and "how am I going to get people to love this show." People have been saying that I'm a folk artist, and it drives me nuts.
BC // How would you classify your music?
M // Heavy soft rock. It's chill.
BC // Why is that delineation between folk and heavy soft rock important to you?
I think folk is something you would listen to with your parents on a boat during the summer. Folk music is just so broad. People think if it's an acoustic guitar it's folk. But that’s not true. Bruce Springsteen is not a folk artist.
Once you get pigeonholed into one genre you get out on lots of weird shows. My first big show was opening for a country act from Nashville. It was very strange.
BC // Who was the act?
I'm trying to make music you would hear stadium bands play. I feel like if I shoot for that I should at least land in the large theatre venues. There haven't been any new and great stadium rock bands, at least in the US for about 10 years.
// Does that determine whether or not you keep working on a song? If you start feeling like it sounds too folky will you scrap it?
M // Yup. Or if it sounds like a pop track.
BC // As a writer, one of the things I'm always asking myself is "Is this story done?" And I think for aspiring artists especially, no matter the genre, that's a difficult question to answer. When you're working on a song, how do you know that it's done?
M // I don't think I really know that it's done until I play it live. There are plenty of songs that I've been doing live that will only live in the shows or sessions. They won't make it to a record. It just has to be a big song that can fit in a humble package for me to like it.
BC // So how do you know when something is done?
M // When I personally like it and listen to it over and over.
BC // It's interesting—listening to you talk about testing music in shows makes me think about how comedians try out new jokes at shows to see what works and doesn't work.
M // There's a track called "90s" that I wrote late last year. I'm so proud of it. It sounds like a song I would listen to. I think that's what's I'm doing. I think that's what puts me apart from other bands. I'm not in a huge rush to put out a record. It has to be great. It's a first impression. And I can't ruin it. Shows last 30 minutes. Recorded tracks last forever.
BC // How close are you to putting out your first record?
M // I think I'm getting there. I'm not sure if I want to do an EP or full-length. But I'm hoping it will be out before Thanksgiving. I definitely will have a single out in the next few months.
BC // You have worked with Daytrotter, though. That has a large listening audience. Is that different for you? Also, how did that come about?
Well, I've been emailing them for years. And one day I just happened to get an email back. I've become good pals with Sean Moeller over the last few months and have recorded two sessions so far with them. I also did a secret show in the Quad Cities a few weeks ago. They're incredible. Some of the best people that really just care about musicians and good songs.
It's seriously a dream getting to work with them. I've only done solo sessions with them, so I'm excited to do a full band one eventually. All my heroes have been in their studios, so it was a pretty dreamy day.
BC // Their reputation is sound. My wife is from the Quad Cities and I had no idea they were located there. It's this unassuming city with a group of people just doing amazing work.
M // Yeah! Love it there. Such a different place. Definitely one of the coolest spots in the Midwest.
// So is music a full-time gig for you?
M // Yes sir. I'm either playing at a church, for someone else, doing a bar gig, or playing a Michigander show.
BC // What sacrifices are you making in order for that to happen?
Well, I have to tell people I still live with my parents—so that's cool. I drive a crappy van. And I get told that I need to get "a real job" at least once a week.
It’s not too much of a sacrifice, though. I think what I do is selfish most of the time.
BC // Why is that?
M // I don't think the world needs another musician.
BC // So why do you keep writing music?
Because it's good for me. And if other people get something out of it, that's a plus.
If I didn't write music and play music my life would be a total nightmare. I have no idea what I would be doing. Something awful I'm sure. I do it so I don't have to work a 9-5. I do because it's all that I'm good at.
BC // That said, what do the next five years look like for you and Michigander?
M // Put out a record. Get noticed by people. Tour as a support act for a band that I love. Put out another record. Play Glastonbury.
BC // Which band would you love to support?
M // Death Cab would be pretty incredible. Or The National.
BC // Who are you listening to right now? What is the one record that you keep playing?
M // Currently I'm listening to an artist called Lissie. But I've been playing Catfish and the Bottlemen's record non-stop for the past few months.
Care to hear more of Michigander? You can find more videos of Michigander live performances on Youtube! You can also listen to both of their sessions on Daytrotter. Be sure to follow Michigander on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, go to their live shows and share their music with friends and family. Your support makes a huge difference for artists like Jason.