Mikal Shapiro
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Mikal Shapiro

Kansas City, Missouri, United States | Established. Jan 01, 1995

Kansas City, Missouri, United States
Established on Jan, 1995
Band Folk Americana




"'The Musical' Reveals the Re-education of Mikal Shapiro"

She’d been a songwriter for more than a decade, but Mikal Shapiro discovered a few things as she made her latest album, “The Musical.”

First: She needed a band, a permanent crew, to work with.

Second: Good songs have “space and room to breathe.”

Third: There is grace and reward in collaboration, in soliciting and trusting the creativity and instincts of others. All of those revelations came together on “The Musical,” which, Shapiro said, is the peak of her music career.
“I’m really proud of it,” Shapiro said. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever made.”
She ought to be proud. “The Musical,” her first album in five years, is impressive. It displays an array of music influences and styles: blues, jazz, folk, rock. But it does so seamlessly, an accomplishment that was years in the making, especially for someone easily distracted or seduced by so many inspirations.
“I pluck from so many different influences, how do you juggle that crazy circus without sounding scattered or diffuse?” she said. “It’s only taken me 20 years to find cohesion within the (attention deficit disorder) of my songwriting.”
Some of the credit for that cohesion goes to the band she founded over the past year or so, the “core four,” she calls them: Shapiro on vocals and guitar; Chad Brothers on vocals and guitar; Johnny Hamil on bass; and Matt Richey on drums. And when she needs an auxiliary voice, she calls on longtime friend Emily Tummons, an honorary core member.
“There is such a diversity of styles on this record that it really needed this kind of chemistry to sound cohesive,” she said. “The last couple of records were kind of put together with people I recruited while I was recording.”
“The Musical” is Shapiro’s fifth recording. Her first two were with the bands Eudora (2002) and the Boon (2005). She followed those with two solo recordings: “The Crow, the Lark and the Loon” in 2008, and “For Good” in 2010.
She then moved to Chicago to get her film degree at the Art Institute, which she completed in 2012. For two years, music took a back seat to film and academics.
“I didn’t completely stop songwriting,” she said. “Songs spilled out of me at random moments, but I wasn’t sitting down regularly and writing.”
She returned to Kansas City in 2012, where she put her degree to use, shooting video and film, and resumed her music career. The two disciplines share traits and techniques, she said, but they also inspired each other.
“Film taught me to experiment more and take more risks,” she said. “And there are so many parallels between the two: editing and arranging, timing, rhythm, musicality. Music informs everything. It really spills over into the visual arts.”
By summer of 2014, Shapiro had gathered enough songs to think about recording an album. Some of those songs had been hanging around in various stages of completion for more than a decade. “Two-String Blues” goes back almost 20 years.
“It’s one of the first songs I ever wrote,” she said. “I didn’t know how to play guitar; I was only playing two strings. But I really like the simplicity of it.”
It’s a smokey blues number with a Tom Waits feel that opens with Richey and Hamil “riffing like they’re playing in the basement of some speakeasy.”
“Her music is so rich with beauty — the words and melodies — but it has this punk, dark edge to it,” Hamil said.
The newest song feels like the album’s centerpiece: “The Reincarnation of Helena Blavatsky,” a tale written with Shapiro’s mother in mind. It’s one of the more conspicuous songs on “The Musical.” It’s lush, sprawling, cinematic, operatic and it eludes an explicit music style because it evokes several.
The song references Blavatsky, a 19th-century author and occultist (among other things), and “The Great Invocation.”
“(Blavatsky) channels ‘The Great Invocation,’ a new age mantra that came out of the era of the Golden Dawn,” Shapiro said. “My mother is a great believer in reincarnation and believes she is the reincarnation of Helena Blavatsky. She recites ‘The Great Invocation’ and she taught it to her children. It has become our weird, pagan, occult family religion. I embrace it, kind of tongue-in-cheek, but there is wisdom to it, definitely.
“I wrote the song as a portrait of my mother, as if I were her. (The Invocation) brought comfort to her and embodied her character. Part of the lyrics are drawn from it.”
Four of the songs are collaborations, including “Nope” and “Chimo,” written with a friend from Chicago, Jeff Geesa. He died while the album was being recorded. “He never got to hear any of the tracks,” Shapiro said.
He would have loved what Shapiro, her band and producer Joel Nanos did with “Nope,” the album’s opening track. It’s a folk-ish tune with a lovely melody, embroidered with trumpet filigrees from Hermon Mehari, who performs on two other tracks.
“I knew I wanted horns,” Shapiro said. “I thought first of Stan Kessler, but we couldn’t work out our schedules. Joel suggested Hermon.… I don’t really know him, but he’s a beautiful musician and I really respect what he does.”
Shapiro was open to suggestions throughout the project, starting with band membership. She first asked Hamil to join her and Brothers in a band.
“I really admire Johnny’s type of crazy,” she said. Hamil suggested Richey be the drummer, then Richey recommended Nanos as a producer.
She welcomed ideas before and during the recording, too.
“I collaborate quite a bit,” Shapiro said. “I can write strong melodies and strong lyrics, but as far as instrumentation — I like to play a song for a lot of different people so they can give me an idea of what the song needs next. I’ll ask, ‘What would you do over this? What do you hear in this?’ This album was collaborative through and through.”
Likewise, inside Element Recording, she listened to Nanos’ suggestions, but ultimately she made the call on which way a song would go.
“Working with Joel was great,” she said. “I really respect his opinion, but he doesn’t push it. It really felt safe to explore.”
“Mikal has a lot of conviction in her vision but is also open to letting a song become whatever it wants to be,” Nanos said. “She always knows if it’s right or not when she hears it.”
Shapiro has shared the album with some of her peers, including Tony Ladesich, a fellow filmmaker and musician.
“I don’t think another record will be released by an act from Kansas City this year that will top it, and I include my own band (the Hardship Letters),” he said.
“It’s incredibly warm. It sounds old, yet new. It’s like a great old rock or soul record, sonically, yet it’s alive with her passion.”
Shapiro is involved in several other music projects: Ayllu, which plays traditional South American music; the Funk Punk Polka Band, which is part of Hamil’s Gawd project; and Royalphonic. She is also co-host, with her friend and fellow songwriter Kasey Rausch, of River Trade Radio, broadcast from 9 to 11 a.m. Sundays on KKFI (90.1 FM), which she compared to being in music school.
“It allows me to research the musical trajectory of many styles of music and sends me down rabbit holes of styles and musical trees,” she said. “It’s great.”
It’s one component of the never-ending education, evolution and maturation process.
“When I first started out in the studio, I loved it when all these things came together, all these different tracks and different musicians,” she said. “I didn’t understand space in the way I do now and how awesome the space in this album is compared to the other albums.
“It’s a sign of my maturity, I think, that I can allow for that glistening space to occur in a song and let it breathe. It gives it life. And now that I have players who want to stick around, I feel like I can write with them in mind.” - The Kansas City Star

"Singer-Songwriter Mikal Shapiro Introduces a New Act on "The Musical""

It's unlikely that Broadway is in Mikal Shapiro's future. But the singer-songwriter admits an affinity for the grand musical-theater operations that have swept its stages. This news might surprise some — even Shapiro confesses that she hid her love of musicals when she was a teenager — given her past leanings to folk and roots music. But Shapiro's latest album, The Musical, fully merges those sonic interests.

Like any Broadway production, The Musical's 10 tracks flirt with a variety of styles. For the first time, we hear Shapiro tap into pure pop and beatnik jazz in addition to the downtempo folk that fans have come to expect from her. The songs serve as a cycle, telling a story in tones familiar to fans of Neko Case or Laura Stevenson. It makes for a deep, rewarding listen, one that bestows unexpected insights with each play.

The Pitch spoke with Shapiro ahead of Saturday's album-release show at Davey's Uptown.

The Pitch: Having listened to The Musical for a week solid, I'm curious as to whether the title reflects the content. Are you going for the feel of an actual musical?

Shapiro: It's definitely a concept that I was toying with, as sort of an abstract, but yeah. The way the song styles shift from one to the other, and that there's two acts [built into the album, five songs each]. It's kind of like an autobiographical musical. There are characters. There's not a narrative thread, but structurally, it's based around the idea of a musical.

I was listening to "Hot Cool" when it all clicked. I'm not sure what made it that particular song.

It's probably the schmaltziest song on the album. Maybe that's why. [Laughs.]

How did the idea of structuring it as a musical come to be?

Well, I've always messed about in classical songwriting styles. I guess I had a sort of ADD with what I liked to hear. I like all kinds of music and all kinds of approaches. I don't stick to just one style. It [thinking about musicals] was a way to structure the album and to choose songs out of my catalog. It gave me some form to work around.

I never would have admitted this when I was younger, but I grew up listening to musicals, and I think that they've had some influence on me. I know when I was a teenager, it was really uncool to talk about how much you loved musicals, but I've come around.

The album also lends itself to deeper listening on an auditory level — hearing "Nope" on headphones brought the brushes on the drums into sharper focus — so that the more you listen, the more things you hear.

Yeah. [Engineer] Joel Nanos is a frickin' genius, but I think the album takes a few listens, sort of, to breathe. You start to hear things — more things. It opens up, in a way.

What was the production like?

Working in the studio, you find the time to express the space and the breadth in [the music], and yet, allow it to contain a subtle complexity. I haven't really talked about my music and super-analyzed it, but I think, working with Joel, he really understands the audio space as a physical space. It's deep, it's wide, it can be shallow, and hearing him talk about the stereo field, and being able to visualize it in that way allowed us to place things in that space like we were decorating a room.

Working through the album, it seems that there's a mood and voice that come through every song. What do you do to maintain that voice, despite the disparate styles in which you're working?

A lot of that is that I have a particular sound and I can't get away from it, no matter what I do. I have embraced it, and it's like it's my own unique identity in my music-making, and it doesn't matter what I play: It's going to be there because it's me. I bring myself completely to the table.

You'd alluded to the fact that The Musical is autobiographical, but there's no narrative thread. What, if anything, does it tell the story of?

Maybe I'm universalizing, but I feel like, whenever you write a song, in general, you have to draw from your own experience. You put yourself into the position of the character, whoever it may be, even if it's someone else. And in that sense, it's autobiographical. It's a reflection of your own experience. In some ways, in a tongue-in-cheek way, I feel like anyone who makes an album — it's their musical, and I was just calling myself out on it this time around.

Maybe it's different if you have a band, but if you have a principal songwriter, and the music is built around that person's songwriting, I came to that revelation at some point: "This isn't me just making a musical about myself." I saw it everywhere, at that point, once I thought of it in that light. - The Pitch Weekly

"Album Review: Mikal Shapiro - The Musical"

Singer-songwriter Mikal Shapiro’s perfectly titled latest release, The Musical, is a collection of not merely songs, but 10 short stories set to wonderful music. The album is a work—or multiple works—of art that are just as mysterious and intriguing as any paintings you will find in a gallery. Shapiro’s palette is splattered with the complete spectrum of colors. There are dreary gray tones and bright whimsical flashes, melding together to create a soundtrack to life—one that touches many musical genres, including rock, folk, jazz, old-school country, and even gospel.

The Musical's opening act, “Nope,” is an airy, ethereal fantasy. Odd, evasive lyrics over a folk sound made jazzier by a muted trumpet give the listener a sense of drifting in and out of a dream on a rainy Sunday morning. Drums and crashing cymbals briefly end the slumber, until you are lulled back to sleep as the song comes to a close. Several tracks share this jazz feel, including “Out on the Town,” “Two String Blues,” and the wonderfully whimsical "Hot Cool." Shapiro's vocals are poised and effortless on each of these.

“Here and Now” explores rediscovering love and a desire to forget (or never remember) the past. A dull snare beat blanketed by beautiful steel guitar rivals the purest of cry-in-your-beer country songs. Similarly, “This Way to Heaven” is country with an emphasis on gospel. It begins a cappella and, as the band joins in, becomes the loveliest song on the album. It is simultaneously serene and haunting.

Matching the mystery and irony found throughout the album, “Daniel,” the catchiest and most up-tempo tune, is also possibly the saddest. Daniel himself is an enigma. The storyteller, who acknowledges being a “friend” of Daniel’s, clearly knows little more about him than that he can “sings like a Christian” and “drink like a demon.” The song turns dark when the protagonist is found dead, presumably by suicide. “But on that Saturday, Daniel was down / They couldn’t say where he was found, or how he was found.” Brilliantly, the listener is left to decide how Daniel may have met his demise, and why.

Shapiro is fortunate to be backed by Chad Brothers (guitar and vocals), Johnny Hamil (electric and double bass), and Matt Richey (drums), along with a small army of additional local musicians. This adept team provides a canvas that Shapiro expertly fills. My interpretations of The Musical may differ from other listeners. As with any painting, the artist is not only revealing her emotions, but is also attempting to provoke a response—and Shapiro certainly does. My response may be lost in translation, as the peculiar, personal songs will pierce each listener differently. - The Deli Magazine


The Musical (2015), For Good (2010), The Crow, the Lark and the Loon (2008)



Mikal Shapiro is a Kansas City songwriter whose musical influences span popular songs, psych rock, lounge and old time spirituals. She has toured extensively across the United States and has recorded five critically acclaimed albums. The Kansas City Star, Deli Magazine and Wednesday MidDay Medley declared her new album “The Musical” to be one of Kansas City's top releases for 2015.  A third generation storyteller, she draws inspiration from her travels, love life, and the state of the Union.

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