Kelly McMichael backstage at Lawnya Vawnya in 2019. Credit: Matt Williams.

Instrumental: Kelly McMichael Embraces the Experimentation in Demo-Making

When I got in touch last month with St. John’s, Newfoundland-based songwriter Kelly McMichael to ask about what kind of creative tool she might want to talk about for this column, she eventually got back to me saying she’d like to cover the demo-making process itself. At first, it seemed like a strange fit given the regular rhythm of Instrumental, but during our conversation, it became clear that essentially what we were talking about were maybe the most important tools in any maker’s belt—experimentation, and the embrace of failure.

That’s all the process of making things really is: failing a million times in order to figure out what works. McMichael’s upcoming record, Waves, was a long time in the making, which gave her ample time to sculpt a collection of songs that is deeply refined, covering a wide and wild spectrum of pop-centric sounds like lush psychedelia, laid-back alternative, soft soul, and driving, ‘80s synth glam. It’s dreamy, dynamic, moving, and cohesive despite McMichael’s willingness to dive into whatever style might fit her sentiment. In fact, it’s likely that the heavy focus she sets on experimentation during demo-making has been the very thing that ties everything together so well. It’s a process that has landed her in a spot where, no matter what elements she’s working with, she sounds singularly like herself.

While the RPM Challenge had a major impact on the creation of Waves, making demos with GarageBand and an 8-track in her early 20s, she says, was what originally expanded the potential of songwriting for her. “I feel like it really expanded my ability to create songs in a new way. It wasn’t just like, a singer-songwriter, one instrument kind of thing,” McMichael says over the phone from St. John’s. “I really enjoyed the imaginative layers.”

On Waves, those imaginative layers—intricate arrangements, waterfalls of synth, and swooning vocal harmonies—wash over you like the tides.

So tell me why you consider the process of demo-making to be a tool in and of itself. 

I think when you have the possibility of having different parts together at once, you can take more charge with what your vision is of the finished piece. You can experiment on your own and come up with fleshed-out demos that help to bring to the studio to get what you want out of the recording and out of your players. I think it allows you to be more imaginative. You can imagine it, but then you can actually like, figure out how to get it when you have the multiple parts. And just getting a better grip on production stuff like knowing how different effects work. And having done so much mixing and experimenting and recording on my own, I’m much better at communicating with an engineer about what I want in the recording process. The first couple of times I recorded my music, it felt like it was hard to get what I wanted. You’re relying on this other person to do a lot of it for you. 

What is your specific process like now? Could you break down how a song like “Stepping Stone”—which is quite layered—came together?

I always imagined the harmony to the main vocal being a key part of the song. So, I recorded that on my own and worked on the dreamy effects with the vocals—some delay and reverb and layering of harmonies and having some harmonies that are kind of drifting away in the background. Like that sort of dreamy vibe, instead of everything just being crystal clear up front. I wrote the bass line and I wasn’t sure what the vibe would be—I kind of had these country licks happening, but then some R&B and soul kind of vibes going on. And then I had a demo that had more guitar parts on it. But then when I started playing piano on it, the piano took it into this more like, Elton John kind of vibe. So I started going down that path. The vocal harmonies, at the end of the song, there’s a lot of pads there, and they’re very effected. Doing that sort of thing on my own, that’s the kind of thing that helps me imagine how big and fun and spacey things can be.

How has your demo-making process changed since you started recording music?

I think you just build your recording knowledge and vocabulary, because communicating about what you want, I find, is the hardest part when you’re talking with your band or your engineer, producer, whatever. I have a better understanding of all the different parts. Actually, working with synths is a great way to develop your vocabulary around tones. You’re twisting the filter knob or the cut-off, and I find that by working hands on—actually turning those things and manipulating the sound—then you understand what it means. I guess that can happen with guitar pedals, too—testing out what they do gives you a way better understanding, and then you can start applying that knowledge when you’re listening to music. Like, ‘Oh, why do I like this so much? Oh, I love the tape saturation effect that they have on the vocals.’ Which I was noticing with the Beatles, as obvious as it is to compare to the Beatles. 

What’s your favourite thing to have learned through making demos?

Knowing what the effects do, but then also when to use them. It’s fun to experiment and get all these effects going. But it’s important to have clarity and not too many effects. It’s important to have the song on its own be a good song that would sound good with just a guitar. But then use the fun effects to complement it and make it grow. You have to know when they’re just sort of clouding things up or muddying things up. And maybe you just need the experience to know what the balance is.

How do you decide when something is finished?

I feel like lyrically I was definitely workshopping a lot of lyrics for years. And I would just pay attention when I sang it live: ‘Does it feel right? Am I proud of each line that I’m saying? Or are there certain lines that I feel like I’m kind of throwing away because I don’t think what I’m saying actually matters that much?’ Playing it live is a good way to tell if it’s working or not. Because it took me so long to finally record an album, I’ve played a lot of this stuff live. And I’d also tried it on different instruments, too. If you’re not quite sure, sometimes you switch from guitar to piano and start getting a different groove. And then all of a sudden, things sort of fit into place. I had this weekly cover gig just playing piano by myself, a weekly residency here in St. John’s, and I’d sneak some of my own songs in with the covers I was doing. That definitely made me set the bar way higher–seeing if my songs could hold up to some of the classics. That was a good way to test them out or realize, ‘You know, okay, maybe I need to challenge myself and make this better, somehow more exciting.’ 

Kelly McMichael performs as Renders at Lawnya Vawnya in 2019. Credit: Matt Horseman.

How important is collaboration in this stage?

I think it’s important to, you know, come out of the cave and bounce things off other people. I definitely value collaboration. I think it’s a balance of spending the time with yourself diving deep, and kind of being obsessive and getting some experience, getting a strong sense of what you want, and then also coming out of the cave and working with other people. And having a bit of flexibility there is good, because sometimes you go so far down one place, one direction, that you don’t realize how far you’ve gone until you have other people to kind of pull you back. And then you can kind of know, if you’ve spent enough time on it, what really matters to you about it, which also helps you put your foot down about things with other people. And also just knowing what your strengths are. I think there are things where I’m like, ‘This is what I want. And I know about this.’ But then I’m also going to be less particular about the rhythm sections, because I’m not a drummer or a bass player.

How much does experimentation contribute to the demo-making process?

Hugely. I guess that would be another reason I love it. Because there’s stuff that you would do on your own, that you wouldn’t do with somebody else. I would be too inhibited to do some of the shit that I do on my own [with other people]. But sometimes, you know, smoking doobies and making really weird shit is awesome. I love doing that. And I do get self-conscious to a certain point when anyone else is around. So that alone time, that experimentation time is huge. I love that.