Songwriter Michele McTierney Reflects On Upcoming Album
by Kerry Muir
A 1950s jukebox casts an Edward Hopper-esque light on the Formica tabletop in front of singer/songwriter Michele McTierney. In the pink neon glow, the songstress pulls back her sleeve, revealing the inside of one wrist, where she has a strategically placed tattoo of a short phrase in Latin, the block letters all uppercased: NOLI TIMERE. CREDE TANTUM.
What’s that mean?
In a South Baltimore diner, it’s late. Most of the patrons have gone home, and one haggard employee is already trotting out a vacuum cleaner. The place is winding down. But McTierney has energy to burn. Her blue-green eyes, meticulously edged with black liquid liner, practically leap out of her face. They’re Elizabeth Taylor eyes, hypnotic and reminiscent of the ocean.
McTierney sips her coffee and translates the words ingrained in her flesh. “Fear not. Just believe.”
McTierney’s new album, “A Work In Progress” (no, it’s not a work in progress; that’s just its title, reflecting her current Zen-beginner’s state of mind) is a polished tour de force containing a rich tapestry of multilayered tracks with orchestral leanings, produced by D.C.-based, Wammy Award-winning producer Marco Delmar.
“I’m a work in progress,” McTierney said. “I have to be in the moment and appreciate where I am right now. I need to think, ‘I’m OK right now. I’m good.’”
She takes another sip of coffee, her focus directed inward for a moment. She takes a breath, looks back up again. “I’m good right now,” she repeats. It’s an incantation, a mantra.
McTierney grew up in Germantown, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and moved with her family to Severna Park at the age of 8. Her mother was a classically trained Shakespearean actress who lit up the stage in both classical and modern plays before settling down to start a family; McTierney’s father, a proponent of housing for the homeless, worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
It sounds like an innocuous enough beginning: two parents — educated, artsy, humanitarian. But there were problems afoot. For one, there was school bullying. For another, there was clinical depression (a constant companion to McTierney after the onset of puberty). Perhaps most significantly, there was her mother’s own struggle with manic depression.
The eldest of three siblings, McTierney felt her mom’s mood swings acutely. And, like kids do, she blamed herself for them. After all, hadn’t her mother given up a successful acting career in order to have a family? There was guilt (scratch that, a lot of guilt), followed by depression and its evil twin, addiction. In McTierney’s case, the addictive substance was food — she suffered from compulsive eating, borderline anorexia and bulimia.
Meanwhile, music anchored McTierney. She’d always liked singing. Her parents felt most pop music was inappropriate, but even as a little kid, she’d covertly tune into the airwaves when she was by herself, belting her lungs out along with the reigning pop divas of the day: Madonna, Irene Cara, Pat Benatar, Laura Branigan, Cyndi Lauper and Annie Lennox, with her orange crew cut and rebellious attitude.
“All these great strong female vocalists, they had such passion and they told it like it was, no holds barred,” McTierney said. “I always thought that was so incredibly brave. I mean, to me, they were storytellers. I loved them.”
In high school, McTierney found a safe haven in the marching band (she played flute), and, under the tutelage of Severna Park High School band leader R. Thomas Powell, gained exposure to all types of music: classical, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and musical theater scores.
She studied what made a song great. Afterward, she attended the University of Notre Dame, scraping by on scholarships, work-study and student loans. Sophomore year was spent in France, where she sang karaoke and dabbled with songwriting on the banks of the Seine. McTierney got hip to Nina Simone, Muddy Waters and Tom Waits, “singers with voices that have character,” she said. In Europe, McTierney felt comfortable in her own skin for the first time in her life.
But when she returned to the states, she lost her mojo. Unresolved emotional issues from her past were piling up, taking a toll. A series of mind-dulling corporate jobs, a gnarly divorce and a slip-shod doctor who doled out pharmaceuticals like Halloween candy (at one point, McTierney was prescribed more than 10 different medications for anxiety and depression, simultaneously) finally pushed her over the edge.
As the nonstop parade of meds tilted her body chemistry to extremes, McTierney’s problems took on a physical form; her weight topped 450 pounds when she stepped on the scale. “I woke up one morning in 2013, contemplating suicide,” McTierney said, reliving the nightmare out loud. “I’m over 450 pounds. I can barely get out of bed. I can barely sing a three-minute song seated, and I’m thinking, ‘How did I get here? How am I going to dig myself out of this hole?’”
Someone else might have curled up into a ball and gone back to bed, but not McTierney. She got herself a food journal, a pair of tennis shoes, and threw herself headlong into writing songs and singing. She found a voice teacher, Annie Eidolon, who affirmed her talent. She sensed it was do-or-die at this point. Either she’d emerge from her shell, or risk being engulfed by it.
“I saw [my mother], how not following her dreams and not asking for help, affected her … I never wanted that to happen to me,” McTierney said. “So I just thought, ‘I have to make a change,’ you know?”
The years 2013 to 2015 proved pivotal for McTierney. She lost more than 230 pounds. She got her depression in check and gave her mad-scientist doctor the pink slip. And on top of everything, she recorded a new debut album, “A Work In Progress,” comprising 12 tracks and 10 original songs, due out at the end of October.
Transcending genres, her music blurs clear-cut genre lines, spanning pop, reggae and R&B, as well as indie and alt-rock. The one constant in the mix, ever-present, is the element of unapologetic, unabashed emotion; the songs reveal McTierney up close and personal, scars and all. Her song lyrics tackle a wide range of topics, running the gamut from the darkly comedic (celebrity infatuation in “Crushing Guilty”), to the deeply serious (domestic violence in “Shut My Mouth,” and her battle with depression in “Courage”).
“It’s hard to be revealing and kind of confessional in my songs,” McTierney said with a shrug, “but I feel like, hey, if it can help somebody else – if they can be inspired or even just amused, like they can listen to ‘Crushing Guilty’ and just laugh — if that helps them get through the day, then I feel like I’ve done my job.”
For more about Michele McTierney, visit www.michelemctierney.com.
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