When pressing play on any of the 15 songs that make up her sophomore album, Chasing Somewhere, one thing is evident about Michelle Rivers: she has a voice capable of stopping a listener dead in their tracks and commanding their full attention, proving that the delays in completing the album due to the pandemic were more than worth it.
As she weaves her way through stories of moving forward, love and family, Rivers leans heavily on her singer/songwriter roots, while also accompanying the talents of award-winning studio musicians, whose combined efforts have created will surely be a strong album of the year contender when 2022 comes to a close.
We chatted with Rivers all about Chasing Somewhere, as well as her early start in music, taking her music on the road and more!
Pro Country: Who were some of your earliest musical influences?
Michelle Rivers: My biggest influences were definitely 90s country artists. Growing up in Nashville, my dad was very involved in the music scene there. When country radio was still very country; that’s what I grew up listening to. Artists like The Chicks, Trisha Yearwood and Faith Hill. In 8th grade, I discovered Patty Griffin and really dug into her entire collection of albums that she had made. She’s been a huge influence on my songwriting. I love that she’s got a blend of country, folk and rock. I also had a punk rock phase in high school [laughs]. That’s part of why I was so drawn to Nickel Creek too: they were like playing rock music on bluegrass instruments.
PC: Your father was a singer/songwriter, and you wrote your first song at just four years-old. What was it about writing music that connected with you so early in your life?
MR: I’ve always been drawn to music ever since I was little bitty. I always thought I would be a songwriter. I don’t even remember thinking too much about it, I just figured that’s what I was going to do. When I expressed an interest in it, my mom and I would make up songs while driving to school or on road trips, so there was always creativity encouraged. My dad worked with me to understand that songs have structure, and that happened when I was four years-old. He taught me what a chorus was and what a verse was, and from there, I would start singing songs and writing them down, once I was able to write [laughs].
PC: At what point did that early interest in music translate into realizing you could/wanted to pursue it as a career?
MR: I had glimpses of believing that at different points in my life. When I was 18, I decided to go to Belmont University. I was only there for a year; I left feeling overwhelmed by so many musicians trying to make it all in one place, and I think I needed to get out of Nashville to find out what my voice was and what it was that I had to say as an artist. I did that in Texas when I was in college, and then moving to Montana was the biggest turning point for me. To be honest, it’s really only been in the last two years that I started to believe that I could make a living doing this. Which is crazy, because I’ve spent my whole life wanting it, and here I am in my thirties giving it a real shot. It’s a super exciting time, and I also look back and wonder why it was so hard for me to believe as a young person that it was possible to do this full-time. It feels really great to be in a season where I’m doing it.
PC: The story that many young artists tell is moving to Nashville to pursue their musical dreams, but you took a different route of being from the Nashville area and moving away to find yourself as an artist. Why did you feel that was the right move for you as an artist and as a songwriter at that time?
MR: I think I was a pretty decent songwriter at 19, but yet I was hanging out with people who were already writing radio-level country songs. I had so many talented classmates and I realized what I did wasn’t really commercial, it was a little more on the edge. At the time, I didn’t really have an understanding of what Americana was. I don’t think I understood that because I really only understood Nashville radio country, because growing up there, that’s what I understood. That’s what my dad knew and that’s how I learned how to write.
PC: What emotions were you feeling as you were preparing to release music for the first time with your album, Breathing on Embers?
MR: That was such an exciting time. My dad and I worked on that record together, so it was truly a labor of love, because we spent about a year working on it in the studio. I had done recording in the past and recorded a few songs here and there, and I made an EP in college that I handed out to my friends, but that was my first time that I’d really done a project. It was super exciting, and also a little bit nervewracking to see how people were going to receive it. It was received really well, and it opened a lot of doors for me to start playing a lot of shows here in Montana.
PC: You co-produced the Breathing on Embers album with your dad. What was it like working with him in that capacity and to have that hands-on approach with him?
MR: It was really cool. I feel like working with my dad was the absolute best situation for me, because we could kind of argue it out and we would still be good at the end of the day [laughs]. I would say that something would need to sound a certain way or I would play something for him with my vision and he would say that he had a different vision for it, and we would just trade ideas back and forth. Sometimes there would be a lot of emotion involved, and other times it would be super easy. I feel like he understood at the end of the day what I was going for with that record: I wanted it to have an indie Bluegrass vibe. It was fun to get to go through that process with him. For the rest of my life, that’s going to be a very special record. One, because it was my first, and two, because my dad and I did it together.
PC: Your new album, Chasing Somewhere, is your first album since Breathing on Embers five years ago. What kind of anticipation did you feel leading up to the release of the album with that kind of layoff in between album releases?
MR: Oh my goodness, so much anticipation! I have been wanting to release this record for so long. I started getting ready to release the record in 2019. I had more than enough songs then, and I hooked up with a producer in Nashville to start making plans. I was about to launch a crowdfunding campaign, and then the pandemic happened, and we were all really on edge. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know if it was a good time to make music or a good time to reach out to people to get funding for the record. I kind of put everything on pause for a little over a year. The anticipation was huge. I’ve been ready to do this for so long. It feels like a long time coming, and I’m so excited to have this music out there. So far, it’s been received really well. I’m incredibly grateful for anybody who’s listened and supported me along the way.
PC: Chasing Somewhere was fully-funded on Kickstarter, having raised over $22,000 for the album’s release. What did it mean to you to be able to tangibly see the support from your fanbase and know they wanted to hear new music from you?
MR: Honestly, I don’t even have words to express how that feels. When I hit the go button, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to raise that much money. People rallied and they made it happen. It helped light a fire under me when I realized that what I’m doing is meaningful to people; so much so that they would invest their hard-earned money into my music career. It’s very humbling and very inspiring.
PC: Your Kickstarter mentioned that you had to whittle down more than 40 songs to the 15 that comprise Chasing Somewhere. How tough of a process was it to select the 15 songs that ended up making the record?
MR: It was really tough. As a songwriter, the songs you’re considering for a record are like your babies. You’re attached to them. It was very hard to whittle those songs down. I used the people that follow my music to help me narrow down the songs and see which songs they were connecting with. I did 30 songs in 30 days during my Kickstarter run where I would post a song I was considering for the record and seeing what songs people engaged with. That was really helpful for me in narrowing it down. I had it narrowed down to about 25 songs personally for songs that I thought would fit the record; songs about movement, adventure and small-town life. Those themes run through quite a few of the songs that made the record, and I wanted it to feel like there was a cohesive thread running through each of the songs.
PC: What went into the decision to release “Gone” as the lead single from Chasing Somewhere?
MR: The moment we played it live in the studio, I knew it was going to be the single. It felt so right. It almost felt magical [laughs]. It felt like a very special moment. When I played the tracks for people in my small circle that I try to get feedback from, everybody said “Gone” was the song. They were the most moved by that one.
PC: “Chasing Somewhere” is one of our favorite songs on its record. What went into the decision to have the song serve as the title track?
MR: I feel like the title and the message within the song are something that ties all the songs together. There’s kind of a tension between looking moving forward in life and also accepting where you’re at and learning to enjoy each moment. That’s the tension that exists throughout the album, and “Chasing Somewhere” captures that restlessness that we all feel as humans at different points and in different seasons of our lives. Sometimes it’s hard for us to be still and stay in one place, and I think that’s part of why so many musicians can do what they do and live life on the road. There’s an excitement, thrill and adventure in that kind of life.
PC: “Tell Me the Stories” is our favorite song on Chasing Somewhere, and is a song about hearing stories from your mother’s life experiences. Can you talk about the relationship you have with your mother and what that song means to both of you?
MR: My mom is incredible. She has always been the most supportive person in my life. This song was actually spurred on when my mom was visiting my sister in Colorado. They all got Covid, and my mom got it very badly. Her oxygen dropped really low and she had to get rushed to the hospital. It wasn’t looking good, and everyone else was either sick or doing something else, and I was the person who needed to fly to the hospital to be with my mom when things were looking pretty unsure. We weren’t sure if she was going to pull through at that time. I went down there by myself and stayed at a friend’s house in Montrose, Colorado. They happened to have a guitar, and I picked up the guitar and all of my emotions and love for my mom just started spilling out into that song. For me, that song was something that needed to happen in that moment to get me through my emotions around the thought of losing her. I recorded a little voice memo of it. She recovered after being in the hospital for about a week. I couldn’t be in the room with her, but I was there and I felt better being there. I was able to take her home once she was well enough, and I played the track for her on the way home. We both just sat there crying. My mom felt so loved hearing the song that I wrote for her. As my parents are aging, I’m realizing how important that time is. I’m busy and I have a lot going on in my life, but it’s really important for me to slow down and take time to spend with my parents. I hope people connect with that sentiment. I know it’s my mom’s story that I’m telling in the song, but my hope is that others will think about their own parents and be able to cherish the time that we all have together.
PC: Both “Going West” and “Gone” landed on Spotify’s Indie Bluegrass playlist. How encouraging is it as an independent artist to land on a curated playlist so soon after those song releases?
MR: Honestly, I freaked out a little bit. Or a lotta bit [laughs]. I had been wanting to get on a Spotify playlist, and I knew the odds were very slim. I think they only get about 20% of the submissions. I don’t have a record label, so I don’t have anybody reaching out to curators. Honestly I don’t even know how that works [laughs]. I know that submitting through the Spotify for Artists app is the way to go for independent artists, so I did it, and I was just blown away. “Gone” landed on the playlist back in March when it was released, and then when the album released, they picked up “Going West.” It’s been really cool to see.
PC: You had several award-winning musicians, including Barry Bales, Jeneé Fleenor and Al Perkins playing on Chasing Somewhere. What was it like to share the studio with such high caliber musicians?
MR: It was so cool! There’s nothing like having your songs come to life. I’ve played with some great local musicians here in Montana, but there’s nothing like hearing someone like Barry Bales, who’s played with Alison Krauss, and Jeneé Fleenor, who’s played with so many country artists, and Al Perkins who’s a legend on the steel, on my songs. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s really cool to have them be a part of bringing these songs to life. It’s super cool to get to listen to my songs and hear them and their creative talents.
PC: Throughout Chasing Somewhere, you strike a balance of full-band songs with more singer/songwriter-esque acoustic heavy tunes. Can you talk about striking that balance and how important it is for you to capture both of those sounds?
MR: I’m a singer-songwriter first and foremost, and a lot of the shows I play are just me and an acoustic guitar or me and another friend who plays an instrument. In the process of recording this album and in the process of recording the first album, I’ve grown a little bit addicted to that full-band sound. I don’t necessarily want it for every song because it doesn’t fit every song; that’s something the producer and I will go through and decide which songs feel like they need a full band and which songs are really just meant to be stripped back. The cool thing is that we agreed on all of them [laughs]. We didn’t have to argue at all. We knew “Tell Me the Stories” and “So Good, So True” needed to be stripped down. “I’d Rather Be Here” has a little bit of a full-band sound, but it’s definitely more stripped-down than some of the other tracks. I think all of these songs can stand alone with just a guitar and a voice, but at the same time, it’s pretty incredible hearing them come to life with full instrumentation.
PC: What do you hope listeners take away from Chasing Somewhere after listening all the way through?
MR: I just hope they like it [laughs]. I hope people get a sense of who I am as an artist. I think this record is probably the best representation of who I am and want to be as an artist so far. Ultimately, I hope that some of these songs are songs that they want to sing. I hope that there’s songs that people want to be part of their lives. As a songwriter, there’s no greater compliment than somebody wanting to learn to play your song or somebody feeling such a strong connection to your song that they put it on their own playlist and listen to it over and over again. Just to have the songs be a part of people’s lives in some way, that’s really what I hope for.
PC: You recently performed at the Under the Big Sky Festival. What was it like for you to share the stage and bill with major artists like The Turnpike Troubadours, Cody Jinks and Jamey Johnson, among others?
MR: It was the coolest. The whole experience was somewhat surreal. I got to meet a lot of the artists, which was awesome. That was probably one of the most powerful experiences for me; just knowing that we’re all just people and that we’re in this together. It was super cool to be a part of something that incredible. All of the acts were unbelievably good. Each act set the bar just a little bit higher for the next. We tried to catch every show and tried to soak up as much music as we could. We live here, and this amazing festival is 45 minutes from my house, which is super awesome. It’s a huge honor.
PC: Your performance schedule on your website is largely full for the rest of the summer. How much are you looking forward to bringing Chasing Somewhere on the road and presenting it to people that way?
MR: I’m super stoked! I’m going to mostly be in Montana for the rest of the summer, and then I’ll do a little traveling in September. I’m super excited for people to get to hear the record. I’m going to try to get some more full-band shows on the schedule. I can’t wait to share this record with people in a live setting. So far I’ve been able to do that twice since the album came out, and it was two of the most fun shows of my life!
PC: Along with those dates, what are your plans for the rest of 2022 and beyond?
MR: I have a part-time music teaching job that I’m launching back into in September, which will keep me in Montana for a little while. In 2023, I’m already working on a much bigger scale tour than I’ve done in the past, which I’m really excited about. I don’t have all of those details worked out yet, but we have some time to build it. I’m just going to be playing any chance I get in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and this Northwest region for a little while, and then we’re going to go beyond!
*Michelle’s music is featured on The Best of Pro Country playlist!*