Staying Busy, Continuously Learning and Queen: Interview with Michael Holland
Singnasium recently reached out to Teaching Artist, Michael Holland, to check in on how he is weathering the last few months, when he knew he wanted to become a musician and which songs he wishes he’d written.
What keeps you creative during these crazy times?
Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines! I took on a bunch of smaller projects as soon as they materialized, so my schedule is pretty jam-packed. When everything first shut down, quite a bit of work dried up, including the world premiere of one of my musicals. So, with a suddenly empty calendar, I decided to write a few non-theatrical songs (for the first time in years!), and put out a couple of videos - basically just to have something to do - plus about four or five songs for a new show that's been on a back burner for a while. We even did a Zoom reading of it, for my collaborator and me to see if we were actually onto something or not. Turns out we are, so we'll keep that moving.
But then doing music for a living picked up again, so July has been all about arranging/recording for a couple of virtual concert events (including The Arrangement Experience!). In August, I'm prepping one of my incidental scores for publication/licensing, as well as finishing a few demo projects of other people's material.
My favorite thing to do is write, but I needed to diversify my skill set in order to continue living indoors. As a result, sometimes the recording/engineering, orchestration, or even (God forbid) copy work delays my being able to get at my first love. But when I actually do get the time, it makes me that much more productive. I've had some pretty great teachers along the way (though not so much in my actual field; I come with a staggering lack of training), who showed me that the secret of life is to never stop learning. If you don't become complacent, inspiration seems to perpetuate itself. Besides, as a friend/mentor once told me, "There's no such thing as writer's block. Because if you get it, somebody else won't."
When did you realize you wanted to be a songwriter/arranger?
I knew from a very early age that I wanted to do something in the arts. So did my parents once it became clear that I was simply not about to catch that baseball. But I didn't know if I would be a singer, an actor, a painter, etc. When I was twelve, my family were all in the car, and something decidedly different came on the radio. "What's that?" I asked. My mom reached over to turn up the volume. "Oh, I heard this earlier in the week; I think you're gonna like it," she said. "They're called Queen." The next five minutes-and-change absolutely ruined me for life. I remember saying, "I didn't know you were allowed to do this!" (Turns out you're not, and they weren't, but they did it anyway.) I needed to figure out how four people could make so much noise, and so many different kinds of noises. Still working on that one. But my fate as a songwriter and vocal arranger was sealed.
The instrumental arranging came later - when I finally learned to say yes when the phone rang, and just try new things. That was how I accidentally learned that I could do a lot of different things, and actually enjoyed doing them.What song do you wish you had written, and why?
Only one? There are so many ingenious ones... I'm gonna go with the first one that popped into my head, and say "MacArthur Park." And not that Donna Summer sacrilege either, I'm talking about the real one. The Richard Harris (!!!) extravaganza. I don't care that it doesn't make a lick of sense: it's brash and fearless and bombastic and preposterous. It's everything! And the orchestration, also by Jimmy Webb, is a complete time capsule. (Back to Queen: Brian May says, "If something's worth doing, then surely it's worth overdoing.") And it feels like it's always been here somehow.
I firmly believe songs should feel inevitable rather than concocted or forced into being. This is not to say that I listen to nothing but overblown nonsense - I love my Joni and Sondheim and Gershwin and Billy Joel, and unfairly less-celebrated masters like Nik Kershaw or Andy Partridge. But the stuff that really has no business existing and yet there it is being glorious? That's what got me into this mess in the first place. Songs that I can listen to all these years later and say, no matter how much knowledge, experience, or courage I may accumulate, I would never have come up with that. And I'm so glad somebody did.