If you want to hear the voice of an angel, you would need look no farther than that of Michele Baer’s voice. Truly her voice is a recipe of honey, sun, and warmth. Heaven could not hold much better than that!
Her latest CD is called Never Give Up: Songs of Faith and Family. It is not like many of the other current CDs of LDS vocalists, which until recently maintained similar sounding styles. No, this CD is mature and seasoned, with Michele’s voice “speaking” to the soul. Words of comfort and words of faith wrap themselves around you, leaving you to feel as if you are in the embrace of a mother who loves you and wants to make your world a little bit better.
After hearing Never Give Up, I had to talk with Michele and learn more. She was gracious enough to share her experiences with us and how she approaches life as a songwriter, public speaker, and vocalist. I’m grateful she did.
C.S.: Before we get started, please share with us a little about yourself: favorite thoughts, desserts, or even pet peeves.
MICHELE: My favorite food is not desserts. I'd rather have something like a salad or veggies than ice cream. It drives my husband crazy after our dates. Some of my pet peeves are really slow drivers and really slow anything!
C.S.: Your business card states that you are both a performer and an inspirational speaker. As a side note, how did you first begin speaking?
MICHELE: Before my freshman year in High School, I read the Book of Mormon and my testimony became rooted. My seminary experience further inspired me and I burned with a desire to someday be a seminary teacher and "never lose my excitement for the gospel as I grew older." I made that promise to myself and the Lord.
C.S.: You are now a speaker for the CES Especially for Youth programs. How did that come to pass?
MICHELE: I try to stay close to what the Lord wants me to do with my talent and so I get promptings a lot. Last year I got a strong impression to apply for EFY just before the deadline. The next week I got a call that they really needed me. It was an incredible answer to prayer. I love the opportunity to bear testimony through word and song and the spirit. It is one of my greatest joys to be his instrument.
C.S.: Did you view yourself as an "inspirational speaker" at first?
MICHELE: As I said, my goal was to be a seminary teacher. At the time I entered BYU, they didn't accept women in the seminary program, so I declared a minor in religious studies (along with Music and Family Studies) and took as many religion classes as I could to prepare for my goal. I eventually taught early morning seminary in Connecticut and as a substitute teacher for all-day seminary in Mesa. That is where I began leaning on the Lord for inspiration while teaching and he has never let me down. I definitely desire to lift others when I speak and bring them the message of hope that the Father's plan has for all of his children.
C.S.: What is truly amazing is that you are the mother of six children. How do you keep up with it all? Any secrets you care to share?
MICHELE: I don't like to watch TV and I don't really read books, except for church reference material, so I have found more time to work on different music projects and to stay at home with my family. During the years when all my kids were young, I really struggled to balance it all. That was the hardest time. After much prayer I had the answer that a young nursing mom with other children really needs to not worry about how her house looks but to make sure she eats enough and catches a nap wherever possible. My husband is also a great support and takes his turn with many household tasks.
Discouragement comes with the trials of family life, but many of us think we are the only ones going through the contention and such. That is why I really wanted to make this second CD entitled Never Give Up. I know that the temptation to give up and think we can't change comes from the devil who desires us to remain miserable. The Lord is ALWAYS there for us and we must call down the powers of heaven through prayer and the priesthood to overcome Satan in the last days. Even when we feel horrible and have made mistakes, the atonement is there for us and it is real. That is the message I want to share because I know it is true.
C.S.: I, for one, am very grateful that you have shared your message the way you have. Your CD carries a powerful spirit. So, please, tell us—when did you first notice a love for music?
MICHELE My mother was a contralto soloist from Mesa, AZ and my dad sang in the coveted Glee Club at Cal Berkeley. They married and he became a dentist in Concord, California, where they helped charter a Light Opera Company. I started singing harmony to songs at age 3 and would sing and dance in my living room to musicals. At age 6, my parents took me to try out for the part of Gretl in Sound of Music. I got the part and my Mom was one of the nuns (we got funny comments stopping for gas on the way home from rehearsals in costume. A nun and her daughter!).
After that I continued to take piano lessons for ten years, a little clarinet and accordion, and sang many Karen Carpenter solos in the high school choir. My two older brothers and four younger sisters all sing, so our family would perform at ward parties and caroled to many friends every Christmas Eve (a tradition my own family still carries on today).
C.S.: Where do you feel your musical influences come from?
MICHELE: I grew up with classical and music theatre always playing in my home. But I also enjoy many other genres because I love to dance to a great beat. One of my favorites is great choral music especially sung by the BYU choirs. I also love most of the romantic composers: Debussy, Grieg, and Faure. I could listen to Faure's Requiem all day.
C.S.: When did you first begin composing songs? What was the response of others? Were they encouraging? In other words, did you pitch your songs to others or did you keep them to yourself?
MICHELE: I wrote my first real song when I was twelve for my Grandmother's funeral. I played and sang it with my other cousins in Pine, Arizona. I loved to express myself through poetry and put some to music in my teens. That was all put on hold while raising my family. I sold Brite Music at home parties for 9 years and admired Janeen Brady's music, but never looked at myself as a composer, but rather performed as a vocal soloist with local wards, stakes and community choirs.
Then in 1990 in Connecticut, the Relief Society Birthday made a call for creative works about Women. I wrote "Women: A Heritage of Greatness" to express my love for my ancestors and sisters in Relief Society. It is recorded on my first CD, Out of the Dust.
C.S.: You mentioned Out of the Dust as your first CD. Let’s go back in time a bit. At what point did you decide to actually record for the first time? Were you nervous?
MICHELE: As a Stake Missionary in Mesa, AZ, I was asked to be a presenter for a youth MTC weekend. I wanted to sing a song about the promises I felt we made to the Father about sharing the gospel and our privilege to come down during the last dispensation. I couldn't find a song so one night I decided to write one. I recorded the background track at a friend's studio and then lost my voice. I had my daughter sing the song and realized there was great opposition to my music.
The next six months I had strong promptings to write a song telling the youth that when you "Count on the Prophet", the Lord counts on you. I wrote and recorded the song and then felt a 'hand on my back' pushing me to write songs from prophet's messages. I can't express how scary it was for me to share each new song with someone. I felt they would laugh. That is so hard for a new artist to overcome, but you can never know unless you keep trying.
For three years, I researched and wrote ten songs with Richard Talbot (a friend from BYU). He helped me to arrange and record each one. It was one of the most fulfilling and growing experiences of my life.
C.S.: How did you feel first stepping into the studio? Or did you record it at home?
MICHELE: Richard and I recorded my first CD in his professional home studio. I loved being able to 'preserve' my voice for posterity; I enjoy capturing that perfect take'. My second CD was recorded in several different studios, the majority being with Greg Hansen who was very friendly yet professional. After all my recording with the first CD, it was easy to record my vocals in just a few takes. It went tons faster.
C.S.: Not only was your first CD an inspirational collection of original solo music. It also was inspiring because it sold more than 2000 copies in the first year! How did you accomplish that? Through a distributor or through personal perseverance?
MICHELE: Our distributor was only for the barcode and access to the Booksellers convention. Our perseverance and marketing did most of it. We mailed letters to 700 friends that we'd made over seven moves. We also offered them specials: Buy five get one free, and many took the offer. Now with our second CD, we have distribution with Deseret Book, giving us exposure in more stores. My husband works for IBM and is now a wonderful marketing manager for me on the side. I really have to give him the credit. I get a little embarrassed with all the attention, but he believes in my music and that it should be shared with everyone.
C.S.: You mentioned that Never Give Up is being distributed through Deseret Book. How did you accomplish that?
MICHELE: I can share the story, but I think everyone's path to that place comes a different way. I worked very hard and with personal determination to self-produce my first album and found the most incredible fulfillment to do what I felt was from inspiration.
Through a series of contacts, Greg Hansen heard my music and said he was interested in arranging some of my songs. That was a surprise and a thrill because he has many who ask and few he accepts. We worked on some songs and then after a year or so, decided to jump in and do another album.
The evolution of this album took patience as I had some arrangements by my former arranger/producer Richard Talbot and also decided to use Greg Hansen. They both have great talent and I was blessed to work with both. Opposition and discouragement plagued the project, but I kept getting the answer to go on.
It is interesting how some disappointments turn into blessings. I was working with Sounds of Zion executives at a certain point, but because of timing and other issues, we parted ways. That left the door open to go to Deseret Book. We had invested a good amount in the project to make it the most professional we could and also prepared a nicely bound press packet with pictures, bios and marketing plans. Then I fasted and prayed that IF it was the time for my music and testimony to be heard, that it would be clear to them when I talked with them.
That is exactly what happened and I knew in my heart that it wasn't my wishes that were answered, but the Lord’s. The other reason I know this is that I had tried for several years to get through or get an appointment or something and it never happened. I didn't stop trying, I just had to do my homework and then find the right time.
C.S.: Wise words, indeed.
MICHELE: My advice to others? Develop your talents, even if you are home raising children. It is important for yourself and your family! Do what brings you fulfillment and don't be afraid to stretch yourself. I was scared to death to share my first song with someone. My caution: With the ease of recording, go ahead and preserve what you do and love for your friends and family. But remember not everyone is professional enough to produce an album for wider distribution. Let a professional be the judge and don't get your feelings hurt. You can still make a difference and bless those in your family, ward, stake and area. Most importantly, work hard and then pray to know what the next step is in your life. The Lord will always be there for you.
C.S.: Which side of the writing fence do you sit on: writing every day faithfully or writing only when the inspiration comes?
MICHELE: I really only write when I am asked for a church assignment or when I have a CD project I am working on. I had to stop teaching a high school choir, voice lessons, and directing a children's choir to have time to really finish writing and recording my second CD. It was really important to me to be there for my kids’ concerts and homework, though, in between any professional obligations. As far as writing, I always write the words first and then sit at the piano to find where the music should go. I know my best work has been inspired so I can't take full credit for it.
C.S.: With all that you have going on, how much time, on average, do you spend writing? How much time do you spend practicing? How do you balance it?
MICHELE: I definitely sing more than I write. Before a big performance season like Christmas, I have to sing each day for two weeks to do runs on the Messiah. Otherwise I work only an hour or two a week. I like to work on my favorite classical pieces to keep me strong. I've recorded the accompaniment on a CD so I don't have to play the piano while I sing. I also do competitive cycling and pilates to keep my breath control strong.
C.S.: Do you have a favorite artist, whether songwriter or vocalist?
MICHELE: James Taylor and Karen Carpenter are my favorite artists. I love clear strong vocalists, not the airy breathy sounds that are so popular today.
C.S.: What impact do you feel Latter-day Saints can have in the world of the arts? What do you hope to achieve?
MICHELE: Latter-Day Saints shouldn't think they have to copy the styles that have been popular, even in our own LDS subculture. I have felt it really important to be true to my own style. I know my voice may not be just like the current popular artists on the radio, and I also don't record in my classical style voice. I try to use the most natural and clear voice that the Lord blessed me with and sing with all the feeling that I have. If there is not a message to my song, I really don't want to sing it. That may be my greatest fault: that I try too hard. My first album is musically and spiritually deeper than my second if you spend the time with it. But the scriptural messages are there if you are listening with the spirit. The second is really aimed at helping families find hope and encouragement, especially women who are the nurturers in the home.
C.S.: Excellent points, Michele. So to summarize, what advice do you have for other singer/songwriters, especially those who are just beginning?
MICHELE: First, don't be afraid to try new harmonies and chord progressions that sound good to your ear, but remember the feeling of balanced songwriting form is important for any listener's ear. Verse/Chorus songs, or Thru-composed (story-line kind of song forms) are best to stick with. Otherwise the listener can be confused.
Ask an honest musical mentor for advice. The best feedback is not just to say it sounds good, but can give you constructive criticism to improve. What I appreciate most about working with Greg Hansen is that he not only loved some of my compositions and wanted to arrange them, but that he also told me that some needed "song surgery". Then I knew he was being totally honest with me.
C.S.: Any final thoughts?
MICHELE: I want to give credit to my family for their support in all I have achieved, especially my husband who has pushed me to be creative and record. My children all have solo voices as well and love to perform and develop their own talents. I hope they continue to do so in their own right. Of course I feel most grateful to have this gift that expresses through an added medium my love and testimony of Heavenly Father, His Son and the Holy Ghost. I only hope that it can bless all who listen.
Truly, Michele is making a difference to those who will listen. And she has done so by not giving up and by listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, then acting on them. I thank her for her insightful words and for her compassion towards others—and especially for her honey’ed, touch-of-sun voice. For more information, visit Michele Baer's website.