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WOMAN ROCK - April 2005
MICHAL TOWBER: THERE’S LIFE BEYOND THE HYPE
by Darren Paltrowitz

In a city filled with singer-songwriters, it takes a lot to stand out. Michal Towber stands out amongst the New York music scene as a veteran of the Anti-folk scene and survivor of two Sony-affiliated record deals.

I had the chance to chat with Michal – who can be visited online at www.michal-towber.com -- via e-mail and, in the process, found out more about Desireless, her forthcoming third album.

WOMANROCK: Having had "the major label experience" as a teenager, what do you feel are some of the misconceptions of being on a major?

MICHAL TOWBER: One of the misconceptions I had was that I thought once you got signed by a major, you've made it. I had no idea that major labels sign hundreds of acts just to see what will stick. For every artist that is high-profile on a major, there are countless others under the radar that the label is holding onto, to develop, as a tax write-off or even just to prevent them from making it somewhere else. The majors are much more bureaucratic and cold than I could have ever imagined; you may at some point be dealing with a human face in the form of an A&R man, but there is this entire machinery operating behind them that doesn't care if the artist is starving or putting their life on hold. And the real tragedy is that the artists are getting younger and younger, because the market that the majors are pandering to is comprised of teenagers. So it is kids that are being chewed up and spit out on the other side…Also, I had no idea that you don't necessarily have to play an instrument, write songs or even be able to sing to get signed. I have actually seen a notice on a record exec's desk that read "forming a girl band. Seeking: teen girls who are cute and can dance. Singing ability a plus." It came as a shock that singing was like a footnote to marketability.

WOMANROCK: Do you feel that landing a deal at 16 years of age was a mistake?

MICHAL: I don't think it was a mistake; I try to be very Zen about everything that happens to me. I think I learned a lot of valuable lessons about life and human nature. It is pointless to wonder if I would have done things differently, because it won't change anything; that was what I was supposed to do at that point in my life. And I realized that I am a very strong person because of it. I would be much more wary about signing with a major again, though.

WOMANROCK: In your time on a major you didn't do a whole lot of touring – is that something you'd like to change?

MICHAL: I would like to tour, but I am much more tied down now than I was at 16. I have a fiancé and I am going to be attending law school at Columbia next year. When I was on Columbia -- not to be confused with the law school -- I was willing to go out in a van. I had this romantic notion about traveling around with three other people and sleeping on people's floors and having the whole Kerouac experience. But the suits who were handling me at the time felt it would be below the standard of a Columbia artist to be so nitty-gritty. It was a Catch-22, they refused to put me on a major tour, but wouldn't accept anything inferior. Now, at the age of 24, I have seen some of the world and put down some roots, so I don't have that same desire to run away. There is still a lot of the world I haven't seen though, so I wouldn't count out the possibility if the right offer came up.

WOMANROCK: Your album for Columbia/RPM, Sky With Stars, featured both piano and guitar-based songs. Your new album, by comparison, relies little on guitar or even a full-band sound. Does that mean that you no longer use the guitar for writing?

MICHAL: I have been playing the piano a lot more recently, but I go back and forth. Coma and my upcoming release Desireless both feature piano much more than guitar. That's just how it turned out, but I have no idea what the next record will sound like.

WOMANROCK: There was a lot of classical influence on Sky yet Coma suggests a lot of inspiration from jazz and Gershwin. Is this record intended to put you in a new direction, or is that just what happened within this batch of songs?

MICHAL: It was just the mood I was in. It's funny because I have been listening to a lot of Elliott Smith and Bright Eyes and you wouldn't necessarily hear that in Coma and Desireless. I also listened to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald when recording this album. It's just the way it filtered through me I guess.

WOMANROCK: Right now you're primarily selling Coma through CD Baby and are in the midst of label shopping. Where do you hope that you'll wind up in a best-case scenario?

MICHAL: I am pretty happy being on Shorebreak. But I am looking at some majors as well for distribution. It's at a delicate stage though, so I would rather not name-drop.

WOMANROCK: Since your first and second albums were 3 years apart, I'd imagine that you've written a lot of material in that downtime. Will there be an EP or a B-Sides collection in the foreseeable future?

MICHAL: There will be some extra tracks on compilations and movie soundtracks. Those avenues are being explored. My newest song deals with a worry some people have expressed to me; they wonder if I will still write with the same depth now that I am so happily in love and not tormented. It's called "It Gets Better Before It Gets Worse" and it deals with my mood swings and the bad chemicals in my head. I am convinced that the saying "all men are assholes and all women are psychotic" is true, at least to some degree. I've talked to a lot of my girlfriends about this, and they all have had similar experiences. I can get upset over nothing, and my rational brain knows I'm being an idiot, but my emotional brain always wins. So, the skeptics don't have to worry, even good company can't take my demons out of me.

WOMANROCK: Chris Rock recently said that receiving awards for art is "idiotic." As someone that's been nominated for multiple Daytime Emmys, what role do awards play to you personally?

MICHAL: I am grateful and amazed that anyone would take the time to listen to what I have to say. An Emmy would do much to bolster my crippled self-esteem. And it would look great on my toilet.

WOMANROCK: Being that you've appeared on-screen and done some theater work, where does acting lie in your long-term plans? And modeling?

MICHAL: I love acting, but it is really a hobby. I have not studied it professionally or devoted nearly as much time to it as I have to music. I would love to have the opportunity to do more theater or on-screen work in the future, but it is really secondary to my music. And any modeling I ever do will be associated with my music...until they change the standards of beauty to 5'4", hippy girls with supernaturally large foreheads and equilateral triangle noses...

WOMANROCK: Are there any goals you're holding professionally, be it towards Desireless or your overall career?

MICHAL: Well, I am going to become an entertainment lawyer and sue the pants off the big wigs. I want to win a Grammy and be in one major motion picture. And then I want to retire to a villa in France and become an icon like Katherine Deneuve.

WOMANROCK: What advice would you have a New York-based singer-songwriter that doesn't feel that they've yet gotten their due?

MICHAL: Revise your expectations! Go into everything expecting nothing and you will never be disappointed. Play music qua music.

WOMANROCK: Is there something you wish more people knew about you on or offstage?

MICHAL: I am a nerd!

WOMANROCK: And finally, Michal, any last words for the kids?

MICHAL: School rocks! Stop eating animals…Actually I do have one serious public service announcement. It is an issue that I feel very strongly about. Many people who I am friends with think that because they are smart and well educated about STD’s (especially HIV) and because they only sleep with other smart, well-educated people that they are immune from contracting it. Don't ruin your life! Do not have unprotected sex under any circumstances!!! Jessica Simpson says "Do not have sex before marriage!" I say "Let's be realistic here; do not have unprotected sex before marriage!" Alright, I will get off my soap-box now. Over and out.

Darren Paltrowitz is a contributor to WomanRock. A native of Bellmore and current resident of East Northport, New York, Darren Paltrowitz began writing for area publications as a teenager. Working his way up to Features & Entertainment Editor of Long Island Entertainment before his 19th birthday, he has since contributed to dozens of other publications. Prior to completing a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) from Hofstra University, early 2004 saw the launch of his syndicated "Moving In Stereo" column, as read internationally. When not writing or doing research for such, he enjoys reading, traveling and talking about himself in the third person.