Letters Out Loud
Michelle Lewis loves words. Onomatopoeia, words with double meanings, Scrabble, crossword puzzles, literary fiction - if it involves playing with the English language, Lewis is hooked. But unlike most of us who love wordplay, Lewis channels her passion into exquisitely crafted lyrics. From early work like 'Watching William Die,' a scathing anthem to an ex everyone wishes they could write, to the recent 'New York Friend,' which captures the angst of starting over in a new home, Lewis turns a phrase not to be clever but to sneak up on the listener's emotions with an unexpected image. ('Plenty of souls end up in the lost and found; it's raining in California so there's nothing left to talk about...') You can see the influence of her idol Elvis Costello. Words without music are just...well, talk. Lewis' mastery of melody is in her genetic make-up. Her dad, Morty Lewis, was a big band sax player who toured with Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald, while her mom worked as a session singer on television and radio. Lewis booked gigs singing jingles for Oreo's and Coca-Cola when she was still in kindergarten, then became one of the kids on Sesame Street. Once she reached adolescence, however, the musical orientation of her childhood steered Lewis toward anything but a musician's life. 'I wanted to be a shrink,' she says. Unfortunately for her future patients, her pipes were too good. Even as she tried to focus her stint at Columbia University on building a 'straight' life, Lewis couldn't resist offers to jam with future members of Blues Traveler and The Spin Doctors and joined a female R&B vocal group,Shades of Soul, which was born out of the college gospel choir. In her final attempt to live as a civilian, Lewis took an internship in the production department at a jazz label, but was moonlighting as a songwriter before she even settled into her cubicle. Just a year out of school, she landed a publishing deal with BMG Music and began singing with Trip-hop groups Jazzhole (bum rush the), Brooklyn Funk Essentials, and US3. Just as Lewis balances artful lyricism and strong musicianship, she also juggles her work penning hits for other artists and performing her own songs. In 1998, Lewis' album Little Leviathan was released on Giant/Warner Brothers to critical acclaim. 'Nowhere and Everywhere' became the number one most added single on Triple A radio, with it's hypnotizing spoken-word lyrics ('my heart fell out of my backpack and into a puddle...'). Lewis performed on VHI, NPR, and at the Sundance Film Festival and toured with The Corrs and Fastball. Sometimes, timing is everything. When Britney Spears' 'Baby One More Time' was released the same day as Little Leviathan, Lewis accepted the shift and focused on writing for pop stars. A move to Los Angeles in 2002 led to a myriad of writing work for artists ranging from Cher to Hillary Duff, Kelly Osbourne to Shawn Colvin and placement in films (Cinderella, Practical Magic) and television (Felicity, One Tree Hill). No matter how successful she becomes as a songwriter for other artists, Lewis still generates material that only she can sing: quirky, dark lyrics set to strong pop melodies. After self-releasing a record in 2001, she lay low until she met like-minded East Coast exiles in Southern California including Tracy Bonham, Nina Gordon (Veruca Salt), and Kay Hanley (Letters to Cleo). All with major label experiences and all fiercely independent, they just couldn't resist: they formed a super-group. Hanley and Lewis have since become the main members of The Dilettantes, with a development deal on Columbia Records and a monthly gig at Hollywood's Hotel Café. Though she sometimes feels as if she needs to make a choice between her two worlds, Michelle Lewis - toiling songwriter by day, funky songstress by night - is a vision of balance, sharing with the world her talent, one imagistic lyric at a time.