Michelle Tumes' Well-Centered Universe

By Bruce Adolph, courtesy of {{Christian Musician}} Magazine

Soft-spoken Australian native {{Michelle Tumes}} has made quite an impact in her still budding musical career. Her first album "Listen" on Sparrow Records was produced by {{Charlie Peacock}} and garnered 3 #1 Christian radio hit's in row and a Dove nomination for "1999 Best New Artist of the Year". Then her ethereal voice landed on the multi-artists "{{Streams}}" project and she landed a fourth number one song with "Hold On".

We met up with Michelle last summer at a music festival to discuss Part 1 of our interview. It was more or less at the halfway point of the recording process for her new cd "Center of My Universe". This time around she co-produced the record with heavyweight David Leonard (Prince, Indigo Girls, Hootie & The Blowfish, Shawn Colvin, John Mellencamp). We recently caught up with Michelle again at the end of the project for Part 2 of the interview to see if the record really turned out as she had imagined it would.


CM: Tell us about your musical background.

MT: I started playing the piano when I was four. I'm classically training. I had this really great teacher who played for the state opera company. He encouraged me to be expressive in my music. All my friends were learning all the technical aspect-I was too-but he focused much more on the expression. I've always enjoyed playing the piano because of that.

CM: Did you train vocally too?

MT: I did a little bit. When I was in university I went to an opera singer, and he taught me to make different sounds with my voice. I also played flute for a while, and I played tambourine on my album, and I'm really proud of that (laughing).

CM: Do you accompany yourself on your albums.

MT: Yes, Jamie Henning helps me with the piano parts. He's a lot better than I am. I don't practice as much as I should, but I love to play and sing. There's something about the cohesiveness of doing both. I love weaving the vocal in with the piano.

CM: What is your approach to songwriting?

MT: For about a month I'll sit in my apartment and pray and play music and make coffee and go running. It can get really high pressure when you know you're supposed to be writing for an album, and the record company's calling and saying, "How's it going?" With traveling all over the place, I'll get snippets of ideas and try to explore and embellish them and use them in a song. I have a collection of ideas from all over the place.

CM: What tools do you use for songwriting? Do you have a home studio?

MT: I have a Kawai upright grand, and I just love it. Writing on the piano is the most inspiring for me. I can hear all the parts in my head, and I get ideas sketched out there and then go into the studio. I believe that there's a certain-I don't know if I'd use the word magic-but there's a feel that you get when you initially write a song, so when you put it down you should just build the rest of the song on top of that and it's amazing.

CM: How would you explain your music?

MT: I guess I would call it soothing music. It's peaceful, and hopefully God-inspired. I use percussive elements and synthesized elements and some organic things and try to blend them all together. I try to use my voice as an instrument.

CM: Which aspects of pre-production are you involved in?

MT: I'm co-producing this album, so I've been very involved in exploring different parts. I spent every day from ten in the morning until twelve at night. I've been exploring different string parts, and I'm really big on drums. Even though I don't play them, there are certain things that I hear in my head, so I try to program some drums. I play the piano, and put some scratch vocals down that may become part of the album. I write the string parts on a synthesizer.

CM: You spent part of your childhood in Malaysia and the Middle East. What was that like in contrast to your upbringing in Australia?

MT: Australia is not as wealthy as America, but living in Malaysia really gave me an appreciation for the simple things in life, which I try to hold on to now.

CM: Have there been many difficulties transferring from the Australian culture to the American culture?

MT: Besides the words and phrases that are different, I think that people think I'm shy, but I'm not as animated as most Americans.

CM: On your first album, you worked with Charlie Peacock. How were you able to work out any differences in opinion?

MT: He'd get quiet and I'd go home. And the next day we'd do it again (laughing). It was great working with Charlie, because whenever we had those differences he'd say, "It's your record. You're the one whose name will be on it." So he'd defer to me quite a bit.

CM: What is your vision for this new album?

MT: Logistically, I'm about halfway or two-thirds of the way there. It's going to be soothing songs, with more modern sounds. Probably more guitars, and not such a large string sound. There's one song called "Immortal," which was inspired by the writings of monks that I read from time to time. It's about how even though I'll die; I'm going to live eternally. They were really able to look at things simply, which I admire.


CM: Last time we talked, you were more than halfway through the album. Did it end up the way you envisioned it?

MT: I would say the album ended up how I envisioned it, although it's probably even better because I co-produced it with someone who added more than I had imagined. It was all that I expected and more.

CM: Who was your co-producer?

MT: David Leonard.

CM: He's worked with several popular mainstream acts, but none of them are very similar to your musical style. How did you communicate with him what you wanted in the project?

MT: I first met David when he mixed my last album and I struck up a great rapport with him. He has a similar personality to mine, and his outlook on work ethic is a lot the same too. It wasn't really a stylistic thing as much as the type of person I wanted to work with. He enjoys my sort of music, but ends up doing harder stuff normally.

CM: Can you explain your work ethic?

MT: I like to work as hard as I can, and never say, "That will do," but always strive for something better. David was there day-in and day-out for twelve to fourteen hours a day, and was consistent the whole time. And to me, maintaining consistency and keeping a level head even when the record company is saying, "Come on, hurry up," is really important. Standards stayed really high.

CM: Did you mix together since you co-produced?

MT: I was there during a lot of the mixing, but David is a world-class mixer. All I did was explain my ideas, and he'd completely grab hold of that and translate it into how we wanted it.

CM: Your voice seems even more melodic on this album than on the first one. Was that a conscious choice, or did it just turn out that way?

MT: I think I was a bit more confident this time. With the first album, it was all new to me, and I was just testing the waters. I'll admit that my voice isn't the strongest part of my artistry, but I wanted to improve it. So I stayed until I got the right vocals. With David engineering it was like being at home. We recorded in an old home, so it was much less of the studio feel.

CM: There are a lot of different photos on this album, with a lot of different looks. Do you think the American public is more aware of appearance than in Australia?

MT: I think so. I think the best way to approach a photo shoot is to try to capture the personality of the artist. That ultimately reflects the music and then it all ties in together. So I have a lot of different looks, but I have a lot of different sides to my personality as well. There's not just one thing I want to focus on in a photo shoot. I do want to make sure there's nothing up my nose or on my face, but that's about it.

CM: Your music is very vertical: aimed at God. Now that you're married, do you see your writing expanding to relationships as well?

MT: I do, but for me it all relates back to Christ and the Church. When I was walking down the aisle to meet my husband, I could picture the Bridegroom. The music will still be really vertical, but I think I'm going to understand human relationships better. Being married, you can't get away with anything. It completely exposes all the bad things about you, which is good, because it challenges you to work on them. I think I'll talk about human relationships a bit more, but the whole source of that is God, so I want to keep focused on that.

CM: There is a rather upbeat song, "Do Ya," which may surprise the Michelle Tumes' listener. How did that come about? Is that a human relationship song?

MT: It is, but actually was inspired by a time about five or six years ago, when I was looking in the mirror and saw a few freckles, and my teeth protruding a bit. And I'm thinking, "Do you love me?" It's kind of a rhetorical question, because my self-esteem is strong enough even though I'm not a perfect person. I think kids and even adults these days are bombarded by the media and how we should look. But no one's perfect. Growing up I was really awkward, with buck teeth. But it didn't matter what I looked like, because my self-esteem was grounded in my relationship with my heavenly Father.

CM: Tell us about the new album.

MT: I really like it. I haven't listened to it for a while, because when you live with it every day, it's hard to be objective about it anymore, so I'm going to put it away for a couple of months. It has all the elements I wanted, including the faster songs. We had a fantastic guitar player, Doug Langio, who is so innovative and was incredible. He really added a lot. The string arrangements were everything we wanted them to be. The whole process was amazing, and I'm really very pleased with it. I hope the listeners like it because it's a bit of a departure.

CM: What does music mean to you at this point?

MT: It's really a very fundamental part of my life. It's how I express myself as a person. The only way I can really say what's in my heart without worrying about what other people think is when I write music. It's a spiritual part of my life as well. God uses music to speak to me. It's very healing and soothing. It speaks to all the generations and cultures.