Because her mother was a piano teacher, it was perhaps inevitable that Michelle Anthony would begin her musical life playing that instrument. Yet as she got older and started playing in bands — most notably the now-defunct Milwaukee jangle-pop quartet Capital 8 from 1999 until 2004 — the rest of her talents emerged almost accidentally.
“There wasn’t anyone to play bass in my high school band, so I took up that,” Anthony says. “In Capital 8, I started out as a harmony singer until one member left the band, so I stepped in and took over her role. When I first started, I sang so softly that they had to turn up my mike to the point that we’d get feedback. People who sing typically get a lot of attention, and I never wanted that. I always felt more comfortable in a larger group.”
Judging from her first solo record, Stand Fall Repeat, Anthony no longer has a problem putting herself in the spotlight. In the course of eleven songs, Anthony’s voice moves with a melodic and emotional sureness that recalls early Sarah McLachlan, though Anthony adeptly mingles country and blues influences into her refined phrasing. She also comfortably slips back onto the piano bench after spending, by her reckoning, too much time and effort trying to do so in Capital 8.
“I kept bringing songs to the band that were piano-based, and they seemed a little less interested in those tunes,” Anthony says. “So I decided I would do my own thing. This is more of a return to my roots, and it seemed really natural to me.”
While casting about for a way to do her own thing, however, Anthony did turn one more side gig to her advantage. In the early months of 2003, when another Milwaukee band, the roots-rock foursome West Of Rome, started working on an album with former Wilco member Jay Bennett producing, she was recruited as a backup singer. After meeting Bennett, whom Anthony describes as her “musical idol,” she ended up enlisting him to help her make Stand Fall Repeat.
Bennett is credited on the album as one of three producers; Anthony and her husband Scott (second guitarist in Capital 8 and co-writer of five songs on Stand Fall Repeat) are the other two. “Jay definitely played a role in how the initial tracks were recorded,” she says. “But as far as him being a producer — ‘Here’s a riff you should play,’ and all that — he did that to a lesser degree than he’s done in the past. We were in charge and we wanted it to be that way. It was very much collaborative.”
After nine days of putting music to tape in Chicago, the Anthonys returned to their basement studio in Milwaukee, then flew out to Los Angeles last December to mix the album with Chris Fudurich (best known for his work on Nada Surf’s Let Go). The results have a sonic clarity that holds together a wide-ranging set of styles, from the barroom smoker “Ellouise” to the hushed, elegiac “Closer” and the Carole King groove of “Don’t Deny”.
Anthony was intent on getting both the clarity and the variety. “There were a lot fewer boundaries because it was more of a benevolent dictatorship,” she says. “This is music I’ve wanted to make for a long time, done in the way I wanted to make it.”
With her backing band, Stick Pony, Anthony intends to tour intensively behind Stand Fall Repeat. In a way, she’s not so much taken music as her calling as resigned herself to the fact that she will always be drawn back to it.
“There comes a point where you realize that this is what you do, and whether you like it or not, you have to do it,” she says. “I keep coming back to music, because I can’t just do one thing and be happy with that one thing. That would kill me.”