Michelle Rumball makes songs. She chases songs by other writers. And she sings them all with joy and conviction and a smile in her voice.
Now, long after a ground-breaking album with the legendary Grievous Angels, two previous solo records, and a sojourn in New Orleans, she’s back with a new collection of songs.
Time to make a list
Burn it up and move along
Time to sing a whole new kind of song
Time to see a sky of blue not grey or rain
They’re the opening lines of just one of the 11 songs on Years Behind, Michelle’s new record, and a new turning point in her life.
Five of the songs on the record she made herself; others are love-letters to your heart from John Hiatt, Bob Dylan, Sting and Toronto songwriters Kevin Quain and Chris Staig.
And she sings all of them with heart and style.
Michelle is from Toronto’s maligned suburb of Scarborough — and proud of it — and she’s been a musician for as long as she can remember. Her powerful voice first emerged as the voice of the legendary Canadian acoustic rock band Grievous Angels. After two records and five years, a Juno nomination and countless gigs in coffee houses, clubs, concert and legion halls, bars and festivals across the country, she left to find her own voice and sing her own songs.
And where d’you go to find your voice? Try New Orleans, America’s beating heart of jazz, blues, gospel and groove. There was bar work, under-the-table jobs, and gigs with the underworld waving signs outside tourist trap saloons — “I was a barker for the mob” sounds like a title for a trashy ten-cent paperback from the ‘50s…
After two years she played her one and only gig in the city — “It felt like my graduation exercise” — jumped onto a Greyhound and came back to Toronto to start all over again.
Michelle Rumball’s first solo record was quiet, moody, introspective and personal — 2001’s terrain, produced by Teenage Head’s Dave Rave, meanders around the theme of ”home” — and she’ll tell you now that it showed a songwriter learning about herself, figuring a way forward, testing the waters and trying to make a career in music.
Ten years later came Welcome to the Beauty Saloon, produced by Kevin Quain, a legendary figure in Toronto’s alternative music scene. It was full of new songs and a renewed confidence; in music-centric Toronto, people were talking about her again; hers was a rich, more confident voice to be reckoned with, from a songwriter with something to say.
Suddenly she was visible again in local clubs and pubs; this Spring she played an intimate show in a bookshop and graced the stage at a sold out Bob Dylan tribute show at Hugh’s Room Live, the city’s premier acoustic music venue. And regular gigs at out-of-the-way clubs, one of them for six years. And, if you live in Toronto you might hear her in the subway, where she busks occasionally. “I like it — you’re sending music into the ears of people making their way around the city…”
And now, in November 2018, comes Years Behind, Michelle’s third solo album, released in November.
Might have had a plan
But it's time to make a new one
Make sure it has a little fun
Embed a little joy, carve out a little time to play
Forget about roads and paths and plans
Forget about old dreams you can
Make some new ones
With a better chance to stay
Produced once again by Quain, Years Behind brims with optimism, laughter, and an easy-going thoughtfulness. “Make a List” is a key track, obviously, as is Michelle’s “Nolament,” the final cut on the CD. John Hiatt’s song “Feels Like Rain,” Quain’s “Rain on the Midway” and Chris Staig’s “Let the River Roll” also deserve special attention and radio play.
Supporting her on the recording — mostly cut at Toronto’s Union Sound — is a group of prominent independent Toronto players, all of them studio veterans. In addition to Quain’s keyboard and guitar work and vocals, you’ll also hear Nigel Hebblewhite (bass), Adam Warner (drums), Shelley Coopersmith and Clela Errington (vocals) and Drew Jurecka (violin).
It may have been a long time since Michelle Rumball’s made a new record. But, as part of her “new plan,” Years Behind is a major achievement — and a joyful event for those who who have loved her voice in the past and those who have yet to discover a distinctive artist.
Michelle Rumball has, indeed, made a new plan.
And executed it perfectly.