The crucial thing to know about Michelle Rumball is that she’s a truly great singer. With a voice that’s sometimes whispery and wavering, sometimes plangent and clear, but always poignant and evocative, Rumball sings from deep wellsprings of emotion, in a way that can’t help but resonate strongly with listeners. As NOW’s Kate Pederson wrote, “I’d pay to hear her sing the phone book.”
And she’s earned every inch of that voice through her colourful and varied experience, not to mention training. Hailing from the eastern Toronto neighbourhood of Scarborough, Rumball sang in church choirs in her earliest years. She dove full-force into the music industry when she fronted The Grievous Angels, a pioneering band on Toronto’s nascent roots-music scene in the mid-to-late ‘80s. The band’s second album, the Juno-Award-nominated One Job Town, earned a national following and rave reviews, with many critics singling out Rumball's voice for special mention.
Leaving the band to better find her own voice – both physical and creative – Rumball journeyed toward self-recovery by travelling all over the American South, where so much of the history of blues, jazz, gospel and storytelling lies. She hit the renowned Jazz Festival in New Orleans, hung out in Austin, and volunteered at the Kerrville Folk Festival, spending nights around the campfire listening to incredible songwriters. She made the classic Memphis pilgrimage to Sun Studios, Beale Street and Graceland. In Nashville, she met the members of Lambchop and ended up recording a song and singing with them at Springwater’s, a classic local songwriters' hang out. There she met the notoriously cranky Townes Van Zandt, who took exception to her being from Canada, a country where he’d just had some border trouble. But Rumball’s new Lampchop friends came to her rescue, so she escaped unscathed.
Unable to resist the magical pull of New Orleans, Rumball spent several years living there, soaking up every tuba run and trumpet blast, and falling in love with Dr. John, radio station WWOZ and Danny Barker, among others. She took in jazz funerals, parades and gospel shows. She continued searching for her voice by studying with several teachers, including a master teacher in New York City.
Having ultimately found her voice, Rumball returned to Toronto and established herself as a redoubtable and welcome presence on the scene, often playing live – both solo and with some or all the members of her Beauty Saloon band – to rooms full of rapt listeners. In 2001, she released her debut solo album, Terrain. The Skydiggers' Andy Maize declared it "a great listening record." The CBC's Bill Richardson was "seduced by the sheer poetry of it." The Vancouver Sun said "Rumball's songs on Terrain are enchanting, soulful and deeply satisfying." It was recorded live off the floor in a renovated church, now known as Catherine North Studios, in Hamilton, and produced by Dave "Rave" Des Roches and Glenn Marshall. It features Rumball’s distinctive, beautiful vocals and raw lyrics, telling stories of real people and familiar places – often the ones she’s found in her travels.
Rumball has toured extensively across Canada, much of it by rail, playing to prison guards, drunken snowboarders, university professors, baby-adopting nuns – and anyone else in the lounge car. She’s played country music, musicals, church music, funerals, weddings, and was once paid to sing like a chicken. She has played in underground in Toronto's subways, above ground in its many clubs, making a place for herself in the city's very busy music scene. She has toured with songwriters like Ben Sures and Linda McRae, played a lead role in Peter Landecker's theatrical production Words and Music by Bob Dylan, and wrote and produced “Pasto Girl,” a song released in support of jailed Colombian freedom fighter Liliany Obando.