The piano man
Michael Massey releases an introspective new album
Aaron R. Conklin 05/04/2017
Michael Massey has always used his music as a form of personal therapy, but that’s never been truer than on the 58-year-old composer/pianist’s fifth and latest release, Naked.
“These songs span my career,” says Massey. “Some of them are approaching their 40th birthday. They’re about re-creating the feeling of being in a dark room, late at night, purging yourself of the emotions.”
Massey’s been all over the map in his multi-decade Madison musical career. He has a Madison Area Music Award on his shelf for his 2006 collection of pop songs Attack of the Delicious, and another for his most recent effort, which had even more bite: the sweeping score for Dracula: A Rock Ballet, performed in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater by Madison Ballet in 2013. He’s fronted numerous bands, he regularly gigs at the Ivory Room piano bar on State Street and has composed music for Oscar Meyer commercials.
All of which has little to do with his newest effort. Massey describes Naked as a cross between “pop, Broadway and Leonard Cohen.” It’s deeply nostalgic and introspective, a dozen stripped-down piano arrangements that find Massey singing over contemplations of loves lost, friendships faded and rediscovered and hard personal lessons learned. The album’s flagship song, “More,” deals with Massey’s successful struggle to beat back alcoholism, a turning point in his life and career. Longtime friend and local vocalist Francie Phelps lends her voice to tunes like “Not Pretending,” a number about maturing in relationships.
Massey knew songs as intimate as these would get lost in the distracting conversational buzz of a club setting, so he’ll debut them live in the Bartell Theatre as part of a CD-release event on May 12. It’s an, um, nakedly confessional format, sure, but also one that’s both deeply familiar to him and tonally appropriate.
“Piano was always my main instrument,’ says Massey, who also plays guitar and produces. “I’ve done solo shows the majority of my career. I wanted to get back to that original feeling.”
The live gig is actually only the beginning of Massey’s burgeoning association with the Bartell. He’s also arranging the score to From Awkward Spaces: The Story of the Bartell (Theatre) and the Journey to Permanence, an original play by Suzan Kurry and Brendan Smith that’s set to be staged later this year as part of the Bartell’s 20th anniversary season. Given that the play’s mission is contemplating history, Massey’s the perfect candidate — he’s obviously had a lot of practice.
“Things that are personal and revealing — I like that,” he says. “If I weren’t a songwriter, I’d have had a much more difficult time.