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  • Kevin Schwitters

French Actress LP Out Now!

Michael Ciaccio might not be your typical French Actress, but he's the only one you need. With a fresh sound and brand new LP, Michael is ready to be heard. Guest writer Kevin Schwitters talks with Michael and Micky Torpedo at Underground Squirrel Studio to chat about this new project.

Kevin: Before we get into  the French Actress project, I really wanted to take a moment to talk about what led up to it. You've been in bands for many years. Can you give us a brief run through of what led you to this point where you're making an album that are your songs with you as the predominant singer/songwriter?

Michael: I mean, obviously, I played in a lot of bands. Always original music. I wrote the music. The singer, I thought it was very important that he sang his lyrics. I thought I was hungry, but I wasn't hungry. So then I tried to write and I felt it was better to write for a third person, so I tried to do a lot of stuff with guru singers or something. I would write from a perspective that I thought I knew. I try to put a voice to them, which is kind of silly, you know, in a way that I was trying to think that I was writing from a woman's point of view. But that made it easy for me to take myself out of my characters.

So then I started writing lyrics and I thought what do I have to do now to convey this? And I'm gonna be a singer/songwriter and my voice isn't a voice that I'm fond of, but I think it's an emotive voice. I had to make the transformation to go all the way with it. So, I'd saved up a bunch of songs. They run the gamut from old to fairly new. I wrestled with some of it. Saying, “that's not what I sound like, but it is what I am.”  I'm still struggling to figure out the role that I take to get to the point where I'm saying “I'm doing something that's true,” you know?

Kevin: Do these songs evolve a lot from you and at your house playing acoustic guitar? When you are writing, are you imagining there are a lot of instruments?

Michael: I'm pleased to cover my voice, and I'm always hearing tons of great things to add to it: maybe this is playing a piano or horns here or there. Micky (Torpedo-producer, engineer, multi-instrumentalist) would talk about it. We would, over a period of time, move certain things around, try different instrumentation. It's a good partnership.

Kevin: Yeah, let's talk about the songs themselves, because I spent a lot of time with the record and I enjoy it a lot. I do like your voice. I think it adds a whole lot to the album and we'll talk more about that with individual songs, but the album really opens with a bang. As soon as the drums came in with that driving beat on “Cellophane Girl,” I knew I was gonna like the record. And then that riff comes in and the tones are great. What made you choose that song as the first track?

Michael: It was actually recorded in the second group of songs. I had two different song ideas and I was stripping it down. We played it almost right, probably the first try. We worked on vocal parts and getting things right. We (Michael on guitar, Micky Torpedo on drums, Karl Ropp on bass) played it live in the session, basically, a couple of times. It was very much just getting the vibe of three really cool musicians playing it.

Kevin: It has this great Stones riff, but also this brit pop drive to it and just really great tones. and I think my new favorite kenning to refer to liars is gonna be polygraph crasher. That's a terrific way to open it and then the next song comes in: “Praise Be.” The First thing I noticed about that song is it also has kind of a Stones  riff, but heavy.  I've never heard a riff like that. It sounds so big!  Just a giant, thick crunch. Tell me a little bit about the guitar tones and the choices you made.

Michael: I mean, It’s in open G tuning, so I was thinking that was a Stones sound. It’s a sound that I've been kind of messing around with a little bit, but just kind of added words before we did it.

With Karl and Micky  just banging it out. Yeah, I think we overdub the second guitar around it, I think. Then we fixed the vocals and kept the rhythm guitar dry. We kind of  like knocked out a lot real fast, in a day or two. We were just in a circle in that room.

Kevin: I can hear the fun. I mean it sounds like people playing in a room, which I just love. If you can do that when you're recording,  you can feel it.

Michael: Micky came and everything had kind of like a back kind of slide to it. That's the drum song.

It was very, you know, just very simple. But when it hit, it just tore your head off. Everything was kind of on— I thought almost behind the beat a little bit. I love that, and then Karl just nailed every part.

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Kevin: Let's talk a little bit about the lyrics in that song. So, I've noticed this motif with this song and “Save Me.” The unhealthy relationship and connecting it to  religion on “Praise Be” and “Save Me.” It's like you're talking to an object of worship in a way. Is that something that you thought about in writing those two songs?

Michael: I don't do well with women. (laughter) And religion. (more laughter) But I like the idea of salvation and forgiveness and trying to be a good person. I'm writing about people that were somewhat dishonest, you know, with certain aspects. We're all dishonest. I mean, not you guys (laughter) 

Kevin: I like the lyrics in that song a lot. That line, “All I could be/all I am/never fit into the plan;” it's a great line because you can be talking about your relationship with whatever spirituality you believe in, or you could be talking about a romantic relationship. Or you could be talking about  a relationship with yourself, right? And it's all three.

Michael: It's kind of about my trying to just find my hopes to be something, and then my control over it isn't what it is. It works, you know? In a lot of ways, I can't learn. You see a really kind of bitter man, and it's not about bitterness. I'm not blaming her or him. You strive, but you know you're not in the pattern or whatever. You're not getting the realization, but you're still striving for it.

Kevin: Yeah, yeah. I can feel that and You know it's something that I noticed on that song. I was really happy to pick up on some of those similar currents running throughout the album.

Michael: I am not using religion as a focal point. I'm not like condemning it or making fun of it. I'm just saying I use it because it's what I feel like in a relationship, that maybe that's what I am. So save me.

Kevin: “Cold Wind” the next song and it is absolutely beautiful. I think you both (Michael and Micky) mentioned it was your favorite song.

Michael: I think that's pretty much like the perfect version of what we could do with it.

Kevin: I like the duet feel of the song. It's like you're singing back and forth, but I  feel like the other vocalist (Kris McQueeny) almost seems like another voice from the same perspective. It's not as much like call and response.

Michael: I mean what the song is about is like domestic abuse and I think it's from her point of view. But my vocal part is the man's justifying his shitty behavior a little bit, you know. It's really her story. It's the “she” perspective.

I wrote that for a girl to sing, but then I thought if I just do it this way, it tells the story of the two people's versions of a really bad situation and kind of a lonely bleak narrative. 

Kevin: I think she sounds great and you sound great and that back and forth works really well. But that's also a really good spot in the track list. If you start off with these two like pretty intense songs and then you cool it down.

Micky: I'd like to point out, too, that Kris played trumpet on Cold Wind as well. But there's something just longing and lonely about that trumpet. Her addition is really what brought that song to the next level.

Michael: I mean it really is, because I wanted that to be like my version of a “Wichita Lineman” or a Jimmy Webb song or something like that. I just like that soundtracking quality of it and the trumpet is so plaintive. Yeah, one lonely trumpet.

In going with some similar motifs as “Praise Be,” I really like that “Save Me” has almost a gospel feel of the song with the organ and the way that the singers harmonize. And your singing parts kind of interject with them.

Michael: It's a song that I played for a long time. I completely rewrote the lyrics just before I came in and I had a basic framework for what it was, but I mean, they’re were a whole bunch of ways I could have approached it. But when we get to the organ part that Micky played, it was like “okay, we're gonna do this.” We're gonna get the powerful lady vocals going the bridge part. I mean, it probably was my attempt to steal something off of a Beatles record with the line that lays over the top, but it kind of came out far more like The Mamas & the Papas somewhat. Like The Staple Singers or something, which I was really happy to get. 

Kevin: It reminded me a bit of the band Afghan Whigs. I don't know if you've ever listened to them.

Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Kevin: Very intense and soulful. Then “Sinking” is the next song.  Really terrific guitar solo. 

Michael: That was  me doing something that I could never do and calling in my brother-in-law Rob (Bradley), who can play country. I was thinking I was  gonna go that route. A poppy, rootsy kind of song, and we were talking about that stuff before the accordion. We were thinking like maybe doing horns or saxes or something. So that was one of the ones that doesn't seem like me, but it's probably the catchy one. I did want to try to strip it down and just play it with a flat top and maybe a steel, but I changed my mind. I mean, I'm very very happy with it now, but it's just a pop song to me in a way. The lyrics are kind of simplified and stuff and It feels like it comes in the right spot in the album. Rob came in and, just like Kris, with his parts and he threw in all these great licks during the verse that I didn't even think he was going to do. 

Kevin: I really like the whole album. Let’s talk about ”Unmaking My Bed,” which is a little later. I really like the guitar tones and the vocals. It sounds so haunting with some spoken word vocals. 

Michael: That was Kris again. I don't really get a solo part where the wall was up like the outro. There are parts  like noises and stuff that we like pulled in afterward. I mean, you know, Micky, roll on my soul.  I'd give him like three tracks, or four tracks, and then he'd go “I should have used that one.”

Micky: I just organized it a little bit; you played it.

Kevin: I forgot to mention the psychedelic guitar outro that happens on “Cellophane Girl.” Was that just something you messed around with at the end?

Michael:  No, that part was written, but then we'd laid down the 12-string, then all sorts of grinding noises, but I'm glad they're all there.

Kevin: The whole album starts off with a “Come on!”.

Michael: Yeah. Well, that's The Saints. You need some grunts to come out to. With Chris from The Saints, every song has a “come on” or  “all right.”  I was being edgy for a minute.

Kevin: So you have this whole experience behind you now, making this album for yourself, and after years of songwriting, does this make you feel inspired to move forward and do different albums? 

Michael: Very very much so, but I mean I guess what I want to say is that French Actress, to me, is not a band. It's the name of this project. It's the name of the band that shows up there that night. And after this, maybe I'll do some solo stuff. Maybe I'll get somebody to come up to me and say “hey, let's bring a couple of songs together,” and that's what that will be and it will have a new name or whatever. I wrote down a name underneath a sloppy painting, you know, and then next one's another sloppy painting Well, there's a different name, so maybe different colors. Sloppy paintings can be really beautiful.

Kevin: I think this is a really beautiful album.

Michael: Well, thank you. I appreciate it, but I do stand by it. You know, it's got flaws in the craftsmanship of  the writing that I hope to get better at. But, then again, I don't know if I want to get way better at stuff. I wrote to my voice. I think it sucks, but I do think it's fucking emotive, you know? 

Micky: I’m  a fan of living in the creative box, and your voice is kind of your creative box, right? When you're writing, you're stuck having to sing your own songs, right? But it’s good, just committing to that box. I kind of feel the same with my own voice. It’s what we’re given to work with.

Michael: Yeah, sometimes that can cause you to flourish and all of a sudden like go in a direction that you would have never even thought of if you had a different type of singer. I mean, I know I’ve always liked non-singers the most to a degree, except for girls singers. I like girls' voices better than guys’ voices. I always kind of liked the rough-edged people more than people that can sing. If they actually  hit their pitch. I kind of really stretch it into my pitch. Yeah, using your voice as an instrument, though. 

Kevin: I hear the vision in the way that you sing.

Michael: But it's kind of a bassoon with a broken reed. Which is cool in the right context with the right songs. and I think it works really well.

Kevin: What about playing live?

Michael: Let's see if I can get some people that want to play with me, you know, after this first release show. Welcome to being the songwriter. I don't care if I do it alone. I don't care if I do it with a bigger band. I just want to do the songs, you know? And I think these songs all work in that way. I make too many plans in my head. I don't want to come in here without stuff. As much as I might stick to something I try to be open, and Micky gives me ideas and it would change the whole flow of what I wanted to do at the next part, you know? We just worked pretty cool together. I thought it was one other person in my life that I collaborated with comfortably. We found our way through it, and we made some good stuff. I'm proud of it. I'm proud of it. I'm very proud of it.

Kevin Schwitters is a guest writer for Black Squirrel Underground and Underground Squirrel Studio.


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