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Michelle Noftall - Roots in the Water

Location: Conception Bay South, NL
ArtsNL Program Funded Under: Professional Project Grants Program
Amount Funded: $3,712

michelle in studio

Michelle taking an in studio selfie during the recording sessions for Roots in the Water

Project Dates: May 15 to September 30, 2017 (Project extension approved; release event February 3, 2018)
Artist Website: https://www.michellenoftall.com
Artist E-mail:
noftallmichelle@hotmail.com

Michelle Noftall has come a long way from her four year old self in Bay Roberts where she first found her singing voice and a piano. She grew up in the town, and went on to St. John’s to attend Memorial University in 2001 where she studied voice as her major for her Bachelor of Music.  She added a Bachelor of Education to her credentials in 2003 and began a decade of kindergarten and primary grade school teaching upon convocation.

Noftall was compelled back to her musical roots however, and left the classroom for the recording studio. By 2015, she had released her debut album, Songs for a Winters Night that earned her a Female Artist of the Year nomination from MusicNL. To promote the record, Noftall held performances at the Fifth Ticket in St. John’s and St. Peter’s Parish Hall in Conception Bay South.  She was also invited to perform at Holy Heart Theatre for a Bob Dylan Tribute Show and on the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre mainstage as part of VOCM’s Happy Tree Concert.

She returned to her role as an educator, but this time as a voice and piano teacher with a private studio in Conception Bay South. Always one to have a desire to help others, Michelle established her own non-profit organization called Elevato, which provides financial assistance to families to offset the costs of private music instruction. A fundraiser was held at the Manuels River Interpretation Centre to support Elevato’s endeavours in December 2016, where Michelle performed.

Frank and Joyce King

Frank and Joyce King

Ready to record again, Noftall applied to ArtsNL for a Professional Project Grants Program grant to get her next project started. This time she set out to create a full album of original recordings that she was inspired to create thanks to her own, very interesting, family history.

Her unique story begins with a 14 year old Barbadian boy stowing himself away on a ship. The boy would ultimately disembark in Fortune Bay, NL where he became known as “the only black man in Fortune” once a woman there decided to take him in to raise him as her own. He’d live his entire adult life in Fortune, marrying a local woman and creating a family. One of their children was Michelle Noftall’s grandfather.  Her great-grandfather was also interestingly enough not just African American; he was interracial, having been born to a Caucasian mother who was the daughter of a plantation owner.

Through the process of creating this record, Noftall delved deeply into her family history and has let that, as well as the circumstances of the times, inform her lyrical songwriting process. A number of songs on the recently released eleven track album, like Stowaway and Where is Mary?, are results of that research. The record was produced by Craig Young, who actually appears on Noftall’s debut album.

As the album has just recently been released, we chat with Michelle to learn more about the record and her creative process …

Q and A with Michelle Noftall ...

ArtsNL: How did you come around to make the decision to leave teaching grade school and pursue your desire to have a professional artist career in music?

James Inniss' sister

Sister of James Inniss

Michelle: I taught in the public school system for 10 years. At the point when I decided to step away from it, our youngest child was still at home and my husband’s work involved long hours and weekends, which also often saw him working away. It was a family decision for me to stay at home at least until our daughter started school. I hadn’t been active with music for years, as I was occupied with working full time and raising a young family. However, now that I was home and we had recently purchased a piano, I started playing and singing again.

I quickly gravitated back to what had always been my passion. I did a bit of recording in the form of a memento CD for my family - just covers of some favourite songs – and that little taste of recording and working with professional musicians again (Sandy Morris had accompanied a couple of tunes and Chris LeDrew had helped me record a song I wrote), I knew I wanted to do more. One thing led to another, and I decided to record a full-length album, my debut CD Songs for a Winters Night, which Chris produced. So, to be honest, I didn’t leave teaching to become a musician. I left teaching because it was best for my family as a whole at that time. As a result of that decision, I very organically found my way back to being a musician - something that had been a huge part of life before my teaching career began.

ArtsNL: And how has your approach to creating an album evolved between your first recording and this brand new album?

Michelle: When we recorded Songs for a Winters Night, I wasn’t confident in my songwriting skills. I decided to cover tunes that I just loved singing. As a vocalist, I was only beginning to figure out my style. Although I was a voice major and trained classically in opera, I was coming back to singing from a different place. I wanted to use my range of voice where I felt most connected, which was lower and closer to my speaking voice. When I decided to write this most recent album, I had the opportunity to create melodies within that space, in addition to writing the lyrics. This helped me achieve the emotional impact I was hoping for, as all the music on Roots in the Water is based on real life experiences I felt were moving and inspiring.

michelle noftall promo photo

Michelle in a promotional photo shot for her new album Roots in the Water

ArtsNL: How did you first come across your family’s story, and when and how did you come to decide that it would inspire your next creative project? What was your family’s reaction to that?

Michelle: I knew bits and pieces about my great grandfather – that he was a stowaway from Barbados, and that his father was black and his mother was white. We had a reunion about 20 years ago when some distant cousins came from Barbados to visit. I was 20 at the time, and my grandfather was still living. I recall how Pop and his cousin, Frank King, both had the same grey/blue eyes, although Pop was white and Frank was black. It wasn’t until fall 2016 that I decided to write about this story.

I attended the MusicNL conference in Bonavista as a Female Artist of the Year nominee for Songs for a Winters Night and took in several workshops and performances. I didn’t know many people because I was new to the music community. However, I was very inspired by other female artists who were performing their own original music, like Rozalind MacPhail. I admired how brave it was, and felt that I may have more to offer that way too if I committed to it. I knew I wanted to write about something that could only come from me so it would be meaningful. These family stories hadn’t been shared outside of our circle, so I thought I’d find out more. As I did, the stories quickly inspired songs that would become Roots in the Water. I also felt Newfoundlanders would appreciate the storyline. All of my family who shared stories with me are excited and proud. It’s really helped many of us connect. I visited Fortune in August and met cousins I didn’t know I had, who remembered my great grandparents fondly and were eager to share their memories with me.

ArtsNL: Can you share a little bit more about your family’s story and how it’s informed your creative process and content this time around?

Michelle: This story really begins with my great, great grandparents. They were an interracial couple from Barbados. My great, great grandmother was white, and her parents owned a plantation called The Risque. She fell in love with a young man whose father worked on that plantation as a saddler. So, their love story was actually the first inspiration for Love is Love. They married and had children, one of which was James, my great grandfather, who was the only boy. For some reason, he left or ran away from his homeland when he was 14. Family members can only surmise that he was mistreated in some way. Even after he was an adult and settled with a good life in Fortune, his only contact with Barbados was to request proof of his date of birth when applying for his pension here. He enlisted the help of the United Church minister in Fortune, who somehow made a request in a local paper in Barbados to see if anyone could verify James Inniss’ date of birth. It was then that his sisters who were still living discovered that their only brother was still alive. One sister is seen in the photo in the rocking chair. Apparently, she cried for two days upon learning her brother was living, as the family had been left to think he was lost at sea. Why he left there, stayed here, how his new family life unfolded, all made for beautiful stories of love and loss. When you are presented with stories as poignant as this, it is not hard to be inspired musically to create something around that.

ArtsNL: What does your creative process entail – how do you go from deciding you want to write about something to the end result? What steps are involved and how long does it take?

song lyrics and sheet music

Original slave song lyrics and music Michelle found in research

Michelle: I’m not really an experienced songwriter, so my process was not specific to one method. I was open to create in whatever way worked. So, sometimes it started with specific words from storylines, and other times I began with melody to create a mood evoked by a certain event that I knew I wanted to write about. Honestly, some songs were written in a night (such as the recitation) and others were ongoing for months. One song was a co-written with Chad Murphy, which was a first for me. We finished Wait for Me together because I was having some trouble deciding on chord progressions and lyrics at one point. One interesting approach was for the song Stowaway. The tune for this was actually that of a plantation work song in Barbados. I did some digging and found a transcription of a slave song. I played it on the piano and the melody was quite haunting. I re-wrote the lyrics to reflect James’ journey as a stowaway and entitled it as such. When we recorded it, Craig had the percussionist add a Caribbean beat with Congo drums at the beginning, and then he suggested a jigg with accordion and fiddle at the end. So, this song is a musical journey that reflects the styles of the place James both came from and was destined to land.

ArtsNL: What advice would you give to any aspiring or emerging talents in music? I’m sure this is something you face in your private lessons work – why is that important to you?

Michelle: I feel I can only speak as a musician who made the decision to move away from my passion and return to it later in life, as I am just learning about the industry, etc. I don’t regret my decision to pursue teaching in the primary classroom. But I would say that if you are to make a choice to not pursue an artistic path as a full time career, it doesn’t mean you have to abandon these endeavors entirely. I think it’s important to stay committed to your craft so that you can continue to grow and create. Offering what you can in these capacities is not only important personally, but collectively to the culture you’re contributing to.  I fully intend to maintain my musical ambitions now, although my work life may entail other job opportunities as I have returned to school in the hopes of pursuing my Masters in Education in Counseling Psychology. These days, a person’s “career” in terms of all the jobs and pursuits you may have throughout your life are rarely one job you stay in for 30 years. I think it’s important to respect your passions as well as the need to earn money, so finding a way to incorporate both is very individual. Staying motivated to find opportunities and create them if you can is important.

ArtsNL: Why was it important to you to create Elevato? When was it established, and how has the organization’s work gone/grown since that time?

Michelle: When I returned to teaching music privately, the financial struggle for some families was obvious. Private music instruction isn’t cheap, like most extracurricular things. I was lucky during my childhood to have had a private music teacher who would forgive a month’s fee for lessons here and there when my family struggled. But, this is the exception and cannot be the expectation, as everyone’s trying to make a living. So, I invited some people with varying skills who were passionate about music and making it available to more children to become a part of a non-profit, Elevato. Cox and Palmer provided free assistance to set up the legal structure, and we were set. We held a fundraiser and got enough money to provide six months of lessons to each of our first applicants. Presently, we’re in the process of becoming a charity, which affords us more opportunities to fundraise through corporate donations once we’re able to provide receipts. We’re low on funds now, but demand is still there. We have goals in place for this year in terms of how to garner more financial support and we’re looking forward to being able to help more families later in 2018.

James and Nancy Inniss

James and Nancy Inniss

ArtsNL: Getting back to Roots in the Water, who are some of the other artists or creative talents that you’ve worked with to create the album?

Michelle: I’m very fortunate to have worked with the people I have. As an emerging artist, the opportunity to create with seasoned professionals is invaluable. Craig Young not only produced this album, but arranged most of the songs, engineered, played, sang – his commitment to this project was incredible. It was truly an education to go through this process with him. He invited musicians who he felt would appreciate our goals and musically contribute to the project. Some of the best local talents included the likes of Chris LeDrew, Glenn Parsons, and Aaron Collis. Others were musicians with whom Craig had worked with in Nashville, such as fiddler extraordinaire Jenee Fleenor, who plays on NBC’s The Voice and in Blake Shelton’s band. What she added to the music on this album was truly magical. It amazed me to see how music could be shaped remotely in this way, across miles. Her string arrangement on Nancy’s View made it one of my favourites in the end. This album was a true collaborative effort.

ArtsNL: Can you share a little more about the back story behind Where is Mary? Are there others like these on the album that have similar stories?

Michelle: Where is Mary? was the first song I wrote specifically for this album. One of the first phone calls I made when I started researching the family history was to my Aunt Jill. She told me about how my great grandfather (her grandfather) would be away for work for long periods as a cook on different ships. On one return trip home, he asked his wife Nancy where the two youngest children were, Mary and Thomas. Little did he know that both children had died while he was away (some family says it was the “summer complaint” others say it was accidentally eating poison berries when they were berry picking with their mother). Nancy replied, “Up on the hill.”

The hill she was referring to was where the cemetery was. This was heartbreaking for me. I reflected and envisioned how that conversation might have gone, and that perhaps they would’ve visited the hill together. The song is a dialogue that begins with James asking “Where is Mary?” in the first verse, and then “Where is Thomas?” in the second. Then there is a modulation to a higher key to signify the change in voice to Mary responding, “They’re together on the hill where they’d wait for you”, as the third verse begins. A verse without lyrics follows, where I envisioned them walking up that hill together. When they finally arrive in the last verse, it describes where the children are laid to rest. It’s a very melancholy song, but peaceful. Aaron Collis’ accordion solo on the verse without words makes me fill up every time. The accordion was my late father’s instrument, and I love how Aaron is able to create such a moving effect with his long, melodic lines on this instrument typically known for faster paced jiggs and reels.

ArtsNL: What are some of the more difficult challenges you faced along the creative development timeline? How did you overcome them?

Michelle: The most difficult challenge in meeting the creative development timeline was that I had major surgery in September. I was aiming to release the album early in the fall, but I was out of commission for six weeks. Unfortunately, I still wasn’t up to putting off a release show that usually accompanies an album release after the six week mark. We had finished the album and it was ready to release, so we went ahead and put it out without a show and did as much publicity as we could at the time. We planned for a concert in February 2018 (Saturday, February 3 at the Masonic Temple in St. John’s). I wasn’t sure how this would impact the album, but I feel it worked out ok. Roots in the Water was released early enough before Christmas that some of the songs were got played before the airwaves were only playing seasonal music. With our event now coming after the Christmas rush of shows, we’re hopeful we’ll get a good turnout. Things don’t always go according to plan, but it’s important to be flexible and work around whatever your circumstances are and trust that it will work out ok!

ArtsNL: What are some of the songs you really love the most on the record? Are there songs you really enjoyed writing or the finished product of that didn’t make it onto the album?

Michelle: Everything I wrote about this story is on there! Perhaps that’s because I wrote as I researched, and continued to write until I felt I had enough. I do have certain songs that are favourites for certain reasons. Nancy’s View is one, as I mentioned. Wait for Me is another favourite musically because of how the layers of vocal harmonies and instrumentation came together. Artistically, Stowaway was such a great example of a successful collaboration.

ArtsNL: How can people get a copy of your new record? Are any tours or performances in the works?

Michelle: Roots in the Water is available in St. John’s at Freds Records, O’Brien’s Music, and at The Rooms gift shop. In CBS, it’s available at Musically Inclined. It’s also available on all the usual digital platforms, like Apple Music.

Michelle Noftall songwriting sheets

Michelle's lyric writing in progress

ArtsNL: What does the ArtsNL funding from the Professional Project Grants Program mean for you? How does the grant enable you to continue to develop as a professional artist? Why is it important?

Michelle: Recording an album is expensive. There’s no way I could have footed the cost of this project personally. We’re a middle income family trying to raise two children, so most people can appreciate what that’s like. The Professional Project Grants Program meant that this story and the music it inspired did not stay in my living room where it was written, and that it can be shared far and wide. The opportunity to participate in the collaborative, creative process of recording meant that I worked with and learned from seasoned professionals. Sharing the end product through distributing the album and performing it live means that my family story stays alive as part of our collective heritage, and that there is new, quality music being contributed to our musical culture. As an emerging artist, this grant and the opportunity it afforded me also means that I have grown through this experience and developed skills that will propel me forward to do more of the same.

ArtsNL: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Michelle: Just to express gratitude for the support of ArtsNL, Craig Young, the musicians who contributed to this project, and to my family who have shared their stories and memories with me that served as the inspiration for this music.