Unlike many of the artists whose music we have reviewed over the past year or so, talented pianist and composer Michele McLaughlin is not the product of years of piano lessons, understudy with world renowned pianists, or a world class music school education. Although Michele did start playing the piano at age 5, she did so without much guidance, and so is, “astonishingly,” completely self-taught.
Inspired, when she was a child, by a live piano performance of the great George Winston, her first few albums were played on an electric piano, self-recorded, and given only to friends and family as Christmas gifts. However, as Michele has honed her skills, her more recent works have received multiple nominations, accolades, and awards, including “Album of the Year”, “Song of the Year” and “Top Picks”. In her own words, “I am in a constant state of evolution and growth, and I’m always trying to improve my skills and stretch outside my comfort zone…” She also now owns her own recording studio, and runs a concert series in her home in Salt Lake City, Utah, which showcases renowned pianists from all over the world.
In a manner similar to other well established piano artists, such as Mark Pinkus and Grammy Award Winner Laura Sullivan, Michele’s piano compositions can best be described as “musical storytelling” or “piano painting.” Much of her music is inspired by places and things she has seen during her many travels around the world, personal experiences, or tragedies or hardships she has endured in her life. Michele’s music can also be described as melodious and unabashedly emotional.
Her latest album, “Undercurrent,” is her fifteenth, and continues her penchant for compositions that convey her emotional reactions to various life experiences. The music is quite expressive– varying in style and mood from quiet and reflective to slow and pensive to joyful and energetic.
The first track, “11,000 Miles,” is a spirited, bouncy, upbeat, and fast moving work inspired by a two-month, 11,000 mile US concert tour McLaughlin did in 2013, and seeks to convey the wonder and joy of traveling to new places and seeing new things. On this work, Michele clearly shows just how far she has come from those early days. The music is clever and adventurous, and provides an impressive opening track for the album.
A similar track is “Changing Skies,” which was inspired by Michele’s experience “watching the sky and clouds from the window of my mountainside home in the Salt Lake Valley. ” It presents a romantic and lively mood with conspicuous “waltz like” qualities. “Starstuff,” which was inspired by Carl Sagan’s quote “We are all made from starstuff,” has a similar brighter, positive, and energetic quality, as does “Full of Love,” “Melody in Motion” and “Never Give Up.” As the title “Never Give Up” clearly implies, the message here is “….no matter how difficult times may seem, there is always beauty in life and light at the end of the tunnel. “
Other tracks, such as “Living In Awe, ” along with “Evolution” and “On My Own” convey a different mood. Their slower, more subdued, peaceful, and reflective attitude suggest a sense of completion, resignation, or resolution — perhaps a sense that joy and contentment in life can be found in not wishing for “what is not” and accepting “what is.”
Somewhat darker than any of the other tracks, “The Space Between Us” was influenced by the physical separation Michele felt between and her sister after she (Michele) moved a long distance away. Sincere feelings of melancholy, sadness, and longing permeate this track and its poignant melody.
The title track, “Undercurrent,” was inspired by the Plato quote “Always be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” In Michele’s own words, “…it occurred to me that while there are many aspects of our lives that may seem peaceful and calm and wonderful and beautiful on the surface, we are all battling something, however big or small, underneath.” The music is more down tempo, darker, with a profound sense of turmoil and struggle.
“Synesthesia” is the final track and has a lively, but also moody, soulful, and “falling-rain” quality. One can easily imagine being in a car driving on an isolated road with pouring and blowing rain inundating the windshield.
In summary, “Undercurrent” is a creative, sincere, expressive, and entertaining album and one that is certain to resonate in some way with all who hear it. Highly recommended.