By Benjamin Leatherman
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It's open mic night on the outdoor patio of Conspire, and several local poets and writers are taking turns reading prose poems or excerpts from novels-in-progress. Then Michelle Blades is called up to perform a few songs.
The girl with the ukulele slowly strolls to the stage — and by stage, we mean a couple of concrete steps furnished with a microphone and a tiny practice amplifier. Overall, the energy at the downtown coffee shop has been a little on the low side, and that doesn't change as the blond-haired Blades tunes the instrument's four strings. But when she starts strumming and singing, the chapbook scribbling halts, word-slingers sit at attention, and folks inside Conspire rush outside to watch.
Blades sounds like an island-y Joni Mitchell — or a sweeter Jolie Holland — when she plays her jazz-inspired folk. There's a soulful edge to her timbre, but plenty of rasp and scratch in that voice, like something you might hear from a chain-smoking lounge singer in the 1940s.
After finishing a tune, she turns over the uke, which is tatted with a peace sign sticker and a decal from Cowtown Skateboards, and keeps a simple beat with her fingers. She then asks the crowd to be her "human loop pedal" as she scat-sings and performs lip twirls. The audience, comatose moments ago, is filled with energy as it uses the wood benches and the concrete sidewalk to create alternative percussion. And just like that, an 18-year-old new girl in town transforms the vibe.
Most surprising? Everything Blades does is improvised. Not only the tempos, chords, and the music, but the lyrics as well. Frankly, that seems impossible, because her tunes sound so polished. Sure, a number of rappers freestyle all the time, but folk-based singer-songwriters? Not so much.
Not only did her improvisation come as a surprise to this writer (it took seeing her three times to realize it), but it also shocked River Jones of River Jones Music, a local label specializing in singer-songwriters that's currently recording a full-length record with Blades.
"I first found out about her improvisation when she was saying great lyrics while I was setting up some mics around her," says Jones. "I asked when she wrote those lyrics, and she said, 'Just now in my head.' I insisted that she write them down, and she said, 'Naw, I have plenty.' I soon realized that she has a constant flow of songs and thoughts going on in her mind. She had only written one song down. Ever."
Born in Panama and reared in Miami since age 6, Blades has been improvising in life for a while now. (For instance, her January move to Phoenix? The ol' throw-a-dart-at-a-map trick, after a boy broke her heart.) However, music has been the constant in her life, thanks to a family chock-full of talented artists. For instance, Blades' Panamanian grandmother sang and played piano jazz standards in that country in the '50s; her Grammy-winning uncle, Rubén Blades, is a heavy-hitting staple in the Latin, Afro-Cuban, and salsa music industries (he also once ran for president of Panama); and her father has produced many Latin artists, including Marc Anthony.
Blades says there were always instruments lying around the house, but never a ukulele, which she began messing around with during her teenage tumult. "My main influence is jazz. A lot of early jazz uses ukulele. When I'm performing, I'm not trying to play jazz, but I'm trying to play the ukulele like you're not supposed to play it," says Blades, an old-beyond-her-years soul who isn't afraid to wax poetic about Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.
The jazz influence is most evident in her song "Carousels and Lighthouses," which features Blades' organically improvised scat-singing noises, which sound like a plunger-muted trumpet sucking face with a hi-fi Theremin. As an audience member, use whatever non-traditional instrument (hand-pounding on jeans-wearing-knees, soda bottles tapped by pens, little-rock-scraping on big rock) you can find, and you, too, can be an active participant in one of her sets.
"I like when people add sounds, clap, or harmonize when I'm improvising because the song is up for grabs," says Blades. "Everybody wants to make music. When you're at a show, everybody is imagining themselves onstage, so why don't you do it then?"
This go-with-the-flow attitude seems to work wonders for Blades, an ASU student majoring in religious studies and philosophy. And because of it, she's done some cool things during her short time here in town (a stint, by the way, that won't be ending anytime soon, she says). There's the aforementioned River Jones Music full-length in progress as well as some impressive music that she recently made with her talented labelmate Courtney Marie Andrews. (A video of the duo can be found on Blades' MySpace page.) She's paying her dues as an opening act while also being asked to take part in higher-profile events, including a late-July bill with prominent DIY one-man act Casiotone for the Painfully Alone.
Though she may not be conscious of it, because she's just acting as her carefree self, one of Blades' greatest attributes is her stage presence. There's nothing awkward about it. It's a refreshing change, because there are countless local and national solo artists who play the I'm-shy-don't-hate-my-music card while onstage. That she exudes such confidence is quite an accomplishment, considering that she's making it up as she goes.