There is a fine distinction between trusting one's intuition and merely surrendering to impulse. Twenty-two-year-old songwriter Michelle Blades has walked this tightrope during her time in the desert, deftly veering from improvised jazz folk to staccato post-punk to full-length impressionistic baroque-pop records, all without a single glance over her shoulder. As she departs Arizona for Paris in pursuit of her next big undertaking, she leaves behind a body of work completed in the Valley that showcases her fearlessly idiosyncratic growth.
"As an artist, you have to be okay with your first draft and your final draft," Blades says over the phone while walking along Miami's South Beach during a visit with family, dodging street vendors and their rumbling Cuban music. It's not just artistic contemplation: Blades means it literally; she continues to post rough song sketches on YouTube, something she's done since the beginning of her musical pursuits.
On her two full-length albums, both produced and released by local label head River Jones, her cinematic folk visions are fully realized. Oh Nostalgia! (2009) was a humble affair, brimming with gentle specters and teakwood pop leanings. On 2011's serene Mariana, Blades took on enhanced production and stark dynamics, her string and percussion arrangements gaining finesse and subtlety. The songs turn on a dime between waltzed meters and classical fluidity, achieving the pleasant disorientation of an acoustic Juana Molina.
The Panama-born Blades is a restless globetrotter, having toured Europe three times with her ukulele in tow, singing French and Spanish songs to audiences of both cultures (not unlike her uncle, famous Panamanian salsa singer Rubén Blades). Her move to Arizona illustrates her impulsive manner: She literally threw a dart at a map.
Yet soon after arriving in Tempe, she grew disenchanted with her classes at Arizona State University. Music was all she wanted to do, and it proved to be the best means of finding her place in the culture. "Sometimes there were moments of self-doubt," she says, "but in Arizona, if you don't dig, you don't find anything."
She began playing small acoustic shows with her ukulele, performing open-ended sets of mostly improvised lyrics and chords, informed by her love for classic jazz vocal expression. She sang with unhinged Joni Mitchell verve and Regina Spektor inflection, her voice careening in every space between pointed whispers and shouts.
"I would learn about myself. I would say things I didn't know I thought," she says, laughing about her time "practicing on stage." But the improvisational approach yielded fruitful results. "[Improvising is] kind of like remembering a dream as you're telling it to a friend."
While many songwriters attempt the kind of vocal acrobatics Blades employs, few are as subtle about its context. Blades says she enjoys mimicking both the sugary warble of dance-floor mavens Hot Chip and the vinegary shrieks of Big Black's Steve Albini. She hit the scene at a time when the jury was still out on the eccentric, take-it-or-leave-it voices of singers like folk chanteuse Joanna Newsom. These days, however, the pop charts are enamored with the shrill likes of Nicki Minaj and the creepy squeal of Die Antwoord's Yolandi Visser.
"Ugly is in," she argued. "It can be contrived, but you sing how you sing. I'll try to sing like a cello. If I can't do it, I'll leave it to the actual instrument."
In concert, her skillful vocal caterwaul is not so much toned down as it is strategically harnessed. Her bandmates delicately employ simple percussion and floral strings to enhance the precision dynamics of the songs. "When I go to a show, I want to see somebody who is possessed," she says. "I want to feel almost manic. That's how I play."
Her off-the-cuff approach has led her down unexpected roads. One afternoon in late 2010, Blades organized a rehearsal with the nine-piece band she was performing with at the time. As evidence of the difficulty in juggling a bevy of personal schedules, only two members could make it that day: her friends Morgan Neuharth and Emily Hobeheidar. Freed of their rehearsal obligations, the three switched around instruments, penned some hare-brained lyrics on a lark, and like drunk Western settlers before them haphazardly stumbling on new terrain, they called their findings North Dakota.
They couldn't avoid being called less than serious. "People called us a joke band, because we were a joke band," she says, laughing. "But it felt really good. We decided to start actually trying."
Thus, the actual songs got darker, and their shared love of Devo kinetics and Man Man antics emerged. Bratty call-and-response goofs about video games slowly turned into sharp minimal-wave post-punk with a deep-seated riot grrrl bite. "Yeah, you may have thought of me / I never wanted you," the group yelps via gang vocal on "Thing," the opening track on the band's lone EP.
Regardless of her musical accomplishments, film is Blades' first passion. In Florida, she worked at a TV news station and shot skateboard footage in hopes of entering the industry. In fact, Blades will be leaving Tempe for Paris to collaborate with a friend on film scores. She cites the work of French New Wave filmmakers, and especially the improvisational vérité techniques in films like Jean-Luc Godard's Masculine Feminine, as an influence on the tiny narratives she visualizes while writing songs. She also appreciates how film scores are tasked with driving the plot in silent films and Disney classics.
"With Disney films, children don't always latch on to the scene, so really the film trucks on because of the music," she says. "It tells you when to be afraid and when not to."
Once fearful of losing an audience's attention, Blades says she now respects the silence that certain compositions require. On Mariana, in particular, she approached the songs as individual film scenes, allowing breathing room for beds of strings, avoiding the desire to squeeze lyrics into the necessary empty space.
"There's a lot of space because that's where the dialogue would be, and the music is in the background," she says. "Sometimes the best way to sound violent is to be super-peaceful and calm, like a serial killer in a B-movie following someone slowly, as opposed to if they were running."
After her farewell show in Phoenix, and before she departs for France, Blades will begin work on her next album. Her previous records were strung together over many months with lots of material scrapped along the way, she and Jones sneaking in sessions whenever feasible. Though she recognizes the merits of her old albums, she says they sound too reminiscent of her younger self. This next one aims to be timeless, she muses. She sounds half-kidding and half-hopeful when saying this new record will sound like reggaeton, Mozart, and Gwar. "It's gonna take forever," she sighs.
When she says all she wants to do is play music and travel, one can almost hear her shrugging, like it's a plainly obvious point. She pursues each with what could be mistaken for reckless fervor, but in both cases, a determined destination is really beside the point.