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Magali Michaut: The Siren

An Interview of Magali Michaut by Silver Webb 

Paris-born singer-songwriter Magali Michaut first appeared on the Amsterdam songwriting scene in 2014, recorded and released her 2016 debut ‘Bonjour’ CD, and has since toured ten countries including festival appearances in Denmark, Estonia, Greenland, The Netherlands, and Sweden. Writing in both French and English, Magali accompanies herself on piano, guitar, and ukulele. The lyrics of her song “Ma petite chanson parisienne,” co-written with Patrick Rydman, are featured in the Lyrics section of Volume 1 of Santa Barbara Literary Journal, available here. She recently took an hour out of her California tour to speak with me.

Sitting on an old stone bench with Magali in the Santa Barbara Rose Garden with croissants and tea, she is hiding behind the rim of her hat and dark wavy hair, with an indirect gaze that reveals very little. Perhaps it is shyness or perhaps it is simply what she prefers. I am normally quite good at intuiting a person’s thoughts and feelings, mapping their intentions and capacities. But Magali is the shadow of a cat, disappearing around the corner. And I imagine that, as she reads this, her lip will twitch in amusement rather than puzzlement, and she still will not reveal herself. But I can tell you that I’ve only met her twice, two years apart, and both times she was wearing purple pants and a black hat. Possibly the same purple pants and black hat.

Tour clothes aside, Magali makes songs that are nothing short of a siren’s call, at times so heart-rending I can’t bear it. Her voice is something you might hear calling from the ship’s edge, midnight shimmering on the water, and a pale limb rises through it, beckoning you. Dive in, follow, leave the world of men, and go below. See what is there. Will you find your way to the surface again, or are you lost? A soft voice, pixie precise fingers on the guitar, lyrical violin, and then a flowing wave of piano… Magali spins small magic, quiet magic, the kind you lose your way in. It is not flowery or weak-minded or any of the other unfortunate stereotypes that come with the word “feminine,” but her music strikes me as implicitly feminine. Which should not suggest that her mind doesn’t work very much along lines of logic and math, because it does. Her training as a classical musician leaves little room for romantic notions of composition. By feminine I mean only that the music is a complex spiral not eager to reveal itself… She is not standing on a stage with an electric guitar, straining her throat to tell you in short, brutal rhymes exactly what she wants (sorry, Mick Jagger, you have your time and place).

The Copenhagen Songwriters Festival, DK has said that “Her voice & songs evoke late night conversations in dark Parisian cafes.” If that is so, I have been going to the wrong cafes in the wrong country. I would say that her songs are more an invitation into the heart of a songstress who will reveal herself only here, only in music. In this way, she reminds me of Lhasa de Sela, a gypsy witch who will break your heart in a million pieces with one quietly sung lyric. (If you don't believe me, listen to Lhasa's album The Living Road.)

Am I being dramatic? Possibly. Forgive the writer’s imagination. I’m sure Magali curses when she burns toast and trims her toenails just like the rest of us. But for the sake of this interview, let’s say she is a siren, and her EP Bonjour collects four remarkable songs (“Ma petite chanson parisienne,” “Background Pain,” “Alpha Bravo Charlie Hebdo,” and “I Wish”) that I can play on repeat and spend the afternoon feeling transported to another realm, one that is away from the mundane and toward the magical. She describes her musical genre as “folk chanson,” mixing French and English and even a few drops of Dutch or Danish together effortlessly.

Her childhood in the suburbs of Paris was “happy and carefree,” and she began learning the violin at 8. “It was a hobby. I took ten years of music education and playing in symphony orchestra. I like the period from the romantic to the 20th century, around 1800-1950; composers like Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel, Sibelius, Fauré, Brahms, Mahler, Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov.” I can’t prove it, but I suspect that Magali easily could’ve ended up with her violin at Carnegie Hall. Yet that was not the road she took, and her instruments of choice for performing are guitar, piano, and even the ukulele.

I feel the ukulele must be the key to all of this. A woman trained in classical music, but able and likely to pull out a ukulele and pluck a quirky tune on it. Eccentric, eclectic… a balance to the serious woman in front of me, who admits, “It’s true, yes. I’m an engineer by training in computer science. I did a Ph.D. in France in Bioinformatics. I worked and lived three years in Toronto. Then I moved to Amsterdam and started to work on cancer genomics. I’m actually working with data, so all day in front of my computer mining data generated by biologists or clinicians, trying to understand and make models.”

I wonder aloud why it is that I know so many engineers who are also musicians, as you might think that the two things are not compatible.

“I’ve heard people contrast being a scientist with being creative," Magali says, "which is a misinterpretation of what a scientist is. Because you need to be creative to be a scientist. You can study music in a mathematical way, in a sense, when you look at chords and how everything relates. And maybe it’s different parts of the brain but complementary.”

Although she had performed in the past as a violinist, while living Toronto, she “started to write songs in a challenging period to express some difficult emotions and take a guitar and write songs. I really didn’t think I would perform them. And it wasn’t possible in the beginning because I would start crying after two sentences. But after I gained some distance from the songs, in Amsterdam, I started to think it would be nice to perform, and there was an opportunity of an open stage. So I started to play out, and get even more interested in songwriting and going to song workshops and trying to improve my work.”

I ask, partially tongue-in-cheek, if she can write songs when she’s happy, as so many singer-songwriters take heartbreak as their daily bread.

“Yes, I can write songs when I’m happy. There are ways to get into a song. It’s also work and craft, not just crying on the couch. But sometimes people ask me if I’m okay when they hear my songs. [The songs] are a way to handle emotions. But it is true that the most driving force for me is a strong emotion that I’m processing.”

Magali is quite active in performing and I ask her what she likes about it.

“What I like is the connection with the audience, sharing emotions essentially. When someone comes up to me after a concert and tells me, 'That song made me cry,' I think it’s fantastic that the emotions I had when I wrote the song were shared in this way.”

“How important is writing in your creative process?” I ask.

“Especially in the beginning I would start with the words. There are some songs where I had a little music and started with the feeling and put some words to it later. But more often than not, there is something I want to say, and then I try to put some music to it. What’s also interesting is that I’ve been doing a few co-writing retreats, so that helps to explore other ways to write. Writing with someone else, you have to communicate about how you’re going to do the songs. One day maybe we start with words, then melodies. So we have different jumping-off points. That encouraged me to try other ways to jump into a song.”

Her song “Ma Petite chanson parisienne” is a co-write, in fact, and the song of hers I know best (It’s featured in Volume 1 of SB Lit Jo and co-written with Patrick Rydman). It is a wry, joyous bicycle ride through Paris that is, for lack of a better word, jaunty. Magali says, “The song was a co-write with Patrick from the 2015 Listening Room Songwriters Retreat in Copenhagen. We started with melody. We’d listen to each others different melody ideas and go from there. Patrick was intrigued by one of my melodies and that’s the one we used. He is super experienced, so he took his guitar and played chords with the melody. And based on that happy, jumping melody, we discussed what we were doing. We were in Paris, biking, and that’s how the song started. We had the song in about half an hour. We moved well on the bike.”

What else can I say about Magali? Her favorite drink is tea, she is an Aries in the European zodiac, and she was born in the Chinese year of the dog. This might suggest someone with a pioneer’s spirit, someone who is both welcoming of people yet wary, skeptical even. Someone who appears delicate but is, in fact, quite strong.

Her dream is to record a full-length album, and when that happens, I will be the first to buy a copy and become lost in it.

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