On a warm, midweek spring day at Borealis Coffee in Bristol, I sat at an outdoor bistro table with singer, songwriter, guitarist Michelle Saylors to conduct a long-awaited one on one interview. …
On a warm, midweek spring day at Borealis Coffee in Bristol, I sat at an outdoor bistro table with singer, songwriter, guitarist Michelle Saylors to conduct a long-awaited one on one interview. I‘d been communicating for some time with Saylors to arrange a meeting, however she politely and consistently expressed her need to wait for the right time – a sign which gave a glimpse into this artist’s prudence, thoroughness and reluctance to jump into anything without thinking it through.
Punctuality being another trait, she arrived at the exact prescribed time. Thoughtful in her answers to questions, Saylors appeared relaxed and in control. Soft spoken yet deliberate, her voice projected a soothing effect to the listener while now and again rising in timbre to punctuate occasional passionate sentiments.
As we enjoyed coffee and chatted within the cradle of the township that hosts the oldest, continuous Fourth of July parade in the country, the Bristol resident ruminated about music, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“I think I’m constantly evolving into who my authentic self is. I’m always curious. I’m always looking for growth and challenges,” said Saylors.
”One of the reasons I finally connected with you was because I finally pushed myself to start a recording project,” said Saylors. “For whatever reason, I didn’t do it. Maybe I thought I didn’t have the time. Or I couldn’t afford it or maybe I thought my material wasn’t good enough, but I began to get some good feedback about my songs. When you get decent feedback or even critical feedback, you have something to judge it by.
“I’m not somebody who lingers too long in limbo. I like to have sort of a target or a goal. I get bored easily if I don’t have something to look forward too. It can be something simple, like a trip back home or a gig that I’m excited about.”
Back home for Saylors is Tennessee, where she was born. She grew up the youngest of five on a working farm, ‘with a creek on one side and fields on the other,’ where the family, ‘raised everything we ate.’ When Saylors was very young, her parents grew tobacco. It was a popular and lucrative crop. It was a business that required the whole family to pitch in. But in addition to the country life, going to school and working on the farm, there was music.
Music was always there
“Music in my life goes all the way back to when I was 10ish. I was a super shy kid. I was that kid who would hide behind my mom or spend most of my play time with the animals outside. I always had a cat or a puppy or a rabbit as a best friend,“ said Saylors. “I think my mom, considering school and all the farm work I was doing, was always looking for opportunities for me to be with other kids. My siblings were quite a bit older than me. My closest sibling was seven years older than me. My oldest sibling is about 11 years older than me. So, she encouraged me to take piano lessons. A neighbor about four years older than me was playing piano and she started showing me a little bit, then a few years later my mom put me with an older acquaintance of hers who gave me lessons. That was the foundation for music for me.”
Music can be a social thing and a vehicle to encourage bashful people out of their shell. Saylors did all the high school band and vocal courses. In her sophomore year, the band instructor handed her a clarinet and some instruction books. She taught herself to play, advancing to first chair in the band by the time she was a senior. By her junior and senior year, she was also in advanced chorus.
“I babysat for my niece and nephew, my older sister’s kids, and she had a guitar lying around,” Saylors remembered. “She’s a wonderful singer and still plays today, and we still harmonize when we are together. I picked it up and picked out the notes I heard on CMTV. She had a Mel Bay chord book and with it I taught myself chords and that was it. Here we are.
“I started playing some bluegrass with a couple a fellas that I was friends with and with my cousin. Small town boys. We did a bluegrass, gospel group for a couple of years. We also all sang in church.”
Leaving the farm
“My parents were farmers. All my siblings grew up and got out of the house of course before me. Then the crops kind of decreased because the help wasn’t there,” said Saylors. “Here I was, this young 20-something with parents who didn’t support a college education. I never found fault with them for that. They were wonderful parents, and I had a great upbringing. It wasn’t that they were against college, it just wasn’t part of their thinking, but it was in the back of my mind.”
Saylors married someone from New England who she met in Tennessee.
“When I met him, he started talking about migrating back to New England. I was excited to make a change. His family was from Massachusetts, where he was born. He felt that calling to go back, so we moved to New England and settled in New Hampshire for about 11 years.
“Eventually, for our own reasons, we parted ways and I remained in New England because I loved it so much. It’s where I really grew up and became an adult, and that’s when I went off to college on my own. I was a whole new person. And it’s where I kind of found myself.”
Saylors landed a job in the Human Services field, working and impressing her co-workers, where she was encouraged by some of the leaders there to pursue a degree, which she did, earning an associate degree from New Hampshire Technical College. Always striving and climbing, Saylors applied to Roger Williams University to pursue her bachelor’s.
“I wanted to get my bachelor’s and applied to a few schools, but I loved New England and wanted to explore more of it,” said Saylors. “I had some friends living in Rhode Island, and It seemed like the right choice for me.”
Ultimately, Saylors received her degree at Roger Williams, got a job in the industry and found her place in the local music circuit - networking, learning and performing.
“Social work actually helped me with my interaction skills in the business of music. It opened up so much for me. It opened up how I communicate and relate, because both are all about people.”
Playing local gigs
Currently, Saylors can be seen performing at The Portside, Rivers and Rhodes, The Elks Club, The Common Pub and The Nest, all in Bristol, as well as Localz in Portsmouth. She also was featured this year on the RE/MAX float in the Bristol Fourth of July Parade.
With a mix of covers and originals, Saylors has designed a set list that speaks to individuals and groups alike who espouse diverse musical tastes and styles. There is something in her live performances for everyone.
“I gravitate to so many different styles of music. My roots are country, bluegrass, blues, folk and gospel, and classics like Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn, George Jones and of course Elvis. Those were the people we listened to growing up, but I also like Miley Cyrus and Maroon 5,” said Saylors. “I’ve been accused of not doing a lot of ballads. I’ve got to say I’m hooked on a beat. I hear the beat. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is, I’m pulled towards it. I’m drawn right now to the Chris Stapleton sound and Ashley McBride. My writing is more like the current country sound.”
“Performing originals is tricky because it’s the unknown for the audience. I’m trying to find that balance to which originals I throw in. If I see people tapping their feet and moving a little bit, then I know they’re getting something out of it.”
Recording her own album
I wondered why she chose this particular time to make an original album. Did she perhaps have something to say?
“No, I think it’s an age thing. I’m not afraid to say I recently hit 50, so I think as you get a little bit older, you start to look at life a little differently,” said Saylors. “These are things I want to get out there and leave. You know? It’s mine. It’s who I am. I just think I’m getting a better sense of what’s important to me. And what I want to put my time and energy into.”
“I think we all go through things in life, and we need a way to get it out. I’ve journaled most of my life. If I go through a situation in life and I’m struggling with it, I try to write about it. The word cathartic is a word that gets thrown around, but that’s sometimes what it is.’’
I asked if all Saylors’ songs taken directly from her life experiences.
“When I first started writing and developing songs, my mom asked me if a certain song was about her, and I told her that not all my songs are verbatim - from an experience,” recalled Saylors. “There are little pieces of me in every song, but not all of them are about an actual situation. It might have been an experience, or it could be as random as something I saw on TV. And people’s interpretations can be a 1,000 miles away from what I wrote about.”
I asked Saylors what she thought about the national music scene today.
“I think all the talent on ‘The Voice’ and ‘Idol’ has changed music a lot. It’s good for younger folks to be inspired to sing and play by these shows, but the downside is that they are all starting to sound alike in the approach and delivery. It gets kind of homogenized.”
What’s the best advice Saylors has ever gotten, be it concerning music or life?
“Don’t chase people. This has resonated with me on a lot of different levels. Relationships. Audiences. Friends. If you’re chasing after something that’s not coming towards you – if it’s not a natural and sort of an organic connection, then why do you even want it? Don’t invest time and energy into friendships and relationships that you think are maybe bigger than they are, because in reality they are not.”
As we concluded the interview, I asked Saylors what advice, if any, she may have for new artists coming up?
“I think a lot of times people close to you can be afraid to tell you the truth. That you need to work a little harder. Practice more. Get better. That you’re not quite there yet, “ said Saylors. “My advice is to play when you can. Receive and accept the criticism you’re getting. And give it some space. Don’t reject it immediately because its criticism. Try to discern what they say and what perspective they are coming from. It’s coming from somewhere, and you need to piece together what they’ve said and why. Try to use it and grow from it.”
Look for Michelle Saylors on Facebook and Instagram.
Michael Khouri is a Barrington resident writing occasionally about the Rhode Island music scene. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.