Primrose Hill is not quite artiste central, not like Greenwich Village in New York. But it is the British home of many musicians and writers who feel the hill’s magnetic pull.
On the road to the hill sits singer-songwriter Michelle Phelan, made in Kildare, creatively inspired by Paris, and new to London’s leafier surrounds.
She sits outside a quiet café, white Converse runners pointing in the direction of her new flat, eye out for a delivery van, white too probably, and typically late.
Our interview was originally planned for Camden Town. But then Camden’s grunge wouldn’t have been a comfortable fit. Indy folk music, well, it feels breezier, more suited to bohemian surrounds with a quiet touch…and anyway, there’s that impending delivery!
Michelle is the face of Carosel. She has long completed the Irish rite of passage, encompassing The Late Late Show, Pat Kenny’s Today Show and Oxygen music festival, among others.
Then Michelle and band member Pete McGrane went off road to Paris, the well-worn creative path beaten by so many Irish artists who have gone before in search of inspiration.
She describes it as a place of beauty, “where people walk more slowly than they do in London” where quaint cafés really do open late; where you can tip-toe barefoot along rooftops in the city’s old quarter – the shoot of her latest music video I’m Sorry.
Paris was an opportunity to immerse in music, to be around and work with people immersed in music, people who think and feel the same about music.
It was starting from scratch sure, but it was adding something new.
Two-and-a-half years and a couple of acclaimed songs later it’s time to do new again.
London represents the next platform upon which to scratch itchy feet. It’s an opportunity to build on Paris, to work with record producers like John Reynolds and also to possibly explore some solo opportunities.
It’s also a chance to explore a love of food, inherited from her father, a chef, and expressed through her new website – phelan hungry.
This is life outside Justin-Bieber-mainstream and she swears she has never listened to one of his songs. “It’s something I have managed to avoid,” she says.
As for X Factor… she doesn’t watch it, it’s just a TV programme. “And anyway, I don’t own a TV,” she laughs.
But when you sing like Michelle can sing, the assertion that she should haul ass to the next audition invariably follows. The intention is good, the complement flattering, but the sentiment is misplaced.
X Factor represents something sterile and forced. The popular perception that this is the way it has to be to make it is something she struggles with and struggles against economically.
The music of Burt Bacherach never felt that way or Simon, or Garfunkel. The music she has always rated feels organic not dipped in gloss or wrapped in marketing.
“If people think that works” she says. “They don’t understand the creative art of making music, the hours people put in, all the reciting and recording, playing small venues. That’s the music I know.”
Organically that was how things started. When she was 17, there was just Michelle’s voice and the twinkle of a friend playing guitar. She played the Red Hot Music Club in Kildare’s Red House – the halfway point between Naas and Newbridge. As for the beginning, well, that was years before when her mother bought her a simple voice recorder.
She talks about melodies, about the one that came to her when she was mopping the floor in her friend’s café in Paris, or another one that arrived when queuing at a supermarket checkout.
“It came to me,” she says. “I thought it sounded good and I started humming it over and over, trying to pay for the shopping, trying to remember the tune, running home, telling people not to talk to me in case I lost the melody and then humming it into a recorder.”
Sound comes first then, which makes sense when you hear her voice. It stands alone. It doesn’t require percussion; doesn’t need a collection of instruments to dull it down.
But a voice alone, and natural good looks, won’t propel you from market stall into the mainstream. The industry is set up to make the biggest artists even bigger and when the odds are stacked like that you need some luck.
Michelle tells a story about visiting a music conference in the south of France and an opportunity that arrived by way of a spilt drink. The elbow that did the spilling ended up belonging to a music publisher from Australia, they got talking, she gave him a CD and her songs have since appeared on some of his movie soundtracks.
When Michelle returned to Midem this year, she did so to interview Google’s head of music Tim Quirk. She also addressed the conference and spoke about dealing directly with fans; about breaking into the mainstream and bypassing the kingmakers responsible for Bieber, Rihanna et al.
She does believe the market will decide how people want to access their music in the future and increasingly, artists will self-release and self-promote. Often Carosel do in more than one language.
The band has featured in France’s Rolling Stone magazine. They have eaten up miles of road from Brittany to Bordeax playing small venues and winning big fans.
They regularly post updates in French on their website. They were always happy to make the compromise.
Michelle talks about her own journey, about songs which first brought attention, only now when she listens back, she hears a different person.
Her voice is still the same, but now the tone has changed. She describes her new album as something raw – a label no one else could possibly apply to her voice – but she explains and says her latest material is purer, more soulful, more in keeping with who she is, where she is at and where she wants her music to go.
“Sometimes people tell me to make the music faster and livelier because that’s what people want to hear but it’s not,” she says. “That’s what is on the radio. If I try and write what I think people want to hear I’m going nowhere. So we write what we want, what feels right at the time and just hope people like it.”
Follow Michelle and Carosel online at www.facebook.com/carosel. Also see www.carosel.net