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‘The Musical’ reveals the re-education of Mikal Shapiro

“I collaborate quite a bit,” Mikal Shapiro said about her songwriting.
“I collaborate quite a bit,” Mikal Shapiro said about her songwriting. JENNY WHEAT

She’d been a songwriter for more than a decade, but Mikal Shapiro discovered a few things as she made her latest album, “The Musical.”

First: She needed a band, a permanent crew, to work with. Second: Good songs have “space and room to breathe.” Third: There is grace and reward in collaboration, in soliciting and trusting the creativity and instincts of others. All of those revelations came together on “The Musical,” which, Shapiro said, is the peak of her music career.

“I’m really proud of it,” Shapiro said. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever made.”

She ought to be proud. “The Musical,” her first album in five years, is impressive. It displays an array of music influences and styles: blues, jazz, folk, rock. But it does so seamlessly, an accomplishment that was years in the making, especially for someone easily distracted or seduced by so many inspirations.

“I pluck from so many different influences, how do you juggle that crazy circus without sounding scattered or diffuse?” she said. “It’s only taken me 20 years to find cohesion within the (attention deficit disorder) of my songwriting.”

Some of the credit for that cohesion goes to the band she founded over the past year or so, the “core four,” she calls them: Shapiro on vocals and guitar; Chad Brothers on vocals and guitar; Johnny Hamil on bass; and Matt Richey on drums. And when she needs an auxiliary voice, she calls on longtime friend Emily Tummons, an honorary core member.

“There is such a diversity of styles on this record that it really needed this kind of chemistry to sound cohesive,” she said. “The last couple of records were kind of put together with people I recruited while I was recording.”

“The Musical” is Shapiro’s fifth recording. Her first two were with the bands Eudora (2002) and the Boon (2005). She followed those with two solo recordings: “The Crow, the Lark and the Loon” in 2008, and “For Good” in 2010.

She then moved to Chicago to get her film degree at the Art Institute, which she completed in 2012. For two years, music took a back seat to film and academics.

“I didn’t completely stop songwriting,” she said. “Songs spilled out of me at random moments, but I wasn’t sitting down regularly and writing.”

She returned to Kansas City in 2012, where she put her degree to use, shooting video and film, and resumed her music career. The two disciplines share traits and techniques, she said, but they also inspired each other.

“Film taught me to experiment more and take more risks,” she said. “And there are so many parallels between the two: editing and arranging, timing, rhythm, musicality. Music informs everything. It really spills over into the visual arts.”

By summer of 2014, Shapiro had gathered enough songs to think about recording an album. Some of those songs had been hanging around in various stages of completion for more than a decade. “Two-String Blues” goes back almost 20 years.

“It’s one of the first songs I ever wrote,” she said. “I didn’t know how to play guitar; I was only playing two strings. But I really like the simplicity of it.”

It’s a smokey blues number with a Tom Waits feel that opens with Richey and Hamil “riffing like they’re playing in the basement of some speakeasy.”

“Her music is so rich with beauty — the words and melodies — but it has this punk, dark edge to it,” Hamil said.

The newest song feels like the album’s centerpiece: “The Reincarnation of Helena Blavatsky,” a tale written with Shapiro’s mother in mind. It’s one of the more conspicuous songs on “The Musical.” It’s lush, sprawling, cinematic, operatic and it eludes an explicit music style because it evokes several.

The song references Blavatsky, a 19th-century author and occultist (among other things), and “The Great Invocation.”

“(Blavatsky) channels ‘The Great Invocation,’ a new age mantra that came out of the era of the Golden Dawn,” Shapiro said. “My mother is a great believer in reincarnation and believes she is the reincarnation of Helena Blavatsky. She recites ‘The Great Invocation’ and she taught it to her children. It has become our weird, pagan, occult family religion. I embrace it, kind of tongue-in-cheek, but there is wisdom to it, definitely.

“I wrote the song as a portrait of my mother, as if I were her. (The Invocation) brought comfort to her and embodied her character. Part of the lyrics are drawn from it.”

Four of the songs are collaborations, including “Nope” and “Chimo,” written with a friend from Chicago, Jeff Geesa. He died while the album was being recorded. “He never got to hear any of the tracks,” Shapiro said.

He would have loved what Shapiro, her band and producer Joel Nanos did with “Nope,” the album’s opening track. It’s a folk-ish tune with a lovely melody, embroidered with trumpet filigrees from Hermon Mehari, who performs on two other tracks.

“I knew I wanted horns,” Shapiro said. “I thought first of Stan Kessler, but we couldn’t work out our schedules. Joel suggested Hermon.… I don’t really know him, but he’s a beautiful musician and I really respect what he does.”

Shapiro was open to suggestions throughout the project, starting with band membership. She first asked Hamil to join her and Brothers in a band.

“I really admire Johnny’s type of crazy,” she said. Hamil suggested Richey be the drummer, then Richey recommended Nanos as a producer.

She welcomed ideas before and during the recording, too.

“I collaborate quite a bit,” Shapiro said. “I can write strong melodies and strong lyrics, but as far as instrumentation — I like to play a song for a lot of different people so they can give me an idea of what the song needs next. I’ll ask, ‘What would you do over this? What do you hear in this?’ This album was collaborative through and through.”

Likewise, inside Element Recording, she listened to Nanos’ suggestions, but ultimately she made the call on which way a song would go.

“Working with Joel was great,” she said. “I really respect his opinion, but he doesn’t push it. It really felt safe to explore.”

“Mikal has a lot of conviction in her vision but is also open to letting a song become whatever it wants to be,” Nanos said. “She always knows if it’s right or not when she hears it.”

Shapiro has shared the album with some of her peers, including Tony Ladesich, a fellow filmmaker and musician.

“I don’t think another record will be released by an act from Kansas City this year that will top it, and I include my own band (the Hardship Letters),” he said.

“It’s incredibly warm. It sounds old, yet new. It’s like a great old rock or soul record, sonically, yet it’s alive with her passion.”

Shapiro is involved in several other music projects: Ayllu, which plays traditional South American music; the Funk Punk Polka Band, which is part of Hamil’s Gawd project; and Royalphonic. She is also co-host, with her friend and fellow songwriter Kasey Rausch, of River Trade Radio, broadcast from 9 to 11 a.m. Sundays on KKFI (90.1 FM), which she compared to being in music school.

“It allows me to research the musical trajectory of many styles of music and sends me down rabbit holes of styles and musical trees,” she said. “It’s great.”

It’s one component of the never-ending education, evolution and maturation process.

“When I first started out in the studio, I loved it when all these things came together, all these different tracks and different musicians,” she said. “I didn’t understand space in the way I do now and how awesome the space in this album is compared to the other albums.

“It’s a sign of my maturity, I think, that I can allow for that glistening space to occur in a song and let it breathe. It gives it life. And now that I have players who want to stick around, I feel like I can write with them in mind.”

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

SATURDAY

Mikal Shapiro will celebrate the release of “The Musical” on Saturday at Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club, 3402 Main St. Dead Voices and Tony Ladesich will open. Showtime is 10 p.m. Admission is $10. Copies of “The Musical” will be available at the show and via MikalShapiro.com

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