This article first appeared in The Alt on August 14, 2018.
Photos by Ariel Einbinder
It’s not uncommon for musicians to write songs that sonically juxtapose their subject matter. Much of pop music is strikingly darker, sadder, and angrier than the sugary melodies suggest. Rappers like Future and Kanye write luxurious club music that often bemoans the very lifestyle it’s simultaneously boasting. And lots of hardcore and punk is, although characteristically aggressive, using that energy to promote positive action. The line between contrast and clumsiness is thin, but in just two EPs, Michael Doherty has already mastered the challenge of writing breathtakingly peaceful songs about feeling chronically anxious.
Another Michael is his project’s title, a clever poke at the ubiquity of his first name that becomes even more charming once you realize his music is anything but generic. “Pop,” “folk,” “home,” and “nice” are his Bandcamp tags, and those few words do more justice to his sound than an RIYL ever could.
“What a lovely day / why am I crying on the other side of the room?,” begins “Football,” the standout song on his 2016 EP Sans. With a falsetto reminiscent of pre-autotune Justin Vernon, Doherty croons each line with visceral intention. The song has the emotional tenderness of him singing it for you in his bedroom for the first time, but also the focus of it being his 200th runthrough. All of his music has that sensibility, meandering in the intersection between musical precision, fussily arranged lyrics, and a completely unpretentious delivery.
“‘Football’ is a culmination of things I’ve experienced growing up, and is about how quick I was to not show emotions as a kid, even though I had them—as we all do,” the 25-year-old says via email. “I’ve always felt anxious and shy around new people, but I love to use music as a way to coax myself out of that sort of thing. It’s definitely where I feel most comfortable with myself.”
Doherty grew up in the Albany area, spending his childhood singing in musicals and choirs, and eventually forming a band called River Eater with his friends in high school. “A lot more rock leaning than Another Michael, and much more collaborative,” he says of the five-piece, who last released an EP in early 2016. “We didn’t get to play outside of New York State too much, and there wasn’t much of a DIY scene in Albany at the time. But we played our fair share of fun shows at coffee houses and school-related events.”
In the midst of his time with River Eater and undergraduate studies, Doherty began writing solo material under the name Another Michael. It was initially intended to just be a recording project, and the only song to make it out of that first batch was “The Boulder,” which remains a staple of his live set today. It’s a five-minute ballad that oscillates between an austere sway and a bright flurry, and it’s centered around the hook, “you push me, I am a boulder / spin me out of control / cause I cannot handle getting older / so tumble me down, down, down.”
“After releasing it as a single, I decided I wanted to get back into playing the acoustic guitar, and that’s how Sans came together,” he says. Doherty wrote and recorded every part of Sans, and began performing solo a few months before its release in March 2016. “I remember it being super nerve wracking because I hadn’t been performing on my own in quite some time. But I was so happy to finally be sharing the music I’d been working on.”
By the end of 2017, Another Michael had not only become a four-piece band and a mainstay on the Albany live circuit, but a group to graduate the Capital District and relocate to Philly. And by early 2018, Doherty and his three bandmates—guitarist/keyboardist Alenni Davis, guitarist Jacob Crofoot, and electronic percussionist/keyboardist/producer Nick Sebastiano (pictured below)—had finished the long-awaited second Another Michael EP, Land, which they surprise-dropped through Topshelf Records earlier this month.
Each of the four songs should sound familiar to those who saw the group anytime in the last two years, and they have the perfectionist character of music that’s been meticulously tinkered with over time.
“There was talk of getting it done as soon as possible (we started tracking in July of 2016), but life gets in the way,” Doherty says. “We were also working in a lot of different listening environments, which would cloud our judgement quite a bit. Working in Nick’s bedroom we would think, “ah, we finally got ‘Score’ to bump!” And then we would bring it to the car and we couldn’t hear the snare.”
Not many of these songs contain acoustic drums, so the deep bass tones and crisp electronic cymbal taps are integral to the mood of the project. Particularly the aforementioned “Score,” which shares the minimalist yet acute spirit of Frank Ocean’s Blond(e). The empty space surrounding each note is as important as the note itself. Also like Blond(e), the instruments are mostly there for world-building purposes, and to emphasize rather than distract from Doherty’s vocals. His voice is the soul of the band, and by the same token, the greatest source of stress.
“Recording vocals has been, and probably always will be the thing that intimidates me most,” Doherty says. “Hearing my own voice back on something and knowing it can’t be changed is a vulnerable thing for me.”
Never once during Land’s lengthy sustains, quick mouthfuls of intricate couplets, or escalating octaves does Doherty sound nervous, though. And since Davis, Sebastiano, and Crofoot also sing, together their voices blend into a choir-like lilt that strengthens Doherty’s timbre without ever cutting into it. It’s a stainless yet palpably human dynamic that provides much of the contrast between the music and the lyrics.
Doherty antsily repeats the phrase, “I try to connect,” a couple dozen times on “Connect,” one of the bounciest and most collaborative songs on the project. “About” reads like a turbulent inner-monologue, but Sebastiano’s harmonies echo the respective last words of the lines, “Cause one day I’ll be leaving for an hour or two / you’ve got your big TV in the living room [living room]. . .I know everything there is to know about you / I know your favorite song from 2002 ,” adding another voice to a song that’s otherwise narratively solitary.
For a band of Another Michael’s current scale, Topshelf Records is a pretty big deal, but Doherty says he wants to go even further and turn the band into a full-time gig.
“I’d love to do it for life if possible. Would love to make a record as a full-time job.”
So much so that he’s even begun writing music about writing music.
“I’ve been writing more about music lately, which has been such a relief for me. I’m finding ways to write about it without being too on the nose, and relating it to my own experiences in life. I’d love to write happier songs too. Don’t think I haven’t tried! It’s just something that does not come easy to me.”
Land is currently available on all streaming sites.