In Their Own Voices: Michelle Held & Frank Allison at Crazy Wisdom
Detroit-based [https://www.facebook.com/michelleheldmusic|Michelle Held] was a professional actress, appearing at the best theaters in Michigan, including the Purple Rose, where she trained, and the Williamston Theatre near Lansing. Her then-boyfriend gave her a guitar, but Held hardly touched it because she was busy with day jobs and rehearsals. And when she did try to play it, it didn't go well. “I would pick it up and get frustrated,” Held says.
When she took a full-time job at a production house, Held took her guitar to work but had too little time to do more than tinker with it. It wasn't until she was laid off from that job in 2009 that Held could work on her guitar skills and, finally, she says “began to get the hang of it.” In 2011, she wrote her first song.
“I’ve done so many different creative things my whole life -- drawing, dance, theater,” says Held, who got a degree in textiles from Western Michigan University, thinking she might be a fashion designer. But that didn’t feel quite right. “Music feels like home. Everything I did, all the training in theater, filters into this," Held says. "I love composing and creating something from nothing. I could sink my whole being into it.”
Held took a handful of voice lessons and went to a songwriting retreat, and in 2012, when she appeared in The Understudy at the Williamston Theatre, she knew she would not be doing theater again anytime soon. Those in the audience who witnessed that mesmerizing performance would have been disappointed -- until they learned what she would do next.
In grade school, Held had been teased about her vibrato. “I was afraid of speaking my true voice in every sense of the word,” she recalls. “I spent a whole lifetime trying to fit in. Then I came to my senses and embraced the uniqueness of my voice. I always thought writing is difficult until I realize you just have to tell the truth.”
Held started to play shows in 2012 and hasn’t stopped performing and writing. Her songs come out of her experiences as she works through life’s challenges. “I don’t force writing. That doesn't work well for me," she says. "I sit with my thoughts and feelings and try to let my mind wander over the endless possibilities until I find what works. It feels meditative at times."
Held’s lyrics are poetic, influenced by Dylan. “I didn’t realize the power of music. Then I heard Bob Dylan,” she says. “If you take words that are important to you, you have the potential to reach people more easily with music.” She has written music to poems by friends as well as to her own.
If you haven’t heard of Held -- a stunning and authentic presence on the local and national music scene -- it’s because she finds self-promotion “yucky.”
But you may have heard of [http://frankallisonmusic.com|Frank Alison], who had a band in the '80s and '90s that was popular in the Detroit area. Crowds came to dance and the bars filled, and venues booked the band again and again. Singing came naturally to him -- until he lost his voice.
“I have this spasmodic dysphonia, like Diane Rehm," Allison says. "She got Botox that stops the muscles from squeezing. I didn’t. I took 10 years off and started a family.” He and his wife bought a movie theater in Clinton, Mich., where they run kid’s movies and romantic comedies. He tried to teach his daughter to play the ukulele, but when she showed no interest, he stole the instrument and started making music again.
“I can’t do the music I used to do," Allison says. "I started writing new material in 2006 and found I could do all kinds of different stuff.” In 2011, about the time Held was coming into her own, he started performing it.
“Back then I played rock 'n' roll tunes that spoke of real life and regular people,” he says. "The music I write now isn’t really rock 'n' roll. I don’t know what to say it is. It’s still fast tempo. I still write clever lyrics about regular life, but the words are probably more philosophical. I still try to keep it fun and tell stories. The new music is influenced by a wide variety of pop, jazz, blues, country, and world music."
Allison and Held will alternate songs on Saturday evening at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore, sharing a stage for the first time. “He has an amazing spirit and an amazing story,” Held says. "He’s quirky -- I am, too, but in a different way. We are each likely to bring a degree of crazy and wisdom. How much of each remains to be seen."
Davi Napoleon is a freelance journalist and theater historian; her book, Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of American Theatre, explores the onstage triumphs and offstage turmoil of a theater dealing with cuts to arts funding.
Michelle Held and Frank Allison appear together on Saturday, October 21 at 8 pm at [http://www.crazywisdom.net|Crazy Wisdom Bookstore], 111 S. Main St., Ann Arbor. Free. Listen to music samples and read more about Michelle Held at [https://www.facebook.com/michelleheldmusic|facebook.com/michelleheldmusic] and Frank Allison at [http://frankallisonmusic.com|frankallisonmusic.com].