Tony Cummings interviewed the gritty gospel blues singer SEAN MICHEL
When Sean Michel auditioned for Season 6 of American Idol he shocked the judges from the moment he stepped onto stage. He commented that people said he looked like Osama Bin Laden, Fidel Castro, a homeless person or Jesus Christ. The shocks continued when Sean roared out a version of Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down". To everyone's amazement, including Sean's who had only entered American Idol as "kind of a joke", he sailed through the audition. When the audition was broadcast in January 2007 Sean's raspingly bluesy voice captured the attention of a vast TV audience. Dozens of national radio and print media organisations took notice and Sean became an overnight celebrity - especially in his home state of Arkansas. Today Sean is one of America's leading independent artists and his 'I Know I've Been Converted' album his produced the Cross Rhythms turntable hit "Arkansas". Cross Rhythms quizzed this fascinating singer about his past and present.
Sean was born on 21st August 1979 in what he described as "the swamps of New Orleans, Louisiana." His childhood was hardly conventional. "I grew up shootin' nutria rats with my bb gun. That's what we did for fun. Nobody likes nutria rats. I also grew up watching the New Orleans Saints Football Team - actually, I watched my family as they watched the Saints and cussed at the TV, because they were more entertaining than the team was back then. If you know anybody from New Orleans, then you understand - nothin' but a bunch of characters down there. My family provided a real mixed up religious background for me. My grandparents were all Catholic. My Dad was a devoted atheist, and my Mom went to a Pentecostal church. That was actually the church I first went to - Jimmy Swaggart's church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I saw a demon exorcism when I was six years old. That'll scare the hell right out of you.
"Me and my brother slept in my mom's bed that night. I had several spiritual experiences in those days. But I first made a commitment to Jesus while reading a gospel tract in my bedroom one night when I was thirteen years old. My family ended up moving near Little Rock, Arkansas and it was there that my faith really began to grow. I got involved in the youth group at a Southern Baptist church, and that's where my family started going to church - well, not my dad 'cause he didn't believe yet. I began to get serious about reading the Bible and being a part of church in those days. The other kids were out partying while I was listening to cassette tapes of preachers I ordered off the TV. I guess I was pretty lame as a teenager."
Sean attended Ouachita Baptist University from 1997 to 2002 studying theology. His studies were an enormous help for him. "It changed everything for me. I thought I knew the Bible. I listened to hundreds of sermons and went to dozens of Bible studies. But when I got to college and enrolled in an Exegesis class, I realized that I didn't have a clue how to read the Bible. Once I began to learn to read the Bible the way it was intended, I began to understand God and his work in the world so much more clearly. The more I studied, the more I realized I didn't know. That'll humble you real quick. It's been a real solid foundation for me and I wouldn't trade that education for much of anything."
At university San participated in several short term international missions. It was one of these which inadvertently led to Sean's first recording. He explained, "I used to play some songs I had written at various college functions, or just around the campfire and stuff. We had a trip planned to do some discipleship in Namibia and my friend Jay, who was also going, had the bright idea to record those songs and sell them to raise the money for the trip. So I got some friends together and we did a homemade recording with all acoustic instruments. It ended up selling really well and we raised all the support we needed just from the CDs we made. That was when Jay and I thought we might really have something with the music. We had a different name for the CD originally but we re-released it under the title 'Acoustic'. The trip to Namibia was great - we started off by doing a youth camp where Jay preached and I led music. Then we spent the next several weeks doing discipleship meetings with some kids who had made commitments at that camp. We didn't really understand the connection between music and missions back then - music was just the means to fund missions at that time. But now we've grown to see that the mission and the music are the same thing."
In 2003, after returning from a missionary trip to China, Sean recruited friend and bass player Nick Taylor to play with him. Nick had played with a local hardcore/screamo band and was well connected in those circles. So early on, Sean played frequently with bands of a much heavier style than his own. However, by 2005 the band had added drummer Joie Lyle and was touring on a consistent basis.
Also in 2005 Sean released his second CD, 'Sketches'. He said, "'Sketches' was really just a reflection of how we were playing the songs on the 'Acoustic' record live. I would play them with a full band so we wanted to record them that way. We added some newer songs as well, but it mostly began as an extension of the earlier project. I was really influenced by Pedro The Lion and British rock like Coldplay and Radiohead at that time. I guess if you could describe it as anything, it was kind of worshipful indie rock. The recording sessions were scattered over three years and consisted of several different band members recording on it over that span. We were broke, so we just recorded what we could afford when we had the cash to spare. The first version only had four songs, and then we added one, and then two more to complete it as it is now. There were some very talented people who recorded on that project. Sadly, about half of them have completely rejected the Lord since those recordings. They all had different circumstances and I don't completely understand what happened, but it saddens me deeply. I can't help but think about that when I remember that record, since their lives now are such a stark contrast to the content and feeling of that record. It's still a very spiritually powerful record and we get people even today who message us about how the Lord is using those songs in their lives. Our music is pretty different now than it was back then, but I'm very proud to have made that record and we still sell it at our shows even though we don't play those songs live anymore."
In 2006 Sean decided to try out for American Idol on a whim and auditioned in Memphis. Many contestants have claimed that American Idol changed their lives. Was that true for Sean? "Not really. When I think of moments that have been life-changing for me, being on television doesn't rank that highly. I guess it just depends on how you define 'life-changing'. It's funny, when I was there you could tell all the other auditioners and contestants were acting like this was their one chance for a big break. That was not my attitude at all. . . I was just having fun. I did want to be used by God, but whatever happened at the American Idol tryouts wasn't going to deter me from what I knew God was calling me to do. I already had my orders - American Idol could be a part of it or not. Didn't matter to me either way. I was sad for some of the other people trying out - they were literally staking their whole life on the success or failure of that one audition. I guess that's why I didn't have a lot of emotion when I got sent to Hollywood. Ryan Seacrest called me 'the most unenthusiastic winner in American Idol history'. I do have to add that being on television helped in some ways. It opened a lot of doors that were previously closed. It made people want to listen to my songs. So God used it for sure and is still using it, and I'm grateful for the experience. I learned a lot from it. But I wouldn't say it changed my life."
One of the positives about Sean's involvement with American idol was the opportunity to discuss spiritual things with fellow contestants though not always in the way one might have expected. "The funny thing is a lot of them shared their faith with me. Guess that's what I get for judging a book by its cover. I met a lot of strong believers during the auditions - some of whom I still keep in touch with. A lot of the people who went farther than me were devoted to Christ. They just were better about being subtle than me. I also got to share with several of the producers and behind the scenes people. I got the feeling they really came to respect me and didn't want to see me undergo the kind of artificial changes that happen to a lot of contestants. I believe that was because of how I lived out my faith in front of them. I felt a little like Elijah though - I mistakenly thought I was the only one of his representatives left, but he had so many more of his people there. God's got his people everywhere. I learned that."
Sean's appearance on national television created a slew of touring opportunities for Sean and the band, but it also significantly increased expectations. The band spent the latter half of 2007 recording the album 'The Thrill Of Hope'. Commented Sean, "The band barely made it through the recording process. By the time we finished the recording, we had already lost a drummer. Our bass player was getting married and let us know his time as a touring musician would soon be coming to an end. And our guitar player just kind of sensed everything changing and didn't want to be a part of that. I was disappointed about the poorer than expected sales. We sold a few hundred off the bat, but then nothing. I started going door-to-door trying to sell them. I experienced so much rejection that I had to reassess why I was doing this whole thing in the first place. I remember one night going door-to-door standing in the rain just ready to give up. I think that's when I first started to get the blues. Honestly, though, the Lord had prepared me for it. I heard his voice while praying one day telling me not to be surprised if people ignored this album. The 'Thrill Of Hope' album is all about the incarnation of Christ - and except for a few shepherds on a hillside, the whole world ignored that too. So it's kind of fitting. Anyway, I don't like that album. I mean, it's a good recording and I still think it speaks to people. But I don't like it because it reminds me of that time. Every year around Christmas time, people try to get me to play those songs again, but I won't do it. I'm sure one day I will. But it still stings a little to remember that time."
Sean toured briefly in summer of 2008 and told fans at live shows that a new, more blues oriented album was in the works. Now without a band, Sean turned to long time friend Andy Turner to help record a demo for the new songs Sean was writing. It was a drastic departure from the more polished and pop rock-influenced recording that Sean had become wary of. They completed the 'Just Let Go' CD in only a month and produced a few short runs of physical copies that each sold out quickly.
Sean spoke about the 'Just Let Go' sessions. "I wanted grit and grime, not shimmer and shine. I just used cheap mics and old beat up instruments. I was having a tough time then. I was about to lose my job, had just lost my band, thought I was gonna lose my house, and I was having a real tough time with God too. I had been listening to some blues records and for the first time I really related to them. And so I let some of that out on the 'Just Let Go' project. That was the start of me acquiring a more bluesy sound for sure. It was a dark time for me and doing that CD helped me cope with some of those emotions and maintain my hope in the promises of God."
Sean spoke about the blues and soul influences in his vocal style. "I've always liked black music. I grew up listening to gospel music like CeCe Winans. Even now, the stuff I'm really into is Mavis Staples and Rance Allen. When a new song hits me, I picture myself in my mind as a large black woman singing it. Down in Louisiana, we got a term called 'redbone'. It's kind of derogatory, but it refers to the people of south Louisiana with a mixed racial heritage. I always kinda figured myself as something of a redbone."
The 2011 release of 'I Know I've Been Converted' has brought forth some glowing reviews from the critics. Sean named his favourite songs on the album as "God's Gonna Cut You Down" and the stripped down version of "I Know I've Been Converted". Said the singer, "I like those two because of the energy that was evoked with fewer instruments than the rest of the songs. There's an electricity to both of those tracks even though there aren't any electric instruments on them. The electricity came straight from my soul. 'God's Gonna Cut You Down' had no instruments on it. . . it was just me clapping and stomping on the wooden floor in my living room. The stripped version of 'I Know I've Been Converted' is just me and my steel resonator guitar. Both of those songs are traditional gospel songs. I was inspired to do 'God's Gonna Cut You Down' because of my American Idol tryout. I did that song there to help remind me of how fleeting all the hoopla around that show is. 'I Know I've Been Converted' is a real declaration for me. I've always struggled with assurance of my salvation. Recording that song was a statement I felt like I had to make that I truly know that God has saved me and is changing me. I know other people like other songs on the record, but those are the two that I like best."
Sean spoke about his current turntable hit "Arkansas". "That song is kind of my testimony about how I came to know Christ and was called to play music for him. It's called 'Arkansas' because that's where I was when I had the most significant encounters with God in my life. A lot of people really look down on the state of Arkansas and think it's full of rednecks and hillbillies. But for me, that's where God has spoken the clearest to me. Arkansas is kind of my Mount Sinai, or Gethsemane. It's where I meet with God. I just wanted to write a song about that and let people know how important that state is to me and my spiritual life."
In October Sean finished recording a new album. He enthused, "We're in post-production with it now and hope for it to be out within the next month. We wanted to get back to the roots of music, so we went back to where it all started in the Mississippi River Delta. We found a 100 year old church in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, which is the hometown of Muddy Waters. We set up some old RCA ribbon mics from the '50s, and the mic we used for my vocals was used in Muscle Shoals, Alabama at the studio where The Staple Singers and other artists recorded. We did the whole record to tape. We just wanted to imitate those old blues and gospel records that started this whole era of rock 'n' roll. We are only gonna release this album on vinyl and cassette, although there will be a digital download card with every physical copy so folks can put it on their computers. But we want people to experience that Delta sound so we hope it's not just gonna end up on iPods. The name of the album is 'Back To The Delta' and it should be available to order before Christmas at our online store."
We finished our interview with this most passionate of gospel bluesmen by asking him whether he considered himself a musical evangelist? "Yeah, I reckon so. I just sing what's in my heart - and Jesus is in my heart. So that's what comes out. But I sure do want people to know him, and if these songs help them do that then I'm glad."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.