New Release: Michael Shipley EP, Voices in the Dark
By: James Brookes
June 22, 2017
Back in the days of old Hollywood, the metropolis of entertainment was a haven for those who pursued not just a single form of creativity, but creativity itself. Many actors, directors, writers, and musicians, possessed more than one talent, showcasing them effortlessly across an ever-changing spectrum of fresh artistic opportunities. Today, in an era of auto-tune, movie remakes, and one-trick ponies, it is rare to see the particular strength that comes from creatives feeding their hunger not just for success, but for artistry itself. Meet Michael Shipley: writer, executive producer, musician, songwriter, and photographer, to name a few of his talents.
“I’m not just interested in being a TV writer, I’m interested in being a creative person.” Shipley pleasantly expressed.
You may be aware of Michael Shipley’s work from the hit show, Last Man Standing, starring Tim Allen—a show that left fans, and many facets of Hollywood, in shock after ABC announced its cancellation. Boasting six seasons of high ratings, the question of why it was pulled from the line-up still remains somewhat of a mystery throughout Tinseltown. Shipley was an executive producer and writer on the production, imprinting a large influence on the incredibly successful sitcom. His other credits include Family Guy, American Dad! and My Name Is Earl; fan favorites that have made a substantial impact on the world of pop culture.
But don’t let all of the television credits fool you, there’s more to Shipley than meets the eye. We recently had the chance to sit down with the Santa Cruz, CA native to chat about the release of his latest EP: Voices in the Dark. An exclusive interview covering his inspirations, experiences, and what’s coming up next for the jack of all trades.
“In the course of writing and recording my first album, I learned so much about how to make a record. How to capture the music of music. This new EP sprang from my desire to do another project with what I learned, and how I had grown as a person. But ironically, it’s built on songs that I started long ago. Like a lot of songwriters, I had musical/lyrical fragments that had been sitting around for years—some of these pieces were more than a decade old – and I just thought, ‘I need to give myself a deadline about actually turning these into songs, or I’m going to be 93 croaking out the same half a verse and a chorus with no words.’”
In the final product, five tracks of unique rhyme schemes and melodic structures echo through this moody & emotionally enriching EP, giving music connoisseurs something fresh and exciting to sink their teeth into. But the past is there as well; you can hear hints of The Beatles, Paul Simon, Richard Thompson and even Nick Cave. When asked about how these legends inspire him, Shipley clarified, “It’s not that I sit down and consciously try to write songs like these people, it’s that you breathe in artists who speak to you and they move into your heart and head by osmosis.” He pondered, “Richard Thompson—I think he’s transcendent lyrically, and it’s not even fair to just say lyrically, because it’s the way he connects the music with the lyrics that opens a door into something extraordinary.” That same magic of lyrics and music each elevating the other is vividly apparent in Shipley’s Voices in the Dark
Yet, a finished product doesn’t come to fruition without blood, sweat, and tears. The—now—father of two said, “The most painful part of [the artistic process] was when the songs were almost done, and I was about to start a new season of Last Man Standing—I had about four weeks of hiatus left. My wife, who is always looking after my stress level, said, ‘Take three days in Palm Springs and chill.’” Shipley did just that, locking himself away from the world in order to fulfill the promise he had made to himself: make the songs for Voices in the Dark everything they could be before stepping into the studio.
“It was a very beautiful setting and a very dark experience—feeling like I had to strip something away . . . [it] got very raw, finishing these songs in an authentic way.” Shipley said, reflecting back on the journey.
In “Shards Of Ellen”, the first song on the record, Shipley describes how the harsh reality of the track grew from the confluence of several different difficult times. “At the risk of being overly byzantine, there was a girl named Ellen that I grew up with . . . She was gay at a time when that was awkward and uncomfortable; people weren’t sure how to sort that. My Dad was gay, so I grew up with a certain level of awareness and empathy that was missing among my peers. I would always see the strain and stress of what she was living through. That name, Ellen, always felt like pressure and unjustified strain from the outside . . .” Shipley recalls. “Jump forward a hundred years . . . I’ve always been interested in feminist issues, and someone was talking to me about her sense of ego shattering in a relationship where her husband cheated. The phrase ‘shards of somebody’ came into my head, and Ellen felt like the perfect name for that . . . Both issues that I cared about, brought together by my creative magpie side; holding onto shiny things until I found a way to fit them together.”
Although the lyrics mirror darkness, love and connection is embedded in the recording process. If you listen closely, you can hear Shipley’s wife, Christy, speaking as the character of Ellen. He softly smiled, “My wife is an actor . . . I set her up with a microphone, and I asked her to just talk—say whatever you want to say. It was a wonderful contribution, and it’s a joy to do creative projects with people you care about. It’s another form of intimacy and connection.”
Another Gas Mask favorite from the EP is, “City By the Sea”; in which Shipley has created an ethereal world of comfort and feathery ambience to explore the narrator’s dreams of moving back to his childhood home, a town he fled as a young man in search of adventure. Shipley notes with great candor, “It’s Santa Cruz.” After a momentary upwelling of emotion, he continues, “One of the things I like about Richard Thompson and Paul Simon—it doesn’t feel like they’re obsessed with the concerns of youth. So many popular songs default to that lyrical arena; ‘City By the Sea’ is a song very much about someone who has lived for many years away from the town that feels like home to them . . . I will never lose enough Santa Cruz not to feel like a fish out of water in Los Angeles. I am not a standard TV/Comedy writer. I’ve literally had people ask me, ‘Why aren’t you more of an asshole?’” He chuckled. “Sometimes the, at least perceived, hostility, alienation, and disengagement in Los Angeles—what feels to me like dehumanization—whether it’s jackasses on the road or the relentless prioritizing of personal advancement, they wear on me. I miss the default kindness and playfulness you get from people in Santa Cruz.” Shipley concludes, “I don’t know if [City By The Sea] is a song I would've written in my twenties. My adventures and successes in Hollywood have brought me a certain kind of peace. Even as the adventures continue, the idea of leaving LA is starting to look more and more appealing . . . The song is a reflection of that analysis.”
Full of deep lyrical exploration, Voices in the Dark is both philosophically and emotionally engaging. By marrying that lyrical aspect to synths, cellos, and other novel sounds, Michael Shipley has provided fans with yet another branch of surprising and compelling entertainment. And what’s next on his agenda? More TV—he tells us he’s discussing a deal with J.J. Abram’s company—more photographs and luckily for all of us, Shipley has been back in the studio working on another EP with Producer Cary Beare. Stay tuned for its launch this summer.