WORDS AND IMAGES: WILLA NIELSEN '17
M. Vaughan is rebranding. Sort of. It’s sunny out, he’s handed in the last essay of his college career, and he’s looking forward. Quite literally. I sit with my back to the sun, forcing him to shield his eyes as he speaks. I keep him here because I like the imagery of staring into the sun as a clichéd metaphor for facing the future. Which is exactly what he’s doing.
Michael’s new project, Class Portrait, is a rock EP, embracing old inspirations, and calling back to his former self. Or, actually, his more present self. After four years of house tracks and dance music, Michael finds himself returning to something he hasn’t done in a while. “This is the first time, since like, high school that I’ve picked up a guitar and written songs like that.” A few years down the house and electronic music path led to deals at two record labels, song releases, and international interest. But it’s time return to the basics.
He’s nervous and excited, with just enough self-deprecation to not totally show it. But even as he claims that his expectations are low, or that he can’t get too ahead of himself, or that he doesn’t want to jinx it, he’s still smiling big.
As an artist, Michael is very self-aware. He goes so far as to call himself a “control freak” (so I don’t have to). He knows his music and he knows himself. More than that, he knows what he wants. In his old band, the instruments in his head didn’t always play out loud, so Michael took to producing his own music. But rock maintained a strong hold. “I definitely had some emotional highs and lows this year. And when you’re going through shit, and you put on just a bumping kick drum for six minutes… It doesn’t really do anything.”
So if not a bumping kick drum, then what? “I like sad songs. I think they just tug at your heartstrings in a nice way. So I just find myself writing like, sad yet groovy songs.” An interesting combo. “Cause I don’t like to mope. But like, you know, melancholic nostalgia is a vibe I like.”
He doesn’t entirely object when I call him a romantic, but smiles and laughs it off. So with that in mind, this creative re-direction is founded in the emotions of this year. It seems like a wave of catharsis came in the front row of a rock concert. “I had this sensation that I was like, choking back tears or something,” he laughs, “and I was like ‘I just want this shit to come out.’” And since then, the music hasn’t stopped. “I think that was the sign.”
Playing in a band again feels old and new. A return to a space where ideas are grown and developed, and a move away from the solo-work of a bedroom musician.
“I can be pretty ruthless with like, my creative ideas. I’ll just be like, ‘that fucking sucks.’” He laughs at himself again, “So that’s why I haven’t really been in a band for a while.” But the return is pretty seamless. Taking inspiration from New Order, Joy Division and the Cure, Michael pulls at simple melodies and a guitar focus to craft what he calls “bedroom rock.”
In listening to Michael’s rock EP, it’s clear that four years of electronic music can’t help but seep in. In keeping with his high school tunes and band practices, this EP calls on the past to look to the future. “Close To Me,” originally by The Cure, inspires you to get introspective, but in a way that also makes you want to dance. I don’t know what to call it, but Michael does. “Melancholic nostalgic bedroom rock. Let’s call it that.”
Berlin was the plan. But things took a turn for New York, and now the line between house and rock is pulled tighter. “If I were to pursue that stuff [house music], I think it could really go places a lot faster than this other side project. But my heart’s in this right now.” Thinking about it for a moment, he adds, “They’re not mutually exclusive but…”
Rehearsing with the band, Michael hints at the possibility of an upcoming performance. “I’m excited and anxious to play live,” he says. “Cause I never sang live, never done that before.” The last time he played live was at his senior high school talent show. Now, as a senior again, there’s a sense of symmetry as things come full circle. But it also feels like everything is about to change. “It’s really fun. Really exciting.” And although he might not admit it, Michael needs this. He’s set his mind to it, and he’ll take it as far as he can. “It’s kind of like, where my heart’s at.”