Songwriter Michael Coleman hears drums in the guitar

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Ten minutes north of the Downtown Mall the land changes all at once as the suburbs fade into pastureland. Longhorn cattle chewed the grass stubbornly, looking like they had just stepped out of Lonesome Dove, as I drove to my interview with Michael Coleman, a 23-
year-old singer/songwriter whose musical influences bridge the city/country divide I traversed.

Singer/songwriter Michael Coleman will play an all-acoustic set with Rusty Speidel at Para Coffee, January 26 at 7pm. CCSH and Brendan Jamieson open. 

Though Coleman is black and was raised on gospel, don’t expect to be able to pigeonhole his sound. He listens to everything from folk to R&B, and his dedication to his art has exposed him to more influences than you can keep up with. Whether it’s heavy-hitters like Stevie Wonder and John Mayer or indie sensations like Sufjan Stevens and Amos Lee, Coleman draws on a wide range of music, but he’s also clear about what feels good to him. “I can’t deny Stevie and John Legend,” he told me. 

Coleman’s music starts with rhythm. He grew up drumming, graduating from pots and pans to a full drum set around age 8. In college, he was thinking about making a run at drumming professionally, but those plans were derailed when a friend gave him her guitar as she was moving out of her apartment. Amazingly, he picked up the guitar and songwriting at the same time, penning his first tune the night he began teaching himself the new instrument. 

Four years later and one year into his run on local stages, Coleman has already developed a reputation around town, playing The Southern just recently and headlining an upcoming show at Para Coffee with Rusty Speidel. We talked about that show and more when we caught up over a beer in his home studio.

How does being a drummer influence your guitar style?

I don’t know where that inspiration came from with rhythm. You know, when I was a little kid, I thought that drums made the bass sound of a guitar. I thought everything was drums. So, from very early on it was drums. It’s kind of always been there. Anything I play that’s not drums, there’s always kind of a rhythmic feel. When I play guitar, I like to turn up the bass a little bit and kind of hit it with my thumb to keep that rhythm. So I’m very much a rhythm guitar player. Especially in the faster songs I play, there are a lot of percussive sounds because that’s what I hear in my head. 

What’s unique about playing in C’ville?

It’s really a community where everyone likes to share and everyone likes to participate in everyone else’s creative process. It’s not out of obligation and not, you know, ‘I’ll do this if they do something for me.’ It’s a genuine love for music and for that person. I feel a lot of support here. Everyone wants to see everyone else do well. For example, on top of guitar, I play drums in three different groups 

[The Hill and Wood, Woe Pony, and Camp Christopher] right now. We’re all playing different gigs but we’re all still supportive of each other. There’s a very strong sense of respect. I can’t help but go back to that word ‘community.’

There’s a sense of release in your songs. Where does that come from?

Whether I’m writing about family issues or social issues, it’s so much easier to get my point across through song. And a lot of my songs tend to be very personal. It’s either been in my mind for a while, or I think really hard about it before I write it. When I do put it out there, I’m kind of permanently vulnerable. One of my most well-known songs in Charlottesville is about a relationship I went through, and when I wrote that song, it was really well-received. But now, the situation is very different, and I’m not in that relationship anymore, so it’s…not awkward but it’s just hard to play because it brings me back to that time which was very difficult for me. As a songwriter, you kind of sign up for it. 

Talk about the best show you’ve ever had.

My show at The Southern really sticks in my mind the most. It was a full band show with Erik Pearson on bass and John Dimeo on drums, and there was so much energy—people were dancing, and at that point they knew the lyrics to a lot of my songs. To hear that being sung back to you—it was overwhelming. My natural reaction was, ‘You shouldn’t know these songs.’ I mean, the first time I went to The Southern was probably almost a year to date, and The Civil Wars played. I remember being there, and I was thinking, ‘I would give anything to play on this stage one day.’ I never actually believed it would happen. But now here I am almost a year later, and I played there and not only that but people were singing along. It’s surreal.

And your upcoming show at Para Coffee? 

It’s going to be great. I feel like it will be one of the better shows I’ve played, just because Rusty’s such a tasteful player. And I’ve been trying to get a more subdued feel with less guitar licks and a stronger presence of lyricism. I’m really going to put myself out there with that show. I think people have either seen the band or they’ve seen me do one tune, but I haven’t done a whole acoustic show in Charlottesville. I think it will show another side of me people haven’t seen before. 

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