Michael Cormier-O’Leary and Karl Blau Talk Improvisation, Lyrical Character Building, and Anything Can Be Left Behind

The friends announce Cormier-O’Leary’s forthcoming record, and share his new single.

Michael Cormier-O’Leary is a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, the drummer of Friendship, and the co-founder of Dear Life Records — currently based in Maine, and formerly in Philly; Karl Blau is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist currently based in Philly’s Germantown. Today, Michael is announcing his forthcoming album Anything Can Be Left Behind (out May 5 on Dear Life) and premiering its first single, “Newest Oldest Punk.” Check it out below, along with a recent catch-up he and Karl had about it all. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Michael Cormier-O’Leary: Hello, Karl. 

Karl Blau: Hello, Michael. You’re calling from Maine right now?

Michael: Yep, up in Maine, which is nice. It’s been a milder winter than it should be, but we’ve had a few big snows, which has been fun. How’s Germantown treating you? 

Karl: It’s good. Unsettlingly warm in February, and in January, too. I work outside during the day, mostly on the sides of old houses, and this winter I’ve been able to work almost every day.

Michael: It’s nice on one level and creepy on another.

Karl: Yeah, it’s weird. But it’s been real productive for you up in Maine — how many records have you done up there so far? It’s been three years you’ve been up there now?

Michael: No, I came up here in 2021, got married. We’re coming back to Philly this upcoming June. It’s really a pretty amazing community that we’re a part of down in Philly that we’ve been missing quite a bit up here. So yeah, it’s been productive on one level, but it’s been pretty isolating, too. I guess the isolation leads to the productivity, but it’s ultimately nicer to have a community.

Karl: So this record, did you write this a lot in that isolation?

Michael: A lot of this was written kind of knowing we were leaving Philly — it’s probably three years of accumulated material, with some of it being [from] right around when we were leaving Philly. And some of it was brought to completion once moving up here. 

But we recorded it February 2022. We took a bunch of gear from my friend Brad Krieger’s studio — Big Nice Studio in Providence, Rhode Island — and brought it to my friend Erika Nininger’s [place]. She lives in a winter rental in southern Massachusetts, where they can live there until June and then they’ve gotta leave for three months, and then they can move back in September. It’s right on this river that spills out into the ocean. It’s really, really amazing. So we brought all this recording equipment into this really charming little house, and then did this record. Basically all the recording was in three days.

Karl: Were there any Philly folks involved? 

Michael: Yeah. My friend Lucas Knapp — I’m not sure if you’ve crossed paths with him at all. I’ve worked with him now for many years, he’s kind of been involved with all of my solo output. 

Karl: I just saw him at Johnny Brenda’s at the MJ Lenderman show. 

Michael: Oh, yeah! Yeah, he’s a great friend and really talented engineer. So he came to the session, he plays some synths on the record. He also played bass on a couple of songs. So he was there, and then he mixed the whole record after the fact. Otherwise, yeah, he was the Philly representation. And then it was my good friend Erika, who we went to college together, and then Brad from Big Nice Studio. He made music with a band called Courtney and Brad, and so Courtney Swain — she’s in a band called Bent Knee — she came. And then Frank Meadows, who runs Dear Life Records with me, that was the band. So it’s kind of a band made up of people all over.

That group had never played together and none of them knew the songs before the session. I became pretty fixated on the idea of, at first I thought maybe we would just write a bunch of new songs all at once and see what happens. But ultimately, we kind of leaned into the guideposts of these accumulated songs that I had. But it kind of felt the same, because none of them had heard the songs, so everybody was learning and arranging in real time. I just wanted it to have a very improvisatory element to it. I had set out with the goal of like, “Oh, yeah, we can totally write and record a full record’s worth of music,” but in practice it was much easier to be like, “OK, here is a song, now let’s get it down.” And it just involves playing it a handful of times in different ways. But I feel like everyone was really good at rapidly committing to what they were playing. 

Karl: Are you conducting as a guitar player or are you on drums?

Michael: I was playing guitar. I don’t play any drums on the record. Brad the engineer is the drummer on the record, too, so he was he was doing double duty. He’d be sitting behind the drum kit with his keyboard that’s Bluetooth-connected to the computer in the other room, and so he could start and stop the session. I played some sundry percussion, but now I’m just playing guitar and singing on the record. 

Karl: Yeah. I mean, chords-wise, it’s pretty complex in a way. It’s not straightforward rock & roll. I mean, it rocks, but the guitar parts are real interesting. 

Michael: Thanks. Yeah, I mean, that’s the benefit and then the frig of writing songs alone, and then bringing it to other people. For me, exploring chords like that and exploring, I guess, non-linear harmonic movement is so fun to do alone. And then you try to say, “OK, folks, here’s the chord changes.” And I personally don’t even think about what the notes are so much, and then I have to try to like, say them. So luckily in this session, Frank and Erika are just really good and they have a lot of theory training, so they could hear the chord, break it down, write it down. And so they were able to communicate. I feel like they were like my translators or something. But I wanted to work with all these folks because I knew they could play like that. I knew they could go in basically knowing nothing and respond quickly with stuff that I could never come up with in a million years sitting at home alone. 

This is the first record of my own songs that I’ve recorded with a live band. Otherwise, it’s been me tinkering away in studio and getting people on after the fact. But I really wanted to approach this one with a full group.

Karl: It sounds real tight though, like you could have just done that alone. It’s real precise. Also, the thing with doing it with a live band like that is you can kind of record the moment that you’re learning the song, and then something really magical happens when they don’t know it yet, but they’re trying stuff that is just kind of searching a little bit.

Michael: Totally. We would record everything. We would record the entire thing, like, “OK, top of the song, let’s just stumble our way through it.” We just tracked everything because, yeah, you never know. I feel like as a bandleader, I’ve gotten much better at just listening to everything that’s happening all at once, and the second I hear anybody doing something that catches my ear, I’m like, “Oh, quick, I like that. Do that again.” Trying hard to not let special moments like that slip by. 

Which I feel like you have experience with a similar sort of approach — I mean, you’ve done plenty of records that you overdub in lots of stuff, but I feel like you also have made really incredible band records. Do you approach your own music in the same way?

Karl: Yeah, similarly, I just really trust the players that I play with to do their interesting thing that they do. And I’ve done several records with that band Lake — they’re all just incredible musicians, and similarly, it’s just like capturing that moment where we’re figuring it out together, and that magic of everyone kind of discovering the song together. 

Michael: Yeah, I first heard of that band because of you. I feel like I’ve seen you hype them for years now, and I got super into them.

Karl: Yeah. I can see that Friendship and Lake have a real similar vibe of just their role as community members. 

In your one sheet, you talk about this experiment of how much of the persistent self remains when we improvise, react purely in the present moment and contort our expectations. That’s sort of what you were just talking about, and that was something I wrote down, like, I want to hear Michael expand on that

Michael: Yeah. Well, the songs were kind of written separately and over time, coming through a truly transitional space with literal details of life changing and going to a different place. There was just a lot in flux interpersonally. I think that went into a lot of these songs. And a lot of the songs… there’s not much autobiography at all. It’s a lot of character building. But all the characters are dealing with something that has been one way and is now another way, whether it’s a relationship there and or a place that they’re in, and they’re remembering things that happened. It wasn’t super consciously, but I was clearly thinking about like, how does a sense of self get preserved when all of these external conditions are changing? 

And at the same time, I was listening to Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Miss America basically every day. It’s a record that I just can’t kick. I actually learned recently that it was way more labor intensive than I ever thought it was. It took them eight years to make that record. But she was still playing with these top New York City improvisers, kind of going through the motions of what it feels like you would hear on a New York radio station in the ‘80s. Every song feels like, Oh, here’s Mary Margaret doing a song that kind of sounds like the Talking Heads. OK, and now this next song is her doing a jazz standard. And it just kind of shifts through genre in a way that doesn’t feel like… I wouldn’t say genre-bending, like it’s not even the focus, but the band just feels so free that they can kind of cycle in and out of these modes so effortlessly. And so that was informing. It’s something about being a chameleon. And I think that connects back to this question of self — like, can you define yourself as being one who changes all the time? Like, is that even a definition of self? And I guess I’m thinking the answer is yes, but it does feel funny because of all the morphing that takes place.

Karl: Right. What is that essence that you are? That’s a good question. I think that’s a question that scares a lot of us, thinking about death and stuff. Like, what do we take with us to that?

Michael: Oh, yeah, totally. With death too, the idea of a persistent soul — it takes a lot of faith to think that even the soul is like a singular entity. So, yeah, I’m trying to get more comfortable with the idea that it’s totally fragmented, and that’s OK. 

Karl: Yeah, I think about that in terms of the spiritual role of music in general. You have this arc of birth, life, and death in a song, and we’re really addicted to that feeling of going along for the ride of this story. And I think it’s partly because we are experiencing that and practicing it in a way. 

Michael: Totally. I think about it, too, a lot with horror movies, and I feel like songs can totally do the same thing. It can be these… you know, not dress rehearsals, but just an attempt to be like, Can I feel what this feels like to go through this complete journey that I am going through, but just at a much slower rate than a three minute song or an hour-and-a-half long movie? I was definitely having fun with that with these songs. I mean, the song “Obtain” is basically a made up story about inheriting and cleaning out an old family home after parents have died, which I have not experienced. But it is something I think about because it’s so loaded to be in that situation.And doing it in a song with a character who I don’t really even identify with still was just a really cathartic way to think about something like that, and go through the kind of birth and death cycle of that. 

Karl: I really drawn into these little stories. They all have a lot of detail, and you really paint the picture with the lyrics. I could feel the towns, I can feel the houses. It’s exciting for me, also, in just opening up new possibilities for me for lyrics and stuff. Also, I’ve been getting into country music more again, and it reminds me of that, all the specifics you have in the lyrics. I love that about old country songs.

Michael: Yeah. I always jump back and forth about being drawn towards universality in lyrics and also being drawn to very specific world building exercises. In a lot of media, I think I’m drawn when there’s such a complete world. When things are too abstract, and or leaning too, “this is the way it all is,” I feel like sometimes there’s no room for me as a listener. So I like fleshing out the details of the place to be like, “Look, here’s where we are. You’re here too.” 

And I love then playing with the idea of false universality — you know, somebody in a moment being like, “This is how it is everywhere!” But you can feel that way because you feel alone in a situation, and you hope that there are other people feeling that way. Wishful thinking, universal. But I feel like there’s specifics in these songs that there are lines that are trying to say, “This is the way it is across the board,” and I think a lot of these narrators, you can’t really trust them. It could be more like wishful thinking versus an actual sentiment of universal truth. 

Karl: Yeah, I think I get a sense of that from listening. Their reality tunnel is limited, but according to their identity or what they subscribe to. But yeah, I love the freedom that you have with these characters, and giving you a slice of fiction but it feels very real. Tell me about the “Newest Oldest Punk.”

Michael: Well, I mean, some of these things too — like “Here Comes Spring,” I was like, I really want to write a bliss track. Like I was thinking of “Soak Up the Sun” by Sheryl Crow. Just like, you could pick apart the lyrics, and honestly there isn’t a ton there, but it’s a blissful garden and you feel that bliss. I wanted to do that. 

Karl: I like that. 

Michael: “Newest Oldest Punk,” I feel like was another one of those. I was trying to get more specific with these stories, but “Newest Oldest Punk” was thinking about being at shows — you know, I wouldn’t say it’s me. I’ve never puked off a balcony at a show. But it was kind of a fun exercise in feeling like a different person, but in a space that you remember from before when you were someone else, and the discomfort of being like, Well, this is all familiar, but I don’t feel the same

Karl: I really relate to that song. I just feel like that when I go to a show now, because I’m just generally the oldest person at the show. [Laughs.] It feels like kind of the coming of a new age — sort of like coming up into a more serious part of life, with questions of how life kind of complicates and gets sort of imbalanced. There’s a certain intensity that raises later in your 30s, 40s. 

Michael: Yeah, no doubt. I mean, I’m pretty much across the board always feeling angst about age. But also I think there is a lot of comedy in the process. And I mean, this song, there are multiple jokes. I was having fun with the idea — because I’ve done this, and I know people do this even when they’re not old — but you’re at a show, then you go outside, you have a smoke, you end up talking to four people and then the show happens and you weren’t even at the show, you were outside. I kind of like the joke of this character, like, “Oh, the angst of being back at the show,” but actually he was just outside smoking for most of it. 

Karl: [Laughs.] Yeah, I hate that feeling — especially after you play and you just kind of need a minute to relax, but you don’t realize that that was just 40 minutes and you missed [the rest of the show]. The worst. But it’s also the dynamic of bars that you just have to step away from, and I can’t beat myself up for that. 

Michael: Yeah, no doubt. But that song, I thought it also encapsulated kind of the spirit of the session. The whole last two minutes, I had these I have these kind of contours of parts I was playing on the guitar, but the band’s pretty fully improvising. I think that was a two take song.

Karl: Oh, cool.

Michael: When I listen back to that song, it feels the most like it reflects the energy of the whole session, which was we were all just having a great time, and kind of trying to one up each other. You know, somebody would do something — it would happen a lot with Brad on the drums — he would be like, “Oh, I’m sorry, maybe that was too much.” And we’re like, “No!” We were all trying to match each other’s energy. I feel like that song really captures that. 

Karl: Yeah. So what are your plans to do with the record? Are you going on any Northeast tours?

Michael: Yeah. So I’m going to be doing four solo singer-songwriter dates where it’ll just be me. Kind of the exact opposite of what the record is, but because of all the logistics involved with playing music anywhere at this current moment, it’s kind of easier. I actually got a rail pass from Amtrak, so I’m going to be taking the train. 

Karl: Are you going to have the band in Maine? 

Michael: Probably not. I mean, at the moment it’s sort of like this band exists on this record, and it’s something I’m OK with. I like records being their own thing, and then I like live shows being their own thing. Everybody’s just all over and does a lot of different things, and it was a miracle to get them all together in the first place.

Karl: Oh, that’s great. The band is just so fabulous. It’s really exciting.

Michael: I’ll play with all of them in different forms, but I think the stars aligned so that we could record this, and it’s not clear that we will be able to do this again. What have you got cookin’, Karl?

Karl: This band Opal Eskar and I’ve been working on this EP together, and we’re getting it pressed to vinyl. It’s going to be the second album on my fictitious label called Spiral Valley Records. 

Michael: Yeah, that’s what you did Love & Harm on?

Karl: Yeah, Love & Harm came out on that as Scream Time. I of course, I had to make two different names for an album. But yeah, the Opal EP is self-titled and it’s six [tracks]. We just we put so much love into these six tunes, so we’re trying to figure out working with a drummer, and that’s been exciting. And I’m working on this pirate puppet show that may or may not get off the ground before fall — the Pirates of Yarn. [Laughs.] Anyway, it’s kind of trying to make up music plans, but not to freak. You know, the whole speed of the last few years feels like it’s OK to keep that going and not get too crazy. So, yeah, keep that pace of what feels obtainable and not worry about timelines. 

Well, cool. It’s been fun!

Michael: Yeah, thanks so much for chatting. It’s great to hear from you. 

Karl: Likewise, Michael. I’m thrilled that Philly gets you back!

If you’re in the Northeast, you can catch Michael on tour this spring:

4/26: Catskill, NY @ Avalon (tix)
4/27: Ridgewood, NY @ Sundown (tix)
4/28: Philly, PA @ Upstairs at Abyssina
4/29: Boston, MA @ A Bar Called Heaven
5/5: Portland, ME @ Simi’s Yard

(Photo Credit: left, Shane O’Leary)

Michael Cormier-O’Leary is a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, the drummer for Friendship, and the co-founder of the prolific indie label Dear Life Records. His latest record, Anything Can Be Left Behind, is out May 5, 2023.

(Photo Credit: Abi Reimold)