Michal Towber was born in Ashkelon, Israel, and raised in NYC. She is a classically trained pianist and self-taught guitarist who graduated from Yale University and Columbia Law School.
Michal released her first record at 17, Sky With Stars on Columbia. The album was co-produced by Towber and Soul Asylum front man, Dave Pirner. In the years since, she’s released seven more album including the latest and had her music appear in numerous television shows and films including ABC’s One Life to Live for which she won an Emmy award, HBO feature films Kiss the Bride and Jack and Jill vs. the World, Lifetime’s True Confessions of a Go Go Girl, the films Dark Rising and Duck Farm No. 13, to name but a new. Her eighth album is No Resolution.
I was signed to a major label record contract just as I turned 17 and graduated from Hunter High School in Manhattan (along with classmate Lin-Manuel Miranda, prior to his “more famous than God” status). It was an enormous amount of early success at the beginning of my adult life, and also coincided with the end of an era in the music industry. It was several years before Napster upended the economic model that had propped up the mega-label.
It was a weird time in culture and for me. I’ve since graduated from Yale, then Columbia Law School, worked as an Intellectual Property lawyer, released eight albums (six of them independently after being dropped from SONY/Columbia), quit law, got married, moved to suburbia, had three sons in five years, survived postpartum depression, and started a private vocal coaching practice. My time as a teenage almost rockstar seems dysphoric to me—like it happened to someone else. I avoided thinking about those years for a long time because they were so painful; I had this great opportunity to fulfill what I thought was my destiny, and I blew it.
But what is “destiny” anyway? Is it an end-point that we can discover and then run towards? A destination?
Or just a story, about the future, that we tell ourselves and choose to believe in (with varying levels of commitment along the way)?
And what does “blowing it” even mean? If we’re pre-destined for something, do we have the free will to blow it? Was my “failure” inevitable? It’s a lot easier to connect the dots in hindsight than to forecast the future (to paraphrase Steve Jobs), and spinning a satisfying narrative about what happened, in order to make sense of it all, seems impossible.
All of this brings up a broader question: What is the function of these stories in our heads?
You’d think as a songwriter, crafting an essay about my life would be easy. Apparently, it comes much more naturally to me to distill something very specific down to a three and a half minute song than to write in longform about life, the universe, and everything.
I’m finding this assignment pretty difficult.
Part of the problem is that I can see this story as a love song OR as a break-up anthem. And both of them are equally true. I think I’m having a post-modernist crisis. Now I see that all of my experiences were just things that happened. They weren’t right or wrong (despite my brain wanting that kind of definitive disposition). There’s only how I feel about them and how I choose to frame them at this present moment. And even then, I have no idea what you, dear reader, will think of me.
Love Interest / Infatuation
“So, my senior prom is on Friday, and I was wondering…if you would go with me.” I blurted out the question before I lost my nerve. There was a pause on the line, before Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum quipped “Let me ask my mom” and hung up the phone. He called back about five minutes later, long enough to feel like an eternity to me (Did I just ask a rock star to my prom?) to tell me that he would be my date.
The day of, he whisked me to the Puck building in a limo, and we made our grand entrance, staying just long enough for the DJ to play the first few bars of “Runaway Train,” and for the boy I had been casually dating (but had jilted for the event) to create a scene, dramatically ripping apart a bouquet of roses while rolling around on the dance floor. Pirner and I ditched, and he took me to a sushi restaurant, where I tasted quail eggs for the first time and he drank enough beer to kill a man of lesser tolerance.
Q: Was I an asshole for ditching my “boyfriend” for a famous rock musician?
Q: Was I trying to prove I was finally “cool”?
A: Probably x 2.
I was an over-achieving nerd in high school who studied classical piano, got straight As, played in band, and had both glasses and braces. When I heard Nirvana at 13, I latched onto a common dream for a lot of young people—being a successful musician—and my wish was granted. I was signed to SONY/Columbia by famed A&R man Don Devito (Dylan, Springsteen) after a 2 AM showcase at Arlene’s Grocery during CMJ. I’d been tooling around the Lower East Side playing clubs for a few years by then, lugging my black Ibanez guitar, which I’d bought with babysitting money, on the subways.
But I didn’t want to be a pop star. I wanted to write musically intelligent and intellectually aware songs. I love Nine Inch Nails, Fiona Apple, and Chopin, not choreography, fashion, and photo sessions. So while it might seem like I got exactly what I wanted (I thought so too at the time), I quickly began to see the tarnish on the genie’s bottle. (Hi, Christina Aguilera.)
I was discussing songwriting in the bar at the St. Regis Hotel with Billy Joel. “The lyrics to your song, ‘Juliet’s Refrain,’ they’re so passionate. I wish someone would write a song like that about me.” (He would later stand me up at a restaurant on the Upper East Side. “No I swear, Billy Joel said to meet him here. I’m not delusional…”)
Even this little memory might seem glamorous to some. Discussing my craft with one of the greatest songwriters ever, in some well-historied NYC establishment. And part of me remembers it that way. I am certainly grateful that Don Devito afforded me the opportunity, and I guess it lends a certain amount of credibility to my own songwriting by association that Mr. Joel would grant me such high praise. But this memory inspires negative emotions in me as well:
- Was he merely flirting with me?
- If he really thought I was so talented, why didn’t he help my career? He could have opened doors that would have changed the trajectory of my professional life by just waving his fingers.
- Was it my fault? Was I not charming, beautiful, wordly, Christie Brinkley, *insert any other positive adjective here* enough?
I guess when he sang about that “Uptown Girl,” the geography didn’t extend as high as Washington Heights (I was living in my grandmother’s apartment on 94th and Amsterdam by then). It didn’t feel glamorous as the waiter at Sel et Poivre poured glass after glass of water for me, as I insisted “I’m waiting for someone. He said he would be here.” It didn’t feel glamorous as I was forced to slink out clutching my $20 handbag from Mandee’s an hour later, alone.
I could go down a few dozen rabbit holes with these thoughts; believe me, I have. But at some point time granted me the perspective that has allowed me to loosen my grip on these memories, to view them as if from outer space. Who was that girl? Where is she in the woman I’ve become? Can you relate?
I was pressured by the marketing department to lose weight, and get plastic surgery (I got lip implants for a year, but resisted the nose job). I developed an eating disorder that recurs whenever I’m under stress. But if I’m completely honest, I was already vulnerable to insecurities, like basically every other teenage girl in western society. I’d been bleaching my hair and wearing blue contact lenses as per my mother’s suggestions, skipping breakfast, and dumping my lunch in the garbage at school for years. I already hated myself without any additional encouragement. Now I look back at pictures from that time and I wish I accepted how pretty I was. I wish I could give myself a hug, and whisper, “There is nothing wrong with you. You won’t feel lonely and displaced and desperate for external validation forever.”
I was also pressured to change my music—to co-write with established hit-makers, or sing other people’s songs. I was pushed in that pop direction the music I loved was rebelling against. I was told my own music was too eclectic and I should “niche down,” so I would be easier to categorize. I heard that phrase that aborts creativity in the womb, “It needs a hook,” too many times to count. Columbia had a formula that worked—they were already grooming Jessica Simpson as their answer to Jive Records’ Britney Spears. But they didn’t know what to do with someone like me—I played piano/guitar and wrote dramatic, angsty rock songs three years before Avril Lavigne emerged and proved that was marketable.
But Don Devito defended my creative control. He trusted my opinions as an artist, even though I was young and unseasoned. He spared no expense (of which, of course, I am still recouping, two decades later). We rented Bearsville Studios up in Woodstock, NY. A retreat, with living quarters and all, that hosted the Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, 50 Cent, Bonnie Raitt, and Jeff Buckley. Pirner was to produce, at my insistence. (I was partially blinded by teenage puppy love.) The roster of musicians was rounded out by Shawn Pelton, drummer of the Saturday Night Live Band, and Garth Hudson of The Band on the Hammond B3 organ. I spent a few blissful weeks old-school roller skating on the hardwood floors and singing my heart out in that echoing, haunted sound palace, where records are made no more.
In my contract, Columbia promised a three-firm deal, meaning they had to release three albums of my music. But when Don delivered my record, the version produced by Pirner at Bearsville, the powers that be didn’t hear hits, and threatened to shelve it indefinitely. I re-recorded many of the songs at a studio in Manhattan, and they accepted this revised version of Sky With Stars, counting it as my second record.
By now the industry was changing. Labels were downsizing, cutting personnel and artists to staunch the bleeding. I was stuck in a holding pattern—the label promised to send me on a big tour “worthy of a major-label artist,” but in the meantime, I was told not to play small shows that might “tarnish my image.” I was living at home, having deferred college to focus on my career. I was stuck, while my peers were moving on.
I vented my frustrations in a Stuff magazine interview, calling Jessica Simpson a hypocrite for touting her virginal image, but then wearing bustiers and short shorts to sell records.
Q: Was I right (whatever that means)?
Q: Was I jealous?
I was scolded by the label president and reassigned to an imprint of Columbia—RPM, a label run by Tony Bennett’s son, Danny, for my sophomore record Coma. They printed a limited run and serviced it to Hot AC and Triple A radio formats, even though I was an alternative artist who might have done better on College Radio, or in Europe. This was considered my third record and I was dropped soon after.
In total, I spent three years of my life at Columbia. A blip in a lifespan. A grain of sand in the life cycle of a corporation. At the time it felt like unyielding torture.
There were bright spots of course: I won an Emmy for writing music for the soap opera One Life to Live, I played at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and SXSW in Austin, I celebrated New Year’s at MTV studios in Time Square, I smoked pot with Fiona Apple at the Jingle Ball, I bought my parents a new stove and a Toyota Camry.
But there were darker experiences too.
“Look out your window. Why are there so many cop cars in your apartment complex?” “What?” I asked groggily. I’d just woken up after the graveyard shift bartending in the high roller’s lounge at a major casino on the Las Vegas Strip, to the sound of my phone ringing. It was my friend, Kyle. I pulled back the curtains in my condo and squinted into the blinding desert sunlight. There they were. Lots of them. “I don’t know. They’re probably just filming CSI: Las Vegas. I’m sure it’s fine. I’m going to the gym. I’ll call you later.” I dressed in my workout clothes, grabbed my house keys and stepped outside, pulling the door shut behind me. I’d barely walked 20 paces before a uniformed officer grabbed me roughly by the arm, shouting into my face “Which apartment did you come out of?” “205!” I stammered. “You need to come to the office with us, right now!” I spent the next several hours a virtual prisoner, while the cops had a tense standoff over a megaphone with my neighbor. (I didn’t even think anyone else lived there. The luxury complex was part of a real estate boom several years earlier that preceded a bust, leaving large swaths of brand new construction uninhabited.) Apparently, he had gone on a bank-robbing spree, a fact that his out of town guests, who were also trapped in the office with me, were as unaware of as I was. After several hours, he blew his brains out with a shotgun in the apartment next to mine. I broke my lease and moved home the next day.
My Vegas jaunt was a six-month detour spurred by a billionaire hotel magnate luring me with a promise to build a lounge show around my music. Only the deal was done on a handshake, and after I’d moved out there and gotten all the requisite licenses to work in his hotel, he’d made it clear the offer was quid pro quo.
I felt so foolish that I’d let myself be taken in by a powerful, wealthy man promising to make me famous. It seemed to be a recurring theme. (No, I didn’t sleep with him.)
Sure, it makes a good story. But for what? For whom?
Now, at the age of 38, I don’t know how I should feel about any of this. Good? Bad? Neutral? But at least I’m able to think about it all with curiosity more than distress.
I know these feelings of duality aren’t unique to me. How does my story seem to you? Would you have been savvier? Had more business acumen? Would you have succeeded where I failed? My story isn’t instructive of anything, it’s just one story among many. The music industry of my youth doesn’t even exist anymore. There are no more star-makers, career artists, or even albums. You have to be involved in every aspect of your own career to be successful nowadays. And I think that’s all for the better.
I’ve come to an uneasy détente with it all. Rationalizations? I’ve got plenty. Maybe if I had become famous at such a tender age, I would be dead by now, of drugs or burn-out, or worse things that I can’t imagine. I saw a lot of dark things, but I escaped with my heart mostly intact. And if my own kids wanted to pursue a career in entertainment, I would encourage them to follow their passion.
I think I’m making the best music of my life right now. I have significantly more real life experiences to sing about now than I did as a sheltered 17-year-old from the upper west side of Manhattan. I’ve birthed three human beings. I’ve run a half marathon. I’ve experienced true love, not just infatuation. I’ve held my friend’s hand while he died.
Maybe this is the best of all possible worlds. I’d like to think so. Or maybe it’s the only one that could have existed. As much as I want a definitive answer, I know that’s ineffable.
So, what is the function of these stories in our heads?
Sometimes they propel us (the aforementioned “destiny”), and other times they limit us (“I blew it”). We tell them to others (hoping for validation), and listen (hoping for guidance). I suppose, in an effort to refine our human actions and hopefully get to a state of contentment. Where we can just be.
And if you’re hoping I’m about to present you with my heretofore unknown answer to life, the universe, and everything (42) and wrap this up like a ‘90s TV episode, I’m not.
I’m just telling you some of my stories.
Maybe someday you’ll tell me yours.
“I would rip you all apart to take the pain you feel, and I would kill all my best friends to make this sweet dream real, I would make all your mistakes to try and understand, and if I hated who you are I still would lick your hands.” — Juliet’s Refrain (2000)
“At my core I am whole, I am pure in my soul, I am real, I still feel, under it all, and nothing can take that away from me. At the start there was fire in my heart, the desire to taste it, don’t waste it away, and nothing can take that away from me, no nothing can take that away.” — Affirmation Chant (2018)