Michelle Cashman has not had an easy life. Leaving home at 15, dealing with homelessness, addiction, chronic pain and mental health issues, she now uses her own story and the lessons she’s learnt by inspiring others through her raw and honest music. Stemming from a series of acoustic videos she recorded for her socials and Patreon supporters, the NSW South Coast singer-songwriter released her album, ‘All the Mountains I Must Climb’ in July, which debuted on the iTunes Country Album top 30 chart.
‘All the Mountains I Must Climb’ is an acoustic album that delves into your life experiences and obstacles you have overcame to reach this point, told in a raw and honest fashion. The album title is lifted from the song One Foot in Front of the Other, which is about putting one foot in front of the other, asking for the help you need and starting on all the mountains you must climb. What was the process of making the album and how did it come to be?
That album itself was nearly like a magical accident. I went into the studio with Michael Carpenter [producer from Love Hz Studios] with the idea of creating a couple of high-quality videos for my Patreons and then Patreons on a certain tier would be in the credits at the end. So, I went in, and I said to Michael, “I want to do what we can within the space of a day and then work out mixing later.” We thought, we’ll probably get three or four songs done. But magic just happened. Within one or two takes, we’d done those songs, so, let’s keep going and see what happens. We ended up doing 11 – that’s an album. So, why not do an album and then put my Patreons in the credit notes, and I’ll have something physical they can keep forever. It was very organic and serendipitous the way it all came together.
When I was thinking about why these songs belong as a group, I thought, it’s because they’re all about either, the challenges I’ve faced and overcome, or the mountains I’m climbing or dealing with, or even good things in life you’re happy with. I’m having some success with my music career at the moment and that’s because I keep putting one foot in front of the other and in doing it, that’s not a bad mountain but an exciting one that you climb on purpose because it’s fun.
There’s an old, outdated cliché that artists need to have suffered in order to be authentic country songwriters. Do you think your experiences have made you a better songwriter?
I’ve had the perfect life for a songwriter [laughs], because I have been through the ringer. You could say that adage is very much applicable to my life, but I also think you don’t have to stay there or have those experiences yourself. If you’re open to hearing other people’s stories and developing your empathy as an artist, you can feel someone else’s pain. You watch Beaches [the 1988 comedy/drama film starring Bette Midler] and you bawl your eyes out. That’s a sad story, but you love it and you go back and cry through that again. If you are that kind of person and have that empathy, then you can write from those vantage points without ever having to go through that yourself.
But what has created that empathy for me was going through all those different things. So now, I feel like the vantage point I have is that my life’s drama free. I’m happy and my outlook in general is quite positive, but it doesn’t mean I can’t write a sad song because I’ve still got lots in the bank and I can put myself in that zone to write that song. It’s kind of like the safety that I know once the song is written, I can jump back out back into my happy personality [laughs].
The focus track Please Forgive Me, brings your struggles alive in song, when you began playing the grand piano for patients and stuff while hospitalised for anxiety and depression after a psychologist told you to make music a priority in your life. The song itself is an apology to yourself for not allowing yourself time to play and create music. However, I read that you initially considered purposing a career in music to be a selfish endeavour. Why was this?
I got so sick with fibromyalgia. I didn’t have a lot of energy and so I did all the things I felt like I had to do, liking make sure the house is clean and stuff like that, and then, I didn’t have anything left in the tank. So, I felt like if I prioritised or deliberately made time for music, that would be selfish and something that took some of that valuable energy away from the things that were maybe more important. What I didn’t realise was, is while it might take me some energy and time to do music, it actually fills my tank so, there’s actually then more in my tank to give others.
When you do what brings you joy, not only are you lighting yourself up more [and] have more of a spark and a spring in your step, but you are showing the people around you how important it is to do self-care, and then they don’t need as much care from you either because they’re filling their tank as well. If everyone fills their own tank, doing the things that lights them up, then it’s like a synergy – it works so much better and everyone is happier and healthier.
Then, I realised also, once I was singing again, people coming up to me and saying how much something has impacted them. One woman cried and hugged me and said, “I needed that.” And you go, “It’s not selfish. It’s selfish of me not to do this.” To have this gift and not do that. Imagine if Elton John thought he was selfish by playing the piano and singing. It’s ridiculous. Isn’t it?
I think probably why I am in a much better state and a much better mindset now is because I think every day, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do for me. I’m then able to be a better human to be around in general. It goes both ways. What I do might inspire someone, but to know what I do is valuable to someone else is actually very valuable for me too.
You released ‘All the Mountains I Must Climb’ during the second wave of the pandemic which virtually caused the live music industry to come to a halt. When you have a new album you want to promote and hit the road performing those songs, is the gig withdrawal that much worse?
I had only just gotten back into doing music. I’m still doing one [gig] a month here at a brewery. It’s about an hour and a half from my house, but it’s enough for me to feel like I’m playing to an audience on some level. I’ve been appreciative of that, but just a little disappointed I can’t put a proper tour together. But things will change, and in the meantime, you make the most of the time that you got.
I guess it depends on how you look at it. I’ve released these songs that I wrote 10 years ago – there’s a couple of new ones on there – but most of them I’ve had in the bank for a long time. So, now I’m not flogging myself out of the road, I’ve got more energy and time and I’m going to write and write a new album. And, if I put out 10 albums in a few years, at least I won’t die with my music still in me [laughs].
I definitely cope with [corona] better than most by virtue of that’s how I usually run my life. Unless I’ve got a gig or something, I’m at home by myself. Having that extra time has been good because that time has allowed me to evaluate what are my strengths and weaknesses. If you’re gigging all the time, you’re focused on your performance aspect – making sure the material you already have is polished and getting out there and delivering that well. But when that’s not your primary focus, it becomes, “Okay, what actually floats my boat versus what does everyone else want from me?” and I’m discovering more and more that that’s writing, so I’ve enjoyed that point of difference.
Throughout history with the advancements in technology to social media, artists have needed to change and adapt the way they release music and reach their fans – and now with Corona, that’s no different. How are you utilising your Facebook and Patreon during this time?
Once I’ve got enough [songs written] I’m doing a Facebook live. Last night I shared one song that I’ve written in 2020. With my Patreons, as soon as I’ve written the song, I take my phone out and do a voice memo of the song and take a picture of the lyrics and send that through – and they’re the [songs] that may not ever make it out into the public.
Patreon has been necessary for me because it’s not just that there’s a financial incentive for me, it’s also that accountability, like I’ve committed to writing and creating content, so that keeps me going. It’s easy as a songwriter to go, “I don’t really feel like writing.” Well, too bad, mate! Put your guitar in your hand and write a freaking song because you said you would! [laughs]. Even if I don’t feel like it, I am now a paid songwriter, so that’s what I do. I’m thoroughly enjoying it and it’s been great to have a bunch of people I can get their feedback and find out their favourites [too] because what I like and what other people like can be two different things. That’s how I choose the acoustic track I put out to my Patreons every month as well.
Not even taking into account your struggles with mental health, addiction, chronic pain, homelessness, being a single mum and other hard times – what you just said is an inspiration to everyone who constantly makes excuses for not being able to achieve their own personal goals for whatever reason. What advice would you give to somebody who currently feels stuck in a rut but wants to do something and doesn’t know where to start?
Do what lights you up. If you want to put out a single or something like that, find what it is about that that’s your favourite thing. Is that the writing of the song? Do that. Is it the recording? Get someone else to write the song and then record it. Just find what it is that is important to you that you are motivated by, and don’t worry about the rest of it. Like, outsource the rest of it. Just get the ball rolling and make that first step because once you’ve done that first step, the rest of it becomes that little bit easier. It becomes more of a downward roll than pushing a big boulder up the hill.
Now is the perfect time [with COVID restrictions]. If you’re going, “I’ve always wanted to do this with my life, but I haven’t had enough time to study”. Sign up. There are courses online for pretty much everything and tafe has so much available. Change the trajectory of the rest of your life. If you’ve got a little dream that you want to do, just do it. So what if you fail? Do it anyway!
With mental health also on the rise, do you see this as a possible cause as well?
It’s huge. But then, what’s the antidote for that? And generally, it’s doing the things that light you up and changing your focus from the things that are wrong to the things that you like that you have inside of your control. I know when I’m struggling badly, it’s that shifting of the focus that’s so important.
I think the biggest way to impact others is shining your own light. Because then they can see that it’s possible. It’s easy to get down in a pity party with someone else when they’re in it because it’s like gravity – it sucks you in like quicksand. But you’re responsible for your choices and I’m responsible for mine, and this is what I’m going to do. That’s how you inspire others, by getting out there, finding your joy, and that’s contagious too. I’ve spent most of my life trying to help others and bend over backwards to pull someone else out of a shithole. Then you find if you just do your thing and you do it well, then the people around you start looking going, “What are you doing differently? I’ll have what she’s having.”
Lastly, do you still have self-doubt and how do you get over that?
I literally still have self-doubt. Instead of letting that rule, I’m like, “I see you there. I see you. I hear that voice and I don’t listen to you. I’m gonna do what I want to do anyway.” I acknowledge that it’s there and it might not ever go away, but the more I just do what I want regardless, the less noise it makes. It just doesn’t have the same power – it’s still there. Definitely. [But] so what if you’re afraid? Do it anyway. And, with that momentum taking place, you’re like, “I can do this because I just did it.”
‘All the Mountains I Must Climb’ is out now.
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