In an immersive interview, the unassuming Jason Singer talks candidly with Local Spins about his musical endeavors as Michigander while making the rounds to a few of his favorite Grand Rapids hangouts.
THE ARTIST: Michigander
THE MUSIC: Anthemic pop/rock
WHERE YOU CAN SEE THE BAND: 9 p.m. Thursday (Oct. 19) at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, with The Fever Haze and Kostka; Nov. 18 at Fischer Hall in Frankenmuth; Nov. 25 at the Pike Room in Pontiac
SCROLL DOWN FOR VIDEOS
Exactly one week after headlining the Blue Bridge Music Festival, Jason Singer of Michigander finds himself back in Grand Rapids on an unusually humid October morning.
This time, instead of performing his anthemic songs in front of an audience of hundreds, he’s behind the wheel of his 2003 Honda Odyssey with the windows down and The National’s new album on repeat. We drive through a vibrant downtown, bursting at the seams with colors of Artprize and autumn, while Singer recalls the vivid highlights of his musical journey.
“I don’t really know what clicked with people. I have no idea how or why, but I wasn’t really doing anything different than anybody else,” Singer says, guiding the van along Michigan Avenue and over the Grand River.
“I’m a nerd. I’m normal. I’m not a cool person at all, I’m not into trends, I’m just an average Joe. Things kind of clicked and I don’t know why. The songs are good and I’ve worked hard, but it definitely caught me by surprise. It just happened, or, it’s happening.”
Suffice to say, what’s happened has happened quickly.
When Singer began performing under the moniker of Michigander in 2015, he didn’t envision the list of accomplishments he’d achieve only two years down the road: co-tours with Flint Eastwood, live sessions with Daytrotter and Audiotree, opening slots for Ra Ra Riot, Tokyo Police Club and JR JR and playing Detroit’s MoPop Festival in front of 2,000 people, not to mention courting a few major labels. And all of it was attained with only four studio singles and a handful of live-tracked songs — songs which have streaming stats well into the hundreds of thousands.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s awesome, but we don’t have an album out, we don’t have an EP out, we have a handful of singles,” Singer concedes. Of the singles, Singer recorded “Nineties” and “Mexico” independently while “Fears” and “Stolen” were produced by Jake Rye of Social Recording Company. (Scroll down for videos.)
Although often joined by a rotating cast of touring members (currently including Jefferson Rinck on bass and Jimmy Versluis on drums), Singer operates as the primary creative force behind Michigander.
“Ninety percent of it is just me working hard and sacrificing having a normal life to have an interesting life,” says Singer, who lives with his parents in his hometown of Midland. “It sucks sometimes, not living on my own or having a ton of close friends, or a lot of savings. At first I thought I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be doing this. But I think the last tour I realized, this is what I do.”
Tonight (Thursday), Michigander headlines a show at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe in Kalamazoo. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 advance and $12 the day of the show. The Fever Haze and Kostka will open the show. Get tickets/details online here. (Michigander will also headline the Pike Room in Pontiac on Nov. 25.)
Singer’s current approach to Michigander is a refined and strategic one, with a focus on quality over quantity, something which so far has proved wildly successful.
LEARNING A LOT FROM MENTORS, APPRECIATING HONESTY
“Right now, this is a steady, manageable pace,” Singer says. “I take the time to just take it slow, analyze the steps I’m taking time to stop and smell the roses. I think that’s better for any band. That way you don’t get worn out. Take your time … just not too much time.”
Arriving at our first stop, we drive past the large, front-facing windows of Westsider Cafe and wrap around to the back parking lot.
We make our way to the entrance, and open the door. It creaks welcomingly, and inside the popular breakfast joint roaring conversation and clanging dishes provide the ambiance. Servers float gracefully from table to table, replenishing coffee and jotting down orders. A few patrons laugh cheerfully while others converse between measured sips of coffee.
Once we’re seated, the commotion fades to a peripheral hum while Singer reminisces about his teeth-cutting days, which included stints as a session player with Mike Mains and Rival Summers.
“I learned a lot from everybody else: what to do and what not to do. I had a lot of good mentors and people who cared,” Singer says. “I learned how to be professional, how to be on time, how to rehearse, how to run your soundcheck. I learned what worked for other bands and what didn’t work.”
Self-described as “opinionated and hyper-critical,” Singer’s candid and satirical critiques about the music industry are offset by his carefree and light-hearted tone.
“There’s not enough people being honest or competitive (in the music industry). The best people in my life are the ones who say, ‘Hey, that sucks,’” Singer relays. “No one improves or becomes as good as they can be if no one says, ‘Hey, that sucks’. Competitive is not a bad word. I think it’s a great word and it’s not used enough. You can be friends with people and be competitive.”
But Singer’s competitive ambitions reaches beyond his backyard, and into the sphere of larger, more prolific acts.
“Instead of looking to local bands and what they’re doing, I’m looking at more commercially successful bands and their approach. I don’t want to be a local band. The songs are written with big crowds in mind. It’s never been about where I was at, but about where I could go and what I could do.”
As such, Singer says he’s still contemplating his next recording project, with no firm plans yet for a full-length album.
After Westsider, Singer maneuvers his way back through downtown. Rounding a corner onto Division Avenue, he slows the van, looking ahead for a parking spot, before pulling up to the curb outside Vertigo Records. Inside, there’s a diverse group of music lovers wandering the the endless rows of music. Young, hip 20-somethings pore over records as though it’s an art form; gray-haired vinyl veterans sort through stacks of albums like they’re shuffling a deck of cards, and curious first-timers gaze deeply into each mesmerizing cover.
Singer scans the rows in curiosity but stops instantly when he lands on something he likes. He’s selective, and the same could be said for his musical ambitions.
KNOWING ‘WHEN TO QUIT AND WHEN TO KEEP GOING’
“If it doesn’t happen, I’m not gonna try again,” he says, referring to music as a career. “It’s important to know when to quit and when to keep going.
“I never wanna be that person who says, ‘It’s the only thing I know how to do.’ I know I’ll probably eventually come to terms with either the fact that I’ve made it or I haven’t, but I still feel like I’m on the up. I’ll have a normal life and a family one day, but will I support that future life by doing songs? Who knows? I hope so.”
From Vertigo, it’s off to Lightfast Coffee on Fulton Street, one of Singer’s go-to spots in town, on account of the abundance of tables and outlets, as well as the low-key environment. We drink espresso and talk about the then and nows of Singer’s music career.
“Start sooner, make things happen for yourself a lot quicker,” Singer says, as he thinks about the advice he’d give his younger self.
“I say ‘no’ a lot. It’s hard to tell people no, but it’s something I have to do now if it’s gonna be sustainable. This is my career. I feel like once you get to that point, you realize it. It’s a selfish job, but it’s awesome.”
Post-coffee, we find ourselves in the van once again, this time south of town, cruising down Grandville Avenue in the afternoon sun. In the midst of construction chaos (as well as the misguided direction of this writer), Singer takes a doomed turn out of a parking lot and onto a presumably open side street (with no signs stating otherwise).
Almost instantly, what seemed like a savvy shortcut unravels into a series of comedic predicaments: We first notice how incredibly smooth the road is, but if anything, it’s a welcome change.
Next we realize we are the only car on this particularly smooth road, and at the halfway point a concerned resident standing outside her home shouts, telling us to turn back. Puzzled but determined, we press on.
It’s near the end of the road that we pass two blacktop rollers and finally realize that our lone mini-van is confidently gallivanting down freshly poured blacktop.
We quickly and awkwardly drive past a working construction crew, manage to maneuver onto a main road and escape only with a shroud of embarrassment. It’s in the midst of the debacle that an earlier sentiment from Singer seems to resonate:
“It never goes how you plan it and I’m trying to realize that. Everything just seems to be working. When something needs to happen it happens. You can’t plan anything but you can be prepared.”
Back on Grandville Avenue, with the city skyline stretched out before us, Singer laughs at the blunder as a whole, but unlike this wrong turn, when it comes to Michigander, Singer seems to be on a streak of making all the right turns.
“I’m so content. I’ve been able to accomplish in two years what some bands don’t accomplish in five years. I’m very lucky. I’m so content and fulfilled with everything I’ve done that if it all ended tomorrow I’d be alright. I’m still ambitious, but whatever needs to happen will happen.”
VIDEO: Michigander, “Mexico”
VIDEO: Michigander Live on Audiotree (June 2017)
Copyright 2017, Spins on Music LLC