Local Spins kicks off a new monthly feature on Detroit- and Ann Arbor-area bands with a look at the music of Alyssa Midcalf, also known as Primer, who plays a Grand Rapids album-release show on March 1.
THE ARTIST: Primer
THE MUSIC: Shimmering synth- and bass-driven pop/electronica
WHERE YOU CAN SEE HER: Friday (March 1) at the Snake Shack in Grand Rapids with Zilched, Wishie Washie, Darkly. (Scroll down for a video of Primer’s latest single and to listen to a track from her new album.)
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EDITOR’S NOTE: To help bridge the music scenes on the east and west sides of Michigan, Local Spins today launches a new monthly feature on artists from Detroit, Ann Arbor and Southeast Michigan by veteran music writer Jeff Milo. Today, he showcases the work of emerging electronic/pop artist Primer.
The sometimes-subzero depths of a Michigan winter might seem extra arduous to a musician who grew up in Palm Springs and wrote many of the songs on her new album “in the desert.”
Nevertheless, Alyssa Midcalf, who releases her debut album, “Novelty,” as Primer this coming week, “has a soft spot for Michigan.”
Not only are her parents originally from here, but her latest batch of songs, heavily featuring the Roland Juno synthesizer, fits the motif of the birthplace of techno more so than it might over on the other coast.
In fact, before Midcalf relocated to Michigan three years ago, she was in a garage rock band out in California.
Touring would bring her to the Mitten State (where she still had some family), and she made a lot of fast friends during her stops here, and fell in love with the Grand Rapids and Detroit music scenes. “My parents are surprised I ended up back here,” said Midcalf, who waded into the ambient electro-pop waters a few years ago, prior to Primer, with Grand Rapids musician Marley Ferguson in PARTS.
Midcalf started making her own music 10 years ago, at age 15. She had already learned her way around a piano by then, and started teaching herself guitar after the few lessons she took didn’t stick.
She was already a singer by then, almost convinced, in fact, in her elementary and middle school days, that she could be Broadway bound in her future, competing at singing competitions and performing in musicals. But not long after high school, she joined that first band and wound up living (and performing) around the Coachella Valley.
“I remember a ton of garage rock, punk, and some psych-rock stuff happening out there when we were in the desert, but not a lot of electronic music,” said Midcalf, who lives in Hamtramck.
Midcalf has gone from being part of a collaborative band, to then expanding the capacity of her contributions to the creative process as just a duo (PARTS), to now being a solo artist.
“I feel like I’ve always had this idea of making music that just has this purity to it. I’m trying to make it less precious and just put it out there and not put so much weight on it,” she said.
CANDID STORIES TURNED INTO ‘SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL’
“Primer is so much an expression of myself; whereas when you collaborate, it can be great and you are expressing yourself, but there is also someone else projecting their idea onto the song too. And there was a part of me that wants perfection, but a new motto I’ve embraced is that it’s so much better if it’s finished, rather than if it’s perfect.”
Amid the synthetic realm of electronic music, with sequenced beats and machine-like tones creating these spacey, hazy-tone melodies, Midcalf’s work as Primer retains a kind of rawness, even if it is also sleek and elegant.
The impetus in creating this batch of songs was to have it be like a completely candid, honest-with-oneself diary of sorts.
“These stories mattered so much to me, that I had to turn them into something beautiful to understand them. I have a tendency to get disconnected from them sometimes because (Novelty) took so long and I put so much time into it, but now, people, friends, are telling me about my words, saying how they’re finding meaning and gaining something from (the songs).”
LISTEN: Primer, “A Broken Person’s Game”
Midcalf’s arrangements, as Primer, actually tend to evoke a sense of desert-like dunes, with these expansive tones emanating her synthesizers rising and falling and sloping into one another.
“Anesthetized” has a lively bass treading under fuzzy-foggy textures that dreamily loop and glide over the subtly-danceable beats. The low churning bass and swooning synths find a dazzling counterpoint with her versatile voice, able to find the tenderness and tremendousness inside each note and flex them across whole measures of a verse or chorus. The lyrics are altogether relatable, vulnerable, and ponderous.
As she said, it’s not far from being a sonic diary.
A ‘SELF-REFLECTING THING’ THAT’S ALMOST DANCEABLE
That concept of an artist spilling her guts and putting it all onto the page seemed like a novel idea. Hence, she titled it “Novelty.”
“Actually, it was going to be called ‘Hyper-Individualism and Advanced Novelty,’” because it was this meta, sort of self-reflecting thing, me, making this album about myself. It seemed kind of like a novel idea. And me needing to make music from these ideas seemed a result of hyper-individualism, and how the idea of needing to create art is a strange thing for humans to do.”
“What made me the type of person that needs to do this?” she asked, somewhat rhetorically. “Because I wasn’t making (music) for any other reason, other than I simply needed to. What makes me the type of person that has to make music to survive in my life?”
And yes, there are questions just like this in her lyrics. It’s telling that she’s asking questions during an interview that’s ostensibly supposed to be asking her questions.
If she had one parameter for herself, as a songwriter, it was to embrace those questions, and to never be preachy. And on a sort of “not being preachy” note, she’s aware that her songs are almost danceable, but also don’t have to be.
The musical theater performer in her knows that it’s important to reach the audience and read the room.
“It’s interesting to see people react. As a songwriter, I know that a few of my songs are kinda bumpin’, but I’ve never seen anyone just go off, in the audience. I would love to see it though. But you can’t just turn that on. When you’re performing, you’re a part of that room.
Whereas I’ve been known to dance a bit on stage, you can’t just go insane in a room where that energy’s not there, hopefully I’ll be able to go off a bit, my own, though.”
Primer comes to Grand Rapids on Friday (March 1), performing at the Snake Snack house venue for “Novelty’s” release party Also on the bill will be Zilched, Wishie Washie and Darkly. Get details online here.
“Novelty” is available on the Detroit-based label Young Heavy Souls, headed by producer/songwriter Matt Black (who subsequently helped in mixing this record).
“Some of the songs are old, but some were written just a year ago. They were written across a long time period, because my process of recording involves a lot of programming and then going over it with synths; I don’t just write songs and then record them right away.”
While there are no plans to start that recording process back up, said Midcalf, there are already enough Primer songs to fill a second record, so stay tuned.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Milo has been writing about Michigan’s music scene for 15 years. He currently writes for The Ann Arbor Current, The Detroit Metro Times and WDET, and has previously contributed to the Detroit Free Press, Paste Magazine, Tiny Mix Tapes, The 405 and Playground Detroit.
VIDEO: Primer, “Anesthetized”
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