Michelle Billingsley drowns her troubles in a tall glass of vintage Neat Whiskey on her darkly intoxicating new track — premiering exclusively on Tinnitist.
The leadoff single from the Chicago singer-songwriter’s upcoming sophomore album Both Sides Of Lonely, Neat Whiskey is a shot of blistering honky-tonk chased with hard-twanging guitar, down-home banjo and fiddle that ride a locomotive beat straight to sweet oblivion. Served with a sharp twist of winking fatalism, the track highlights Billingsley’s knack for wrapping darkly potent lyrics in an upbeat package:
“Is it worse today?
Yeah, it’s worse today
Lord, hurry on up and take me away
There’s only one thing to set me free
One tall glass of neat whiskey
These plain white walls are feeling mighty close
They’re leaning down on me, right around my throat
Got just enough will to lie here on the floor
But it’s pretty comfy, I’ve been here before.”
Musically, however, Billingsley is anything but down in the dumps. With Both Sides Of Lonely, she has evolved beyond the folky troubadour of her lauded 2020 debut Not The Marrying Kind, becoming a torchbearer for classic country and western and honky-tonk that strikes a satisfying balance between vintage and modern. Along the way, she navigated major life changes, broke in a new band, and overcame a neurological condition that nearly derailed her. “I’ve got a whole new sound, a new record,” Billingsley says. “My voice is stronger than ever. I’ve got a ring on my finger. I’ve got a dog now. And my band and I have really grown with this album. It’s useful as a roadmap going forward — this is the sound; this is where we’re headed.”
As a songwriter, she has a reputation for being unguarded, tackling subjects considered taboo for polite women in country. Whether with a smart smirk or a soft, disarming sincerity, she sings her heart out about everything from depression, isolation and self-sabotage to casual sex and nuclear winter — though you might not catch it all on first listen, as she likes to veil her cutting lyrics in raucous acoustic strumming, her dryly dark sense of humor and a whipsmart-assed vocal delivery. She’s drawn comparisons to Americana and alt-country icons Neko Case, Emmylou Harris, Townes Van Zandt and John Prine.
Producer Matt Brown and sought-after drummer / engineer Brian Deck (Nathaniel Raitliff, Josh Ritter, Iron & Wine) worked with her on Not the Marrying Kind. Not one to rest on her laurels, though, Billingsley decided to produce Both Sides Of Lonely herself. “It was very different this time in that it was straight from the faucet,” she says. “I didn’t have to go through someone else’s expectations of what my music sounded like. Though I do hate having to make all the decisions! You wonder, ‘Am I doing this all wrong?’ But you have to learn to trust your gut reaction and say ‘no, that’s not what the song is supposed to be’; and sometimes you have to listen again, or sleep on it and see if your opinion changes. The whole time you’re walking a tightrope of pitfalls, and if you’re not careful you can go straight through the floor.”
Both Sides Of Lonely was recorded and mixed at Chicago’s Jamdek Studio with engineer Doug Malone, and features Billingsley’s live rhythm section — drummer Jordan Snow and bassist Brian Westfall — as well as session guitarist and pedal-steel wizard Brian Wilkie, backing vocals from Kiley Moore, Wild Earp, Christina Hines and George Edward Hurden IV, and additional contributions from Deanie Richardson (fiddle), Max Allard (banjo), Gerald Bailey (horns), Sean Hughes (piano) and Laura Hurwitz (cello).
“Working with Doug was great,” Billingsley says. “He’s patient enough to let you fight your way through the trouble spots. Like if you ‘just need one more take’ 11 times, he’s unfazed. But if you’re really stuck, he’ll subtly throw out a little idea, some gentle guidance to get you moving again. And he was great at breaking down old recordings and figuring out how we could emulate the sounds we were going for.”
As an aesthetic guidepost, Billingsley suggested a Tammy Wynette-meets-Margo Price feel, and Malone helped her get there. On certain songs and instruments, they’d employ a modern Americana / alt-country treatment, and on other parts, they’d use vintage recording techniques like reel-to-reel tape delay that you’d find on classic country records. “I was really going for a big mood shift from Not The Marrying Kind,” Billingsley says. “Listening back, I think Both Sides Of Lonely sounds a lot more mature and developed.”
In hindsight, it was quite a feat that she was able to finish Both Sides Of Lonely. While making the record, Billingsley was diagnosed with a condition called spasmodic dysphonia that causes vocal cords to malfunction. “If I was holding a tone, the muscle in my larynx would spasm and pull the vocal cord apart,” she explains. “So I’d be in the middle of a take and my voice would cut out because the vocal cords weren’t touching anymore. It was so frustrating.” Halfway through the LP, her voice gave out. “I had to call it quits and I couldn’t get back in the studio for a month. I didn’t know what I was gonna do. As a singer, to have something wrong with the one thing you use to communicate with the world; to have your body fail you like that — It really shook me.”
She had two options: Vocal therapy, or injections of Botox in her larynx. “That sounds horrible even once,” she says of the shots, “but having to go back and do it every few months whenever it wears off? Nope. So, after years of trying different vocal teachers, and feeling dissatisfied with them, I contacted this vocal therapist. She had me start from scratch doing all these really basic, boring exercises — blowing through straws and all that stuff. But I stuck with it and, eventually, I was able to figure things out. The therapist really gave me my voice back. After spending the last two years working with her, it feels stronger than ever. I really think growth happens in the friction between two edges. With the whole process of finishing the new record, I was able to work my way through a lot of messy self-doubt back to a place of confidence.”
Listen to Neat Whiskey above, sample more from Michelle Billingsley below, and toast her at her website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.