Between the Bookends • Melissa May & Brian Coonan

Best Rock Songwriter • Best Female Rock Vocalist • Best Rock Guitarist

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Artist Feature, Review Music Awards,   From Issue 826   By: Robert E Martin

28th April, 2016     0

Individually Melissa May and Brian Coonan have each carved distinct paths through the forest of talent comprising the Mid-Michigan rock scene over the past decade. As a co-founder of the Alt-Rock-Pop confection The Banana Convention, and later with the leaner economy of The Thunderchickens, she brought a buoyant jolt of energy hot-wired with strong melodic sensibilities to an otherwise relatively bleak & predictable post-Grunge rock scene; and most recently, with Black Flower Blossom, has explored the louder heavier rhythmically driven boundaries of the rock ‘n roll spectrum.

Similarly, Brian Coonan has sliced a respected niche as a Class-A guitarist, beginning his career with the seminal acoustic rock combo Acoustic Fields back in the ‘90s; and most recently as lead guitarist with the ‘80s-90s cover band, Slick Jimmy. 

Back in November the two decided to lay the electric instruments down for a spell and embarked upon a side-project together, making their first appearance at Saginaw’s Baywood Lounge as Melissa May & Brian Coonan, largely as a vehicle to perform May’s growing backlog of original material; but also to give fresh treatment to a tasteful array of cover songs from the American Pop songbook, which on any given night can vary from a clever treatment of Beyonce’s Put a Ring On It to Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly.

Apart from showing great promise, such is the stuff that Rock & Roll legend is made: a willingness to try something different and explore fresh terrain. 

Coupled with a catalog of original compositions that range from the haunting Sleeping Dogs to the boisterous One Drink Too Many and driven by Melissa’s incredibly contoured and powerful voice (she’s the only vocalist I’ve heard that can carry off Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz) the songs are the focus for this newly formed duo; which are carefully colored with Brian’s precise & delicate finger work on the fret-board.

And so it came to pass that this year’s 30th Review Music Awards Ceremony set a historic precedent: not only did Brian win the nod as Best Rock Guitarist, but Melissa walked away with two trophies: one for Best Female Rock Vocalist and the other for Best Rock Songwriter, becoming the first woman in the 30 year history of the RMA’s to beat out the boys in this category.

In a year of genre bending at the RMA’s, did the two find it ironic they won the nod in the Rock Division when for the past six months they’ve been diligently collaborating upon this acoustic project?   “It’s natural to play acoustic and get to know each other,” reflects Brian. “Melissa played a couple of her songs for me when we first sat down and it was really easy for us to get together, learn songs, and get comfortable playing music with one another.” 

“Even though its acoustic music, it’s still rocking,” adds Melissa. It’s all rock ‘n roll. I’ve never been an electric player and write all my songs acoustically. I might give a song to an electric player to rock it up; and sometimes I will hum some melody lines and others will help me write the musical parts.”

“When we first came together I wanted to play acoustic more,” she continues. “I do love the full band electric sound, but some songs like Weeping Willow and Patiently Waiting are more acoustic driven and  can’t be played with Black Flower Blossom. But I wanted to play these songs, so I put an ad on Craig’s List and Brian was the only one to respond. Plus, we’re kind of neighbors, so its convenient.”

When asked her reaction to winning the Best Rock Songwriter award, Melissa says she was shocked. “I didn’t think I would win it because I saw my name on the list with Eric Johnson and all these good songwriters, so when I heard my name announced, I just sat there at first. It made me feel really good and is a cool honor. It’s probably one of the best feelings I’ve had in a long time.”

“I really like her original songs,” states Brian. “When I first heard them I wanted to get some ideas that would make her happy; it wasn’t like I wanted to just throw some guitar lines over the top here and there. I can’t mess up her original songs; that’s not cool, so I put a lot of thought into the parts.”

When asked about her songwriting process, Melissa says it’s difficult to define. “I just write words down and have a notebooks full of a sentence here and a sentence there and some of it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes I’ll hum the words and give somebody a pattern when I collaborate on how I want the song to go and then twist those words into the puzzle.”

“I can’t force anything when I write,” she continues. “It happens at odd times and depends on the season and what’s going on. With Sleeping Dogs,  I woke up at 5 am and sat in the middle bedroom with a dry erase board and four notebooks on the ground, erasing and scratching, and by 6 PM I had the song written, but literally sat in my PJ’s for 12-hours doing it.  I didn’t brush my teeth that whole time and it all came together.”

“I’ve paid a lot of dues up until now,” concludes Melissa, “so I’d like to take things to a new level and see where it gets us. We want to up the game a bit – no jeans and t-shirts. I love doing covers, but have never performed them to the record and am always trying to reinvent them. I hope this natural course we are taking can get us into the festival circuit more and bigger kinds of shows, whatever the universe allows.”

“One of the hardest parts with any musical collaboration is getting along,” adds Brian “and we do that just fine. The hardest part is out of the way”

Melissa May & Brian Coonan perform live at The Baywood Lounge every other Thursday from 6-8 PM. Check out their facebook page for more info and future show dates.


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