by Jason Kotarski | originally published at The Green Couch
If you have ever been one to enjoy a good story that involves the main character taking a huge risk, giving up comfort and security, to follow a dream, you’ll find yourself inspired by my friend, Mike Vial. Mike left his job of teaching high school for the last 7 years to have a go at a career in full-time music. He has 3 releases under his belt and has grown with every effort. If you met him at one of his shows, his warm, unassuming attitude wouldn’t give you the impression that he’s such an adventurer. But that’s what he is and that’s what makes his story so compelling to me. A guy, a guitar, and a big heart taking a chance out on his own. Have a seat and listen in to our recent conversation.
You recently left a job as a teacher to pursue music full time. Can you talk a little bit about what was behind that and how the process has been for you?
Great question, Jason! Leaving the schedule of a high school teaching career was a difficult choice, but it was essential to focus and dedicate time to practicing, writing, and working through the music business.
For seven years I felt I could walk two roads and do both well, but there was always a fork in the path; I always had to put the guitar down and give up gigging until summer returned. The number of papers that followed me home and the constant, changing curriculum plans made teaching a 12 hour a day job, taking many hours of my weekends too. I really loved working with the students in the classroom, but if you look at my past gig schedule, you can see where I just stop gigging.
I also think I needed to experience more to become a better teacher. Only working in the classroom started to feel like I was running out of life experience to offer my students. Being an independent musician is like being a small business owner, so if I return to the teaching profession, I’m excited to have a lot more business and travel experience to bring to my classroom.
However, let’s not forget I’m still teaching. I now do private lessons for guitar and really enjoy it.
Over the last few years you have released 3 records. Can you share a little bit about each one of those releases and what your learned from each experience or writing and recording them?
My first EP, Three Men Make a Tiger, is a snapshot of a 25-year-old learning how to be a studio musician for the first time. Marshall Block at Real II Reel Studios helped guide me through that recording process.
“Mahogany” was written in my dorm room and “Intelligent Fool” and “Faster Than Slow” were written my second weekend as a teacher, so you have a young Mike Vial on that record! The chinese proverb of the EP’s title highlights the theme of “Pieces of This World,” but it also hints at the over arching theme of searching, making choices. And who isn’t searching when they are 19, 21, 25? Right? Boy I sure was!
Burning the Boats didn’t feel that different to me until quite a few people told me how it felt like a hearing a new Mike Vial. Bill Keith of the Trinity House told me he could hear the songwriting growth between the two records, and that gave me confidence. Honestly, what I love about that EP is how long I left some of those songs on the shelf before deciding they were strong enough to record. I played Cory Glover part of “Kalamazoo” which I almost never finished, and he told me it was going to be a great song and that it had to make the record.
Plus, working with Dan Achen at Catherine North Studios (before he passed away suddenly) really affect my life. Dan taught me things through his musical direction that I’m still practicing–how to add counter melodies to songs and move beyond a solo acoustic guitar player. He had a great, musical ear. Some of the best direction he gave me is in Kalamazoo, from the guitar fills to the vocal cadences, and the band production on “Only the Rain Knows Why.”
Where the Sand Meets the Tide is about arrivals and departures. The theme of “transitions” is hiding beneath the love stories, and my career change is obviously inspiring that. One new arrival for me is working with more full band arrangements. Stuart Tucker’s playing drums, David Mosher’s on fiddle and mandolin, Kirk Starkey’s on cello, Hannah’s on backing vocals.
I’m really proud of this little release. Working with moon:and:6 (Michael Chambers) again at Catherine North was like a musical vacation, too. Michael and I became close friends while finishing Burning the Boats, so it just made sense to cross the border again to do the third EP.
Can you share a little bit about how community and/or collaboration has influenced you as a musician?
Sure! It’s easy to get lost in music business and forget that the creation and sharing of music is social. Music helps form friendships and give us an excuse to get together, and I’ve been lucky to meet people through the action of playing music. Craig Carrick’s Noreastr festival is a great example of this. I love how all of the musicians are camping with the festival attendees, how the line between stage and audience is blurred around nightly campfires and jams, workshops and conversation. It’s made me a better person, not just a better songwriter.
Craig discovered he had cancer, the entire Michigan folk music scene teamed together to help a man who had supported them so much. There was a sold out benefit show featuring 20 or more Michigan artists. This captivates how important art and music is for community.
Not to wax poetically too long, but recording at Catherine North Studios feels like joining a community too, which is why I keep returning there. I’ve met so many Canadian musicians from my time there in Hamilton, and we’ve made lasting friendships, often from one small music experience.
Who are some of the other Michigan artists that are inspiring you right now?
I’m really into Cory Glover’s lyrical approach. Guilty Hearts is a great EP that he released last year, and he’s got a notebook full of songs no one has heard yet that are just captivating. Joshua Davis‘s new record is a guitar player treat. I got to see him play at the Blind Pig last month with Seth Benard, Rachel Davis in his band, and they have really great dynamics, really cool grooves. I’ve also been listening to Jeff Pianki‘s new bandcamp releases and the Pottersfield‘s new full length a lot this month.
What is your favorite place to play and what do you like about it?
I love the Trinity House in Livonia. I’ve been seeing shows there since high school, Recently, I was invited to open up for Brooks Williams last spring and it really was a honor. I’ve caught quite a few Brooks gigs at the Trinity House over the last 15 years, so it was an honor to share the stage with him.
What do you anticipate as the next step for your career as a musician? Do you have any upcoming plans you want to talk about?
Releasing the new EP for free this month was a huge step just completed! The next is planning a Midwest tour next year through IL, OH, and MI.
I also have nonprofit idea called the Great Lake Effect (also the name of my band). The idea is to get two musicians from an area of Michigan, visual artists, etc. and have them all collaborate on a song that is used to raise money for a charity located in their town or city.
Lastly, on January 1, 2012, I’m starting a writing project called “A Guitar a Day Keeps the Doctor Away.” My goal is to write one guitar riff a day to encourage more songwriting and guitar growth. If writers block has a PhD, then a guitar a day keeps the doctor away. I’ll be posting them on this WordPress blog.
Learn more about Mike Vial here.