Momentous Mondays: Influential artists of the next 5-10 years – Week 8: Lea Michele

Let me ask you a question that has been running in my brain for the past few days. In the face of adversity, do you run away? Do you cower in fear and curl up in a foetal position? Do you analyse every decision that you make or have made or will make- overthinking and stuck in indecision thinking that the bad outcomes are your fault? Do you cry out and ask for help or do you soldier on and naively believe that you yourself and only yourself can overcome odds that are seemingly insurmountable and impossible? When faced with tragedy and the worst adversity possible, how do you react? Do you cry out to God or turn to your vices like alcohol or drugs to cope? Or do you stick your head in the sand like an ostrich thinking that the problem will go away? Now all of these outcomes are all valid, yet as a Christian I find some ways of coping much healthier than others. Yet over the past couple of weeks I’ve been presented with one of the most unique, heartbreaking, encouraging, inspiring, honest, emotional, vulnerable and freeing journeys I’ve had the pleasure of immersing myself into. The true story of actress and singer Lea Michele (born Lea Michele Sarfati to an Italian-American mother and a Sephardic Jewish father), her instant rise to fame and stardom due to the exponential success of musical TV series Glee, and the very public dealing of her boyfriend Cory Monteith’s fatal drug overdose and subsequent healing from scars and internal wounds so that right now Lea is in a place of peace and contentment with life; is very remarkable and so, so relevant for society right now. As Lea overcomes adversity, heartbreak and negative situations in a way that’s commendable and admirable; you may not think that Lea deserves to be in my list of ‘up and coming influential artists over the next 5-10 years’- I mean, she is an actress first and foremost, and she did release music after Glee, so one may say she’s not a ‘true’ artist. However I am certain that once you finish reading what I’m about to say to you all…well I’m sure you’ll rapidly change your mind!

“…[recording Louder in 2013 and 2014], it was a lot. I was singing 10 songs a week for Glee in the studio, from Salt N Pepa to Kelly Clarkson to Celine Dion [covers]. When it came time for me to make my own album, I think it was a little clouded for me in terms of wanting to figure out what my own sound was. And it was also clouded by a big tragedy that had happened to me, in the midst of making that album. And you hear that in that album — you hear the darkness of what was going on in my life. I don’t think there is a consistency to the record that I was hoping for, but that’s life…[and on Places] we have two songs that veer a little bit more in the pop direction, but for the most part, I sat back and listened to all of the songs that I grew up listening to, and most of them were Celine Dion, four-minute-long vocal Olympics. This is a vocal album, and there are definitely love songs in there, but there’s also a sense of freedom. I went back and listened to all of the divas that I loved, and tried to find how that music resonates for me, in 2017…”

To understand the story of Lea Michele and why I reckon her music is very much needed in today’s social media focused and instantaneous online culture, and why I reckon her songs are some of the most vulnerable I’ve heard in a long time in recent memory; we need to go back to the jugganaut that started it all- Glee. You see, back when Glee debuted in 2009, I had no interest in it. I’m not sure that many people did. The way Channel 10 promoted the show though, it was like a ‘secret project’ and very hush-hush, under the radar. No one had any clue about what was coming, and when I and my family found about the nature of the program- that it was a scripted musical drama directed at teens…well to be honest, I switched off. For real. Because while I do enjoy singing, watching singing on TV where it was out of place in a drama, felt all kinds of wrong to me. Now looking back, with hindsight, perhaps I could have watched Glee and been inspired and actually enjoyed the show- knowing the beast of a show it has become, and how gigantic and enormous the show has turned out to be. Yet the beauty of me not knowing anything about Glee now, is that I get to experience the professional career- music, film and TV- of superstar Lea Michele right now at this very moment. And what an exquisite, heartfelt, poignant, honest, emotional and vulnerable career it is- and one that will make you cry in sympathy and laugh for joy at the same time! From watching interviews, one can tell that Lea is as passionate about the her many ventures she is embarking on (acting, writing books, writing and performing music, doing professional photoshoots) and you can see that she is giving her complete all in everything she does. As bubbly as she is right now, things weren’t rosy back in 2013- so it’s quite remarkable to see the transformation that has occurred before our very eyes! And if that’s not enough to convince you to check out her discography and filmography, well you can read on and be further encouraged and motivated.

I don’t know when it was, but the first time I noticed Lea Michele was when her debut Louder released in 2014. Never really knowing who she was, or how popular and respected she was at the time, I just thought of her as ‘that lead actor from Glee’ and then thought nothing of the album. Because in 2014 I was still not at that stage yet of embracing mainstream music as another avenue for God to speak through. Hence, Louder and its awesomeness, relatability and hopefulness that I know now, unfortunately bypassed me for many years, and I didn’t even know that Places from 2017 existed until about a month ago. It was only this year when I heard of her Christmas album that I started to put together the pieces of an already remarkable puzzle- and what a fantastic group of hopeful and powerful songs Lea has recorded. Deciding to take the plunge and see what the fuss was about when Christmas In The City dropped- I thought ‘why not, what do I have to lose?’; the result was a thoroughly enjoyable journey of one of the most honest and vulnerable artists in recent memory. With both Louder and Places being high quality albums lyrically, musically and vocally- not to mention Lea’s Christmas album now being one of my favourite Christmas albums over the past few years (along with holiday albums from Michael W. Smith, Pentatonix and Lincoln Brewster!); I am extremely blessed to hear the passion and heart behind probably one of today’s most needed artists. As far as vocals and songwriting goes- perhaps and probably most likely there are others much stronger than Lea. But it is the vulnerability and the fearlessness that makes Lea a once-in-a-generation artist (at least for myself!), and an artist we all should start supporting and listening to if we haven’t already.

Going back to the first album Louder, which is probably Lea’s most honest, emotional, personal and refreshing, yet also the most confusing, chaotic, and complicated given the circumstances surrounding Cory’s death that occurred around the same time that the album was in production; we were made privy to the raw emotions and feelings that Lea was wrestling with, that at times didn’t even make sense. The world was upside down due to Cory’s suicide- and because of this, some songs reflect this senseless tragedy and the heartbreak that Lea has experienced. Most of the songs from Louder were written for Lea by other accomplished writers, inclusive of Newsboys’ frontman Peter Furler’s cousin Sia Furler- understandable because Lea most definitely wasn’t in the right frame of mind to write many songs. One may think that the result would have led to Lea singing ‘original’ songs and not really connecting with any of them, but I reckon the converse is truth. Now I’m not a Glee expert, but obviously with the program being a musical drama, there’s a lot of singing present- Lea and the other actors presumably sung covers of smash hit songs, with these renditions most likely being sanitised and Hollywood-ised for TV. But this isn’t really the case with Lea’s albums- her first in particular. I’m not really a crier and I hardly ever get emotional over personal and honest songs, but if you’re the crying type, then both of Lea’s albums will result in many, many tears being shed…in the best way possible. That’s how crazily good these songs are, and how much they provide hope and comfort to a generation that needs guidance and reassurance that everything is going to be ok.

With Louder– the whole debut album overall having a poppy sound as opposed to the Broadway vocal style of Lea that everyone was so very used to during her time in Glee; it is the lyrics here that tug at my own heart and remind me that if the artist feels something with the song- if it is borne out of human experience or the experience of someone else close to them, then true honesty and authenticity can flow on from that, resulting in a believable experience that audiences are captivated and transfixed by. Lead single from Louder “Cannonball”, written by Sia and one of the late additions to Louder, was recorded in direct response to Lea’s boyfriend Cory Monteith’s sudden death in 2013, and is one of the album highlights, as Lea powerfully relays to us that ‘…and now I will start living today, today, today, I close the door, I got this new beginning and I will fly, I’ll fly like a cannonball…’– an inspirational piece that powerfully declares that Lea is going to start taking more of an active role in her healing from tragedy and disappointment, instead of wallowing and watching the world pass by. Remember when I asked all of those questions in the earlier paragraph about what would we all do in the face of an overwhelming situation? Well if we follow the advice of Lea and tackle the issue head on with determination and gusto instead of feeling self-pity, then perhaps healing can begin and we can truly soar and be better people. With the opener being a winner in my book, Lea also delivers to us many, many more hits, and many, many more personal ballads well worth multiple listens.

“On My Way”, the album’s second single, is a happy go-lucky pop song written about Lea’s secure relationship with Cory at the time, describing how she always wants to go back to him every time at the end of the day- and it is that sentiment that we as people should always strive for in every relationship, be it romantic or platonic, as in always placing other people’s needs above our own. “Battlefield”, written by Sia, has a special place in Lea’s heart, as it was the first cover brought to her that felt like her own song- so Lea recorded it twice. Driven by the piano, Sia loved Lea’s raw, vulnerable version, and gave the song to her. The rest is history and what you hear on the album is actually the first demo from Lea. Pretty cool how a song can come together like that, right? Sia in fact wrote a few other songs for the album, including the go-get-em punchy pop tune which is the title track, as well as the poignant, heartfelt piano led ballad “Thousand Needles”, the emotional love story of “You’re Mine” (which is Lea and Cory’s song as per Lea’s own words!), as well as the album ender “If You Say So” with Lea herself. Both Sia and Lea wrote probably the most personal track ever recorded by Lea (and will ever be the most personal track!) in “If You Say So”, whereby Lea outlines the details of Cory’s death and what she would say to him if he was still alive. Quasi-worship song “Empty Handed”, written by singer/songwriter Christina Perri, is also present on Louder, and showcases Lea’s vocals quite brilliantly, as we are presented with a track that we could be singing to God- what will He say if we come to Him empty handed- while the second verse could be sung from God’s perspective. Though Lea has said that this track is a love song, the beauty of God working in the mainstream is that there’s always different interpretations of tracks- and that’s the great thing about Louder which is that it’s applicable to everyone from all walks of life.

“…I have this incredible book that Stevie Nicks [from Fleetwood Mac] gave me in 2013 when my boyfriend [Glee co-star Cory Monteith] died. She gave me this art book of hers that she put notes in over the years and song lyrics, and then she rewrote personal notes for me that say things like, ‘Keep singing, and have faith.’ I was looking through this book and praying that there was an answer in it, somewhere. And there was something in there that said, ‘The only thing that matters is you, and who you are.’ That’s what I’ve been trying to do with this whole record — just connect to me and where I’m from… [so] I was like [to best friend Jonathan Groff], ‘What’s something from our time in New York — a word, or a phrase, or something that is from theater, or from us?’ And he said, ‘What about “Places?”’ When you’re on Broadway, you get your 30-minute call, then your 15-minute call. You hear ‘Places everyone!’ And that means it’s showtime…”

Fast forward three years and Places now comes into view, with Lea revealing more of her soaring vocals and her Broadway type side, inclusive of softer ballads and reflective material. Probably almost directly after the unveiling of Louder, the reviews came in– of which I read just yesterday. And let me tell you, some were harsh, and overall the main message was that Lea was great vocally, but musically it was a bit all over the place, given that she supposedly didn’t know about her sound and what she wanted it to be. Now whether those reviews were valid is another story that won’t be examined and explored at this very instant- but maybe it was these ‘reviews’ that encouraged Lea to take a more active part in the way she wants future albums to sound like. So gone are the pop synth and guitar sounds. Instead there are strings, light piano, soaring vocals and light acoustic guitar- and this makes Lea’s voice sound all the more exquisite and near-flawless. While Louder showcases Lea’s ability to make a pop record, Places shows us the quintessential Lea Michele album- the album that embodies her to a tee. So as we treat ourselves to Lea’s captivating and sublime vocals and realise that there is a vast music difference between album #1 and #2, let us indeed marvel at the effort made by Lea and her sheer determination. Three years is a long time, but not long enough if you’re Lea and still mourning for Cory so in that respect the offering here is pretty special, and even with the very idea of Places alone has me championing Lea wherever God wants to take her.

While musically and stylistically, there’s a polar opposite when comparing Lea’s strongest pop songs on both albums, it’s nonetheless still evident that Lea doesn’t really care about how big she goes up the charts- but rather how much she can influence and impact people. Soaring piano ballad “Love Is Alive” is the first single, and a joy to listen to, as Lea fervently relays to us the qualities of the type of love she is searching for- subtly alluding to eternal love, concluding later on that love is alive within us. Though I presume this song isn’t supposed to be about Jesus- I for one read the track differently. And that’s the beauty of music, because we can interpret anything whatever year we want to. Synth heavy ballad “Heavy Love” brilliantly relays to us two people on the precipice and cusp of a new relationship, with Lea proudly declaring that she wants to go deeper and deeper into that relationship; while personal piano led “Proud” basically tells us all that all we want to do is to make our loved ones proud- this song is directed to her parents. Inspirational ballad “Believer” reiterates that Lea herself still believes- in people, in goodness in this life, and in the hope that things will be better than before- in music and away from the spotlight. While other personal highlights include “Run To You”, “Anything’s Possible” and “Heavenly”- in my opinion some of my favourite Lea Michele songs ever, as she showcases her vocals off in an out-of-this-world crazy good way! Lea’s album Places contains some left-field moments of vulnerability and risk taking, while just like the first album, the last song on the tracklist “Hey You” is one of Lea’s most personal, emotional, honest and vulnerable yet. A quasi-spiritual sequel to “If You Say So” from Louder; this verseless, chorusless track is directed at her boyfriend Cory Monteith, and as Lea herself outlines what the song is about and the meaning and emotion behind it, we are blessed to hear that Lea hasn’t forgotten Cory at all!

“…I wasn’t originally thinking of including [Hey Love]…on the album. It’s sort of a sensitive subject for me that’s hard to talk about, and I didn’t want anything on the record that I couldn’t talk about. But it just felt so beautiful. It wasn’t about loss, it wasn’t about sadness. It was really about joy and love. I love it so much, and I really feel it represents who I am and everything that I’ve been through in my life. I don’t talk much more beyond that. When you come to my concert, that’s really when I open up and dive into what these songs personally mean to me. At the end of the day, the song is pretty specific, and people are gonna make of it what they want, but I wanted to make a song about loss that wasn’t necessarily sad. I wanted to show this beautiful moment and there’s a little bit more of a deeper story that goes with it that I talk about in my concert…”

Belief in the song and in what the artist is trying to communicate is paramount, yet of late I’ve discovered that an artists’ personal life and life away from the spotlight may make or break careers, and fans can be shocked or pleasantly surprised. In the case of Lea, what you see is what you get, and her passion on the stage and on the screen seems to translate to on a CD. A stage/Broadway girl at heart, Lea has participated over the years in stage performances of The Little Mermaid, Les Miserables and Spring Awakening to name a few, while having her big break in film with New Year’s Eve in 2011. Other TV roles since Glee include as Hester Ulrich (Scream Queens) and as Valentina Barella (The Mayor)- while I haven’t seen either show (a fact that I need to remedy straight away, even though both shows are cancelled!), it’s clear that Lea’s acting chops has never been more great to see, as it seems Lea is more focused and driven considering they are both polar opposite roles. Though Lea’s two albums are stellar, when you add in her theatre and TV experience, you get a full package that is real, authentic and just overall a person who is satisfied and content with life. And for me personally, it’s such a joy to listen to her story and to what she has to say to the world.

Usually an artist waits until they have released a substantial body of work over a 10-20 year span for them to even consider recording a Christmas album. I’m not sure the reason for this unspoken rule, but that’s just the way it is. However regardless on your views on Christmas and on the holidays in general, Lea’s decision to record Christmas In The City for this year is a bit of a left field shock, however is something that somewhat fits- it’s a holiday near and dear to her heart (due to the Christian faith of her mother and Jewish faith of her father), whereby Lea herself points out in an article online about why she loves Christmas so much. Containing a few carols (O Holy Night, Silent Night, Angels We Have Heard On High), a few holiday tracks (It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, White Christmas, Silver Bells, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, I’ll Be Home For Christmas) and one original (Christmas In New York), this release is sure to pleases even Pentatonix- the king of Christmas albums, and is a welcome addition into an already respected discography from such a sublime artist.

“…I always remember music playing, and because of that memory, I wanted to make a Christmas record of my own. I knew that when I did, I would really want to honor the city that I come from, because while Christmas is beautiful all over the world and the holiday season in general, whether or not you actually celebrate Christmas, New York during that time of year just evokes so many special memories for me of growing up in Manhattan with my mom and dad, walking by Rockefeller Center, walking through Central Park, going to see the Rockettes. I think that love actually grew stronger when I moved away from New York… I wanted all the songs on the record to be songs that are my favorite Christmas songs, because I wanted everything about this album to come directly from me and from my heart. So these are all my favorite Christmas songs that I’ve sung over the years and that I’ve played in my home over the years. The producers that I worked with on this record, Adam Anders and Alex Anders, were my right hands during every single song I ever did on Glee. They were our amazing music producers. Then, second, I wanted the sound to have that very similar Glee bright, vibrant, happy essence. So, tonally, that’s where I got my inspiration from. And then even in picking the guest singers on the record, they’re all people who are very special to me. Everything from picking the songs, from determining the sound, from picking the guest singers—it’s all things that are important to me: my favorite songs, my favorite sound and my favorite people…”

Lea is also a well-renowned author- Brunette Ambition released in 2014, and is a part how-to-style guide and part autobiography; and You First: Journal your way to your best life released in 2015, and is another self-help book; while Lea has also expressed interest in writing a healthy and nutritious cookbook. So it seems that Lea is everywhere, and is intent on doing all things well, as best as she can. That type of fearlessness and a can-do attitude evident through the many things that Lea is a part of at the moment aside from her music; is very admirable, and is a quality that we all should strive to aim for and excel at. Saying yes to everything can be dangerous, and I wouldn’t encourage any of you to bite off more than you can chew. However sitting at home wallowing can’t be an option. Lea Michele has shown us this- that sometimes living life to the full after a tragic accident involves taking life by the bull-horns (is that the saying?) and going for broke. So Lea’s life post Cory and how she lives it doesn’t have to be gospel and they way we all should do things. However we can look at her life as a source of inspiration.

And as we have seen Lea be brave time and time again, there is no better example of Lea living life to the full than in 2016, when she stripped naked for a magazine shoot (Women’s Health Magazine), where she delved into her eating habits and how she stays fit (her answer is SoulCycle). Being naked, exposed and vulnerable in front of strangers is very daunting, and I’m sure it would be for a lot of us; yet Lea took it all in her stride and uses her acting abilities to channel her gusto and determination in actually doing a successful naked photoshoot. While there seems to be nothing much more that Lea can’t do- she sings, she dances, she acts; time will tell if Lea gets burnout. I hope not though, as she’s such a talented person, and God has indeed bestowed great gifts upon her to change the world. However I reckon having a mentor or a close group of friends for accountability especially when the pressures of the music business or of Hollywood seem too much, is perfect in the sense that Lea can’t do anything for herself any more than she has already done- instead Lea and her friends can help each other through life and be their own accountability team that way. And going back to the first few paragraphs, about how Lea chose to help herself from tragedy by having determination, resilience and a heart that still remembers the best memories of the person in question; it’s evident that Lea Michele will be in the spotlight for a long, long time, giving us smash hits and covers from Glee as well as inspiring and prayerful songs of freedom and everlasting peace. Not to mention acting roles that transcend the normal human experience and permeate into the spiritual and the eternal. So now it’s time everyone to fasten your seatbelts, and hear more about how Lea has healed from the tragedy of Cory Monteith, and how Lea can and will help others. Well done Lea for your hopeful and inspiring melodies- now off to listen to Lea’s latest album, and be marvelled as to why such an artist like this has never ever won many awards for her music, but still puts together extraordinary releases on all platforms of late! And as I finish, take a read of what Lea has up her sleeve in the next few months, inclusive of a talk show TV show called “Well, Well, Well with Lea Michele”. Be amazed, because Lea is exploding into our hearts…like a cannonball!

“…I would obviously love to [return to Broadway]. I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people in New York. I would be so grateful if Broadway would ever have me back. It’s the highest caliber of work there is, so it would be an honor to go back. I just would want it to be the most perfect thing. So I’m taking my time with that. This album was a very big personal goal of mine, and so I always make sure that I am checking things off in the box that are dreams of mine, and this was one of them, so I wanted to just really see this through. But, obviously, any time the stage would have me back, I would be there…right now, I’m really excited about writing my own television and film projects, and then developing stuff and being my own executive producer. It’s really exciting in this business when you get a call and there’s an audition or a role that you’re up for, but it’s also really inspiring to be able to write your own material, especially as a woman; I think it helps us create our own opportunities and write roles for ourselves that are really strong and true to who we are, and so that’s what I’m trying to do right now. Of course, my dream is to make a [healthy] cookbook, and so that might be somewhere in the ether…”

Does Lea Michele make the list for you all when you write your own ‘Influential Artists of the next 5-10 years’ list? Is there any song (other than “Cannonball”, “On My Way”, “Love Is Alive”, “Anything’s Possible”, and “Run To You”) that has impacted you on your journey through life thus far, or even your walk with God? Let us know in the comments. Till next time!

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