Carmel Mikol is a singer/songwriter with the heart of a poet. She looks at the world through metaphors. As she says in a recent blog post from a stop over on her current tour in support of her fine new album, Creature, she walks out looking for words. “Sometimes they fall from the eaves of old buildings and I just have to make sure I’m there to catch them.”
Spend even a cursory half hour listening to the songs on Creature and you’ll see quickly enough she was there to catch them when she wrote those songs. Spend a little more time listening and you’ll see that as one of the greatest of the poets advised another, she has managed to “load every rift of” her “subject with ore.”
It is no wonder that her song “Twenty Something Girl” was the winner of the 2011 Grand Prize in the folk category of the annual John Lennon Songwriting Contest. The song is a modern take on the old fashioned folk protest song that Lennon himself would have been happy to have written himself. It describes a world where “corruption hides behind a steeple,” where the “weather’s changing without season,” and where “nationalized dreams” are “a corporate scheme.” “This earth,” she sings at the very beginning of the song, “is just a bloody floor/soaked and stained in metaphor/built on the bones of patriotic lore.” This is a song in the best traditions of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and early Bob Dylan.
But if the eight tracks on the album show anything about Mikol’s art, it is its variety. This is not a disc filled with protest songs. She can write a dark story ballad like “Lion or Lamb” and an intensely personal lyric like “I Miss the Moon.” She can take a cynical look at human motivations in “Made” and echo an almost traditional country plaint about a love affair in which “loving you is the hardest thing I do” in “Somewhere Else.”
“Creature,” the album’s title track, is a rejection of the typical moral and social restrictions too often placed on human desires. It is a fairly explicit dismissal of patience and “virtuous pain.” “In My Bones,” a live version of the title track from her first album, is a tuneful plea for a lover to help make it through the night, while “Leaver” is her upbeat version of the “love ’em and leave ’em” type of song.
All this emphasis on lyrics and content isn’t meant to take anything away from Mikol as a composer and singer. She is equally at home with a country-flavored tune as she is with rocking folk. Whether it’s intimate personal emotion or public protest, she can sell them both. She has the kind of vocal clarity that focuses on the melody and gets the most out of the lyric.
Joining Mikol on the CD are David Bradshaw on the six-and 12-string guitars, mandolin, banjo and backing vocal; Bobby McIsaac on electric guitars and backing vocal; Jeff Barrett on bass, and Matthew Piper on drums. Mikol plays acoustic guitar and piano.
Creature is being released with a companion book of the songwriter’s stories, poems and lyrics. Although I have only seen a sample of the book, what I have seen offers an effective insight into many of the themes on the album.
Much of it talks about her American father and his relation to the hippie scene in the ’60s, before leaving the States for Canada after the violence at the ’68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Titled Creature of Habit, the book seems to be a tribute to the singer’s father—who was perhaps something of a poet himself—and his significance in her life. “I wear my father’s flannel shirts sometimes,” she says at one point. Given her penchant for metaphor, it is very hard not to read this symbolically.
Like her well received debut album, In My Bones, Creature is the work of an up-and-coming singer/songwriter who can turn songs that will get you thinking while it keeps you humming. Carmel Mikol is an artist who may be a “twenty something girl,” but she is a twenty something girl with something important to say. If she keeps writing songs like those on this album, a lot of people are going to be listening.