One gets the idea that pop songs are almost child's play for Lara Michell. Here, after all, is a woman who grew up with 'pretty serious' piano instruction, studied flamenco dance and took a year of classical guitar in college.
'But I loved Top 40 radio in the '70s and '80s,' she confesses.
And it's the convergence of all these things that makes her music so consistently fascinating.
Michell first came to the attention of the Portland rock cognoscenti in the mid-'90s as the fluid-fingered guitarist in the all-gal band Carmina Piranha. It was a dynamite group, one that stitched together advanced pop smarts, stellar playing, a bit of gypsy fire and a little tango, all with the inspired recklessness of any punk band.
'When I first started playing with them, I didn't even know how to plug in a guitar,' Michell says. 'All I had was a little nylon-string classical.'
Among Carmina Piranha's more adventuresome accomplishments was a 1998 collaboration with Oregon Ballet Theatre on a cycle of songs that ended up as the Carmina Piranha album 'Revenge Poems.' It was a daring marriage of guitars and dance Ñ one that rattled a few cultural cages on the local front.
'It was loud rock music, and a lot of people weren't ready for that, in connection with ballet,' Michell says. 'And there was some violent and É sexual imagery. É It got really mixed reviews.
'But I think James Canfield (then the ballet's director) definitely succeeded, because so many people reacted strongly to it.'
Carmina Piranha is effectively on the shelf for the time being, though Michell doesn't rule out the possibility of an occasional reunion show. In the meantime, she's got a happening solo career and a couple of other bands to keep her mind from wandering.
Her third record, 'Ruby Red' (self-released, www.laramichell.com), is a colorful and enticing affair. The music bounds in agile fashion from rock that's equally brainy and brawny to more plaintive moments in which Michell plumbs her emotional well, framed by her superb fingerpicking.
Songs such as 'House on Fire' and 'Blooming' would have been right at home among the higher echelon of alternative-rock hits offered up by the likes of the Breeders, Belly or Veruca Salt from a decade past. And despite being rather dismissive of her own abilities, the record definitely reveals Michell as one of the more inventive and intriguing all-around musicians in town, as she continues to find inventive ways to compound various ethnic influences into an engaging pop format.
'My last album' Ñ called 'Somniloquy' Ñ 'was a very quiet, careful, sleepy record,' she says. 'It was almost subconscious.
'I wanted 'Ruby Red' to be an album that was fully awake, a lot more aggressive, direct and in your face. This one came straight from the hip.
'It fit in with what was going on in my life,' she says. 'I used to be a full-time lawyer, I used to be married, and I used to spend a lot of time being careful and stressing out about everything I said and did. But I went through a lot of changes when I was writing this record, and it felt good to just explode.'
While juggling her own musical endeavors, a busy music-teaching schedule and a low-key law practice, Michell also makes time for Dirty Martini, a band set to release its hotly anticipated debut album next month. Here, she once again finds herself in an estrogen-dominated ensemble (the exception being drummer Ned Failing), alongside local singer-songwriter notables McKinley, Lea Krueger and Stephanie Schneiderman. The band is managed by high-profile Portland music entrepreneur (and Gang of Four bassist) Dave Allen.
'Dirty Martini just started out as a songwriter-in-the-round situation,' Michell says. 'We just enjoyed it so much, we stuck with it.'
Michell periodically plays in a band with former Carmina Piranha bandmate Lisa Stringfield (Carmina Luna), and she's jazzed about its participation in an upcoming Duran Duran tribute night at the Fez Ballroom on Jan. 22.
She's definitely got plenty on her plate, but they're all things she truly enjoys doing, part of an ongoing process of simplifying her life.
'You've got to listen to your gut,' Michell says. 'Your gut will tell you what you should be doing. I don't want to sound too New Agey, but I think the universe rewards people who are true to themselves.'