It seems entirely appropriate that Atlanta alternative/indie rocker K Michelle DuBois is surrounded by a fortress of cardboard containers on 27 January while chatting about The Fever Returns, her next solo album that premieres in its entirety today at PopMatters.
The expressive experimenter really knows how to think outside the boxes. Especially while her home with husband/bassist Jim Prible is undergoing a major renovation. Saying "I love this album more than anything I've done yet" in a career that goes back more than 30 years, DuBois believes the global pandemic forced many people to face more important matters than music last spring when she initially intended to unleash The Fever Returns after recording it in 2019.
"It didn't ever really feel like the right time to say, 'Hey, here it is!' Maybe I could've done it, but it does feel right that I waited. I'm glad I did," the outgoing DuBois divulges over the phone from a temporary — and much smaller — residence the couple currently share with their dog and cat.
Like most musicians hamstrung in 2020 by the lockdown, DuBois contemplated what moves to make next before departing their downtown Atlanta home in the Fifth District, a short walk away from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center. Instead of hitting the panic button, though, she pushed pause on the album while her brain was working overtime. Putting out a couple of covers (like the Police's "Truth Hits Everybody") and taking on some remote projects with friends helped to keep the self-avowed "homebody" active.
"I'm staying home, no problem for me at all," explains DuBois, who spent the early part of 2020 ("kind of a growth time") learning how to make Pro Tools work with the intent to hone some production skills during the recording process, which she "loves" doing for months at a time. "In fact, I'm one of those people that I sort of have to kick myself in the tail to get out. And I know it's important and I need to do it.
"Not just for myself as a person but even just like rubbing elbows and knowing what's going on in the local music scene. So that's one thing earlier in the year before it all fell to pieces that I had told myself I was gonna do. And I was really amped for it. I was ready. So that's a bummer that I didn't get to do that but, you know, I hope that it'll happen again." Wondering if a return to normalcy is merely a pipe dream, she admits, "Then I start feeling kind of doom and gloomy, and I have to bust out of it. Luckily for me as a musician, I was always more of a studio person than a live music person."
Still, DuBois misses seeing and playing shows. She considers herself fortunate to have been in the audience for mind-blowing acts like Thom Yorke and King Crimson on a busy 2019 concert-watching calendar and has fond memories of the last time she appeared on stage — with only Prible and their guitars on Leap Day (29 February 2020) in Savannah, Georgia.
Playing songs from The Fever Returns and her previous album, along with a cover of Robert's Plant's "Big Log," provided an adrenaline rush she was hoping to repeat. "It actually sounded pretty cool," DuBois declares. "We had so much fun, we were gearing up to like, 'Hey, we don't have to worry about anyone else's availability. Let's you and I go do a little regional tour.'" Though quarantining took care of that, she can finally proclaim, "Here it is —The Fever Returns!" while certain that the record was worth the wait.
Two days before its 12 February release, get a sneak preview of the enthralling nine-song, color-outside-the-lines album filled with whimsy, fantasy, mystery, and boundless energy. Then read all about the audacious and artistic rocker who went from a "quiet observer" while growing up in Nashville to become a full-of-wonder woman who enjoys and appreciates the "human experience of creating."
Caught in the Middle
Born in 1968 in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Kathleen Michelle DuBois ultimately followed a family tradition — placing more importance on your middle name than the initial one, which got shortened to its first, ahem, initial. "I don't think it was really a choice," she maintains now when asked to solve the riddle in the middle. "It was just that my mother (Mary Cecilia) and father (James Timothy) both, just by coincidence, were middle name people. It's funny. Apparently, they said, 'We're not gonna do that to our kids because it's more convenient to go by your first name.' But I guess just out of habit they did it to the both of us."
So her younger brother (Charles Christopher) goes by Chris DuBois, who became a successful country music songwriter in Nashville, delivering hit singles on the way to being singled out as ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year in 2004. "We're different in that he's never been a performer," offers Michelle, mentioning they did have more in common than attending the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. "But we have great mutual respect for one another. We realized recently that we both love Bruce Springsteen." (laughs)
At UT-Knoxville, "I swear, maybe I saw him twice," she adds. "Because we were just in totally different worlds. He was going to all the football games and kind of a bro. And I played in a band (the Flying Polecats) and I was hanging in kind of the slummy, cool, artistic neighborhoods. Once he started having my nieces and nephews, though, we started getting really close again. And now it's like he's one of my best friends. He means the world to me."
Chris DuBois followed in the footsteps of his dad Tim, who wrote number one songs for major country artists beginning in the 1980s, collaborated with Vince Gill for 1990's "When I Call Your Name", which won song and single of the year awards, and became a powerhouse executive for the Arista Nashville record label he created for Clive Davis in 1989.
The DuBois family moved to Nashville right before Michelle started the fourth grade. Her list of elementary schools reached six before that, she thinks. Stops along the way included going to kindergarten in Dallas, briefly living on Tulsa time, and enjoying splendid isolation for a year on her grandparents' cattle farm in Grove, Oklahoma. "So I spent a lot of time by myself, but I was OK with that," DuBois asserts. "I was always a pretty solitary kid. I'd spend a lot of time outside and I was always drawn to animals."
A childhood friendship with Shonali Bhowmik eventually brought DuBois out of her shell. After meeting in the fourth grade and trying to practice the violin or write songs together, "I did something that she thought was funny and she just laughed her ass off," DuBois recollects. "She kind of was able to draw that (side) out of me. Because before I was always kind of a quiet observer. I would be the new kid so many times that I would just kind of be observing everything and not really be so involved."
With instruments always around the house or at school, piano and clarinet were alternative choices. DuBois, though, became infatuated with the synthesizer, making Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life her first vinyl album purchase after hearing "Sir Duke" on the radio. She would listen on the family hi-fi with "really good headphones that would feel the music into your head".
Another pivotal moment was when, as a young teen in high school, Michelle got a bass guitar for Christmas from her parents Tim and "Cece", who had a four-track studio in their home. "That might be when I started trying to write some of my own music," DuBois surmises. "I was learning all of John Taylor's bass lines from Duran Duran."
After graduating from UT-Knoxville, DuBois made an "escape" to Santa Cruz, California, to be near her boyfriend, and "admittedly we were both pretty big hippies at the time". Their bliss in "a little wonderland" ended with a breakup, though, so DuBois decided to reunite with Bhowmik, who was attending Emory Law School In Atlanta.
"It was just gonna be temporary and ended up being semi-permanent," DuBois shares with a laugh. It became more than that for her when she and Bhowmik formed a pop-punk outfit that eventually was called Ultrababyfat. Releasing a few albums over a seven-year period, they made their mark in 2001 by breaking through the male-dominated lineup on the Warped Tour.
Much has changed since then as DuBois' solo career officially began with the 2012 release of Lux Capone, her full-length album debut. Bhowmik became a contract attorney in New York and re-established her music roots (Tigers and Monkeys) while DuBois and Prible, who has been a member of Silver Lakes and other Atlanta bands, celebrate three and a half years of marriage but almost 14 years together.
Living out of boxes since the end of August and hoping (with fingers firmly crossed) that she and Prible return to their permanent residence by late March, DuBois gave up more than the comforts of home in 2020. Dismantling her studio was a decision she began to question "because I feel like I was starting to get somewhere with learning things, and I was discovering these other things that I was capable of with production."
Still, the former lead guitarist of Ultrababyfat before forming Luigi, another Atlanta group, keeps successfully collaborating, from writing poetry and melody for an electronic music project called Vitamin 3 with friend Paul Curry to reinforcing a powerful professional relationship with Dan Dixon. "We knew each other from the local club scene," reminisces DuBois, mentioning Dixon's band Dropsonic from those early days. "And I always thought of him like a little brother. He just always made me laugh, kind of a smart-ass."
Marveling over Dixon's talents as a producer, engineer, and guitarist who now fronts two bands — PLS PLS and NARCSSST — and runs RCRD, his home base studio in Atlanta's Peoplestown neighborhood, she remembers her first experience working with him on Luigi's Found on the Forest Floor in 2005. "He did it in this grungy, little practice space, like on a laptop on the floor. Like it was so piecemeal but … I have loved seeing him grow as a producer. From where he was then to where he is now is just like so much evolution and growth."
The Fever Returns is their third collaboration after her two previous solo albums — 2016's Astral Heart and 2018's Harness. And as the two share instrumental duties on guitars, keyboards, and percussion on this latest project, DuBois "most definitely" believes he has become her go-to bro of a producer. "We have such an easy rapport and we've gotten it kind of down to a science now," she confirms. "I told him like, 'You know, I really do need to: No. 1, hone my own production skills; and number two, probably work with someone else, so I'm not just so addicted to you. (laughs) Like what am I gonna do if suddenly you're not around?' As long as it remains like this, I can't see really any reason to record with anyone else."
DuBois admires Dixon's guitar playing just as much. "I think when I started doing this solo work and I started working with Dan, I just realized, 'You know, I've got Dan's fingertips right there,'" she remarks with a laugh. "I had some things I wanted … like here's what I hear. And then I would play it. I could play it OK but he could play it a lot better. And I was like, 'You know what, dude? I want you to play it.' (laughs) And since then, it's just been the way it is. He just adds so much spooky goodness."
Seeking a guitar solo worthy of Robert Fripp's eerie wizardry on David Bowie's Scary Monsters album, DuBois would tell Dixon, "Make it weird," and he would deliver. "We'll just sit in there and laugh while he does like eight different takes of wacko solos," she shrieks "And then we'll just pick the one that we like the most. We just have a blast."
Looking back on "an amazing day" when "we had so much fun" in the studio, DuBois cited Dixon's psychedelic closing to the haunting "Baby Witch" that ends The Fever Returns with a frenzy. It didn't hurt that another close friend, Lisa Marie Welch, brought in her ASMR sound-making toys to supply ambient effects that enhance the creep factor in a song that begins with: "Hello stranger / I've known you for a long long time / Hello danger / Always waiting there in the back of my mind."
During those scary-good instrumental moments, she recalls, the recording experience was "flowing like a swirling cacophony of insanity."
Feels Like Christmas Morning
With such a progressive mind and a daring sense of adventure, age isn't a factor for DuBois, who has no problem sharing that she's 52 years old. In fact, her eagerness to explore more musically (think St. Vincent with hardened pop doses by strong frontwomen from the late Chrissy Amphlett of Divinyls to Veruca Salt's Nina Gordon and Louise Post) make it seem like she's sipping from the fountain of youth.
With each solo record, "I've kind of gained a little bit more confidence, probably. Just to put it simply. But also — oh God, this sounds so cheesy — I've gained more wonder," DuBois contends while laughing hysterically at the thrill of it all. "Like every time I go into the studio, it's like Christmas morning to me. I feel like there's things that are going to happen that you don't even know yet. You don't know what could possibly happen. It's like an infinite possibility."
Asked how this sense of wonder continues to develop since that first solo album, DuBois wisecracks, "Well, it wasn't due to any drugs. (laughs) I mean it might just be in my nature to be that way. I kind of have that personality anyway. Like I can walk outside into my backyard and find something that will make me go like, 'Oh, wow!'"
Admire DuBois' dense sound sense that brings to mind Talking Heads on her funkified "Waves Break" and St. Vincent on "Southern Gothic Dream", its sparse intro exploding violently to reveal a dark side. It's almost like David Byrne and Annie Clark are arriving safely after taking a dangerous Deep South detour.
Then there are other risky numbers where DuBois adds swagger to her go-for-broke mentality. "Strawberry Moon" features howling wolves, heavy-metal clink-clank strikes, and a funereal organ to accompany her ethereal voice. Also, "On the Run Again" attempts to duplicate the "tinny, reverby" guitar tones from an old Killing Joke song. "We took some time trying to get that one, but I think we got it," she pleasingly pronounces.
"You know how sometimes your brain or my brain will conjure up these ideas, and they just seem too fantastical? So you might not even share them all?" she asks rhetorically. "Like I think I finally have gotten to a place where I feel confident enough to try whatever I might want to try."
A case of strep throat caused her to work from the couch on the gleaming title track in a "more standard way" while struggling to strum a guitar but still coming up with vivid lyrics like: "Once I prayed for warmth and now I let it rage." DuBois, who writes and records almost simultaneously at times, did take other chances on some of the first tracks in her home studio, putting together what she calls stream-of-thought words after finding a melody.
"I was thinking of it like painting with my voice," she explains. "Like I would have the music down and then I would just — not knowing at all what was going to come out of my mouth — I would just start improvising over the music. And I would do that a number of times until a pattern started to happen."
While constantly dealing with technological advances and repeatedly challenging herself, DuBois claims "it's definitely getting easier" to make music. She just wants listeners of The Fever Returns to know this: "I put my whole heart into it."
With the 12 February release date approaching, DuBois took a reflective look, saying, "I feel so thankful that I keep wanting to do this. I feel like in the past, like, four or five years, some kind of window opened up or something. I can't really explain it. I don't know if it might have something to do with getting a little older and your perspective kind of fits a little bit. I'm excited to have this where other people can hear it and experience it. I'm equally as excited to let it be something that inspires me further for the next thing that I record. It's really what keeps me going, I guess."
She doesn't even mind that Dixon, her "go-to producer", drops the self-titled NRCSSST album on the same day as The Fever Returns. His side project with professional and personal partner Stephanie Luke, drummer of the Coathangers, gets a 100 percent approval rating on both fronts from DuBois, who exclaims, "I love her!" before adding, "It's great. The way that turned out is just kind of perfect for the both of them."
When Dixon teased DuBois about their dueling projects (they even share drummer Chandler Rentz), she took the high road by responding, "Dude, what can I say? That's a lot of good music coming out on one day." The feel-good sport also finds humor in the fact that she has to compete with another music artist from Tennessee who uses K. Michelle as her stage name — a period being the only discernible difference among the letters.
When it's pointed out that she took possession of that name long before 38-year-old Kimberly Michelle Pate cut hers, DuBois acknowledges that quip ("Thank you very much"), punctuated by another laugh. More flabbergasting is KMD's own personal discovery regarding KMP, the R&B singer/reality TV performer from Memphis who appeared a couple of seasons on Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, of all places.
"My profile on Pandora, with my music, my albums, has her picture and her bio," DuBois states with a booming cackle. I'm like, 'OK, whatever.' You know, maybe it will make some people accidentally stumble upon me." The bio under DuBois' name describes "a proficient soul-rooted R&B vocalist further distinguished by frank and witty songwriting." That latter half might apply to both singer-songwriters, but even if Pandora never realizes the differences between the two until correcting such a huge mistake, K Michelle DuBois will be A-OK.
She doesn't need a punctuation mark to know who's the real ethereal deal.