Michael League is a 4X GRAMMY Award-winning multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, record label founder, composer, producer, arranger, and so on. League is the leader and founder of big band groups Snarky Puppy and Bokanté, while also contributing to a wide range of artists including David Crosby, Esperanza Spalding, Michael McDonald, Kirk Franklin, Jacob Collier, Laura Mvula, Chris Potter, TOKiMONSTA, Susana Baca, and more.
In addition to being a prominent performer and composer, League also founded the independent record label GroundUP Music. Founded in 2012, GroundUP is the home to a roster of over 25 artists including the legendary David Crosby of Crosby, Stills & Nash, GRAMMY-nominated artist Becca Stevens, as well as the solo projects of various Snarky Puppy members.
In his newest release and debut solo album So Many Me, Michael League shifts from collaborator and team member to solo artist. We spoke with Michael about this shift, what led him to pursue a solo body of work, and the various hats he wears as a business owner and prominent performer.
Being a leader of a large ensemble like Snarky Puppy, you’re often collaborating with numerous musicians at a time. What made you decide that pursuing a solo album would be your next project?
It definitely wasn’t the plan at all. I was focused on Snarky Puppy, Bokanté, and other production projects I had lined up. My solo album was kind of a “I’ll-do-it-when-I-don’t-have-anything-else-going-on” kind of thing. Then COVID hit, everything got canceled, and I didn’t have anything else going on…
Did you find it challenging to switch gears from collaboration partner/group member to solo artist? How were those producing/writing sessions different?
Absolutely. I am very used to working with teams and always having other opinions and personalities, sonic and otherwise, in the room. Being the only musician on the record was really, really different for me. I had my co-producer and engineer, Nic Hard, there for most of the recording and mixing sessions, so that was immensely helpful, to say the least. He’s a secret weapon on every project he works on.
But it was definitely different from being able to say, “Hmm, what do you all think?” and getting ten different answers. Being around so many other musicians gives you some element of objectivity, which I had absolutely none of during the recording process. It made me realize why producers will always have a job!
Tell us about the album So Many Me. Is there an overarching theme you wanted to explore or address?
Overall, this record is about people. It’s about the numerous people that live inside of each of us. It’s about what we feel (ugly or otherwise), about how we exist as individuals (“Right Where I Fall”), in duos (“Me, Like You”), or in groups (“In Your Mouth, Best of All Time”). It’s an observational album about humans.
“There’s no place more revealing than the recording studio. It puts all of your faults on display, strips you, breaks you down, and forces you to take a really close look at who and what you are as a musician.”
You impressively play nearly every instrument recorded on the album. Did you pick up any new instruments or skills while recording?
I definitely used the pandemic confinement to practice several instruments that I had been wanting to spend more time on, and subsequently, those instruments appeared on the record. Specifically, I’m referring to guimbri, a Moroccan 3-string bass, and doholla, an Egyptian ceramic darbuka, among others.
But more than anything else, during the recording process, I learned what I’m lacking as a musician. There’s no place more revealing than the recording studio. It puts all of your faults on display, strips you, breaks you down, and forces you to take a really close look at who and what you are as a musician. This was my first time really singing lead vocals, so the learning curve was particularly sharp in that.
Are there pieces on the album that are pretty different or in a whole new direction than what you’ve done before? Did you ever find yourself leaving your musical comfort zone?
In a way, all of these songs took me out of my comfort zone. Being the only person recording, singing lead vocals, putting my name on the record… all of these things were very new for me. But I looked at it as a challenge, and a chance to grow.
I’ve read you find inspiration and influences from a wide range of music, from traditional Jazz to Turkish percussion patterns. Were you influenced or listening to anything in particular when you began writing So Many Me?
It’s funny, the music that most influenced this record would probably be 80’s and 90’s pop (Tears for Fears, XTC) and folkloric music from Morocco and Turkey, specifically for the textures and sound combinations. It’s pretty widespread in terms of influence, but that’s what was in my ears as I was writing and recording So Many Me.
GroundUP Music is almost ten years old! What are a few things you’ve learned over the past few years running GroundUP?
I’ve learned that slow growth is sustainable growth and that having a great team that knows how to work together is the most powerful tool you can have in an organization.
Do you find you have to wear two different hats when it comes to operating a company, while also being a prominent performer?
For sure. But as time goes on, I’m trying to take off the business hat more and not only work “as” an artist, but “think” and “live like” an artist. It can be very difficult to switch between the two mindsets, and there’s always a bit of an acclimation period when you do so.
Tell us about some of the other artists on the GroundUp roster. Who are a few artists people should be checking out?
Well, since I’m essentially A&R for the label, I would honestly say that you should check out all of them. Ha! But to highlight a few who have just released or are about to release albums, I’d definitely recommend giving a serious listen to Becca Stevens. She has three records coming out in the next year with various collaborators.
I’d also say Malika Tirolien, who co-leads Bokanté with me. The Secret Trio (from Turkey, Macedonia, and the USA), and fellow Snarky Puppy members Justin Stanton, Mark Lettieri, and Chris McQueen, all of whom have solo projects out or coming out soon.
What’s something about Michael League that most people might not know? Spit us a fun fact.
When I was in high school, I used to juggle on 10-foot stilts. I think that’s kind of a good analogy for being an indie artist in the music industry in 2021.