How do you come up with a title for for your album if your record label says that it’s due tomorrow, and absolutely nothing is coming to mind? If you’re Lea Michele, you hold a wine-fueled seance at home, of course.
Well, not a seance, exactly — the 30-year-old pop singer and former Glee star was not trying to channel the deceased, but the spirit of Stevie Nicks. “I poured myself the biggest glass of red wine, I put Fleetwood Mac on my vinyl, I lit candles, and I legit started praying and looking for a sign,” Michele tells Billboard. “I have this incredible book that Stevie Nicks 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.”
The message led Michele to frantically call her best friend, fellow Broadway star Jonathan Groff. “I was like, ‘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.”
For Michele, sophomore album Places, due out later this year, is the rising curtain that she’s been awaiting for her entire solo career. From 2009 to 2015, the New York starred as Rachel Berry on Glee, a cultural phenomenon that produced smash soundtracks and required countless hours of studio sessions from its regular cast. In the penultimate year of its run, Michele released her long-awaited debut album, Louder, on Columbia Records; the 2014 full-length was recorded simultaneously with her Glee covers, and has sold 110,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen Music.
In hindsight, Michele says that balancing her pop debut with the rigors of Glee — as well as the untimely death of Monteith from an overdose in July 2013 — overwhelmed her first album. “It was a lot,” she admits. “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.”
Michele says that the process of creating Places was “so much more personal than the last one,” and that she kept her inner circle small. She holed up in Harmony Studios in West Hollywood with Amanda Berman-Hill, her A&R rep at Sony, and Alexandra Tamposi, a songwriting who worked on Louder. “I didn’t sing with anyone other than those two girls, which created a consistency,” Michele explains. She also used a smaller list of producers compared to Louder, relying heavily on veterans like John Shanks (Van Halen, Bon Jovi) and Toby Gad (Beyonce, Demi Lovato).
Whereas Louder also leaned into Top 40 songwriting — Sia co-wrote lead single “Cannonball,” and Michele says that she was listening to a lot of Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson at the time — Places will cater more to Michele’s powerhouse voice, which was featured in Les Miserables and Spring Awakening on Broadway. Songs like “Love Is Alive,” “Run To You” and “Getaway Car” are designed to be raised-fist sources of inspiration, with Michele not shying away from personal revelations or elongated melismas. Meanwhile, “Hey You” will appear at the end of the album, and although Michele won’t confirm what specifically the song is about, “extremely special and personal” is how she describes it.
“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,” she says. “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.”
For Michele, the most crucial part of the Places rollout depends on something she could not do enough of for Louder: perform live. She’s “hoping” for an extended tour in support of her sophomore LP, but guarantees that, whatever happens, fans will get to see these songs performed live in some fashion.
“I’m a live singer, I come from Broadway, that’s what I do!” she exclaims. “I didn’t really have the opportunity to perform [the Louder] songs for people and get on a stage. Now, I’ve had the time to sit back and go, ‘Who am I? What is my voice? I don’t want to sound like anyone else but me.’
“Fuck it if people don’t like it,” she continues. “This record deserves all of my time and care, and that’s what I plan on doing this year.”