A League of Her Own: Inside the World of Michele Van Kleef

Women in music, the Marriage of Figaro, and life on the road

Michele Van KleefSinger-songwriter Michele Van Kleef has already accomplished what most indie musicians dream of—touring with a successful band; opening up for award-winning acts like Train, Sarah McLachlan, and Ani DiFranco; and getting prime placement in some of the most popular shows on TV.

And yet through all of this, Michele remains grounded, focused, and dedicated to the music—fixing her place in the pop-rock world, and adding to the beautifully complex catalogue of women in music.

She started singing at a very early age, developing her own style from a full and eclectic background singing in a folk trio, performing in high school musicals, and receiving formal classical training in college—in opera.

“I was in The Marriage of Figaro—I played Susanna,” Michele explains. “I still have quite a love for the Italian arias. I sang all different languages in school. I still do that, I’m teaching that now, and I have a huge appreciation for it.”

It was during this time that Michele turned to crafting her own songs and defining her sound. “As a songwriter, it’s a completely different world. After college, I joined the band Calobo, and then everything about music was completely turned around for me. So I learned both sides of this world of music that we have by having five years of college strictness, and then eight years of being with the band on tour. So it’s a really great balance and huge range of experience.”

Van Kleef's broad range of vocal styles spans blues, jazz, pop, opera, and folk. Her work has had placement in the hit reality series Keeping Up with the Kardashians; the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and spoof Walk Hard; on TV in 90210, VH1, Fox, NBC, T-Mobile, Lifetime, and MTV; and in Starbucks coffee houses worldwide.

When asked about women in music who have influenced her, Michele names a range of artists bridging decades and crossing over genres—Carly Simon, Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Nicks, Heart, and many more. She has become known for incorporating songs into her shows that normally wouldn’t be expected to fit together, keeping things fresh and putting her own spin on classic tunes—like the time she covered Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” leading right into Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away.”

“You can’t get more different than those two songs next to each other. But I like that. I can sing both things in completely their vein and their style, and I love to do that. It’s my show, so let’s do it. Why not?”

Michele Van Kleef is a creative hard worker who considers herself lucky—lucky in what she does, and lucky in whom she’s been able to work with. Discussing being a woman in the music world, Michele says, “I haven’t had too many doors shut in front of me [because of being a woman]—I haven’t really had that problem. The men I’ve worked with have been nothing but respectful, and I’ve worked almost solely with men. They’ve all been fantastic people.”

Michele is currently working on her next full-length studio album, with a working title of Under the Radar, a mix of acoustic and full band songs. The songs featuring her full band were recorded live in the studio with the band playing all together at the same time, with the same musicians who normally support her. The album also features Michele's Calobo bandmate and country string band artist Caleb Klauder playing mandolin on a tune.

Just as impressive as her music is Michele herself—keeping who she is and why she makes music at the very core of things. That’s one of the many qualities that impressed Ladies Rise Up and Rock founder and music promoter Carl J. Mancuso, who knew once he had found Michele that he needed to look no further for Portland’s headliner.

“To celebrate women in music—it’s so important,” Michele says about the concert series. “I read an interesting thing not too long ago about how women really began singing and performing, and that was when the men were away at war, and I thought—how interesting. Out of necessity almost, women started performing. They were always musical, but it was never ‘their place’ so to speak.

“We’ve come so, so far, and all these women have come out and been so strong and told their stories. So now, to do a show like this, that spans such a time frame—it’s exciting, and it’s absolutely an honor to be part of Ladies Rise Up and Rock,” Michele says. “I think it’s important to be a role model to young ladies. To show them you can sing any way you want to. It’s ok to try all these different styles. You can do that. You can do anything.”

Catch Michele Van Kleef performing live at Ladies Rise Up: A History of Women in Music at the Alberta Rose Theatre in Portland, OR on Friday, April 11, 2014 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, go to bit.ly/MvLHRC. For more information on Michele, visit www.michelevankleef.com

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