Megan McConnel seemed destined for a career in opera. As a youth, she attended the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan to study that venerable art form. But while she enjoyed the amenities of Interlochen—where she once experienced a poetry slam, a jazz ensemble that covered Radiohead, and a performance of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman... all in one night—McConnel found the lure of the "brash, rusty, powerful voices" of R&B and blues singers such as Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Whitney Houston too seductive to ignore.
"I went through my tween phase with posters of Justin Timberlake and Hanson plastered on my walls like any other girl," McConnel recalls. "But when I heard Big Mama Thornton singing, 'You ain't nothin' but a hound dog,' it was like I found a part of me that I didn't know was missing."
Once one acquires a taste for the gritty, salacious pleasures of the abovementioned vocalists, it's hard to go back to the starch-shirted and technically daunting world of opera. "The worst part about going to Interlochen Arts Academy is that I didn't want to study classical voice, and my teachers knew it," McConnel says. "I became quite the devil child when people started telling me how to sing."
Despite becoming disenchanted with classical training, McConnel nevertheless thinks that that rigorous academic education has helped her on her current career trajectory. "I now have a very strong respect for the arts and for the work ethic," she says. "I developed a loudmouthed inner critic who yells relentlessly if I create something that isn't up to a certain standard. It makes me work toward being my best, which is a longer journey but hopefully has a better destination."
McConnel moved to Seattle from Chicago three years ago and experienced some trepidation about being accepted as "just" a singer in a town renowned for its rock heritage. "This fear forced me to learn piano, songwriting, and producing in a very short amount of time. To my surprise, Seattle has responded enthusiastically to my music and I feel welcome here."
During her time in Seattle, McConnel has found "a couple of kick-ass guys to help" her realize her musical goals. "My drummer, Jesse Whitford, has a musical instinct that most players can only pray to be born with," she says. "My bassist, Mark Sassi, is well versed and well rounded in all things music. I'm interested in meeting more electronic artists; I could spend a lifetime making music on my Mac."
The half dozen songs McConnel has posted on her Sonicbids.com page reveal a singer with robust pipes, which she uses to flamboyantly expressive ends. Her arrangements and instrumentation have an obvious sophistication that comes from serious study in the academy, but McConnel's technical proficiency does not mute her passionate delivery, but rather accentuates it. Her tracks are not simple radio fodder by any means; the artistry involved in these productions is significant. In particular, "Cops and Robbers" and "Classy Girl" feature breathtaking dynamics and severely dramatic melodic contours. The way she extends "girl" in the latter from one syllable to about nine is both astounding and catchy as hell. One can imagine fun-loving teens and composition snobs getting into this music.
R&B is a crowded field with a lot of artists doing similar things, but McConnel has a strategy to stand out among so many singer-songwriters in this vein.
"I write melodies to the tick of my car's left-hand blinking signal," she says. "I make fat beats to the rhythm of my feet stomping on the ground while out walking my dog. Yes, I do start to stomp; I'm sure my neighbors are weirded out, but I can't really help myself. I want to reach out through the noise of the airwaves to speak to people, and the only way you can break through the monotony is by doing something unexpected. I could die happy if a dance song about the atomic bomb played on the radio."
As with any upstart performer, McConnel has had some mishaps along the way. "I wrote what I considered to be my first sexy song," she says. "It was about the war that goes on between the id, the ego, and the superego when in lust. I finally built up enough nerve to perform it at a gig in Seattle, and as soon as I started singing, the audience went from enthusiastic to bewildered and uncomfortable. I tried singing with some swagger and bravado, but the audience became increasingly alarmed.
"I can't tell you what it feels like to have an entire crowd of strangers think you're a pervert," McConnel continues. "I muffled and 'forgot' lyrics until the song died out. The sound guy came up to us afterward, and it turns out the bassist's amp had picked up the signal from a suicide hotline. While I was trying my hardest to be sexy, the entire audience was listening to a guy on the verge of killing himself."