EAU CLAIRE — The title of Jerrika Mighelle’s new album sums up the way she felt about her beloved mother.
More than that, though, “Brightest Star” encompasses, lyrically and sonically, the emotions the Eau Claire singer-songwriter experienced in the wake of Veronica Nelson’s passing. Nelson died suddenly, of a heart attack, just six months before Mighelle released “Like the Sea,” her solo debut, in 2017.
“I started writing songs just to process it all,” Mighelle said during a FaceTime conversation. “I never thought there would be a (follow-up) album that would be about all of it, but these songs just kept coming. Then I got to feeling that the more I shared these songs at live shows, the more it made sense. I felt it was reaching people; it was touching people.”
That burst of creativity seems fitting in that her mother encouraged her music, including the trio QuinnElizabeth, which featured Migelle and her sisters Elizabeth Steans and Jerissa Koenig.
“We kind of grew up and went to college so the band has kind of become something of our past,” Mighelle said. “But my mom would always say, ‘You guys are so good. You cannot stop doing that.’ She was a huge supporter.”
Mighelle added: “She had two dreams in her life: She wanted to be a singer, and she wanted to have a family, be a mother. She became the mother (of eight children), and I guess she passed the singing on to us. So that was her gift to us.”
Steans, who sings on “Brightest Star” and joins Mighelle in concert when she can, is among those moved by the record.
“I strongly believe this album is nothing short of amazing,” she shared in emailed comments. “Though much of the songwriting presents Jerrika’s attempts to heal from her grief, the listener is enveloped in instrumentation, rhythms, and sounds that drip with emotions, grit, and resilience.”
Mighelle shared thoughts about all seven songs, in the order they appear on the album. Following are excerpts of that conversation.
“‘Trouble’ was the last song I wrote for the record, and I finished knowing I was about to go into the studio to record the album. ...
“Trouble was the feeling I had once my mom had passed away. I just felt she was my moral compass, and my moral compass was gone. And I felt trouble was coming; I felt impending doom. ...
“I was writing heavily when my mom passed away. And I went back to that space I was in, like the first line is, ‘I’ve been all alone, nearly lifeless.’ ... So ‘Trouble’ is the song of facing your demons — and what do you do when your moral compass is gone.”
The power of “Trouble,” with Mighelle’s impassioned singing and driving instrumentation, can be seen in the fact that it’s the album opener as well as the closer of the Pablo Streams performance she and the band gave last month.
Mighelle credited Evan Middlesworth, producer of both her solo albums and guitarist on the project, with suggesting the sequence for the “Brightest Star” tracks.
“Knowing that her previous record was solo guitar and vocals, on this one we thought, right out of the gate, give them something new and interesting,” Middlesworth said in a phone conversation. “And ‘Trouble,’ as the first song for me, it just really sets a vibe, and it kind of helps set the tone. And it also helps to introduce a new sonic experience for Jerrika’s listeners. It’s kind of like zero to 100 in about a second.”
‘Banks on the River’
“The first line is ‘Banks on the river/you held my hand so I wouldn’t shiver.’ It’s just about how my mom was always my caretaker. And when I needed time and space to discover who I am without the interruption of (the) world and being an adult, she would be my place I could go to. And she would take care of me and let me figure out what’s going on in my head — how do I navigate who this person Jerrika is in the world, and she’d always have useful advice. And so that song is all about the role she played in my life and how do I carry on in my life.”
“That song was probably one of the first ones ... I wrote that when I was in the darkest place. The first line is, ‘I’ve never needed saving more than right now,’ and that was a line that came to me, and I couldn’t let it go, it was with me for days. And then I wrote this song in a blur; I don’t even remember it. It was a moment where I escaped, like my mind was gone and something else took hold of my pen and my hand playing guitar, and out it came.”
‘With or Without You’
“It’s optimistic. That is one song I wrote before she died. That one I wanted in there because when I originally wrote it, I think I might have been singing about someone else. But after my mom passed away, the meaning changed. The song’s still relevant; just the meaning changed and adjusted with my life. And it felt important to put on there because I know my mom wouldn’t want my growth and development and my existence in this life to be stopped or stalled in any way because of her.”
So that song is like her talking to me, ‘With or without you, it’ll be OK. You can keep going on.’”
The song came to Mighelle while watching a nature documentary about elephants. The film conveyed that elephants can remember things that were passed down, genetically, by their ancestors.
“I thought, well, that’s true for elephants; that might be true for humans in some capacity. So I played with that idea … This song is about the trauma that we feel that we inherit from our mothers, women in particular, inherit from their mother and our mother’s mother. And we walk around with this pain, and we don’t know why we’re feeling this pain. … So It’s about inheriting that and wondering when we’re going to be free of that.”
A live version of “Oh Mama” can be seen on Mighelle’s Facebook page, YouTube channel and Instagram account. It’s from the livestream show performed last month from the Jamf Theatre stage in Pablo Center at the Confluence. It features Middlesworth on guitar and Shane Leonard on drums. Here is a link to the video on Facebook: tinyurl.com/2h64e4wj.
“I started thinking about things my mom taught me, how energy never dies, how she then will never die. She always said she’s infinite; she’ll never die. And, if energy never dies, then how do I reach you now that you’re not a physical form? … There’s a line in it: ‘Is there a map of lessons that will lead me to you?’ ...
“She always taught me so much. And I love that line too. And now she’s the brightest star. But I still miss her, like, why do I still miss you so much, even though you’re the brightest star?”
The album’s title song also stands out for Steans.
“I remember Jerrika started sharing lines from ‘Brightest Star’ as she wrote them, which began almost a year after our mom passed away,” Steans wrote. “The line that stands out most is ‘when you left, you became everything. Oh then why, my dear love, am I still missing you?’ The weeks that followed our mother’s death, it felt like her fingers were the wind in my hair, the twinkle of her eye was seen in the lightning bugs’ light show, and the warmth of her hugs could be felt in the sunrise.”
Steans also shared that the song touched her as she was coping with another devastating loss.
“When Jerrika finally recorded the song at Evan’s studio (almost 2 years ago), I just started grieving the death of my husband,” she wrote. “These song lyrics resonate with me as a widow, and I was so fortunate for Jerrika to allow me to sing harmonies for the recording in the way that I did. At first, Jerrika wanted me to mimic her angelic sound on the song, but she’s always known that I convey raw emotions in my singing and basically said, ‘you got to sing it how you feel it.’ Therefore, my distant harmonies play a supporting role stemming from my own fresh pain and loss.”
“It’s just about a moment. I met this person, it was out of this world, we exchanged a beautiful night together. And it’s just writing about that vividly. It happened two weeks after my mom passed away, and it was exactly what I needed to just shake me and remind me that magic still exists in the world. ... It’s kind of a love song, but it’s connected to my mom because I felt like in some capacity, in some way, she helped manifest that moment.”
Mighelle expounded on why Middlesworth’s sequencing of the record delighted her.
“He’s a wonderful musical collaborator for me,” she said, explaining how he found the right place for moments such as the evocation of deep loss on the attention-grabbing “Trouble” at the outset, a bit of optimism near the middle on “With or Without You” and the ending of “One Night,” which, she said, “makes the listener feel like they’re a part of something really intimate.”
“And it’s a gentle letting go too,” she added. “So I was like, ‘Evan you’re right, you get it, that’s perfect.’’”
The new album shares a lyrical approach with her solo debut “Like the Sea,” she said, but sonically the two projects diverge.
“The first one is just vocals and guitar, my sisters Elizabeth and Jerissa and I singing,” she said. “And I love that simplicity, and I wouldn’t mind doing another album like that again because, to be honest, that’s how I play shows. Its always just me and my guitar, and hopefully my sisters join me when they can — there’s always an open invitation.”
Mighelle wanted “Brightest Star” to be an evolution, including a full band, and to again work with Middlesworth, owner of Pine Hollow studio.
Considering his experience with both albums, Middlesworth talked about the sonic differences between “Brightest Star” and the earlier “Like the Sea.”
“The beautiful thread between the two is obviously Jerrika herself,” he said. “I’ve known Jerrika now for several years, seen her perform countless times. Every single time it’s been her and acoustic guitar, and it’s magnetic, just pulls me right in as a listener. And that’s all just with her voice and her guitar and her melodies.”
Her voice and guitar serve as a strong starting point, Middlesworth continued.
“You kind of approach it like, we can move forward knowing that we can take everything out and this song will still be very gravitational, there will be a pull with Jerrika’s voice. Then you can just have fun saying, ‘What can we do to support what she’s already doing, just to elevate what she’s doing?’ Definitely not get in the way of, but how can we just kind of hang out as a band behind her and create things from a production standpoint.”
A friend told Middlesworth that the album could be seen as a lookbook, a collection typically created to showcase the work of photographers or fashion models.
“There’s a lot of different kinds of styles going on, not just one similar sound,” he said.
Not long before Mighelle’s mother died, she asked all of her children what they wanted of hers when the time came.
The conversation struck Mighelle as uncomfortable, but she eventually said she would like all of Nelson’s books and writings, as she was a prolific writer.
“In fact, when I wrote ‘Grief Song,’ I was staring at her bookshelf full of her books that she had left me,” she said. “And I have all of her writings too. I haven’t gone through all of it because I feel like I have to get there, you know. “
Mighelle knows that will take some time.
“I’m still getting there, and I go through some things sometimes. But she loved philosophy and studying and studying culture, and she left me a lot of wisdom.”
To listen to “Brightest Star” is to know Mighelle is honoring her mother’s memory by sharing that wisdom.