When the first tune you sing in public is Twinkle, Twinkle perhaps your destiny in showbusiness is written in the stars – and growing up with parents as singers, Michelle Newell’s natural inclination was to follow in their footsteps.
The 27-year-old singer has supported the likes of Candi Staton, and with the funk band she fronts The Leonard Jones Potential playing at the 50th birthday of DJ Carl Cox her soulful voice certainly makes her stand out from the rest in the ultra-competitive music industry.
But as well as her funk fans, she has a much younger set of devotees... running Musical Steps classes for toddlers she’s something of a Pied Piper to Highland kids, who hang on her every note.
And now the mum-of-two’s set to embark on a whole new musical journey with the release of her first solo single as ‘Meeshelle’ on the Magic Soul Productions label.
We are dining at the North Kessock Hotel, a favourite for Michelle, and a hark back to her own childhood, growing up in an Easter Ross hotel where she used to listen to her parents perform as a musical duo. But her own stage fright almost stopped her career in its tracks.
“I first started singing in the pub at the Moorings Hotel in Muir of Ord when I was tiny, I remember there was a village community show and I think I was five and I sang Twinkle, Twinkle – but I was so nervous as a child, really really nervous – until maybe halfway through second year at school the nerves really did get the better of me when I was singing.
“I was always shy, but loved singing and really wanted to do it
– but just didn’t have the confidence at all.
“The first production I took part in was a Dingwall Players pantomime The Wizard of Oz, I was a munchkin, the biggest munchkin there, but I didn’t have the confidence to audition for any other part.
“But... I obviously have a loud voice and it was heard... and the next year I was asked to audition for a main part, so I think that pushed me on to go for it and then I got the part of Robin Hood, the next year, so my confidence grew from that.
“Mum and dad were a band. They met when mum was 16 and throughout the whole of my life, every weekend, mum was doing karaoke. They played as a duo, mum had a drum machine, played guitar, sang – what a voice she’s got – and dad played the accordion. They had a really nice sound, traditional Scottish, country, up-tempo ones – one of dad’s favourites to play was Reach For The Stars by S Club 7 – it sounded brilliant though!
‘They were called the two G’s - they’re Gill and George - Davidson”.
Michelle’s own confidence began to grow as she performed in a school band and then further gigs followed with her next band, Minus Another. But just as she found her performing feet again, a college course pulled the rug from under her.
“I moved down to Glasgow and the band split, I did a performing musical theatre course at Stow College, but it didn’t go very well.
“It just wasn’t for me, I went there with really high expectations and it knocked my confidence a lot and I didn’t do any singing. It was the same college as two of The Cinematics and they ended up getting signed, they were my college band, so I felt completely lost and I dropped out of that course as well.
“Then I was going to audition for a band and I just couldn’t do it. I don’t know what happened, I think, coming from Inverness, I was so young, I was 17 when I moved down and it was very competitive. I just wanted to do it because I enjoyed it.
“In the musical theatre course we were told on the first day – ‘Nobody’s your friend in here. You are all competing for the same things.’ That really scared me! Coming from Inverness, everyone’s supportive, so I didn’t like that.
“I moved back up – my best mate Sara Bills was in a band called Lowtide Revelry and they had just lost a singer – she was like, come and have a sing with us. I was so nervous, meeting up with the band in the Market Bar before and I couldn’t even speak to anyone – but then that was me in Lowtide!”
Michelle had four years with the band, a highlight of which was supporting The Stranglers, and playing the Inverness Hogmanay concert.
The encouragment of others who had belief in her talents built her back up and she was asked to join The Leonard Jones Potential, named after a scientific formula. The chemistry obviously clicked as she’s still there seven years later.
A famous champion of the band has been BBC Radio 6Music’s Craig Charles and they have played a session for him in Manchester... now he’s keeping a keen eye on her emerging solo career.
Having the honour of being the first signing on the new label established by some of her LJP bandmates, Magic Soul Productions, her first single Take The Time has just been released.
“It’s still very soulful but quite mood music, very stripped back, loungy, a lot more grown up – I am growing up!
“We’ve got plenty more in the pipeline, an album’s worth. The B-side is a cover of The Cure’s Love Song, and it’s so different. I’m just delighted with it. We’ve lots of plans to do a lot more original material and the next single we’re hoping to release before the end of the year.”
And this Highland songbird is looking to spread her wings even further.
‘We’ve got a lot of interest down South, I’m really hoping to do festivals next year. And there’s always talk about the South of France, Italy – that kind of music is appreciated so much there.
“Andy Pearce from the label has contacts in America as well, who are really keen to work with us – so globally, from Inverness, my music could be going all over the world.
“To do anything like this I thought it’d have to be down South, but the production company are really keen to tap into local talent. It’s so nice to be able to do it here while being a mum, having my day job, and getting this opportunity – I couldn’t ask for more.”
But while Michelle’s singing career goes from strength to strength, her family will always take centre stage, with Scarlett (3) and Pollyanna (1) the lights of her life, along with husband Thom.
As we chat above the buzz of the busy North Kessock Hotel restaurant Michelle says she loves to visit for lunches, especially with the children, who love the waterside setting. And the personal touch is evident, with owner and chef Darren McLaughlin on hand to tailor menu recommendations to tastes.
And her own culinary skills? It seems when it comes to the kitchen, it’s hospital worker and photographer husband Thom who’s the hit.
“I never used to be a great cook at all, but since I had the little ones, I just kind of started experimenting, although I have always been told that Daddy’s cooking is better than Mummy’s – I’ve been told that from the word go, from pretty much everybody, but I do try my best!”
And when it comes to a taste for tunes, tots Scarlett and Pollyanna are of course following in mum’s musical steps. “Pollyanna could sing before she could say ‘Dada’ – she was la la la-ing, she’s definitely going to be a singer, and Scarlett loves singing and dancing.
“They are wee sponges so the sooner the better I’ll get teaching them music. The children I teach can tell me what a crescendo is, forte, piano, a sforzando – it’s when music’s playing and there’s a sudden ‘crash’!”
Having been such a shy child herself, Michelle feels the confidence her classes instils in youngsters is invaluable.
“In the social aspect and in music, the children all get to know each other, get a chance to do a wee solo if they want to, and their confidence grows. Kids start to take their turn, when in the first week they were hiding behind their parents.”
Michelle says her ultimate dream is to provide a nice life for her family through the music that she makes.
“I’ll definitely still sing with the LJP. The majority of guys have their full-time professions so it’s a hobby for them, so that’s why maybe I do need to venture elsewhere, to make a name and make a bit of money for my family – in the band there are eight of us, so any money we make doesn’t go far. At the end of the day it’s all about providing for my family, I’ve got all these people behind me who believe in me, and sometimes that’s all you need. I just hope it can all go the right way!”
Well with such talent and positivity, if there’s any justice in the music world, generations of tiny Highland tots will grow up to tell their kids that the famous singer basking in the limelight once taught them their la la las...
Meeshelle’s single Take The Time is now out on iTunes