Kelly McMichael is a producer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and, as her Bandcamp puts it, “conductor of great musical forces,” based in Saint John’s, Newfoundland. Her new single “Stepping Stone,” off her upcoming debut album, Waves, has all the cinematic, stadium sing-along drama of a great 70s pop rock anthem.
It’s a remarkably ambitious track – multi-phased, impassioned, and riveting, like some dream collab between “Tiny Dancer” Elton John and “The Chain” Fleetwood Mac. A song needs to earn its listeners’ trust in order to take them on such a grand journey – hook them with something catchy or captivating enough to suspend their disbelief, and buy into the song’s world. McMichael’s vocal performance is that hook. She really has some pipes – confident, charismatic and soulful. The single’s cover photo depicts McMichael on a warm lit stage, bent over a piano, leaning back with her arms locked out as though she’s being thrown back by electricity leaping out of the keys. That electrifying energy is a pretty good way to capture the effect of the vocals on “Stepping Stone.”
The instrumental is pretty damn exciting as well. I’m especially impressed by the song’s structure. Its verses and choruses are punchy pop piano, wonderfully twinkling tremolo guitars, snappy mid tempo grooves, and absolutely gut punch vocal harmonies. It’s all ear worm energy and road trip ready melodies. However, at the end of each chorus we hit this wonderfully spacy moment of half time toms, sliding lead guitar, and reverb drenched vocal harmonies that are rich and toothy enough to make Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks jealous as hell. These carry us into this fantastic, mind-opening bridge which brings with it an absolutely ripping guitar solo, and string melodies fit for the zoom out, sunset drive ending of your favorite TV show. For some reason these remind me forcibly of Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, which is about as high of praise as I know how to give. It’s an almost breathtaking passage of music, and a really satisfying climax for the song as a whole.
“Stepping Stone” is written to an old friend and fellow musician who left McMichael behind to chase the dream. McMichael sings, “Friends they come and go/and I hear your song on the radio/I know I was just a stepping stone for you.” Yet she isn’t bitter or jealous. She tells her friend “Working hard in the industry/I thought we’d keep in touch while we live the dream/Cause you were my fam and I’m still yours.” She also includes some really personal details that bring the story to rich vivid life. My favorite of these, sung in haunting, minor harmony, is “won’t you send a wave from California.”
The lyrical narrative works really effectively alongside the instrumental structure of the song. After the track’s incredible instrumental climax, we settle into a last, stripped down verse, and McMichael steps back from the narrative thus far to offer her friend a bit of advice – “Like the wind it keeps on blowing/but if you don’t stick to anyone before you know it/you’ll find you’re a stepping stone too.”