BWW Interviews: John Michael Presney of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET Talks Tour, Music and Living his Dream
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by Kathy Strain
John Michael Presney is currently on tour with MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET travelling throughout the United States. He shares with Broadway World his dreams and music and he discusses his future too.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up right outside of Springfield, Illinois about 3 hours outside of Chicago and my family always did theater and the whole spectrum of arts but it wasn't a rock and roll family. I had a cousin that played guitar and that was the anti-everything we did. I grew up liking everything. I picked up a guitar when I was in grade school and that was the path that I took. I went to school for acting and now making my living playing music again.
Where did you first start singing professionally?
I sang at a Miss Illinois pageant when I was like 17. So I guess you could say that was it. Otherwise, I did some summer stocks and that sort of thing.
How did you get started with MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET?
I had just graduated from college and my agent called me. I had just started working with them. He knew I was a guitar player. I lived in Chicago where the show started but I had never seen it. I went and saw the show and I left. I immediately called some Friends and I am like, "Guys, I have to get this. It's the real deal. It's a real band." It treats the music with reverence as opposed to some shows we've seen take classic rock songs and doctor them up. This was kind of raw and gritty. I went in for it in Chicago and did one audition and that was it. A month later we were in New York rehearsing.
What is your role?
I'm the standby for Carl Perkins. I also do assistant stage managing with the show. Primarily, so I can go to press events and other things and help take care of the guitars. We travel with something like 12 guitars and that needs constant care; keeping them all happy as we change climates. So I am able to take care of those. And (I) do other stage managing things at the theater too but it allows me to do instrument management.
How long have you been on the tour? And how long to you plan to stay with the tour?
We started last September (2012) in New York for three weeks. Since last October; we opened in Cleveland. Currently, I am contracted midway through May and who knows after that. We'll see.
Tell us a little bit about your own music. It says on your website: "John Michael's music lies somewhere in the middle of urban edge and country soul; between concrete and fields, steel and trees - but so does he." What does that mean to you?
I think anyone that grew up in a small town or the country will know what I mean by this - there's space; there's quiet, it's slower. There's something wonderful and inspiring about rolling fields and golden corn and blue sky - the Heartland. I think that's why so much of what we might call "Americana" or even Country music stems from places like that. It really pulls on that rootsy thread. On the other side, living in a huge city, you're surrounded by steel and concrete. It's loud. There are trains and sirens and the people can be deafening. Everybody moves faster; is a little more on edge. It's more immediate; dirtier. I'm very influenced and inspired by location. I'd rather be in the middle of nowhere but I can't get by without the energy and grit of the city. I think that contradiction shows up in my songs - not so much lyrically, but stylistically speaking. At least I hope it does.
Tell us a little about your new EP, "The Nighttime and the Dawn."
I started writing new things influenced by constant travel and living out of hotel rooms and dealing with that lifestyle. All of a sudden these new sets of songs started emerging. We booked a recording studio in Salt Lake City. It didn't quite get finished there. Then (we) went into a studio in LA; a couple of guys from the show and I did. Turned out that the studio we ended up at was called The Cave. It was Cecil B DeMille's old house in Beverly Hills. Billy Bob Thorton owns the studio. We got hooked up with a great engineer and producer who is now a very dear friend, J.D. Andrew. We finished up there and it just kept evolving and evolving and becoming a bigger and bigger thing. Now it's finally out and we're going to be doing shows with it and promoting it and seeing where it goes. We're going to go back hopefully next summer and expand upon it and do a full length with mostly the same band. Then start touring hard with it. We (did) a show in D.C. with a couple of other guys in the show that have bands. Most of the guys in the show have bands.
I find it great that the performers in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET are musicians as well as actors. There is so much talent.
It's a live band. Everything you hear is exactly what you're seeing onstage. There's no hidden musicians. There's no trickery. It is a few guys up there with instruments. If that's lacking, the whole thing falls apart. Audiences are smart and know if you're not really playing. They know if you're faking it. These are iconic songs. If that lick isn't right or if that style's not right it sticks out. That show is about the music. We're paying reverence and hopefully educating about these luminaries. If it's not perfect, the whole thing doesn't work. They have to go after high level, high quality musicians and not that the rest of it's secondary. You also have to be an actor. You have to look right for it. Again, we all know what these guys look like so there is a lot that goes into casting the show.
If you hadn't become a singer, what would you have done?
I don't know. I've never been one for back-up plans. I don't think I ever had one. When I was younger it was great. My family said, "You can go to school for music or theatre." But I wanted to find another major too. But from the time I was about 15 or 16, I didn't want to because so frequently if you have a back-up plan, it's so easy to fall back on it. These are all hard careers, hard professions. I thought for myself swinging without a net would be more beneficial for me. Hopefully it continues to work out that way.
Do you have any advice for anyone who is pursuing a career in singing?
Make the hard decisions. If you have two paths and one of them seems easier and maybe the sure bet and the other one is scary or is intimidating; usually that's the side with the bigger pay-off. I don't think you get anywhere by playing it safe.
PHOTO CREDIT: Rosie Cohe