Now more than ever, unsigned artists command a certain kind of respect. They can be experimental, inconsistent, and difficult to define. They answer to nothing but their own whim, free to develop organically and without label-imposed boundaries on creativity.
Todd Michaelsen, under the (yes, unsigned!) alias My Pet Dragon, is one such artist who is the boss of himself. He wrote, produced, and currently stars in First Born, MPD's first, self-released album. A haunting assembly of Indian influenced-electronica, psychedelic rock, and acoustic folk, "First Born" sounds surprisingly expansive and cinematic for a homegrown recording. It occupies a space between the real and the surreal, appearing more like a concept, a way of thinking, than a definable genre of music. Michaelsen aptly describes the album as "a dreamy, ethereal, layered rock/electronic record. It's a collection of tripped-out, late evening/early morning recordings, meant for headphones and late night car rides."
A big contributor to the "dreamy" dialogue is Michaelsen's soaring vocals. Comparisons to Thom Yorke and Jeff Buckley come easily and immediately, but the likeness diminishes the more you listen-and realize that the emotion in his voice stems from a place that is entirely his own. Michaelsen cites Sigur Ros, Nine Inch Nails, Karsh Kale, and Bjork as influences, noting that he likes "the sounds and emotions you can get out of blending organic and electronic elements together."
Michaelsen does this skillfully on the moody, hypnotic "New York Underwater," and the meandering but rhythmic "Space Love 3000" and "Dreamer's Despair," which both layer guitar and vocals with scattered beats into lush, spaced-out soundscapes. But on tracks like "Born on a Sunday," "The Painter," and "First Born King," Michaelsen tones down the production and favors a simple, acoustic folk sound. It's these variations that reflect the versatility of his talent. "My sound is always evolving and changing because that was the original purpose of creating this outlet for myself," says Michaelsen. "If I want to sing a simple, sweet folk song like 'Born on a Sunday,' I will. If I want to make a heavy, tripped-out dance tune with electronics, guitars, and tabla, I'll do that too. It's all within the 'rock' realm."
Listeners across genres have already responded to the album. Michaelsen says DJs are spinning dance track "Dragon's Breath" in clubs, and meanwhile, the acoustic "Soldier's Lullaby" was featured on Neil Young's website. But Michaelsen notes that "the future of MPD will lie somewhere between these worlds."
"Holes in the Sky," the album's epic, final track, is a good representation of MPD's almost paradoxical sound: melodic but haunting; ambient but also intense. For now, Michaelsen not only gets away with the paradoxes, but forges new territory in blending disparate sounds and influences together into a novel experience. "I enjoy music that becomes visual to the listener. Drones, tribal beats, and reverbs all give that feeling to me," says Michaelsen. "I really love music that takes you to another place. Sometimes reality is not the best place for your head to be."