Light In The Darkness: Wisconsin Folk Pop Songwriter Jerrika Mighelle Discusses Her Sentimental Upcoming Album ‘Brightest Star’ & Much More

We all cope with loss somehow.

For Jerrika Mighelle, and many others for that matter, that mechanism is through the power and magic of music. And in her case, it’s writing a mix of folk, pop, and roots-rock songs in her beloved home of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Mighelle’s heartfelt sophomore album, Brightest Star, is set for release next week, Wednesday February 24th. It’s a deeply personal record that deals with grief, remembrance, and consolation.

We had the chance to chat in-depth with Mighelle about the new record and much more.

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So I was hoping you could talk about your upbringing, and when you started writing and playing music?

I grew up in a very large family. I have seven siblings, all from the same mother, and we moved around as a family when we were younger. I was born in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, but then when I was two years old, we moved to Utah. So I got to experience the richness of that area for a little while. We moved to California when I was about five years old, and then we came back to Wisconsin when I was about seven. So in my years of young adolescence, I grew up out West and came back here to the cold.

And I didn’t play music at that youthful age. It was a passion to listen to music, but I thought I was going to be the first woman to play men’s baseball. I was obsessed with baseball. And I followed that dream until I was in my early 20’s. I didn’t join a men’s league, I played semi-pro women’s baseball for a short time for a team in South Bend, Indiana, called the Blue Sox. I didn’t even get into music until I was 24, when my sister Elizabeth was discovering her passion, and she was creating and writing music. I was super interested in it but I was still pretty excited about baseball at the time. Elizabeth became a solo artist. My other sister Jerissa and I went to a West African drumming concert that was on campus at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. From that show, Jerissa and I fell in love with the hand drums, or the djembe. Somehow we convinced Elizabeth to allow us on stage with her to play backup drums for her.

From there we became the trio, ‘Quinn Elizabeth’, after adding harmonies to this sound. When we began harmonizing, I was always singing the low notes. Up until that point, I had just been playing djembe. I started writing a little bit of music for the band, and it wasn’t until I fell in love with a guitar when I was living in Colorado, that I realized the passion for the music just took over me. We went to this music store and it was like love at first sight. I could not stop thinking about it. It’s the only guitar that I have ever owned, and I still write songs on it today. That break out feeling, when I started to finally put my own lyrics to melody with a guitar on my own. Whereas before I would be writing lyrics and sending them to my sister Elizabeth, who was the lead singer of the band, saying, “hey, try to make something out of this”. But that’s how I got into the solo act and then writing, writing, and writing.

What position did you play in baseball?

I was a pitcher and short-stop. 

Ahh right on- a few of the more premier positions.  

(Laughs) Yes those are very popular, what with catching the ball all the time. 

What artist or artists had the most profound effect on you as you were coming of age?

Patty Griffin. I love her and she is still highly influential. Her songwriting and her powerful vocals have always had me in awe. And I feel her songwriting. I feel her words and I have always been impressed by her. Peter Gabriel is another artist that we all grew up listening to and loved his very diverse sound. Tracy Chapman – I love Tracy Chapman. Her socially conscious songs felt like she was constantly telling my story. I still feel so connected to her lyrics, growing up.

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What does your songwriting process look like? Is it more of a structured routine, more catching lightning in a bottle, or a mix of both? 

It’s probably more like catching lightning in a bottle, just because I don’t have a schedule where every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday I’m sitting down and writing. It’s not like that, it’s when I feel it. And then if I’m lucky enough, a verse will come to me while I’m playing guitar. So far, my songwriting has started with working out the melody on guitar first. It hasn’t been the other way around with the lyrics coming to me first. Not yet, at least. That’s the way I have done it, but lately I was lucky enough to take a songwriter master class with Mary Gauthier last September. One of the benefits of the pandemic is that so many things are virtual now. I never would have been able to go down to Nashville where she usually holds the master class. Every Saturday last September, I was fortunate enough to take a class from her. And since then I have written four songs. What an experience taking this songwriting master class with Mary! She is wonderful.

I was hoping you could talk about your new album Brightest Star. I see that it touches on grief and remembrance. I was hoping you could elaborate on that.

I started writing two of the songs on the album prior to my mom’s passing, but she died in 2016. My mother and I had been living together. We were just very close, best friends, best pals, and suddenly I was constantly alone. I had nothing for comfort except my guitar, and my music, and that was beautiful therapy. And the songs – I began writing songs as they helped me process the enormous events taking place in my life and sadness. So that’s how the album was born. The biggest part of it is just my mom.

What feelings and messages do you hope listeners take away from the album?

I hope that it reaches people who have experienced loss and it helps give them comfort in the idea, and the possibility, that those who have passed are still with us, and we can still reach them. Every time I sing, especially songs from this album, I try to hold her so close in my heart so I can try to reach her. My latest single release, “Brightest Star”, which is the title track, is all about asking that question – how do I reach you? My mother said energy never dies. She was a philosopher, a prolific writer, and she was always reading and researching. And one of the things she spoke about was that energy never dies. I will never die. So the song “Brightest Star, is essentially, “Ok, if energy doesn’t die Mom, if you are somewhere in some capacity, then how do I reach you?”. I had played the song live, pre-pandemic, and people have come up to me and asked about the thought behind the music.

And while it might be like picking a favorite child, do you have a song or two that either means the most to you or you’re most excited for fans to hear? I have a feeling “Brightest Star” might be up there?

Yes, that’s definitely up there. But I was very excited to share the song, “Trouble”, which was my first single release. I was so excited about that because of how unique it is – it’s like a breakaway from my usual style because it’s heavy, it’s rootsy, it’s gritty, it’s raw. My vocals on the song reaching a another level for me, with a feeling of 100% healing too. I was excited to share the song “Trouble” just because I have never played it live and it’s so unique. And yes, “Brightest Star” holds so much meaning for me. You’re right – it is kind of like trying to pick your favorite child, there’s just something wonderful about all of them.

The other one I actually really love and was probably my favorite for a long time is called the “Grief Song”. That was a song I wrote when I was in the depths of my sadness, and I just feel like the lyrics hit that emotion in me. When you write something and you look back at what you wrote, it’s wild to feel like “wow, I didn’t know that was in me”.

And “Grief Song”, that came out of me in a blur. I remember sitting on the floor staring at a bookshelf, but that’s the only memory of me I have writing it-I don’t remember the rest of it. 

Where was it recorded and who else might’ve helped it come to life?

I recorded it in the countryside here in Eau Claire in a place called Pine Hollow, owned by Evan Middlesworth. He also recorded my first album, Like the Sea. So Evan produced it, mixed it, and edited it. He also played the electric guitar on it and piano, so he wore a lot of hats. He was so gracious and wonderful about it. And then I had Shane Leonard play drums on it. Shane is an old dear friend of mine.

It’s funny, you know how I said I fell in love with the djembe by watching the concert on campus? I actually joined that group eventually and this is how I met Shane Leonard 16 years ago maybe. So I met Shane when he was in college and he was in that group too and he moved on. He’s a producer himself and has played with many national artists. But he moved back to Eau Claire recently and I was like “oh my gosh will you please play drums for me”. So it was nice to have another friend join me too. 

How do you know when you have a quality song ready to be cut and distributed? And how difficult is the process of shelving it and making it a single?

I feel like when I play songs in front of a live audience, that’s how I gauge my next song. Asking myself, was it something that they liked? Or was it just fun for me in the moment of performing? Over time, I was beginning to understand that “Grief Song”, “Brightest Star”, and a song called “Oh Mama” – people were responding to these songs. And that the songs would help me tell the story of my mother passing and the processing of grief. For me there was no humming and hawing. It was obvious that these were the songs that were going to be on the album, “Brightest Star”. There are some other tracks that could’ve been, but they didn’t match with the vibe of this album. They didn’t match that this collection of songs are for my mom. They will be on the next album then maybe.

So how would you describe to those who don’t know, like myself for example, the Eau Claire music scene, or even broader, the Wisconsin music scene?

Yeah, I know the Eau Claire scene very well since I was born into it basically. And I find it’s a very special town because there are so many talented artists. And it’s not just musicians; there are recording studios and producers like Evan Middlesworth, and there are people who will roll up their sleeves and help. We are creating a music economy here. The people who have done all of the graphics, the web design, the album art – they live and work here too.

Eau Claire and Wisconsin itself as a whole, is a very supportive community for the arts. Here we have our own music scene, and then there are also the cities of Milwaukee and Madison that have great music happening there too. But there is not a lot of cross pollination between towns for some reason, I’m not sure why. That’s not to say there’s a lack of talent. Eau Claire likes to call itself the ‘music capital’ of the North. It’s a name that has come about, with so many artists hailing from the city, like Justin Vernon and Phil Cook. As well as music festivals, like Eaux Claires and Blue Ox Music Festival. So we’re doing our best to live up to it. One more thing I would like to add, is that my album was recorded, produced, mixed, and mastered here. Everything was done here in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, except for the discs being manufactured – we don’t offer that. 

What are one or two pinnacle moments for you as an artist?

The first thing that comes to mind is that I opened up for the artist, Michael Perry, who is also a New York Times best selling author, and lives in our area. Just sharing the stage with Michael Perry and the Long Beds at The Park Theater in Hayward, Wisconsin, was such an inspiration. Artists such as Suzy Bogguss, Charlie Parr and Randy Sabien have all performed at The Park. 

Being able to take a songwriting class from Mary Gauthier has been an important experience in my musical life too. Learning about the emotional process of expression through lyrics, collaboration and honing in on the songwriting craft and development of the melody has been profound for me.

While it’s difficult to make any concrete plans these days, what might you be working on or towards for spring, summer, and beyond? 

I’m working on creating a livestream. I want to do virtual live streams from my own home, probably every Sunday around 10 o’clock. That’s how I’d like to get my music out there and build a following, or continue to build one. That’s all I can see that’s possible for me right now, and I love what I’ve seen from other artists who have been doing it.

There’s an artist, I think it’s Joe Pug- he does a podcast called The Working Songwriter, and he does a weekly livestream, and it’s so cool that he built this cool community of people, and I would just love the opportunity to do the same thing. 

Eau Claire itself has given me so many opportunities as well. I have had the good fortune to be able to perform a few times at the Pablo Center at the Confluence for the Arts. I will be having my album release show at this venue and the Pablo Center has supported me wonderfully. 

And is that going to be the day of release then?

It will be taking place the following day, on Thursday, February 25th at 6:30PM CT as part of the Pablo Steams series.

And lastly, are you tentatively making tour/show plans?

I haven’t even thought about touring or performing yet until perhaps the end of the summer. However, I would love to perform at some outdoor festivals, but I haven’t even attempted tour plans to support the new album yet. I’ve seen so many artists do it and then reschedule and reschedule again. As artists and venues across the world, we are in “wait and see” mode. So thankfully, I feel we have the advantage of virtual live streaming at the moment, and it has the ability to reach more people than we could ever imagine.

Photos by Serena Wagner

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