Music

Song Premiere: Michelle Billingsley's 'Once in a While'

Lyndon French

"Once in a While," the latest song shared from Michelle Billingsley's debut album Not the Marrying Kind, out June 12 on Western Myth Records, teams the Chicago-based singer-songwriter with fellow band leader Wild Earp. No one's going to confuse this particular example of the pair's harmonies with those of Emmylou Harris and Don Williams, but that's by design. A song about the insecurities that arise in a relationship works best as an out of sync conversation, and Billingsley and Earp prove their storytelling chops by nailing the right level of disconnection.

For the song's premiere, Billingsley passed along a backstory that stands on its own.

If you haven't ever sat up, late at night, stoned out of your brain trying to think of the one-in-a-million shot where this hookup and you will turn into a thing, who are you?

The idea for "Once in a While" came from the perfect hookup--irregular, unpredictable, alluring, understood. He was a gentleman in every way, and what we had was so good. It was enough.

The song took quite a few months to finish. I lived with it for a while trying to convince myself that it was done, then I'd earn a rewritten line. He was a minnowy man to write about. I couldn't finish the song until I figured him out. He's ever on the road, but leaves behind feelings written on paper. We had this intense intimacy, without really knowing each other, but both sides were very careful to never suggest it was anything other than what it was. But I left things very open in the song so that others could play it over their own story. You can feel so alone when it's happening to you, but it's comforting to know others have been there.

Originally, "Once in a While" was to be performed solo. I was working on a duet show with my boyfriend, Wild Earp, another musician with his own fantastic sound and band, Wild Earp & the Free For Alls. We were putting a set together, and I pulled out "Once in a While" to see if he could maybe add a harmony, and it hit me that the man should not sing at the same time as I am, not in harmony. He's out of time, answering from another room. Answering from last time. From all the times. And I could make him agree with me, right? I could put words in his mouth that I wanted to hear.

That loneliness of a one-place setting shows up in the last song on the new album too, "Then I Remember." I liked keeping the same idea in both. It's also in a third song I wrote but I haven't recorded it yet.  

"Once in a While" is a hard song to perform. You can only be the bearer of information and not give any indication of how you feel. Just the facts. Like that essay in Leonard Cohen's 'Death of a Lady's Man.' The one with the butterfly. You have to do so little to it that you're almost not singing anymore. And it was important that the man's voice was even closer than that to speech. I kept telling Earp in the studio, "even less than that, just say it." It's an edge of a knife to walk.

Read More: The 10 Best Emmylou Harris Songs

Producer Brian Deck (Josh Ritter, Iron & Wine, Nathaniel Rateliff) recorded and played drums and percussion on the album. Glide recently described Billingsley's songs as "biting & enigmatic" with the "knock 'em dead bravado of Nancy Sinatra and the blunt storytelling of Neko Case."

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Song Premiere: Michelle Billingsley's 'Once in a While'