A Songwriting Life
Michael Scherf was born and grew up in Albert Lea, Minnesota, where. his first foray into music was playing trumpet in the school band. In 1968, at age 14, Inspired by friends with the instrument, he picked up the acoustic guitar. There was no going back after that. Taking a few guitar lessons, he carried on learning by himself, figuring out over time how to perform the works of his favorite musicians. Most important among these musical mentors were the singer-songwriters of the period, particularly James Taylor, whose finger-style technique became the foundation for Scherf's own distinctive style.
Scherf's first public appearance as a musician in his own right was at his high school talent show, the Tiger's Roar, where he performed Arlo Guthrie's Highway Ballad #16 Blues. Soon after, he was asked to play trumpet and some guitar in Worship in Jazz, an ecumenical church group then touring the northwestern states.
Scherf didn't see the music as a realistic alternative to a traditional career, however, and was soon off to college. "I'm a strong introvert," he says, "and at that time the stage didn't seem as natural a life choice for me as something more academic." After majors in psychology, anthropology and philosophy, he settled on literature as a focus, earning B.S. and M.S. degrees in the subject and embarking on a 30 year public school teaching career.
Not that he left his music behind. Early on, in addition to co-organizing and performing at his home town's first two folk festivals, he spent several summers playing in Mantra, a southern Minnesota rock band. Meanwhile--and this is the thing--he shifted his musical attention to actual song writing.
It all began with a catchy folk song, as Scherf tells it. "I wrote Jamaica, Farewell in 1979 for Phlegm Tucker, a country-folk duo I was in back in Mankato, Minnesota. A popular local band heard the song and asked to cover it, and from then on I knew that, regardless of any other musical competence I had, I had the knack for composition." And so, while working as an overnight desk clerk at a local dive motel, a job that left him time to spare, he kept at it. "That's where I wrote Truckstop Laurie and Cumberland Farm," he says. "I saw this motly cast of characters passing through, and it wasn't hard to imagine their lives in song. After that, even though I was determined to become an English teacher by then, I never stopped writing."
And so it was. Although the demands of teaching and graduate study occupied most of his time initially, he still managed to pen Libby's Turn and That Kind of Girl, among other strong tunes. "Mostly relationship stuff," he states. "By then I knew enough of love to see the ironies and had distance enough to write about it truthfully." And a relocation soon opened up other possibilities.
After Scherf finished graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin and moved to Tucson in 1986, he found himself more settled and, importantly, inspired. "Tucson was a whole new world to me," he smiles. "So exotic. The mix of cultures and music, the desert environment, the proximity to Mexico and the Sea of Cortez made me feel I was on permanent vacation. And that tilt of the ordinary invited me to imagine new kinds of songs. Kino Bay and Maria Elena's Eyes grew right out of the culture contact," he notes. "And Scheherazade just trades Tucson for a different kind of exotic scene."
It was in this spirit that he met Doreen, the girl he would later marry, and the inspiration for many of his finest compositions. "I was on Cloud 9," he says. "Everything said music." And, indeed, the body of work that followed confirms him not merely as someone with the knack for songwriting, as he puts it, but a composer with real craft and range. "Doreen, Mockingbird, Moon and Venus, Claire, Merna--I was surprised I could write those kinds of songs," he observes. "Each was a leap of faith when I started it. But after a while, seeing the possibilities and my own growth, I got used to taking the leap. And the gratification I got from doing that successfully changed my view of myself as a musician." It added an ambition besides: to return to music seriously--as a songwriter.
By then GarageBand had made the home recording process easier, and Scherf used the app to prepare for the goal, recording both old and new works for demo. "The song, itself, became the thing," he says. "And as I learned more and more about production, that influenced my songwriting as well. I began writing with other instruments in mind, and the music grew richer in turn." The complex development of Dead Man Walking, the orchestration of Work Too Much, the inventive bass line in Girl, the electric-driven sound of She Knows--all are indicative of a composer spreading his wings, coming into his own.
And now that he's retired from teaching, Scherf is ready to put it all together. "Hence, the website," he says. "I wanna get my music published and played." To that end he's thinking of starting a band to showcase his tunes, though not necessarily with himself as the lead singer. "I wanna see the songs reach their potential," he states. "Some of the more recent material isn't really suited for my voice anyway. New Bohemian Love was written for a soul singer. Ojulee for someone with jazz chops. And even alt-country tunes like Boy, Again, The End of Romance, and Wreckin' Ball I wrote for someone with a richer, more supple voice than mine."
Scherf is too hard on himself, perhaps; his compositions, as he performs them, are far from compromised by the fact. On the contrary, the nuance and passion he brings to many of his tunes makes the renditions worthy in their own right. One thing is certain, regardless: whomever is doing the singing, once it gets out there, people are going to be listening to Michael Scherf's music for a long, long time..
Michael Scherf's songwriting can stand on its own against anyone's. Rich in melody, rhythm, and texture, lyrically poetic, and refreshingly original, with hooks that grab you and don't let go, Scherf's music is as thoughtful as it is catchy, even as it crosses genres. Pop, folk, country, rock, blues, R & B, jazz, Latin--the stylistic range is notable in itself, revealing in its craft an impressive cast of mentors, from James Taylor and Carol King to Sting and John Mayer. The aspiration, as Scherf, himself, puts it, is a place in the songbook: a body of work that endures, inspiring other musicians to play it forward.