For EJ Michels, who hails from Draper and drew national attention on NBC’s singing competition “The Voice,” Michigan Avenue “is one of the most dreamiest streets in Salt Lake City.”
In 2020, Michels said, a friend told him to drive down Michigan Avenue — past its beautiful Tudor and American craftsman-style homes — because it looked like something out of a movie set.
“I remember just driving down it for the first time, with all the big trees hanging over the streets and all the homes are so individual — each one has its own look, feel and history,” Michels said. “The way that the music was making me feel was kind of similar to how I felt when I was driving down that street for the first time.”
The street on Salt Lake City’s east side provided the name for Michels’ first album, “Michigan Avenue,” which was released independently in early August.
The title track is the album’s only instrumental, a song he wrote after a yoga class, sitting down at the piano, and it came together easily, Michels said. The track serves as an interlude between the album’s two halves, he said.
“The first half [is] more manifesting, belonging, falling, falling out of love, falling into love,” he said, “The second half, which is more of my introspective story, dealing with shame and healing.”
Manifestation — willing things to happen — plays a big role in Michels’ life, he said. Calling the album “Michigan Avenue” is a form of manifestation, he said, because he wants to manifest owning a house like that one day.
Michels received a national spotlight this spring, when he appeared on “The Voice.” After his audition performance, of Adele’s “Easy on Me,” he chose to join Blake Sheton’s team. During the battle rap round, Michels lost, but was stolen by Niall Horan. Michels eventually was eliminated halfway through the competition.
After appearing on “The Voice,” Michels came home, and was soon back on stage — doing a set at Fork Fest in American Fork in June.
“It honestly couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Michels, who is also a member of the indie band Foreign Figures. “In a sense, I really wanted to ride that wave of all the new fans and attention coming in from ‘The Voice.’”
Michels started work on the album in March 2021, working remotely with producers and recording the instruments and vocals himself — augmenting his songwriting with those transcendent vocals that got both Chance the Rapper and Shelton to turn their chairs around.
The earnestness of Michels’ lyrics is evident in the track “As I Am,” in which he sings “but I never knew how to love me / Father gave me blessings from heaven above / Even all that wishing well wasn’t enough.”
It was the first song Michels wrote after being eliminated from “The Voice.” “It really does tie in my actual authentic story,” he said.
That story is of someone who grew up a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who went on a mission and married in the temple — before coming out as gay.
“The very first lyric is ‘suburban child,’ and that kind of encapsulates the feel of this album in a sense of Michigan Avenue being that suburb — and what feels like growing up in the suburbs in Utah,” Michels said. “And me finding myself inside of that. There was a lot of good that came from it, and there’s also a lot of really difficult hard aspects of me finding myself and belonging to myself.”
One intensely personal track, “June,” is Michels’ favorite — and writing it, he said, was a moment that would always stick with him.
“‘June’ is representative of my favorite month of the year, it’s summer, it’s also my birthday,” he said. “That month feels like home.”
Another standout track, “Magic,” was one Michels originally wrote for Foreign Figures — and it’s a departure from the album’s slower tracks, reminiscent of Alex Clare’s 2011 track “Too Close.”
Michels started writing “Magic” in 2018 or 2019, he said, after he came out and went through a divorce. “It was this really hopeful song, maybe a song that I needed for myself,” he said, “to cheer me up and out of that dark place and move into a more positive direction.”
Music, he said, “is therapy for me. … When I get to these places of such high emotion, sometimes I feel like I have nowhere else to go but to the studio or to my piano to talk about it and write about it and express it. That’s kind of the essence of me as an artist.”