Tony Award-winning songwriter-actor Michael Cerveris has dedicated his life to the crafts of acting and singing, having starred in a number Broadway productions and television shows, all while maintaining musical projects like the Americana band Loose Cattle. His latest musical role in Fun Home garnered him high praise from theater critics and snagged him his second Tony Award, for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical.
While born in Pittsburgh, Cerveris was raised in Huntington, West Virginia, and considers the mountain state his home. These ties are what inspired him to put together a benefit concert last summer to aid the victims of the 2016 West Virginia flood, a disaster that is noted as the most deadly flood in the state’s history. The benefit show featured artists such as Cerveris’ own Loose Cattle, along with Laura Cantrell, Nellie McKay and others.
Cerveris preserved those concerts with Take Me Home – A Benefit Concert for West Virginia, a two-CD set featuring over 40 songs and clocking in at about two and a half hours of live music.
Cerveris spoke with American Songwriter about his latest projects and discussed what’s next on the horizon for him.
Tell me a little about the projects you’re working on right now.
Well right now, I’m releasing this benefit CD and trying to get that around. My band Loose Cattle is kind of in the writing and demoing stage for our next record. Our first record was just a live record with some originals but mostly covers. So we’re starting to write more as a band now. I just recently put out a solo record called Piety and have done a little bit of touring and concerts for it. I just did [a concert] a week or so ago in New York with a full string ensemble and woodwinds and the whole nine yards. I’m looking for more places to do that and [to do] more solo shows.
I’m putting out a Christmas record for next Christmas — traditionally you record those in the hottest time of the year. That’s kind of all I’m doing musically right now. I also sort of have a parallel career as an actor, and I’m doing a TV series for Amazon called The Tick, which is kind of satirical, and it will come out in August. I’m doing another pilot for an ABC series called Salamander. We’ll see if that happens. I did another series for HBO called Mosaic, and I think it comes out in the fall sometime.
That’s so cool. I know you’ve been involved in Broadway productions as well, so will you be hitting the stage anytime soon for that?
I don’t have any plans for that right now. I’ve been doing a couple of workshops for new musicals. You never know what’s going to happen with those. It’s really a rewarding and satisfying — but exhausting — kind of experience. I really did it for the better part of three years, and my whole life revolved around that. At the moment I’m happy to be doing different kinds of things for a while waiting for something exciting to bring me back. I’m sure I’ll be back sooner than later.
What came first: music or acting?
Well, you know, they both kind of came at the same time. I grew up in a musical household, because my father is a classical pianist, and so I was surrounded by music all the time. He encouraged all three of us kids to study an instrument for a year just to, you know, see what it was like. If we didn’t like it, we could stop after that. I started on violin, and in fourth grade, I switched over to guitar. I finished out my year playing guitar, and then I put it away for a few years, and then picked it up one day and just kind of retaught myself the little bit I remembered, but mostly taught myself by ear. I was the one in high school who would sit there with my ear in the speaker trying to figure out all the guitars and bass parts. Then I would come into band practice and teach the rest of the guys what I had figured out. So I was always doing that, and then at the same time I would be doing little community theater productions and stuff like that. I think I ended up pursuing acting as more of career, because I had such an idea of who got to call themselves a musician because of watching my dad who had spent his whole life dedicated and trained in music theory and reading music and everything.
I didn’t really read music and had an ability but not a whole lot of training, so I didn’t think that I could really pursue it as a profession. It’s been kind of nice in a way because acting has kind of been my day job from my musical career… I haven’t paid the rent playing music, but because of that I could write whatever I wanted to without having to worry about it somehow sustaining me financially. I could just make the music I wanted to and play with the people I wanted to, and that’s been really nice. So kind of neither one came first. They’ve all been a part of what I’ve been doing.
Do you have a favorite between the two?
I don’t know. Maybe I love playing music more because I don’t… Because it’s just purely for me. Maybe if that was actually how I had paid the bills it would seem more of a job so I wouldn’t enjoy it so much. I think I just enjoy just expressing something in a room for people. I think I can say I have more fun playing music and I find acting harder work. But at the same time, I find it much more challenging to play music, because I get much more nervous and self-conscious. There’s nothing to hide behind when I’m playing my song for people. I can’t blame anybody else, you know? It’s just me. I feel much more vulnerable performing as a musician, I think. Because I generally do the things that scare me the most, I think that’s why I love playing music so much.
Do you write all of your own music?
For the most part. I usually will include a cover. On my first record I had two covers. On my second record it’s all my own stuff, [with] one song I cowrote with someone else. On my first record I had a song I cowrote with Corin Tucker from Sleater-Kinney. But yeah, I think when I started writing my own music, it also kind of freed up my acting life, because before that, I really — just as an actor, you sort of sit around and wait for someone to give you the chance to be creative, unless you want to put together your own production or write something yourself. You really are at the mercy of other people to hire you and give you a chance to do it. And I realized with music, I can sit at home by myself with my guitar and be creative. That was a really liberating thing, because I wasn’t dependent on other people for the opportunity to express myself.
So being a songwriter is really important to me and a really personal, meaningful thing. That said, it’s somewhat easier to cover or sing other people’s songs, because you can kind of express yourself differently and be more free when you’re singing someone else’s song and interpreting that, because you have this mask to hide behind. Like, “Oh I didn’t write it. I’m just singing it.” So sometimes I find myself feeling too nervous or too exposed or too vulnerable to sing my own songs. I try to tell myself that I didn’t really write it, that someone else wrote it, and I’m just covering it so I can do it without feeling so self-conscious sometimes.
What’s your writing process like?
I don’t have a very regimented orderly way of doing it. Sometimes an idea will just strike me in the weirdest places, and I’ll rush somewhere to get it down. I’ve got tons of little notes and fragments and pieces on my iPhone voice notes thing. And other times, I think a lot of time it just comes out of me being in a particular place emotionally or in my head thinking of something and just picking up a guitar and noodling around, and things just kind of come out of that. A couple times, I’ve been walking by a vintage guitar store and while playing this guitar, a chord progression or a little melody will come out of that. Then, I can’t afford the guitar, but I’ll go home and try to write the song that came out of it. That’s happened with a couple songs on my first record. So I think that generally they tend to be more driven by the melody, and lyrics come a little later. I have some songs where they just kind of arrived at the same time. Others where I’ll have a line of a chorus and build a song around it. I don’t have a lot of experience writing with other people and so I want to explore more and try to figure out how that happens exactly.
A lot that I love about music is being connected and engaged with other people. The whole thing I love about playing with a band is to play and entertain and [the] communication with people on stage. So I think that writing with other people might be something that I find really frustrating, but also really liberating, too, with other ideas you couldn’t have thought of yourself. It would be a good thing. I’m sure it’s a challenge though, because I’m used to battering away at my own ideas until I get what I want to say without anything extra.
Last year, you put together a benefit concert to help the flood recovery efforts in West Virginia. Was that cause special to you?
Very. When I first heard the day and the day after the flood happened in West Virginia, they weren’t extremely well covered in the media because it’s West Virginia, and West Virginia sort of gets forgotten about often. But I feel very attached and connected to the state, because it’s where I grew up and [where] so much of who I am began. I know the people there and that they don’t have a lot to begin with often. So much was lost so quickly and so many lives [were lost] in such a short period of time. I immediately got in touch with Larry Gross of Mountain Stage, because I had been on Mountain Stage a couple of times. So I was simply checking in with all those guys to make sure they were OK and their homes were OK. Then I said, “If you are all doing anything, any kind of benefit or anything, let me know. I would love to help out.” They didn’t have anything planned, but they did reconnect me with the telethon being put together. I couldn’t be there in person, but I got Loose Cattle together in the studio and covered “Let Down River,” a song by the Bottle Rockets. [We] shot a little rough video of the recording session and sent it to be part of the telethon. That was great and felt like something to be doing, but I wanted to do more, something more substantial.
So I started calling around friends of mine and found a venue at the Public Theater. I told them I wanted to put together this benefit, and they thought it was a great idea. They started reaching out to friends of mine in New York. I wanted it to have a real West Virginia connection, so I called Larry and asked if there were any artists he knew — West Virginia artists — either living in New York or who were on tour who might be interested. He gave me some names and ideas. Then he also said, “Call these people in West Virginia who might be interested in coming up.” So I did, and pretty quickly we had a great roster of people. A lot of the New York acts had played on Mountain Stage one time or another or just had some connection with the state or just really, really felt for the suffering of the people that were there. It was really exciting to get them together with some people like Larry Gross.
Also what kind of excited me was being able to give these great new bands their first gig in New York and their first time being seen and heard by New York audiences. That made me really proud as a West Virginian to, you know, shine a light on the great music coming out of the state now. We just made a big family on stage for those two shows, and they sold out and people loved it. I thought, “I didn’t want this thing to happen once and never be heard again.” So many people were asking me if we were putting it out as a record, so I did. I put it out on my label and we’re using the proceeds to continue to help the Red Cross, to bring attention to the fact that a flood happens in a day but the effects last for years. I have a house in New Orleans, so I know from experience just how long it takes to recover from a catastrophic event like that. That was where the idea came from.
What’s your advice for aspiring musicians and actors?
Well, I would say don’t listen to anybody that tells you you have to choose. You might have to make sacrifices and find ways to make one pay for the other, or another job that pays for both. You know, if you need to write and you need to perform then you can find a way to do it. Finding your voice and what matters to you is a lot more important that trying to figure out what is going to sell, I think.