Lately, Michael Bone has felt lucky, sort of. Like so many of us, the well-known local musician is sheltering in place and working from home—teaching music and art, now online only, to his students from Seventh Street Centre for the Arts—but the married father of two says the disruption hasn’t been all bad.
“It’s been kind of a silver lining for me,” he said. “Before, working 40 hours a week, especially with a baby and [my other daughter] Olive, I just kind of wished I had a lot more home time. I’m home all the time—for months now. It’s crazy. In a lot of ways I feel really lucky, and it’s kind of icky. There should be a name for that—like an icky luckiness. …
“Plus, I’ve just been really active with music and art.”
That is saying something for someone who’s been one of the most productive artists in Butte County since he arrived in 2008 from his hometown of Shingle Springs (a tiny community in the Sierra Nevada foothills) to attend Chico State. The then-18-year-old jumped into the scene immediately, forming adventurous indie-prog band Clouds on Strings with fellow music majors.
One of those mates was keyboardist Josh Hegg, who Bone met at college orientation and with whom he would team up on many musical adventures—including playing drums alongside for several years in popular jazz quartet Bogg, and co-founding (with a few others) Uncle Dad’s Art Collective. Bone has been one of the key players in the eclectic arts group’s large-scale productions, arranging music for and performing at the popular multimedia tributes to artists such as Madonna and The Beatles in Laxson Auditorium, and adding original compositions as well for the collective’s Small Town Big Sound local-songwriter showcases at the Sierra Nevada Big Room.
During his 12 years in Chico and Paradise, he’s also written/recorded/released 16 solo albums of varying musical styles, performed with and wrote music for experimental comedy band/theater troupe The Pageant Dads, played guitar and bass alongside local singer/songwriters (Aubrey Debauchery, Pat Hull), collaborated on multiple one-off projects with others (including his wife, Ginger, and daughter Olive) and founded/curated the 1Day Song Club. That last one is a prompt-driven online songwriting challenge that so far has yielded 114 compilation albums made up of original songs mostly by local songwriters, including Bone, who only missed contributing the week his Paradise home burned down in the Camp Fire.
He records his own music, films his own videos, works as a music/art teacher for disabled children and adults—and will transcribe and arrange your songs for a reasonable fee.
If all that wasn’t enough, in the past year Bone has become a painter. He’d argue that he’s still just a student of the form, but despite his inexperience, he’s already fetching three figures and received multiple commissions for his paintings.
More than 100 of those visual works—plus another solo album, a podcast and two music videos—have all been produced since the coronavirus shelter-in-place orders went into effect, and the results have been shared with the sheltering community on social media. The CN&R caught up with the prolific artist on a recent summer morning to talk about the motivation, process and ideas behind his creative output.
How’d painting come about?
There was a camping trip last year in the summer, and I tried to draw something—I brought a notebook just for fun—and I was so bad at it. But it was so fun for my brain. Immediately, I was hooked.
And, since that day, I think I’ve practiced drawing … or painting, something artistic … every day for multiple hours a day. And studying art history—the whole world of visual art just exploded.
Finishing a song versus finishing a painting—do you get something different out of each?
They are so similar. I’ve always been kind of a math brain, and I like puzzles. I come up with a puzzle that I’m going to solve—I’m just going try and paint this picture of this thing in front of me. I’m not trying to make an artsy picture, I’m just trying to solve this puzzle. And with music, I tend to take a similar approach.
That’s why the [1Day] song club helps me because I come up with a topic—“Guilty” was the topic [the week of July 16]. How do I solve that puzzle, how to I write a song about guilty, what would it sound like? And then it’s just like, “Do it.”
David Hockney is my favorite painter right now. His dealing with perspective is like prog rock, but in visual form—like odd time signatures and that kind of weird chord stuff that I like in music.
So, you’re digging into the theory of visual art as well?
Yeah, exactly. I was—especially in college—really into music theory. With painting it’s the same thing. I have a ton of books on it. I don’t like “how to” books at all. I just like the really dense theory stuff—this is what’s going on with your eye, this is what’s going on with color.
How do you balance art and life?
I struggled for awhile coming to terms with [the fact that] I only have so much time in the world. I can practice guitar every day and become a pretty good guitar player. I’m decent, but I’m not like super-proficient at the guitar. But I practice a little bit just to keep improving. I kind of decided for myself when I had kids, “I don’t really see myself as really good at one thing, or I don’t want to just focus on music.”
I think that has been really inspiring for me: How things—social life, kids, and art practice and music practice—all these things influence each other. Like, I wrote a song two days ago and did a music video for it yesterday. And it looks pretty good, and it looks professional. If I can just keep on this train of putting things together, who knows what random things will pop out.
Do you normally finish things so quickly?
I’ve gotten a little bit better with painting. I did several months where it was every day [that] I did a painting, and I would get them done in one sitting. It took me awhile to be like, “I’m going to give myself the weekend to do this” … and it turned out way better.
So I’m trying to do that with my songs, too. It does improve the quality, but my tendency is to do things as soon as I get an idea. I think it’s an anxious thing. If I have a creative idea that I think is good, it’s really hard for me to focus on anything else until it’s finished or I’ve run out of ideas.
I think it comes from playing jazz. I’m comfortable with just improvising. If it’s decent, then I’ll just keep it, I won’t think twice. Usually, I’ll finish the whole song and show it to Ginger and then she’ll say, like, “You should sing louder. You sound timid.” Then I’ll do that and then it’s done.
I don’t really care if it’s the best thing ever. I think that mindset has really helped, and also doing so many [pieces]. It makes it less precious. For me, it’s much better to do more, and then I get better at it.
Are you open to trying out any type of art?
Yeah, for the most part.
I’ve tried to quantify: “What is interesting to me in art?” I like to do whatever. I’m not a super funny person, so in Pageant Dads, [the other guys] usually carried all the funny stuff and I was more of the music writer.
And I’ve done a few plays where—and I think this is a big drive for me—I can feel the wall of “I want to be good at this, and I know what good looks like,” but I’m pushing against it because I’m not good at holding a straight face or acting a certain way or getting the words out of my mouth a certain way.
Same with drawing: “I want to draw this right, but it looks so shitty.” And something about that energizes me. It’s OK to be really bad. It’s just that willingness to suck, [which] is something I’ve really taken to heart.
You’re one of the few local artists who has continued to share art and music during the shutdown. Why do you think that is?
I think I have an advantage of being kind of self [contained]. It’s hard. What it takes to put art out there takes a lot of different skills at once. [Also,] I think I’ve set myself up. I just got a new Mac … [and] my work got me Final Cut Pro . I was just set up really well for this—I’m just so blessed. I feel like I have the duty to take advantage of it and to use it.
Is there more money in visual art than playing music?
Oh yeah, I’ve made more money this year with art than I’ve made in a career of selling music. I’ve made more at gigs probably, but [totaling] CD sales or T-shirt sales or anything like that, even with all my bands combined, I don’t think I’ve made that much.
Is it a dream of yours to make a career in art?
I’ve been trying not to think of a future with it, but just build my skill and see where it goes. If I don’t come up with a plan and just keep moving forward … it’s served me well so far.
I think I have a conviction that this is what my purpose is. … I’m not a very organized person or a great planner, but I am able to harness creative ideas.