When someone dedicates their life to music, it’s more than just purchasing an instrument, taking a few lessons, and investing some practice time. To quote an old Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Transcribed literally, it says that journey starts beneath one’s feet. A life in music is as much about survival as it is milestones. It’s an expression of who you are, where you’ve been, and the impression every mile traveled has left behind. Over decades, footsteps aren’t always steady, and the ground beneath one’s feet may give way. In order not to sink, you must swim, and that may be the part of the journey with the most compelling story. Michael J’s story is a tale of three cities – Rochester, Gainesville, and Nashville, and the journey that fueled his music. With the release of his new album, Via Maris, we look back at the ebb and flow that led to its rendering.

     You might say that Michael J Petrantoni took the first steps of his musical journey before he could walk. He was born in Rochester, New York, where his home was a surround sound environment. His father is a talented and well-known jazz sax player, so the house was always filled with music and musicians. By age three, Michael was already learning to play piano. His aha moment, and transition to guitar, happened in third grade. He came home with a paper announcing that guitar lessons would be offered through the school. Receiving his parents approval, he left class one day to see the instructor and get his student guitar. When he returned to class, guitar in hand, there was a collective gasp with accompanying “Cool!” from his peers. That led to an instantaneous career choice.

     Between the early years of lessons and the teenage dream of starting a band, Michael was immersed in music. He went with his mom to the gigs his dad played, watching everything with the eyes of a student. Practice at the house meant he had a front row seat for watching some of the best musicians in the area. Rochester was home to some A-list talent, like Steve Gadd and Chuck Mangione. As he progressed in his playing ability, he got to sit in with his dad’s band on occasion. The opportunity to learn from and be surrounded by professionals gave him solid footing on which to take those first creative steps. Rock music played constantly on the radio his parents gave him. Michael said he couldn’t go to sleep without the radio on. In his head, 24/7, there was a soundtrack that drove his passion. With the support and encouragement of his parents, he listened and learned until it was time for the logical next step.

     At age 14, Michael started his first band with some neighborhood kids. His first regular gig came before he was old enough to drive himself there. Well below club age at just 15, the band impressed a local owner who gave them a shot. He took a risk on an all ages show on the condition that they play one original song every time. To prove they were up to the task, they always played two. They recorded every show and critiqued their own performance, intent on consistent improvement. In 1987, with two high school friends, Michael embarked on a journey that would occupy the next 13 years of his life.

     exploding-boy-new-generationExploding Boy became Rochester’s hottest band from the late 80s to the mid-90s. In just a few years, they built a consistent following of 250 people. Tony Gross, guitarist for Head East from 1980-1984, had formed GFI Music Publishing and bought a recording studio in Rochester in 1989. He became the band’s manager and producer. In ’92, he founded a record label, Beyond Records Corp., to cultivate the talent and popularity of Exploding Boy. On December 22, 1992, they released their first album, New Generation. Regional sales were exceptional, and the album landed in the Top 20 with local broadcasters. The project had investors and they produced a video for their debut single, “Charity.” It was played on Rochester rock stations, 96.5 WCMF and Rocket 95.1, in heavy rotation, becoming the number one request. Their increased fan following soon had them filling the biggest venue in Rochester, and opening for national acts such as A Flock of Seagulls, Cheap Trick, Joan Osborne, Joe Walsh, and the Goo Goo Dolls. Meanwhile, they were playing showcases in New York City consistently, hoping to secure the backing of a major label. Their second single was at local radio when a program director from Boston decided to pass on them, refusing to put their music in a major market. As quickly as they rose to stardom, the bottom fell out, and their following evaporated. It was a brutal lesson in the fickleness of the business. One person’s opinion can change the trajectory of your life.

    Exploding Boy: Michael J (guitar, vocals), Anthony Errigo (bass), and Jason Mirwald (drums).

     Ten years before American Idol, Yamaha’s Souncheck was a band contest held in 1992. 2500 bands entered, all hoping to get their big break. Exploding Boy was one of those bands. Still hoping to gain national attention and label support, they flew to Los Angeles to appear on the live show hosted by Holly Robinson and Dweezil Zappa. Performing a song off their debut album, “Blue Sky,” they finished in the Top 5. It was a strong showing, but not enough to attract a national following. They continued to plug away at it from their home base in Rochester, releasing two more albums and making another national TV appearance on The Jenny Jones Show in 1997. After ten years of playing locally, touring, and recording their original music, the band relocated to Washington, D.C. in 1997. They signed with a national booking agency, Cellar Door, and were plugged into a circuit as a cover band. It was 300 dates a year out of a van and trailer, and not an uncommon story. These circuits are full of great bands playing other people’s music, paid just enough to keep going. In 2000, they decided it was time to end their 13-year journey. Michael and the drummer had been friends since high school, making the decision to part ways that much heavier. Worse, was the idea of returning to a day job. The dawn of the millennium would put new soil under Michael’s feet, changing the direction his steps would take.

     1,152 miles from Rochester, Michael took up residence in Gainesville, Florida. Not only was it a change of scenery, it was a career reboot. Most everything he’d done in music to that point had been band-based. In Gainesville, he was stepping out on his own to write, record, and play music. In the late 90s, he’d bought some digital equipment, looping software, and a bass. Over time, he learned to engineer, record, mix, and play the parts on his own. His first solo record was released in 2000. To promote his music, he played acoustic gigs six nights a week, sometimes two gigs a day. A day job was necessary, but music was equally necessary. He’d never known life without it. When he looked into putting a band together for a weekly gig, he asked around to find the best drummer in Gainesville. The answer was Tom Hurst, but he was forewarned he’d be expensive. Unable to swing that, he didn’t pursue it. Tom heard the solo album and was impressed, and after they played together on a gig in Orlando, they decided to collaborate. Every Thursday night they played acoustic and drums at a local Gainesville spot. Though the pay was meager in the beginning, the music was rich, and the venue eventually compensated. When Michael looked to add a guitar player, he asked who the best in town was. It was a guy named Chris Nix, also reportedly too expensive. When he showed up to play one night, it was just the right fit. The three started playing together regularly with Michael switching between acoustic guitar, bass, and piano. Their quiet Thursday night gig turned into a hot spot with a line out the door. The run lasted eight years, ending when Tom and Chris moved to Nashville. Michael stayed in Gainesville and continued his solo pursuits.

     By the end of 2012, Michael reevaluated. He was making money with his music but not forwarding his career. Gainesville had become a dead end. To continue the journey, he’d have to relocate, again taking steps in a new direction. Following the advice of Tom and Chris, he moved to Nashville. With all the talent and experience he brought to the city, it was still a process of reinvention. Resumes don’t open a lot of doors, friends do, and once they’re open, you still have to prove yourself. Tom and Chris were playing with country artist, Chuck Wicks, at the time. When a spot opened up, he had to learn 17 songs in a week. He passed the test and started playing with his old friends again. Gainesville’s hottest band was now together in Nashville, albeit under a different guise. It was the beginning of Michael’s transition to playing turn-it-on-with-michael-jpredominantly country to get a paying gig. He worked a day job at a company that made drumsticks to supplement his income. Over the last four years, he’s upgraded his day job to medical courier. It allows him to do what he wants musically, which includes writing, being a sideman, and his podcast production, Turn It On with Michael J, where he interviews local musicians in a casual, conversational format. He recently started playing with new artist, Brandon Ray, who Rolling Stone named as one of the 10 New Country Artists You Need to Know. It’s a diversity he enjoys, and with his down time, he just completed a solo album, ten years in the making.

     After 13 years with Exploding Boy, and 13 more working hard at a solo career in Gainesville, Michael thought he was done making records. Unlike many who move to Nashville with stars in their eyes, he was burnt out and tired of the grind. Initially, he didn’t want to write, sing, or play music. Things unfolded organically and he went with it, unsure where any of it might lead. On hard drives he’d brought from Gainesville, there were 25 or more songs he’d tracked over the years. They were fragments of experiences that rendered themselves musically, needing Michael’s finishing touches and production to become something more. It wasn’t so much a matter of time or tinkering as it was finding the will to release something so personal. He started working on a song one night and found it to be better than he remembered it. That turned into a drive to keep working on the pieces he had, producing a record that he says “willed itself into existence.”

     michael-j-via-maris-coverVia Maris is as personal an album as you will ever hear. From the content to the way it was made, it’s like being allowed to read someone’s diary. Michael’s commitment to this was absolute, from baring his soul to exposing his talent as a writer, singer, player, and producer. Whether you like it or you don’t, there’s no passing the buck here. This is Michael J, both personally and professionally, and it’s rare to find something these days with that level of risk and reckoning in it. Of the tracks he’d recorded, he sifted through them until he found the ten that best represented his life and his heart over a ten-year span. It was no random selection. He chipped away at each song like he was sculpting an exact replica of a time, place, and sentiment. What he hadn’t been able to capture previously was suddenly clear. His heart and mind brought clarity to the music as it never had before. He’d written all the songs, played nearly all the instruments, (except for a few drum tracks he’d done in L.A. with the Stroke 9 drummer and a guitar assist on one song) and produced the project. It’s as close to a solo album, literally translated, as you’ll find. Refreshingly courageous in today’s marketplace.

     When you’ve worked in the business as long as Michael J has, you can’t help but bring the sum of your talent and experience to the project. It started with autobiographical songwriting that extended to both lyrics and music. The music he grew up listening to and learned from leaves its mark on every song. There are emotionally charged melodies alongside nostalgic vibes that hit you like waves crashing on the sand. You see it coming but don’t feel it until it washes over you. Some may not connect as deeply as others to the sound or the story, but the music and Michael J’s voice are no less impressive. If you connect to the emotion, as I did, it may seem like he’s read your heart and translated it lyrically. His passion on either side of being in love or broken-hearted is palpable. Though the emotion he expresses is heavy, there is a sense of hope that prevails over sadness. The intensity of the whole is magnetizing.

     On an album so personal, it seems indulgent to critique it in any way. As with all art, opinion is subjective, therefore, I’ll just offer my observations as I listened to it.

Track 01 – Baby Your Love Is A Revolution

I love the energy this one starts with. Sounds like an 80s rock song, and Michael J’s voice is perfect for that. It’s a joy ride, musically, like a relationship you can’t get enough of. Fast car. Hot girl. Invincible youth.

Track 02 – Let Me Down Easy

There’s an angst in this that expresses itself in the melancholy melody, but never enough to completely control the emotion of the song. I feel a little 90s influence here, maybe with a little less anger and more resignation. Like trying to hang on to a relationship, but knowing you may be better off without it. Hurts just the same.

Track 03 – Gotta Keep From Falling

So much happening in this song. There’s the comfortably numb feeling you get to, post-breakup, when you decide purgatory might not be such a bad place. You may miss out on heaven but you’ll avoid hell if you close your eyes to love forever. It has a 70s vibe to it, dare I say Bee Gees? I kept thinking they were going to cut in and sing “Tragedy.” I also hear a little Depeche Mode tone, a la “Losing My Religion.” Love the mix in this one. Music for a confused mind.

Track 04 – Because Of You

The piano intro on this takes me back to Elton John and the emotion he gave to Candle In The Wind.” This is a love song, a heart’s passion poured into lyrics and music. It goes beyond the vibe of the 70s into what feels like a rock ballad of the 80s. Something along the lines of KISS’ “Beth.” Such heartfelt sentiment.

Track 05 – Wake Up Call

One of my favorites on the album. Put the headphones on and just listen to the intro before the piano starts. The sound swirls around your head in such a cool way. It does sound like a wake up call, especially when the dramatic piano playing begins. There’s Depeche Mode, Tears For Fears, with maybe a hint of U2 in the music. Very late 80s in a ‘best of’ exhibition. The guitar solo towards the end is entirely rad. There’s a tension in this like the music is fighting something. When your heart is so tied to someone you feel like you can’t breathe without them. Stop the ride, I want to get off.

Track 06 – Never Say Goodbye

Hope prevails in this one, despite what it hints she’s done. “Love can be a weapon to the one who knows you best” sounds like a passive/aggressive accusation, or maybe a threat. Might be a musical mantra to convince yourself to take the high road. 80s rock feel throughout with some drum work that caught my attention. Love the overlapping drum and guitar work at the end, with neither yielding their sound to the other. Could be a hidden message in that mix.

Track 07 – Broken

The music of the 70s is all over this. Some hints of legendary bands from that era with an exceptional mix of sounds and vocals. Listen closely for the subtle nuances in instrumentation that make the song flow effortlessly between classic sounds of rock. Love the authentic, throwback sound of this, which isn’t easy to attain without sounding ripped off. This is music as muse for a broken heart, and a tribute to the heart of classic rock.

Track 08 – Maria

Such a beautiful song, and the vocal is exquisite throughout. From the opening acoustic strings, I get lost in this song and an era. Again, an incredible ode to the 70s and the amazing mix of sounds that decade offered. The melodic harmonies are breathtaking, and at times, I forget I’m not listening to a 70s-era band. It is so full-bodied that it seems group serenade more than a man with a guitar singing a love song, which I imagine is how it started. Poetry set to music. That’s amore. He is Italian.

Track 09 – Fall Apart

So hard for me to pick a favorite song off this album, but this one pulls me in every time I listen to it. The piano opening feels like Elton, and then suddenly, the piano man appears. Michael builds a beautiful bridge between the two, crossing the pond in a showcase of the talent he has on keys. It’s an ode to the use of piano in 70s rock, when lyrics were as dynamic as the music. Again, the mix is sensational, and the message in the lyrics comes from the depths of the soul. It’s easy to be distracted by the power of the music, but the unconditional love he talks about in the lyrics is worth paying attention to. This one demands your attention.

Track 10 – Live Through This

Couldn’t really tell where the sound falls in this, almost like it’s meant to sound timeless. There’s a definite resignation expressed in the lyrics, but a glimmer of hope slips through. The song ends with a drumbeat that sounds a bit like a horse galloping away. Is this how the fairy tale ends?

    michael-j-promo-shot There are many albums on the market that cross decades in style and tone, but none I can think of that sound as lived in as this one. The album is a reflection of Michael J’s life in music, which has been a journey through several decades. The sound of the music has characteristics of all he’s heard, played, and loved over the years. The expression of Via Maris is two-fold. One plays out in the instrumentation and mixing, the other in the lyrics. The musical side goes back to the radio, the house full of musicians, and the band experiences he had over the years. The lyrical side is real life, real love, and real loss. It’s the part of life that happens between gigs. The songs emerge from what happens when the music stops. Reality outside the grind, where passion meets passion and something has to give. The journey of a musician comes full circle when the affairs of the heart become music. His two most powerful muses become one. A career musician plays on no matter what life throws his way, like the way of the sea continually crashing on shore. It comes whether in clear skies or storm’s fury. Via Maris is an extraordinary representation of Michael J’s journey in music and life. To release it in Nashville, where everyday life revolves around music, seems only fitting.

**Michael J would like to credit Stroke 9 drummer, Eric Stock, Jens Funke (bass), and Steve Schiltz (Longwave and Hurricane Bells) for their contributions to Via Maris.


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Bev Miskus

Blogger of all things music related in Nashville and beyond.

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