Michelle gurevich, queerness and the tragic sense of life

Photo by @juliagrade

Many songs contain a paradox: the words are personal, but the means of expressing them is often highly contrived. The singer will deliver lines about love, death, or fear, in a voice that couldn’t be further removed from the voices used to express those same sentiments in the real world. The singer’s rendering of these lines in musical notes might inject them with a kind of visceral power, but the personal, confessional nature of the verse is lost. It becomes abstract. Perhaps this makes it more palatable — but it also makes it feel less true.   

If you want to hear what a song sounds like when performance takes a back seat, look no further than the oeuvre of Michelle Gurevich. Born in Toronto, Canada to Russian immigrant parents, Gurevich originally set out to be a filmmaker, but eventually settled on music. All her records are self-released, further enhancing the sense of ‘intimacy and singleness of expression’ that, according to her website, remain an artistic priority. Hers is not anti-music, far from it. The music is inspired – infused with memories of Soviet ballrooms and 70s Europe, distinctive to the point where Gurevich can release an entirely instrumental piece (‘Waltz #1’) that is nonetheless unmistakably her work. Often melancholic, the instrumental accompaniments are beholden to Gurevich’s preoccupations with memory, identity, and desire. They are also beholden to a voice that refuses to steal the show. Gurevich is not exactly talking, but she’s not exactly singing, either. Search for a melody and you will likely come away empty-handed. The effect of all this is that the listener feels like a fly on the wall, intruding into another’s private world. 

Gurevich is an LGBTQ artist. Even if her music does not necessarily fit into an ‘LGBTQ’ genre, her musical world is filled with feelings and concerns that are close to the LGBTQ experience. So much of her work dwells on the transience of the self. Songs like ‘Dance While You Still Can’ and ‘First Six Months of Love’ speak to a sense of fleeting happiness and impending doom, while a song like ‘Friday Night’ expresses the arrival of that doom – ‘It’s Friday night, and there are tears in my eyes.’ In these musical landscapes, it’s not too difficult to sense the disturbance and alienation that can overcome those who do not feel like they belong. 

Gurevich’s signature style – her melancholic tunes and confessional voice – endow the messages in her songs with a heightened genuineness. Of course, that does not mean there is no ambiguity. Gurevich is channelling what Miguel de Unamuno called ‘the tragic sense of life’, the idea that life’s transience and many unknowns make it a bedrock of despair. Anyone can feel this ‘tragic sense’ for any reason, and one can certainly feel it in Gurevich’s music. But those who are non-conforming will likely latch onto the way Gurevich expresses the contradictions and anxieties of at once belonging and not belonging. Whether that is in ‘My Familiar Unfamiliar’, where she sings, ‘I can’t get used to you, don’t ever get used to me’, or in ‘Memories of Three’, where she reflects on the inevitable end of a three-way relationship – ‘These things can’t last, but they make a beautiful season.’ 

Michelle Gurevich’s fanbases include Eastern Europe and the Berlin queer scene. The former might, at least partly, be drawn to her Russianness, as well as the doom and gloom that could very well appeal to a corner of the world that gave us Dostoevsky and Kieślowski. The latter, on the other hand, might be drawn to something more elusive – the sense of detachment from oneself that her songs so often seem to express.

Article by Robert Montero