I met husband and wife duo Natalie Burg and Mike Vial at Taps 25 in Lansing, Michigan. As I waited for the couple to join me, I ordered a New Holland White Hatter and took in the scenery. The bar, located in Lansing’s stadium district, boasted exposed brick walls and a large tap list.
Mike and Natalie had been recommended by my superiors as Happy Hour’s first group interview because of their success at their interesting jobs: Mike as a full-time singer-songwriter and Natalie as a journalist and author. They turned out to be excellent subjects, talking at length about their careers, their love of Michigan, and what it’s like to be young professionals in creative fields.
Natalie Burg: I’m going to get the Saugatuck Amber. (Turns to Jake) So has your street been flooded?
Jake: Mine hasn’t been bad, but I’m nowhere near the river.
N: I couldn’t believe it when I saw the pictures on MLive. Super scary. My car would be in good shape though. It has no electronics—it’s a base model. It’s like an amphibious vehicle, Chevy Aveo all the way!
J: You could give some of those land to water city tours.
N: Yes! I could take people on those.
J: So you guys don’t live in Lansing, right?
N: No, we live in Ann Arbor.
J: Ann Arbor, nice!
N: I’ve lived in like six different cities in Michigan.
Mike Vial: You’ve lived everywhere in Michigan. And you can claim you’ve lived in Lansing.
N: Yeah, I lived in Lansing and East Lansing for six years combined. When we met I was living in Ow0sso—
M: Which is practically Lansing.
N: Then I moved to Howell, and now we moved to Ann Arbor.
M: When we met, I had just moved in to this really cool loft in Howell, above Cleary’s Pub. Then, after we had been dating a while, I convinced her to move in with me. Then we decided, after falling down the stairs and having to carry all my gear down the stairs, that it was not for a musician and it was not for a dog owner.
N: It was on the third level.
M: So we moved to Ann Arbor, and we love it. I’ve always wanted to live in Ann Arbor, and as a teacher, I taught south of Flint, so I just would go to Ann Arbor all the time. I’d go to Ashley’s and grade papers and think “Why am I living in Fenton? Oh, because it’s close to work.”
N: Which is probably the same time I was living in Ann Arbor.
M: Indeed. I would’ve passed your rental house three times a week. I put so many miles on my car just grading papers and drinking good Michigan beer at Ashley’s. It’s a real blessing to be like, “Oh, we’re self-employed! We don’t really have to live anywhere! Where do you want to live? Ann Arbor? Ok, Ann Arbor.” We talked about Grand Rapids, we love Grand Rapids, but it’s so far away from my family and her family is going to be far away anyway, so Ann Arbor made the most sense with my family being from the Detroit area. And the music too, I think the folk scene is quite strong in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, so you can’t go wrong with either. It fits really well and we’re really happy. We’ve been there, what, six months now?
N: Oh, longer than that. It was July.
M: It’s been a crazy year. I sprained my ankle walking down the stairs with the dogs [in Howell], and we were in Ann Arbor a month later. And this was three weeks before we got married and I was playing shows and you were writing.
N: I wasn’t planning on going to your show. It was a cover gig at Blue Gill Grill in Haslett. I was planning on just working from home and he fell through the stairs, sprained his ankle, and he had all of this equipment. So I needed to drive him, it was this big disaster. I remember you came over at your set break, sat down and were like “We need to move.” By the time you were done, I had a list of houses on Craigslist. Then it was like two weeks later and we were in a house!
J: Wow, that’s quick.
N: Yeah. Thank God for month-to-month leases.
M: Freedom is such a good thing.
II. Natalie on What She Does
N: For my regular news articles, I write for Capital Gains in Lansing and Concentrate in Ann Arbor. For both publications I’m the development news editor, and I write four stories a week for each publication. So each week I’m vetting about sixteen articles and eight usually pan out.
M: And then on top of that you have the features and on top of that you have the other publications.
N: Yeah. I talk to a lot of people.
J: You have a book that’s coming out right?
N: Right! Before I met Mike, when I was living here, I had the opportunity to—and I use the word “opportunity” lightly—I had the opportunity to go to Sweden as an au pair for a family. And it was a total disaster. The end all, be all is that I ended up being an undocumented domestic servant who was not paid enough…
M: She didn’t even know she was there illegally.
N: So when I realized that I wasn’t being paid enough to do anything or go anywhere—I was basically living in these people’s basement cleaning their house. Because their children were teenagers. They were 14, 16, and 17, so they didn’t even need me.
J: Why did they even hire you?
N: Why did they even hire me?
M: That question, I’m not sure can even be answered by the book. The way you’ve told it to me, it’s just a bunch of crazy people doing a bunch of crazy things and you kind of come to an understanding of how to get yourself out of a crazy position, right?
N: And the thing was, the real answer to the reason they hired me was, they lived on this farm in the middle of nowhere, and the mom was this free-spirit, metaphysical—
M: Yeah, they had a cult in the barn.
N: Yeah, she was starting this, like, religious philosophy, and she wanted to really focus on that—
M: She didn’t want to do any of the work.
N: Yeah, she wanted to quit being a mom and a farmhouse wife and focus on that, so she had me come in, as I would find out later, to take over the farmhouse wife and the mother duties, which is not at all what I was expecting. So I was supposed to be there for a year, but I wasn’t there for a whole year. The book is about that and getting out of that.
M: It’s like Eat, Pray, Love meets David Sedaris’s humor.
N: Meets Lena Dunham. And the moral is, never leave Michigan.
III. Mike on His Life as a Professional Musician
N: He really encouraged me to do that, I was trying to go the traditional publication route and that was not working. So he really pushed me to try and go that route and it could not have possibly been more the right decision. Mike also has some really exciting things coming up. He just announced that he is playing Common Grounds Music Festival.
M: Ben Folds Five, Barenaked Ladies, Guster…and Mike Vial, so that’s fun. It’s kind of my first major festival. I’ve done a lot of smaller ones and we’ll be doing smaller ones this summer. And I haven’t announced this yet, but it’s okay to talk about: I’ve got a new CD I’m doing. I’m going to go back out to Canada to record at Catherine North Studios, where City and Colour and Feist recorded, then I’m doing a twenty/thirty day tour in September with another artist from Canada.
M:Everybody was so worried when I quit my job and left teaching and when Natalie quit her DDA position, but here we are a year and a half later and it’s just like, we worked hard every day.
N: Yeah, the major problem is just being too busy, which is a good problem to have.
J: Yeah better than the opposite.
M: I mean, I put twenty five thousand miles on my car. We were just out in New York for the first time, and I played a gig, but we were able to turn it into a vacation. And it’s important that we did that because I was on the road. Even playing these little gigs in the state, sometimes I’m gone two, three days.
J: That takes a toll.
M: Yeah, it takes a toll.
N: So it’s nice we could make a little makeshift vacation out of a gig.
J: How long did you stay there?
M: Three, four days. I play in Holland on Wednesday, Lansing on Thursday, Friday in Ann Arbor, then we drove all night to New York. I was up for 36 hours, played my gig, and then it was vacation time.
N: We’re not very good at math, so about two weeks ahead of time we were like, “so how are we getting there? We should take a plane.” Then we did all this research and turns out planes break guitars, so…
M: It’s always a gamble.
J: So how far do your gigs usually take you? Is it common to go all the way out to New York?
M: It’s becoming more common. I usually go out for a week, come home, then play a lot in Michigan, then go out for another week. I think last year I did three or four tours. This year, things are getting bigger. I think I’m going to go out for two weeks then come home. I’ve played in about six or seven states so far this year, and we’re only to April. September’s going to be a checkmark on the list of goals, doing a whole twenty/thirty day tour. It’s just kind of like “Wow, this is happening!” We’ve already confirmed half of the dates. I’m fortunately going to be able to come back home during the tour. We’ve got dates set in Michigan, but my poor buddy Paul is going to be on the road with me for thirty days.
N: One of the things that makes the way you’re doing music different than what people think of as a music career is that on one hand you have this original music career with original gigs that go outside the state and take you all over, but during a regular week, you’re going out four to five nights a week and playing cover gigs at bars and restaurants because that’s how one makes a living as a musician.
M: And the beauty of it is, it is two jobs. Some people say “I’m never doing cover gigs,” and I don’t have to do that because I’m an acoustic artist, so when I’m doing a cover song, it still sounds like Mike Vial. Two, I’m able to do it by myself, do all the work myself and get all of the financial benefit from that. My name is still on it, so I stand to benefit from it more than a cover band who might try and go out and do original material. I’m able to do some of my originals at the bars, and I just locked down a bunch of farmers markets for the summer, after which I can do another gig. I can sing for nine hours. I feel like I’m in a wonderfully unique situation where I was able to jump out of teaching and make a living right away. This is also like a musical education for me. I’ve learned about booking, I’ve learned about songwriting, even though I’ve done quite a bit of it. I’ve got a hundred songs written, but learning three hundred and fifty songs for a cover gig really helps to…I don’t want to say write a hit, but…write something that’s easily accessible. But I’m loving it, it’s been a great ride. We’re hoping for that transition where…you don’t dream of being John Mayer or Kid Rock or at that level, but playing The Loft, getting four hundred people to come out…that seemed like an insane dream about four years ago, and now I feel like I’m at the beginning of making the right decisions to hopefully make that happen. I’m playing my first show at The Ark in Ann Arbor in May, and I’m really excited about that.
J: I love The Ark.
N: It’s a free show and everyone should come! May 28th!
M: It takes a lot of work. I played two hundred gigs last year, and I had a lot of No’s and failures within the last five years of doing it part time. Now I’m starting to get those awesome confirmations.
N: I think a lot of people in creative positions…I have a lot of people ask me, “How do you be a writer?” or something. People focus on how that short story they’ve been working on for four years can turn into a writing career. In reality, you have to treat your writing like a business, spending every day writing the things people will actually pay you to write, and then eventually that one short story becomes a part of your career—
M: Nobody asks a teacher, “How do you be a teacher?” Everyone thinks they understand that.
N: I’m kind of doing a parallel thing to what Mike has. While I am doing things like my book or my columns—things people imagine a writer doing on a daily basis—I’m also calling new business owners and saying, “Will you give me a fifteen minute interview, please?” Or searching the internet so I can write a story about tips for social media marketing. I don’t put that stuff on my website, but I’m doing that.
M: And it’s not like we’re not proud to be doing that. We’re not keeping it a secret. I think people know what teachers are going to do. You go to college, you get your internship, you put your time in, you work really hard, and we know what that looks like. The steps are laid out for you. And what’s happening now is that my former students who now want to do music are reaching out to me and saying, “Mr. Vial—they still call me Mr. Vial,” and they ask me what the steps are, because they don’t know what that looks like. Most people don’t even know what it looks like to a national band playing The Loft, or Death Cab for Cutie, or even The Ragbirds out of Ann Arbor. We see that, but we don’t know what it looked like for them for ten years. I kind of studied that during teaching, and I kind of figured out how I was going to make it work. And I’m not sure everybody wants to believe…I think it takes the dream away, the fantasy of, “I worked at Starbucks, and then I became a rock star overnight.”
IV. The Couple on Their Michigan Wedding
J: What kind of stuff?
N: It generally stems from…
M: It kind of stems from your stories and writing about Michigan businesses all the time. So may of Natalie’s friends are either small business owners or artists. There’s just this wide array of people, and I think it just became this love of Michigan, which then became sharing in our friends and family world. It didn’t seem as big as—stepping back from it—getting everything from Michigan, minus the dress. It wasn’t as hard of a task as you might imagine. The Rolodex was there and most of her friends are really talented people. It was just a really great way to celebrate the state and all these little things that are happening that we are just a couple of degrees away from. I think most people from Michigan can feel that.
N: And the interesting thing is, I was feeling that we were coming from the perspective of, people think this is obvious, so let’s use this as a way to demonstrate how easy it is and how many wedding vendors there are. And I’m thinking “Maybe this isn’t as unusual in other states,” but Michigan is a place where we discover so much. Recently I was interviewing a wedding planner in Ann Arbor, and she said that she moved from somewhere in the Northwest, and she said that was her favorite thing about moving, was that there weren’t as many local businesses in the Northwest, so she was always working with big design firms and big event firms, whatever. And there are so many small businesses in Michigan…it’s not like it’s the wedding industry that makes Michigan special, but when you think about the wedding industry, who it is; it’s artists, it’s designers, it’s event planners who make Michigan a cool place to live. And the fact that that’s not necessarily true elsewhere, where it’s more corporate type places.
M: Plus we’re really lucky to play off that idea, what we have is unique places like this, with the brick walls and the Michigan history. One of my friends who comes to a lot of my gigs, he’s from Wisconsin, told me they don’t have a lot of these things in his state. He says they tore down a lot of these buildings. I think part of our Michigan made wedding stemmed from that idea that we’re going to have our wedding at the Crofoot. Even though we didn’t meet at the Crofoot, it was kind of like a symbolic place for us. When I was playing a gig there and you came, it was our second or third meeting and it’s this gorgeous redesigned Michigan space. Placemaking is so important and Michigan has so much of that.
N: And then there’s the fact that I’m a bit of an oversharer. So, little can happen in my life that I don’t try and think of a way to turn it into a writing project. I actually tried to turn our honeymoon into a blog, too.
M: I think I turned that one off (everyone laughs).
J: You gotta draw the line somewhere.
N: It actually came up in our premarital counseling. I was like, “Uhh, okay. I have gone over the line.” Everything else in life, though, is fair game. Just wait ‘til I start having kids, I’ll be one of those mommy bloggers…No I won’t. No offense mommy bloggers.
IV. On Michigan
M: Michigan is an underrated place for creativity. I mean, going out to New York was fun, but I came back with more of a reassurance that this is why I’m in Ann Arbor, this is why I’m in Michigan. You’re out in New York and it feels like it’s hard to get something going because there’s all of that activity. And you’d think because there’s all that activity, it offers opportunity, and I’m sure it does, I only spent four days out there. In Michigan it feels easier to get your thing going and get connected. That’s the beauty, getting connected. Like volunteering your music for a cool non-profit and then you can do a paying gig after. I’m not sure that happens in New York, at least not at the beginning level.
J: Much more work to just be recognized, I think.
M: It’s easy to think, “Oh we’re missing out because we don’t live the New York lifestyle,” but I feel like the little moments of Ann Arbor, the little moments of Grand Rapids, the smaller moments of Lansing…they feel bigger, first off because there’s less competition. It’s easy for us to drive forty –five minutes and get to a whole other part of Michigan. In New York, you’re riding a subway for twenty minutes to get to another part of Manhattan. I really love living here and I think it was a good business decision, too. Especially for what we do.
N: I was recently working on a feature story for Concentrate about housing issues. Everybody’s really familiar with the idea that, “rent is really expensive in Ann Arbor,” so we’re always looking for affordable housing ideas. So I was talking to a development director in Santa Cruz, California, which is smaller than Ann Arbor, it’s a university town, and they had this issue, too. There’s not enough affordable housing for students and young professionals. So I was calling to talk about these housing units and I made an appointment to talk with this woman. When she called me back a week later, she said, “I was looking for some information, and it’s actually really surprising to me that you’re having this issue because housing looks pretty affordable in Ann Arbor.” I said, “Well, you have to divide everything by Michigan.” It was funny to hear someone say, “It’s so cheap there.” It’s like their dollar is worth a different amount than our dollar. We should have different currencies. But that’s something I hear from a lot of people. A lot of times people are living in New York, living in Chicago, and they get that itch to start a business. It makes perfect sense to come back, not only to where their family is, but where they can start a business on literally half the capital, if not less.