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Headliners: Michael Palermo strums his way into the music industry with a ukulele

Second-year environmental science student Michael Palermo is inspired by artists such as Amy Winehouse for his R&B-, pop- and jazz-inspired music. Winehouse’s major seventh chord usage and frequent vocal runs carry over into his music where he discusses topics typically seen as taboo – such as people queerbaiting in Los Angeles. To write his songs, Palermo said he uses the “nugget method” to quickly brainstorm lyrics and instrumentals. (Liz Ketcham/Photo editor)

By Brooke Cuzick

Feb. 20, 2020 9:13 p.m.

Michael Palermo blends R&B, pop and jazz on the strings of his ukulele.

The second-year environmental science student said he kick-started his music career in the summer of 2019 when he took a music industry class which introduced him to songwriting. After the course required him to write songs for an hour a day, Palermo said he extended his passion for music to create original songs in his own time. Because he had always loved to sing, Palermo said learning to play instruments seemed like a natural progression in his pursuit to become a musician.

“I love singing, it’s all that I’ve ever wanted to do,” he said. “But I don’t come from a very artistic family, so I never really played an instrument or had any creative atmosphere to start writing or doing anything myself.”

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(Lauren Kim/Daily Bruin)

Palermo said the ukulele was an ideal instrument for his songs because it was a cheap and easy-to-learn option. When he writes music with it, the singer said he uses the “nugget method,” which involves him quickly writing blurbs of lyrics and music chords as he thinks of them. He’ll come back to his brainstorms later and piece together sets of music that flow with words he’s written, he said.

[Related: Student cohesively blends genres to make fluid self-produced music]

But Palermo said attaining the subject matter for his lyrics is more difficult. Since he lacks experience with relationships, he said he puts himself into the mindset of artists like Ariana Grande to picture how they would write about love and loss.

In terms of the instrumentals and vocal patterns he uses, Palermo said he borrows from his biggest musical inspiration, Amy Winehouse. He said the artist’s combinations of unorthodox chords – such as major seventh chords, which are used to give jazz music a relaxed feel – alongside her vocal runs translate into the music he writes for his ukulele.

“I do try to put myself in the positions of others and live other people’s experiences and see what lyrics I come up with,” Palermo said. “I just love the way that they tell stories, and I aim to do more storytelling, but I think honesty is the most important thing to put into lyrics.”

On top of writing music, Palermo is also evolving his stage presence for his live performances. Sarah Issever, a second-year English student, said she runs a radio show with the singer in which they perform and share their tastes in music with their listeners. The radio format allows them to perform music while maintaining a sense of distance from their audience, which Issever said creates an environment that feels safe to share original songs. After receiving positive feedback from their listeners, Palermo grew more confident in his writing and performing abilities, she said.

Palermo’s security in his own talent translates into his comfortable and natural attitude when performing, said Rachael Previti, a second-year world arts and cultures student who attends the singer’s shows. Between vocal runs and ukulele riffs, Previti said Palermo will tell jokes and create a lighthearted atmosphere with his crowds, which is very similar to how he interacts with his own friends outside of concerts.

“It’s hard to define where (Palermo) performing starts and ends,” she said. “His live performance isn’t so different from how he actually is. He doesn’t necessarily get into any kind of persona that’s different from how he actually interacts naturally.”

[Related: Student taps into her nightmares for inspiration for her music]

But Palermo’s music is not always so carefree. Winehouse’s impact on his work extends to his lyrics, which he said often cover topics typically seen as social taboos.

“Our teen generation needs someone to listen to that kind of brings a positive attitude,” Bacino said. “Michael’s audience can be … people going through heartbreak, people going into relationships, people going through the good parts of relationships and listening to … words of wisdom that he has.”
Palermo said he is planning on taking a quarter off school to focus on learning piano and guitar in hopes of releasing an extended play in June. Learning the new instruments will allow him to grow his repertoire of music skills for his future songs. (Liz Ketcham/Photo editor)

To continue expanding his music career, Palermo said he is taking a quarter off school to work and save money for an extended play he hopes to release in June. Stepping away from the stress of classes will also allow him the time to learn other instruments, such as the piano and guitar, to further grow his repertoire of music skills for his future songs, he said.

“I’m just really excited to just put more time into my craft because I think that’s a little difficult right now,” Palermo said. “I just need the time off to perfect what I do musically, and then I think I’ll be where I need to be to kind of kick-start my career.”

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Brooke Cuzick | Alumna
Cuzick previously served as a senior staff writing for Arts and Entertainment. She was the Music | Fine Arts editor from 2019-2020 and an A&E reporter from 2018-2019.
Cuzick previously served as a senior staff writing for Arts and Entertainment. She was the Music | Fine Arts editor from 2019-2020 and an A&E reporter from 2018-2019.
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