Author, speaker and three-time Grammy nominee, Michele Pillar has a story everyone should hear. Her journey of courage began as a child when she found herself routinely hiding under her twin bed to escape the violent behavior caused by her mother’s addictions and many subsequent life-altering experiences. Yet, due to much deep “heart” work, a remarkable trust, miraculous life experiences and her strong faith, looking back, Michele feels only gratitude. Michele’s recognition from her early music career, her many #1 radio hits, chart-topping records and national tours built a strong foundation for her personally and professionally, but also uncovered the deep memories, painful past and trauma that she rivetingly unpacks in her book & song: Untangled/The Truth Will Set You Free. In this beautiful interview, we went deep into the parts that made her who she is today. The authentic self-discovery of an Artist. Here is her story.
I want to start at the beginning of your journey before your Grammy nomination and your book, back to your 20s.
I love to have the chance to talk to younger people because I want to tell them to not do what I did. Listen to this interview and don’t do the same mistakes that I did. When you’re young and you aspire to do a lot, you take your eye off of the bigger picture. I thought it was going to last forever. I would go against what the right thing to do would be thinking that I could just fix it. It’s hard when you’re young because you have so many emotion that are in more control of me than anyone else. It’s really hard to think with a sober mind.
Looking back, what advice would you give to yourself?
Don’t we all wish we could do that? If I could go back and talk to the younger me in the 20s, I would say not to be so concerned about what others think or what others do. I always thought that somebody else had the key to my next goal and how I was going to reach it. Somebody else was going to be the answer. It was more other people in the area that I wanted to excel in. I was signed to my first record deal when I was 19. That didn’t come because of someone I knew. It didn’t happen because someone made a call for me. I was actually sitting next to somebody in a home bible study in a tiny house and I was singing along with everyone else, worshipping the lord, and someone said that they liked my voice. I didn’t realize that I was sitting next to the producer of someone that had the biggest record at the time. It happened because I was in the right place in the right time and God had directed my path. That is not to say that I didn’t work hard. I was singing professionally already in night clubs. The bigger things like being in the Grammys wasn’t because I called a bunch of people thinking they held the key, it was because I worked hard and God opened the doors. I would tell my 20 year old self that others don’t have the answer. You have to find it by doing hard work and not giving up and getting out there and getting out of your immediate surroundings and working very hard.
When you say to get out of your room and your environment, do you think that it’s important to step out of your comfort zone to move into your own city?
I lived in Orange County, California, next to all the television and the music. If I had been afraid when I was singing in nightclubs at 16 — I lied about my age so I could be in there — if I told myself that that was the best that it could get, then I would have to set that aside for a bit. I got a job as a waitress and started knocking on doors to get vocal backgrounds on records. Get out of your comfort zone and your city. If you’re in a city that doesn’t have a lot of what you want to do going on, there’s nothing like getting in and amongst them. You have got to take some chances. You have to get out from under the end of your nose. I don’t think a career can happen on your phone. If you’re waiting for your big moment, there are so many people doing things on their phone, how many really make it? You have to be willing to everything that you’re not comfortable with.
Bring me to your journey, what were the moments in your career where you really thought to yourself that you made it and achieved what you wanted?
You never feel that way when you’re doing it. You always think that there’s something more that you want to do. When you’re playing Madison Square Garden, you want to play an arena. If your record is number one, you want your next three singles to hit number one as well. You never feel like it’s enough. I regret that too. I was at the Grammy awards. I was nominated three times. One time I was on the telecast. That night I thought that I was doing something that matters. Even then, it didn’t feel like the peak.
Do you think that’s also part of staying motivated, that you didn’t really achieve the most?
That’s a good point. It’s okay to want to do more as long as you appreciate where you are at the time. You’re not doing it to feel better about who you are. There’s always someone who can sing higher. I wanted to be a soprano but I was an alto. There’s always someone prettier. There’s always someone that can sing higher. That can be a trap. If you stay thankful for what you’ve accomplished, but think about how you can be better and benefit others. I started off wanting to express my faith and to lift up who Jesus is and what he had done for me, saving me from my alcoholic parents. After a while, after all my success, I left him behind for a little bit. That’s a huge mistake. You always have to ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Am I doing it to give or to take? I can remember doing a lot of things because I needed it so desperately. The audience is really smart. They know where you’re coming from, whether you say it or not. If you’re coming from a place of giving and lifting up others and lifting up God, they know if you’re for real with that. If you’re doing it to be cool and to be more of you, they know that.
It’s because I was coming from a place of ego and need. When I was younger I was trying to fill up the gaps that only God could heal. I didn’t realize how desperately I needed affirmation.
The artist that I respect the most have never been about themselves. Some of the great artists that are even older than I am, like James Taylor and people that I’ve met, they’re not about themselves. I think that from the get-go they were smart enough to keep it in line. If you think about the artists that take a lot end up imploding on drugs or by getting hurt. They usually self destruct in some way. You have to always be in service to others. It comes from a clean place and from a place where the audience receives what you’re saying.
As soon as I started getting too self-centred in my artistry, I fell. I fell hard. It was right after my third grammy nomination, and I had just been on the Grammys. I was at the top of my game. I was exhausted. I was doing 200 concerts a year, so I was really tired. I ended up having an affair with a married man in 1985. You can’t do it now and get away with it, but then you really couldn’t. I lost everything at once. I got dropped from my record. The radio pulled all my songs. It was very harsh. I failed. I ended up wanting to kill myself. I just didn’t feel like I was worth anything.
In that moment it feels like you were at the top of your game, was it a conscious act of self-sabotage because you felt that you weren’t worthy of it?
It gets back to the first point of why I’m doing it. If your whole self worth and how you feel about yourself is based on what you’re doing instead of what you’ve got, then when I lost everything that was not the life I wanted. That is not the life that God wants us to lead. If what you’re basing your beauty and worth on, if you’re basing it on something that can be taken away, then you’re in very dangerous territory. When it was taken away, there was nothing left for me. It was a hollow shell. The most beautiful time was the next 15 years in solitude, being an everyday person and living an everyday life. I sat with the lard on a very long and beautiful journey where he started reaching out into the caverns of my life that I didn’t know how I would give to him. One by one he started showing me if it was based on a lie. I looked at his word and found the truth to counter-balance it through his word and his touch and spending that intimate time. God really did fill all these places for me. When I go out to sing or to do a women’s conference, I didn’t feel like that made me important, I was excited that I could get to talk about what God had done for me. It was a totally different focus. I wasn’t nervous or feeling like I was not good enough, my focus was telling people what God had done for me and that’s what Dr. Phil wanted to talk about. It felt very honest, and it didn’t feel like I was doing it as a career move.
You spent 15 years out of the spotlight working on yourself and being with God, did the book come out of that?
The book absolutely came out of it. i didn’t think that I’d be back in the industry in any way. I thought it was too much time lost and that it was too late. I thought non one cared anymore about whether I sang or wrote. The lord kept telling me in my heart that he wanted me to tell the truth about what he had done for me. In fact, he used the word “unvarnished” truth. We like to talk about the victory but we don’t like to talk about the process and how ugly it got. I fought it, not because I was afraid to tell the story but because I didn’t think it mattered. I said, “Lord, too much time has passed by. I’m not well known so who cares about my story.” The lord spoke to my heart when I got real quiet, because it wouldn’t go away. I want to encourage someone who’s reading this that if a fire in your belly is not going away, you have got to take the next step to do it. God’s not going to show you the five steps ahead, he’s going to show you the next step. He spoke into the inner most part of me and said, “because I will use your story to get into the story of the reader in places I can’t go. If you will jump first, I’ll use that as a doorway and I’ll get into all these places in people’s lives that feel lonely and stuck and feel like an imposter.” That’s what I hear all the time from people who read “Untangled.” A lot of people felt like they were reading what God wanted us to do. When we tell the truth, it helps people be more honest with you.
I would love to know what is the truth for you? What are some of the things that resonated with you?
The truth for me is realizing now that at this point in my life, and I wish that I had known it sooner, that God can heal anything. We tend to put things in boxes. If you went through a horrible divorce or if you hid under the bed from an alcoholic parent, or if you were abusive to someone else, and you think, “I just have to pay for that forever. God can’t heal that. It’s too serious and deep.” God can heal absolutely anything. It doesn’t take as long to heal as it is broken. Sometimes we’re afraid to touch it because they are scared it’s going to hurt more than it hurts right now. I write things down that my mother said and did that would hurt so much and I would make a list and ask the lord how we would tackle number one. It doesn’t happen at church or at a home bible study. It happens alone. We can ask Google what the bible says about abuse. I bathed my hurt with the words of God. The truth really does set you free. I started seeing where I was living under lies that I believed. The lord would touch and comfort and I would talk to him about it and speak back to my heart through prayer and through word. I’m telling you, when he gets a hold of it, it can be healed pretty quickly. He can be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
I’m his daughter, son, creation, and he loves me. Just the basics like that and you can be transformed. From that comes freedom, forgiveness, forgiving others, which is the ultimate healing. You not only choose to forgive, but you ask the lord for the miracle of forgiveness that he raised on the cross. God miraculously can touch us and give us the power of forgiveness. You find those things first and your purpose grows out of that wholeness. A tree does what it’s created to do when it’s taken care of and its disease branch get cut off. We can see being taken care of as an elusive thing. It’s not cracking the code. It’s making sure that you’re healthy emotionally, spiritually, and healthily. You have to be sure that you’re in love with God and that you’re with him in all caverns of your life. Your purpose will grow from that place.
What does Michele want for herself now?
I just don’t want to waste another day doing what I want. I want to wake up everyday and ask the lord what he authored on the page for me today. God authored every single one of our days before any of them ever were. I spent years authoring my own pages. I know for sure that the day I had an affair with a married man that that was not authored on the page that God had for me on that day. I wish I could go back and see what was on that page in 1985 that I missed out on. It might have been something spectacular. The enemy comes to rob and steal and take away, and I wonder what got stolen from me that day. You have to retrace steps and know the author. I want hat he’s got going on. If I could wake up every morning and hit the floor and ask to keep my eyes and ears open for what is on that page, and if God took the time to author it before, then we should know what it was.
Have you also discovered how to be present along your journey?
That’s something that is such a popular term. I think that, for me, what we have to be careful of is that we don’t fashion our lives and our days by what others are saying or doing. If you read an article about “being present,” you have to make it your own. Don’t imitate what you’re reading online. Inspiration is important, but if we’re not careful, our life is a bunch of one-liners strung together. They don’t mean anything and they’re not translating to anything. If we ask and then we sit present with the lord in our minute by minute, we’re going to have peace. No matter what gets thrown at us or taken away, a peace that doesn’t make logical sense will be present. God promises to give us peace. As we walk in that piece, we are going to be able to hear God’s direction and see the world as God sees it. We are going to be able to make a left or a right turn. Within that peace we’re going to have our focus on God. He makes our path straight. If we’re looking under every rock then we’re not following his footsteps. The quickest is stepping one foot where his last footprint has gone.
It’s hard to grow up. You riddled with insecurity, fear, worry. It can be so distracting to be riddled with all of that. Youth is very short. It feels like it’s going to last forever but it’s a blink. I always pray for the people that I’m going to meet at my conferences because I love talking to them. Don’t be in a hurry. This is a very precious time and enjoy every minute of it. Travel light. Enjoy it because it will be over before you know it.
Photo Credit – Michele Pillar
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