Singer-songwriter Michelle Noftall paints an emotional portrait of a remarkable family lineage in her sophomore album, Roots in the Water
A song, spun just right, can tell a story. A snippet, like a fine snapshot, or even more extensive, like a vibrant tapestry of sound. For Michelle Noftall, her latest album Roots in the Water speaks through generations, and boy, does it have a story to tell. The followup to her 2015 studio debut, Songs for a Winters Night, delves deep into Noftall’s family lineage, tracing all the way back to Barbados. From a stowaway making a new life a world away, to a love that defied convention, Noftall’s family tree is one worth exploring.
“The story behind Roots in the Water is based on my great-grandfather and his name was James Inniss,” Noftall tells The Newfoundland Herald. “He was born in Barbados. His father (Noftall’s great-great grandfather) worked on a plantation down there, and his mother was the daughter of the owners of that plantation. They were both born in the same place and grew up together.”
In a serendipitous twist, the plantation hand would marry the plantation owners daughter, a move that seemed to have been met with the approval of the girls family. They left the couple the plantation.
“They had their own family, and one of the children was James Inniss, and he left home when he was 14 years old. He left Barbados and ended up on a ship owned by the Petites. The captain brought him to Fortune. A lady there, Jenny King, took him in and raised him.”
Inniss, Noftall’s great-grandfather, would marry Nancy Lake at 27, an interracial union that defied social-conventions of the time. Despite being the “talk of the town,” Lake and Inniss would welcome seven children, including Noftall’s grandfather, Leonard.
With all the trappings of an epic and emotional made-for-tv mini-series, it is only too natural that Noftall decided to draw emphasis from her kin for Roots in the Water.
“When I decided to start writing my own music again, I wanted to write about something that was meaningful. I wanted to contribute something to our musical heritage. I knew a bit about this story, but not as much as I do now when I started digging a bit more.”
Conversations with family and close acquaintances helped shape and bring the story to life for Noftall. Songs on the album include Stowaway, inspired by James Inniss’s journey, and the heartbreaking Where is Mary?, which chronicles the passing of two of James and Nancy’s children.
A Real Story
“Everyone is real and everyone who I spoke to is connected to my great-grandparents, who I had never met. Everyone I talked to remembered something, and I’m still learning, even now. It’s been emotional.”
Noftall, an admitted newcomer to the local music scene, has nothing but admiration for those who have helped her thus far, including celebrated artists Craig Young and Chris LeDrew.
“I came back to music a little later, but I’m really happy I came back to the party,” she laughs. “Everyone I have met or had the opportunity to work with have been completely welcoming, respectful, and the working relationships have helped me grow as a musician. The way I came to music in this point in my life is different then when I was 18 years old. The way and the style that I write is very different from back then too. I’m just continuing to learn, and I just appreciate all the experiences I’ve had so far.”
Noftall officially releases Roots in the Water on Feb. 3rd at the Masonic Temple. Tickets are available now at O’Brien’s music. Visit michellenoftall.com for more.