There are singers, and there are passion singers: emotive vocalists with full-bodied tones who couldn’t sound noncommittal if they tried. Count Michael-Ann Azoulai among the latter.

Azoulai, who professionally goes by Michael-Ann, has a history of following her passions. After college, while selling advertising in Washington, DC, she jumped at an Israeli friend’s invitation to visit. Her adventure in Israel (where she met her now-ex-husband, also a musician) lasted a year.

“I thought, ‘Why not?’” she says with a laugh. “I sold everything I had; my mom about had a heart attack. I’ve had a crazy, gypsy life, but I guess it makes for interesting music.”

Seventeen years ago, the classically trained singer relocated to Los Angeles. She made the rounds of dive bars with a folk-rock band, but increasingly felt drawn to the old-time country and gospel friends had taught her in the Ozarks, when she first learned to play guitar.

“They were such heart-wrenching, real songs,” she says. “I thought, ‘I want to do something like that.’”

She cycled through different band names — Ozark Mountain Thrush, the Missouri Devils — while developing a musical identity that embraced more traditional melodies and instrumentation. Three times she tried to record an album, with different collaborators; three times her efforts tanked.

“This last time I just threw it out to the universe, ‘This is my fourth shot here,’” she recalls. “‘Either this goes or I’m taking it as a sign that I need to quit.’ And all the pieces came together for ‘Heavy Load,’ which I put out in 2013. It started getting some nice reviews and I started getting more shows.”

Those shows included opening slots for artists such as Jeff Bridges, John Hiatt, Joan Osborne and Wynonna. This Saturday she opens for Wilson Phillips at the Rose.

“I’m really grateful for all of those people that I’ve opened for,” she says, adding that experience and observation have both schooled her in performance craft.

“You can ride a wave for a while with awards and shows, and then you hit valleys and it’s important to realize every show counts. Even if you’re singing for five people in a dive bar, you still want to be as present and as giving musically as if you’re singing in front of thousands. …

“You have to remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s a spiritual quest,” she says of what keeps her moving forward as she juggles motherhood with career challenges. “I want to deposit something in people’s spirits when I sing, not just sing a song. I look at it as a mission.”

– Bliss Bowen, Pasadena Weekly
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