Christina Michelle's teenage years were a whirlwind of rhythm and music — until Thoracic Outlet Syndrome stopped the 16-year-old competitive dancer and aspiring drummer in her tracks.
"I wasn't allowed to do anything at all because I was on heavy, heavy blood thinners," says Michelle of the treatment to combat the disorder, which causes painful swelling, clotting and weakness in the body. "The doctors would be afraid that if I went to shows or did anything physical that I could bleed."
Michelle's condition forced her to temporarily retire from any excessive physical activity while she recovered. When doctors finally gave her the all-clear, she started hitting shows again and planned to make her musical comeback behind the kit. But something had changed in Michelle, and as she stood in the front row shouting along to local Florida bands, she realized her new passion: She wanted to scream.
Her opportunity to do just that soon presented itself, fortuitously enough, via her future bandmate, Gouge Away guitarist Mick Ford. "Mick used to [sing] in local bands. He was the type of person that would just pass the microphone off to everybody," she recalls of the fateful moment her voice first burst through a p.a. as a punk kid in the crowd. "I just remember it being really intense and awesome, feeling like: I have to do that!"
Now, years later, Michelle is living her dream: unleashing her furious screams onstage and on record as the vocalist for Fort Lauderdale, Florida, post-hardcore act Gouge Away. Since forming in 2012, the band have made a name for themselves in the underground thanks to intense live shows, endorsements from scene vets such as Touché Amoré's Jeremy Bolm and 2016 debut full-length , Dies — which mixed unhinged hardcore breakdowns with powerviolence-seasoned dissonance, as Michelle broached weighty topics including sexual assault, systemic racism, police brutality, animal rights and the underfunded U.S. public school system. The vocalist, a former kindergarten teacher, sees the inherent value in highlighting injustice through hardcore, and has connected with fans and friends on-and-offstage because of it. But pushing these themes to the forefront has also taken a mental toll on the singer.
Though not without reservations, it's an approach Michelle ultimately pulled back from on the group's sophomore record, Burnt Sugar — a self-reflective, sonically diverse album that showcases the band pushing their hardcore sound into exciting new territories and incorporating everything from seasick post-grunge to sun-bleached pop rock.
"I felt like because we wrote such a political album [with , Dies], there was a lot of pressure on me to cover a bunch of topics and talk about a lot of things," the vocalist explains. "But sometimes doing that to yourself all the time — talking about sexual assault or depression and making yourself talk about that night after night — does terrible things to your mental health. I think it's important, and it's a good thing to do … but it shouldn't be my only purpose."
While Burnt Sugar's pivot from the all-caps political messages of Gouge Away's earlier material was in some sense a form of self-preservation for Michelle, what she ended up singing about on the new album wasn't a cakewalk for her either. There's a palpable sense of frustration crackling through her voice on the LP — just check out the maelstrom of paranoia and anxiety that comes crashing through the floodgates on the album opener "Only Friend" for proof. On "Subtle Thrill," the singer even contemplates her own role in triggering past trauma as she performs for others ("hurt is a commodity," she states scornfully).
"I think it's about different ways of dealing with poor mental health, and just trying to get through a regular day," Michelle reveals of Burnt Sugar's central theme. "And it kind of goes back and forth between how looking for the good in everything is pointless, but also how you just kind of have to do that to move on."
It took a while for Michelle to get back to the bright side, with the period between the release of , Dies and the recording of Burnt Sugar being fraught with tragedy and personal breakdowns.
She explains: "A lot had started snowballing all at once: We lost three band members, which was a lot to deal with. My best friend lost her sister to addiction. My mom was having heart issues, and she was constantly in the hospital … Even though I had the intention to write another political album, this was what I was thinking about at all times."
A reference to a build-up of "plaque on the artery walls" connects "Fed Up," Burnt Sugar's most viciously punky piece, to Michelle's mother's health problems. The words, including its devastating last line of "I'm so fed up with hope," came flowing from Gouge Away's singer while she sat in her car, crestfallen over the multiple misdiagnoses given to her mother by various doctors.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances that brought the matriarch into Gouge Away's discography, singing about her mom was a natural extension of Michelle's musical upbringing. When she was an infant, her parents would blast the sounds of the early Nineties alt-rock scene around the house. "There's a video of me jumping around a playpen trying to sing Red Hot Chili Peppers," the vocalist says with a laugh, adding, "We would play musical chairs to the Offspring; my sister and I were always trying to put on little concerts in my living room."
Though Gouge Away took their moniker from an old Pixies song of the same name, and cite Nineties icons Jesus Lizard, Nirvana and Fugazi as a key influences, these parts of the Alternative Nation didn't end up hitting Michelle's ears until she was well in her teens. Before that, Michelle's mother took her to her first-ever concert: Christina Aguilera and Destiny's Child, and would later dutifully accompany her daughter to punk shows while she was recovering from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. ("My mom, the only way she would feel comfortable with me going to shows was if she was there.")
From her mother's heart problems to her own struggles with mental health, a series of life-altering events helped inform Burnt Sugar's lyrics. Similarly, multiple internal shake-ups to Gouge Away led Michelle and Ford to their current rhythm section of bassist Tyler Forsythe and drummer Tommy Cantwell. It also led the band towards a bolder sonic palette. With its earliest incarnation, Michelle explains, "every idea had to fit into hardcore." This latest iteration of Gouge Away, meanwhile, is malleable, and able to unfurl malicious stomp-outs with the same confidence as they would a muted melodic piece. This has driven the group to deliver its most ambitious effort yet, with Burnt Sugar mining skewed and slinky noise rock ("Only Friend"), go-for-the-throat hardcore ("Wilt (I Won't"), and groove-heavy spoken-word pieces ("Raw Blood").
Without a doubt, there are some absolutely crushing moments caked into Burnt Sugar, both emotionally and sonically. That said, it also offers an outright Vitamin C-spiked pop rock reprieve through "Stray/Burnt Sugar," a late-album piece that optimistically takes solace in the fact that even when you're plunged deep into your darkest hour, you can at least count on the sun rising in the morning, and for the stars to shine at night. It's a simple but comforting message that suggests Gouge Away might not be as fed up with hope as they'd have your believe.
"It might be hard to see the good in things [because] there's so many bad things happening," Michelle says with a wistful sigh, "but sometimes just the fact that the sun comes up … sometimes that's all the good that you need."