Miriam Pico’s joy in music

By Ross Boissoneau

Sun contributor

If it seems like Miriam Pico has been performing around the area for a few years, you’re right. But you may be surprised to learn it’s been nearly two decades.

Pico is at least. “Next year is the 20th anniversary … of my first album,” she says, almost wonderingly. “It’s a big deal. That’s when I considered myself to be a professional, with no other job.”

That may not be entirely accurate, as she’s worked in numerous settings or jobs over the past two decades. But they’ve all had music at the forefront. From a longstanding duo with pianist David Chown to current work with her husband, guitarist Ryan Younce, her child-focused “Mindful + Musical with Miriam Pico” and solo shows, she’s made music her life.

“I’ve been able to make a living. I’m thankful. It’s not easy,” she says.

Pico is performing her family-oriented “Music and Movement” at the Leland Library June 28, and the following night she is playing at River Club in Glen Arbor with Younce. On June 30, the two are performing at Aurora Cellars. She’ll be performing at the Grand Traverse Pavilions July 11 with a full band, including Younce, Al Jankowski on keyboards, Andy Evans on bass and a drummer. Later this summer she’ll return to Aurora Cellars, and come fall her Mindful and Musical classes will return to their regular home at the Alluvion.

No matter the ensemble or setting, her sound is unmistakable. From originals to the Great American Songbook, her warm, lilting voice soars atop the proceedings.

Pico says music has been her safe place since childhood. “I always loved to sing,” she says. “It helped me through a difficult childhood. I was really shy.”

Moving from Puerto Rico to Traverse City at an early age, she encountered prejudice and bullying. It was exacerbated by the fact she only spoke Spanish when she moved here. “The challenges of my childhood included the traumas of child abuse/domestic violence, growing up without a dad, constant bullying, language and cultural challenges, the tragic death of my best friend when I was five years old and more,” she says. “There was lots of instability and stress, and it was the ’80s and ’90s, so nobody talked about mental health back then or knew what to do to help us all with our various traumas.”

Her saving grace was music. “I would find relief in music, both in beautiful melodies which would make my cry even as a child, but also in lyrics that spoke to my little broken heart. Songs about longings, dreams and broken hearts which I could relate to, as well as songs about holding on to hope and how things will get better, which I desperately needed to hear.”

It wasn’t just the music she was hearing—it was the music inside her. She was also writing songs. “Being able to write songs from an early age helped save my life, as it continues to,” says Pico. “I didn’t share my songs with anyone as a child, but writing them down, witnessing my own feelings on a piece of paper, was my therapy.”

That shyness prevented Pico from sharing either her songs or her singing for a long time. She first sang in public in church at age 11, but it wasn’t until friends convinced her to sing as a young adult at an open mic night, at the since-shuttered Big Eazy Rhythm & Blues Grill on the corner of Garfield and South Airport, that she sang in front of strangers. “That was a really big deal for me. People were excited, asking, ‘Do you have an album?’ I didn’t know if anyone would even like this.”

Local musician Chris Selby was so impressed that he badgered her into entering a contest. He was managing Evola Music, and there was a nationwide challenge to have local singers and musicians to record a song. She had no intention of participating, but Selby had other ideas. “He kept insisting,” Pico recalls.

He put her together with a friend of his, keyboardist David Chown. The two had never met, but he thought they would hit it off musically.

Spoiler alert: They did. “I sang ‘Someone to Watch Over Me.’ David recorded his part, and they sent it in.”

Pico was pregnant at the time, and had her first child shortly thereafter. Amid the challenges of new motherhood, thoughts of the session and contest were pushed to the back of her mind. But not for long. “I got a call from Chris. We had won the competition in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.” That started a partnership that continues to this day. Pico and Chown have played numerous times locally, elsewhere in the state, and had a longstanding series of shows at the Harry Truman Little White House in Key West, Florida.

Pico says her upbringing influences her music and her musical offerings. “My dream has always been to tell children what I wish I would have known when I was little. We start every class with my song that says ‘You are smart, you are kind, you’re important, you are loved. You are wonderful, you are beautiful, you are all I ever dreamed of.’”

Her homeland is important as well. “Puerto Rico has influenced my music in a number of ways. I would say the biggest way is the art of the happy/sad song, where the music is so happy you’d be fooled into thinking it’s a happy song, but then you listen to the lyrics and go, ‘Dang!!! That is so sad!’ I love that mix of feelings.

“It is a metaphor for life, which can feel like a complicated mix of everything at times. Singing in Spanish and writing songs in Spanish always brings me a lot of joy, reminding me of my roots and helping me feel more connected to the original culture I was born into.”

She still returns to her homeland on occasion. “Whenever I go back to visit Puerto Rico, my favorite thing about it is the people, especially my beloved family members who are still on the island,” she says. After the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, Pico visited three times, taking relief supplies and funds directly to help those in need, thanks to the generosity of Traverse City residents who wanted to help. “I felt so lucky to be uniquely positioned to be a link between the two places like that, and to be able to bypass the bureaucracies and just put literal money, generators, food, medicines, clothing and more directly into people’s hands. It was one of the first times in my life that I realized I don’t belong to one place or the other, I belong to them both.”

This year Pico has cut back on her performances, a sort of the calm before the storm. She anticipates picking up the pace next year to coincide with that 20-year anniversary. It also fits her timeline of releasing a new album every five years, with her last release a children’s album in 2020. “I’ve been recording new songs,” she says. “I have dreams of another big concert.

“Music has been my best friend through all the highs and lows. I feel really lucky.”