Michelle Jerabek: Musical Mama

Most people at one point or another imagined they could be a musician — singing on stage, strumming a guitar or beating the drums — but few have the talent or determination to make that dream reality. For Michelle Jerabek, it was natural for her to be part of a band. She was rooted in music and fell in love with someone who loved performing as much as she did. The 36-year-old, along with her husband Danny, now makes her living as a singer, songwriter and musician in their Oshkosh-based band Copper Box.

 

Born to play

Jerabek grew up on a farm in Kewaskum. She got her first chance to perform in her grandfather’s polka band around age 10. After years of going to polka dances and pleading to join in, Jerabek was told if she learned the words to “Don’t Mess With My Toot Toot” she could sing.

 

“I got up on stage and sang my song. When I was done I remember thinking that was fun. People were coming up to me, handing me dollar bills. I was making money — I was hooked,” says Jerabek.

She met Danny Jerabek in her early polka days as a young girl. His father was a well-known tuba player and he’d occasionally play in her grandfather’s band. The two were forced to dance together. Because Jerabek wanted to do more than sing, she taught herself how to play the drums. Instead of competing with cousins to be part of the family band, she played with a polka band in Stevens Point for several years.

 

“My dad knew people that needed musicians. He found an opening and said they were willing to take a chance on me,” adds Jerabek.

Years passed. Danny and Michelle reconnected as teens. Once reunited, the best friends knew they were meant to be together. The two were married when she was 19.

 

They started a polka band in the late 90s. Michelle was still in college, pursuing her bachelor’s degree in sports medicine, and playing nearly every week. She graduated but knew deep down she was born to be a musician.

 

She says, “It was a polka band at first because that’s what we knew how to play — and what we liked to play — but we started evolving as musicians the more we listened to the different styles of music that was suddenly available on the Internet. It was a huge eye-opener.”

The Jerabeks fell in love with the Tejano and Zydeco styles of music; they liked New Orleans jazz as well as classic rock.

 

“We were encompassed by this new music and we started writing music that no longer fit in the polka genre. We decided to start over and reidentify who we were, or what we were starting to become, which was a melting pot of Americana styles,” adds Jerabek. Copper Box was formed in 2002.

 

Michelle sings and plays the saxophone and guitar along with a variety of other instruments. Danny plays the accordion, keys and more. A bass player and drummer are also part of the band.

 

Copper Box gets a break

Jerabek recalls trying to get their first gig.

 

“Every bar owner or booking agent I talked to asked me to tell them about our band — they’d ask, ‘What do you play?’” says Jerabek. “The first thing out of my mouth was we play polkas and some rock. Then they’d ask what instruments we had in the band. I’d say an accordion and I’d hear a click.”

 

Copper Box put together demos but Jerabek explains these often got thrown on a pile.

 

One day, the career-changing call came in. A bar owner at the old Heroes in Green Bay played CDs while working at the bar during the day. When Copper Box’s music came on, all heads in the bar turned.

 

“I don’t know if that was good or bad, I think it was just different,” says Jerabek. “I said we’d love to perform there, I didn’t care about the pay, we just wanted to play.”

 

That performance got their foot in the door and led to more shows. Word of mouth has always been the band’s best advertisement. Approximately eight years ago, Michelle and Danny decided to commit all their energy to Copper Box. Danny had been fixing instruments at local music stores but summers were the busiest time for both the shop and the band. Michelle was a stay-at-home mom, struggling to keep her vocal cords strong after playing bar gigs and raising their family. They decided to manage the demands of the band and their daughters together.

 

“It was scary for us at first but things happen for a reason,” says Jerabek. “I knew we are both hard workers so if we needed to do something to make ends meet we would find work.”

 

Few bands in the Midwest can make music their fulltime job. Winters are challenging but Jerabek says it’s the place to be in the summer.

“There are so many outdoor concerts and festivals, it’s awesome. The winters are pretty slow so we have to make our hay when the summer comes,” she adds. In the summer, Copper Box could play a string of 11 days in a row.

 

Jerabek reveals they used to play in Oshkosh and the surrounding cities a lot in the beginning to get their name out there and to be close to home but she didn’t want to oversaturate one area. The band decided to focus on event-based opportunities, festivals, private parties,

but they still enjoy picking up shows in town.

 

Copper Box travels the country, hitting festivals in Florida and California, playing in San Antonio and heading out east to play in Pennsylvania and New York each year. Jerabek says, “We are booking our own shows so it’s often like throwing darts at a map.”

 

The band plays approximately 130 shows a year. Jerabek estimates 90 percent of the band’s shows are callbacks. Copper Box has recorded a handful of albums. They sell CDs at shows for fans but the music is also available for download on iTunes.

 

Finding balance

Jerabek explains the most rewarding part of being a musician is making a difference in someone’s day. “I like when people come up after a show and say they had the worst week and that everything was awful until now. I always think, really, we made that big of a difference? But music works in mysterious ways,” says Jerabek.

 

Being a musician and managing the band is tough, but Jerabek also juggles being a mom to her teen and tween daughters, Shaylee and Maria, and they are expecting baby number three in early April.

 

“The biggest challenge is balancing family life with band life,” adds Jerabek. “We can’t make the majority of our family’s events and they know that. We grew up with musicians but when you’re doing this full time you have to stay busy. We try to do something with the time we have and we make that quality time before we have to jump in the van.”

 

While Michelle and Danny spent their childhood surrounded by music, they try not to force their daughters to come to all their shows.

“If it makes sense and they have nothing on their agenda they might come along, but I think it is important they do their own thing too,” adds Jerabek. “It isn’t exciting for them, I get it. There is driving time, set up time, we play and they are listening to the same songs they hear at home, we pack up and drive home. That’s the day.”

 

Working with your spouse can be challenging, but the Jerabeks found a way to make it work.

 

“Working side-by-side all day has its moments but we’ve learned to work through those issues. My husband is my toughest critic and I’m his. We found a way to communicate and we’re in this for the long haul so we had to learn how to let some things go.”

 

What's ahead?

Jerabek imagines the next five to 10 years will be extremely busy.

 

“I think the band is going to be pushing to even better things that we are starting to brew. I am excited. Our goal as a band has always been to get better music every year. To record better music and to play better music live,” says Jerabek. “Adding on to our family is going to be exciting but challenging too.”

 

When asked to share words of wisdom for aspiring musicians or singers, Jerabek suggests making the music your own instead of doing what has already been done. “I think it is important to have that identity as to what type of musician you are because that it what makes you unique,” she adds. “And, do it because you love it and for no other reason.”

 

The Jerabeks have committed their heart and soul to Copper Box and inspiring crowds with their music. “We’ve been rooted in music. We know what it takes to be a band. To push on. I’m going to play until I can’t anymore,” she says.

 

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