New York City-based collective MICHELLE are practically the very definition of A Lovely Time, with their debut showing off a bright take on sunny R&B, packed with harmonies and hooks aplenty. If any album is going to cheer up the grey days of early 2022, it’s this one.
Words: Neive McCarthy. Photos: Aysia Marotta.
There’s strength in numbers; that’s a long-established fact. It’s not often applied to a musical context, but for MICHELLE, it’s part of the foundation they grew from. The six-piece collective’s power lies in their multitude – it’s their individual interests, and personalities and abilities that has thus far propelled MICHELLE from a pipedream to a career. “It was just supposed to be a fun album,” laughs Sofia D’Angelo. “And now it’s our life!”
As they approach the release of their second album, ‘AFTER DINNER WE TALK DREAMS’, the collective is transported from the heady, coming-of-age set that their debut release ‘HEATWAVE’ lingered in. Instead, picture this: a cosy kitchen, the laughter of your best friends, those spiralling conversations that take you far beyond the realms of the dinner table. ‘AFTER DINNER WE TALK DREAMS’ exists in that magical space.
“It feels pretty apt considering we are all creative individuals with our respective creative aspirations,” explains Layla Ku. “We do actually talk about it at dinner together and did talk about that abundantly during the writing of the album.”
“We’re six different people with very different dreams, and we were so blessed with this project that people actually listened. There are elements of what people have dreamt, or what I have dreamt, in all of this, but it also looks very different to what anybody thought. We’re trying to figure it out as we go,” adds Emma Lee. That conversational, daydream-like tone and tentative reach towards the future fills the album to the brim. It’s a step inside the world of MICHELLE.
Of course, the sextet have never played it safe. While the album does conjure that intimate image, it also feels multi-dimensional. Each track flings you far and wide into a different, eclectic corner of the MICHELLE universe – it’s a dizzying experience. “It took a lot of Zoom calls. Charlie and Julian grouped all the songs we had written by genre – like 80s dance track, left-field, things like that. Then we picked our favourites from each genre; we definitely wanted to genre-bend like that,” recalls Jamee Lockard.
“You start with ‘MESS U MADE’, which feels like a logical progression from what was on ‘HEATWAVE’ already, and then you end with ‘MY FRIENDS’ which has that same ‘HEATWAVE’ 2.0 feel to it,” affirms Charlie Kilgore. “Then we take you to all these different, very unusual, not stereotypical MICHELLE places throughout the middle of the album, but you have comfortable places to ground yourself in the knowledge of our previous music at the beginning and at the end. We start somewhere, and then we go on this massive journey and end up right where we started.”
It’s a journey that, as a listener, you follow every step of the way. From the driving beats of ‘POSE’ to the mystical heights reached on ‘LOOKING GLASS’, it sparks with life through every track. More considered than its earlier counterpart, ‘AFTER DINNER WE TALK DREAMS’ feels sliced from the root of MICHELLE. “It was such a long process, and we wanted everything to be as tight as it could possibly be, so it feels less like a snapshot of a moment in time and more like a chronicle of us busting ass to do what we want to do,” Charlie remarks. “It’s a much more aspirational album in that we had to work really hard together to be able to make that kind of music and be able to do things that were tight, and to have that restraint, we needed to not just throw in a three-minute outro after five two-minute songs. But I do think we’re going to let it all hang out a little bit more next time.”
“I think on ‘HEATWAVE’ we were kind of like ‘fuck it, here’s a monologue’ or ‘this song is going to have way too many tracks’ or ‘this one is a jazz ballad!’,” elaborates Julian Kaufman. “It’s definitely a less risk-taking album, but what you get instead is something you can genuinely love for the songs.”
Despite the serious, cautionary nature of their approach to this release, it still feels like it’s pushing at the edges of what they can do. The harmonies between the four female vocalists allows their prowess to sit at the forefront of the album, filled with unbridled angst such as on opener ‘MESS U MADE’, or elsewhere playfully bouncing and bold, as on ‘HAZARDS’. They’re chameleon-like in their ability to shift into different tones and sounds so effortlessly, and it makes the album’s kaleidoscopic world that little bit brighter.
That vibrancy the collective bring is perhaps why so much of their feedback hinges upon their ability to bring light into the life of their listeners. Oft equated to musical sunshine, it’s interesting how even some of their less light-hearted tracks are still deemed serotonin-boosting and joyous. “I think it’s interesting that our music is widely received as uplifting and feel-good,” Sofia muses. “I’ve been reflecting a lot on the music that we love and that we will listen to when we hang out together, when we drive, when we’re on the road. It’s funny how we all are drawn to music that makes us feel good, even if it’s not typically mostly major chords. I think that’s the power of art, to make you feel good even if it’s not about explicit positivity.”
It’s definitely a reflection of how music, no matter how downtrodden or melancholic its contents, can be a source of happiness in dark times. Whether it offers some form of solidarity and catharsis in its lyrics or has a particular synth running through that is an instant mood-booster, music often has the capacity to lift you away from your troubles even if it reflects them too.
“Folks want to dance, so dance. Make out to ‘FYO’ if you need to!”Sofia D’Angelo
“I think people’s interpretations are always more powerful than what’s actually going on in a song,” declares Julian. It’s this reason that arguably gives a piece of music the potential to lift us into a happier place. While a track ultimately belongs to the artist as long as it exists, once it is unleashed on the world, it takes on a new identity. It shifts into a different shape and meaning for every different listener, and in a way, they have as much ownership over it as the artist themselves. It is, essentially, the listeners who define the trajectory of a track.
“The content of half of our anthology is sad,” reflects Layla. “But the reception is that folks want to dance, so dance. Make out to ‘FYO’ if you need to!”
It might seem a concept at odds with itself, but MICHELLE create what is effectively the epitome of the ‘dance-cry’ genre. They might grapple with problems at home, or a feverish obsession you can’t shake, or the strenuous task of putting yourself first, but on ‘AFTER DINNER WE TALK DREAMS’ it is the heavily danceable beats and shimmering, percussion-driven energy that captain the ship. It is steered by that impulse to reflect on your problems and use them as fuel in your fire – the very thing that makes you dance harder. “I think it was Matty Healy who said his ideal song was the dark poeticism of Leonard Cohen but the uplifting production of Whitney Houston,” recites Sofia. “I botched that, but I think it rings true.”
That’s not to say there aren’t moments on the album that sonically match up with the expressive tenderness of MICHELLE’s lyrics. ‘SPACED OUT, PHASED OUT’ sees the effervescence that permeates the album flicker slightly. It still has that distinctive MICHELLE energy, but its honest recollection of the darker times of pandemic-life strike a chord. If the rest of the album is relentlessly swirling around and non-stop conversation, ‘SPACED OUT, PHASED OUT’ serves as the moment to pause for fresh air. Ending on a voicemail from Charlie where concern and care is audibly laced into his voice, it’s a moment of intimacy that feels like the collective are squeezing your hand in reassurance.
“Working through all of this, me and Julian kept going over the album and doing a lot of fine detail work,” reflects Charlie. “It felt like ‘SPACED OUT, PHASED OUT’ needed a very particular kind of personal touch that it didn’t have. A voicemail on a song is a classic move. I found this voicemail I’d left for Layla in one of those times when the universe isn’t being particularly kind. It was a monster hassle – I knew I had it somewhere, but I had to call the voicemail and enter the number and borrow my partner’s phone and record it off of my phone then bump it onto my computer. It was a whole ordeal! I think it really worked in the end. That song felt so clearly from this one perspective, and I think it really benefited from being contextualised in that way of having the person outside, staring through the window at this squalor and sadness.”
Jamee quickly chimes in: “The song was about being isolated in the pandemic and how difficult it was to make memories and how easy it was to reminisce and be nostalgic of different times. It was really comforting to have Charlie’s voicemail on the end to be like ‘hey, are you okay?’. Like he’s just checking in on us at the end of the song.”
That’s the charm of MICHELLE. The clear love, respect and adoration they have for one another is part and parcel of their music, and in turn, it offers that greater connection with their listeners too. The final track on the album, ‘MY FRIENDS’, captures that gorgeous relationship immaculately. It feels like an ode to how those closest to you shape you into who you are, and how beautiful that can be. Drawing the album to a close with a wistful trumpet and piano sequence that slowly fades into quiet, it stirs those moments of nostalgia and passion the album submerges itself in and brings them all to the surface. The album’s ending exposes the vivid, technicolour emotions that make up the album for the world to see in full glory.
“We tried having that trumpet moment as a separate song, but as soon as we tacked it onto the end of ‘MY FRIENDS’, we knew it had to end the album. We didn’t even have to talk about it; we just had this psychic link of ‘we can’t go from this to another song, we need to leave them here’,” Charlie shares. “We kept trying to cut the album short, and it needed to be left as it was. It had its own life; it was its own little organism that lived at the end of the album. It kind of is a call back to ‘HEATWAVE’ – it’s one of the only moments where we stretch out and allow ourselves to have this for us as much as it is for everyone else.”
“It’s a love letter to New York City, and holding you through that,” Emma continues. “So that’s a call back to ‘HEATWAVE’ too. There’s some old vocal takes, but it’s just an older version of self or us.”
They may return to that earlier, raw version of themselves they found on ‘HEATWAVE’, but it is evident that this is MICHELLE having grown and learnt about who they are and who they want to be. It’s bathed in the kind of glow that can only come from time with your friends, putting the world to rights and meditating on what the future might hold. On ‘AFTER DINNER WE TALK DREAMS’, Sofia, Jamee, Emma, Layla, Charlie and Julian effectively pull out a chair for you and ask that you join them at the dinner table – it’s a chance to get lost in hypotheticals and who knows what’s next. Whatever it may be, they’ll conquer it at each other’s sides.
Taken from the February 2022 edition of Dork, out now. MICHELLE’s new album ‘AFTER DINNER WE TALK DREAMS’ is out 4th March.