A sextet on the rise, MICHELLE are here to create soulful tunes and spread powerful messages
BY SOPHIE GRIFFITHS, IMAGE BY SOPHIA WILSON
New York City collective MICHELLE are bringing so much to the music scene right now. With six members, they are a predominantly queer group with several members of colour, each bringing their own unique elements and influences to the mix, which is clearly evidenced in their wide-ranging offerings to date.
Despite their short but sweet time collaborating together over the past two years, they’ve managed to get themselves signed with Transgressive Records, meaning they’re label siblings with the likes of Arlo Parks, Julia Jacklin and Marika Hackman. Oh, and did we mention that the oldest of the gang is just 21?
Their success comes as no surprise after just one listen to their soulful R&B, balanced with 80s soaked synths, that instantly make you want to call up your friends and dance all night.
We caught up with all six members of MICHELLE over Zoom – producers Julian Kaufman and Charlie Kilgore and vocalists Emma Lee, Layla Ku, Jamee Lockard and Sofia D’Angelo – to chat about working as a queer collective and what they each represent within it.
DIVA: How did you guys all meet?
LAYLA: We met in 2018. Julian and Charlie both wanted to put together this project. It was summertime and they were trying to find something to do. They basically roped in everyone they knew that was a singer, songwriter or musician of some sort. They reached out to all of us, into their spiderweb of contacts, and ended up bringing in present day MICHELLE. I knew Jamee and Charlie from high school, Julian knew Sofia and Emma. They went to college together for a spell. We kind of all added our our voices and our songs to the album and didn’t meet each other as a full group until our first show in November, far after the album’s release. It’s a very unorthodox manner, but it happened and we’re here now. So something went right.
It definitely did! How would you describe your sound for people who haven’t heard it before?
CHARLIE: I think it’s really hard to pin down one particular MICHELLE sound because we’re a band with so many people in it. I think me and Julian are genre chameleons. Emma likes to make so many different types of music, but those all feel distinctly Emma. The same with Sofia, Layla, and Jamee. I think part of what makes MICHELLE really special is that it doesn’t necessarily sound that much like anything! Each song is just in like a wildly different sound world. But a lot of people have said R&B, and a lot of people have said bedroom pop.
I can see that there’s nobody here on this Zoom call actually called MICHELLE, how come that’s the name of the collective?
SOFIA: I genuinely do not know. My favourite hypothesis is that we are all MICHELLE. I remember Julian mentioned that an alternative option was Gertrude, but there is no MICHELLE really. We are all Michelle.
Why is it so important for you guys to differentiate between the terms “collective” and “band”?
SOFIA: Everyone’s coming in from all these different artistic points that come together to make MICHELLE through our unique artistic points. It’s really important for all of us to make the MICHELLE vision come true. But that’s only possible if each of us maintains our own artistic, unique perspective. I think the term “collective” embodies that a bit better, rather than a band where everyone tends to kind of strip away everything else and come together for the central point. MICHELLE is our baby for sure, but it wouldn’t be possible if we weren’t pursuing our own artistic stuff outside of that.
Which artists have inspired you guys personally?
SOFIA: Everyone in MICHELLE knows I’m a huge fan of The 1975. I’m diehard, they’ve been my favourite band since I was 14 years old.
EMMA: When I first started making music, it was a lot of early Frankie Cosmos. Early St. Vincent as well. That singer, songwriter situation.
LAYLA: I definitely worship at the altar of Moses Sumney. Hardcore fan of Jessica Pratt, Angel Olsen, Julie London. That’s my corner right now.
CHARLIE: For me, I think it’s the triangle of Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and Kate Bush seeping into everything I do. That is the altar that I worship at for sure.
What’s the message you want people to take away from your music as a collective?
LAYLA: Everybody needs something different right now because we’re just all in desperate need of comfort. Everything is falling to shit and it feels very dark. We have a lot of messages that we push personally, regarding social activism, community justice, environmental justice, criminal justice. There’s a lot of things that we are very vocal about, but I think as far as the music goes, and the message behind the actual music, we genuinely just try to make music that people will enjoy and that we enjoy making in turn.
How have you guys been taking care of each other over the past six months?
JAMEE: Lots of Zoom calls, but also lots of space when it was needed.
SOFIA: We took a couple of weeks off from music at the start of the summer. I remember we postponed a song release and just took some time for ourselves. For me personally, that really helped me reflect on not just what MICHELLE means to me and my life, but what music and art means to me -the power that I wield as an artist and how I can share that with the rest of my MICHELLE family. It’s been tough, but I will say that after that space, we really came back hungry.
What’s the best and worst thing about touring together?
LAYLA: When we finished our first ever show, I was on such an adrenaline high that I was like, “We need to do this every second of every day.” Obviously it gets very tiring, tour is not easy, even in small bouts it’s very draining. Greyhound buses are not comfortable.
JULIAN: To summarise that, the best part of touring is getting a really good night’s sleep. The worst part of touring is getting a really bad night’s sleep.
I can appreciate that answer. New York is a big city – how do you guys all stay connected?
SOFIA: New York City is a really small town, actually. Charlie and Layla are the only two who went to high school together. Everyone else went to different high schools. It’s pretty easy to get around on subways and stuff like that though.
JAMEE: This summer I was living in the West Village and it was nice to be able to just walk to Charlie’s yard and write with him and Julian, and then walk Julian part of the way home and go back to my place. A lot of the times I’m far away, and Zoom is the only way I can really connect with everyone.
How do you collaborate between six people? I guess there’s good and bad elements to working with so many similarities and differences?
JULIAN: We don’t. We tend to create small groups and work that way. There’s a limit to how many people can be in a room and still be productive. Maybe that limit is five? We’ve got six people in this band. So one person usually has to fuck off.
How does queerness influence your music?
LAYLA: We’ve got one very queer song, KIP. We now have a queer presenting video, UNBOUND. It shows a fictional story between two women, but our narratives are meant to be applicable to anybody in any sort of dynamic. Having that narrative that is very explicitly queer, and very upfront and outright is a part of the representation of all of us, and our differences.
CHARLIE: When you have these lived experiences of being queer or not being white, or not being able bodied, those are all going to find their way into the art you make, even if it’s not explicit, just because that is the way that you’ve navigated the world. Whether it’s openly or whether that’s something that you’ve been keeping to yourself. I don’t think we could write a song that doesn’t have these tinges of issues about queerness, race, ability and social issues, just because they so strongly influence the way that we move through the world completely.