I meet MICHELLE on a prematurely sweltering Friday in mid-May. Outside, the streets are humming with revellers keen to soak up the evening’s pale rays. But in the Blue Room of Third Men Records, Carnaby Street, things are a little less hectic. Gliding down the stairs, the six-piece look remarkably energised, especially considering they’ve just come from their first full English breakfast. “I love beans on toast,” vocalist and songwriter Sofia D’Angelo confesses. “Although I think, because we shared it, it wasn’t as destructive as it could have been”. After spending a good ten minutes of my allotted time with the New York outfit discussing breakfast food from around the world, we move on to more pressing matters.
Formed in the summer of 2018, MICHELLE is composed of Sofia D’Angelo, Julian Kaufman, Charlie Kilgore, Layla Ku, Emma Lee, and Jamee Lockard. Their debut album Heatwave – dripping with the heat of a baking New York summer – earned them a reputation as one of the city’s most promising young acts. Now, following the release of their 2022 follow-up After Dinner We Talk Dreams, the sextet are determined to make their mark on the murkier side of the pond. The new album sees the collective weave undulating jazz modality with rich harmonies and tight-wound pop structures. A quick roundup of early music experiences heralds artists as diverse as Joni Mitchell, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Weather Report and The Beatles, the latter of whom seem to be the only group all six members of MICHELLE share a reverence for. And with their highly collaborative attitude to songwriting and production, it’s easy to see why.
The collective came together after Charlie started recruiting friends and acquaintances to make Heatwave. After recording their debut album in relative isolation from one another, the group united for their first concert in November 2018. Despite working together to craft one of the freshest-sounding records of 2018, this was the first time they’d all met in person. MICHELLE seem to regard creativity in fluid terms, allowing each other the space and freedom to experiment and redefine their role within the group. “Anybody in the band can do anything,” Producer Charlie explains. “Singing, songwriting, making our album covers, writing: anything. As long as they can cut the mustard and uphold a certain standard, they can do it. You know what I mean? If someone asks to do something, we give them a chance. And if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. And if it does, they can keep doing it.”
I’m stunned by the pragmatism with which MICHELLE approach their craft. They seem entirely untroubled by ego or by the destructive power dynamics those egos can produce. The only thing that seems to matter is the music. That is, after all, why these six young musicians came together in the first place. “We have faith in each other,” Charlie clarifies. “Everyone has enough innate, free creative talent that they can probably nail it.” Although that doesn’t mean that everyone in the group is doing everything all at once; the members of MICHELLE are also very good at recognising the areas in which their weakest. “Me and Julian both love to sing,” Charlie adds, “And yet we decide not to for the greater good of humanity. MICHELLE is not just a musical space but a broader creative space that gives you permission to experiment. And then there are times when it can be very beneficial to be restrained.”
With so much musical talent in one group, it’s astonishing that the members of MICHELLE managed to produce their second album without killing each other. According to vocalist and songwriter Emma Lee, starting small is the key: “When we do sessions, we do them in trios, or quartets, or twos. Maybe we’ll come up with an idea. Or maybe someone will say, like, Hey, I wrote this one thing, or it’ll just be an instrumental that Julian or Charlie have, and they’ll build that out. And then, once something is there, we record it. And then we do a rewrite. And we might say, ‘these lyrics didn’t work over this melody’, etcetera. So I think melodies and lyrics: sometimes they come from one person, but they tend to have a lot of hands in them before they’re finished.”
“Usually,” adds Layla Ku, “we’ll go on like a circle and sing different melodies we’ve come up with and sing different lyrics to the melody that we’ve agreed on. Sometimes it’ll take a while; sometimes the first thing you hear it’s like, ‘oh, that’s it.'”
MICHELLE’s slow kneading of their lyrics explains why singles like ‘Mess U Made’, ‘Pose’ and ‘Syncopate’ stick to the wall of your head like hot jam. “I think at the end of the day, if you want to make something people are gonna sing along with, you have to sing it,” Julian says. The group hum in agreement. “There’s that old jazz adage that goes ‘composition is improvising in slow motion,” Charlie continues. “And I think MICHELLE holds true to that process.”
During our discussion, it becomes apparent that MICHELLE are not only musically literate but in possession of an extensive emotional vocabulary. They seem as comfortable bearing their gripes as they do their glories, something which, according to Julian, has served them well in the past. “I like to dive headfirst into conflict. Not not for the sake of conflict, and not for the sake of anger, and not for the sake of attacking someone. But I do feel like if you know how to disagree with someone you know how to build something beautiful with them.” For Charlie, conflict can be an essential component in what he refers to as the “emotional mood” of a song. In the same way the joyous atmosphere of ‘Syncopate’ is a product of the ease with which it was created, certain songs carry the “scars” of group conflict. And by the sounds of it, that’s OK: “It’s like if you were a sculptor and you’re making something out of clay,” Julian says. “And you’re really angry when you’re making it up. You might press it a little harder. You know what I mean? So the details might be a little sharper, and maybe you’re being less careful, and it’s a little rougher around the edges because of your emotional state. In the end, the final product is going to look a little jagged, you know, whereas if you’re feeling very gentle and calm, you’re going to be very loving, and it’s going to look smoother.”
Sofia has been silent for a while now, but with this, her eyes light up. “I was just thinking about songs and what they are and how songs make people feel things and how they’re really special and really powerful,” she says, throwing out words in a rhythmic chatter. “And I’m not talking about performance; I’m talking about the song itself and how it’s really just an arrangement of notes and words that, when executed in a very good way, can make people have these intense emotional reactions. And I realised: a song is like a spell. It’s like a magic spell.” And with that, as if by magic, a man carrying a stack of pizzas comes trotting down the stairs. Hungry eyes turn, and I realise that my time with MICHELLE has come to an end.
MICHELLE’s new album After Dinner We Talk Dreams is available to stream now. If you’re keen to catch the collective in action, make sure you check out their upcoming tour dates on their website. Thanks to Sofia D’Angelo, Julian Kaufman, Charlie Kilgore, Layla Ku, and Emma Lee for their time. You can check out ‘Mess U Made’ below.