It’s been a uniquely trying year and a half for young artists, whether they’re just breaking into the industry or navigating a growing audience without in-person performances and interactions. Ahead of their show in Detroit, I sat down on Zoom with rising New York collective MICHELLE to discuss how the group has maintained musical inspiration during the pandemic, their experiences touring with British singer-songwriter Arlo Parks and their plans for the future.
The sextet, consisting of members Sofia D’Angelo, Julian Kaufman, Charlie Kilgore, Layla Ku, Emma Lee and Jamee Lockard, have just begun their tour supporting Arlo Parks across North America. After getting their start in the NYC high school music scene, the group describes the gradual transition from local gigs to more expansive audiences:
“When we started most of the shows that we organized, we would have a friend who was on the bill or the audience was like a majority of our friends or friends of friends, so it felt very close-knit. But it’s really cool to see, like the show we just did in Boston, where it seemed like people were singing along and responding really well,” Lee shared.
Since MICHELLE’s formation in 2018, they’ve released a debut album, HEATWAVE, and countless other singles, amassing well over a million streams each. The group’s discography serves up an eclectic mix of pop and R&B tracks with roots in bedroom and funk, but they aren’t trying to force genre-bending just for the sake of experimentation.
“We’ve written so many songs in different genres that people will just never hear,” Kaufman explained. “I’d rather put out a great song where it doesn’t really matter what genre it is.” Kaufman later added: “The quality comes first, before the aesthetic.”
Kaufman and Kilgore work predominantly on the production side of the group, while D’Angelo, Ku, Lee and Lockard concentrate on vocals. Their voices layer and melt into one another with expert smoothness over dance-worthy instrumentals. It’s a well-oiled machine of creativity, fostered in part by their clear chemistry as friends.
“I don’t think we could really be doing the kind of moving and performing and existing, the way we are, if we weren’t, you know, connected outside or beyond the project itself on an emotional level. I think that’s kind of essential to what we’re doing,” Ku described.
A shared passion for music brought MICHELLE into fruition, but the kinship that the group has nurtured since its inception has proved equally central to their creative process. When the pandemic hit and threw a wrench in the personal lives and musical aspirations of MICHELLE, they found ways to stay connected despite the circumstances. After months of weekly calls and sending soundbites back and forth over email, the group quarantined and took two weeks at D’Angelo’s family home to bring back some semblance of normalcy.
“We wrote 20 songs there, and that was really such a beautiful time because it was the first time we’d all been in a room together enjoying dinners and enjoying the thing that brought us together in the first place, which was writing songs and making music,” D’Angelo reflected.
Despite the destructive effects of the pandemic on New York specifically, the group spoke fondly of their brief time away from the chaos. They were able to make music without the pressure of churning out new content, creating for the sake of creating and without any preconceived notions of the outcome. It’s a moving example of the ways in which artists have found their footing throughout this whole process, particularly artists who were already wrestling with a growing audience and were forced to persist without live performances and gainful interactions with fans.
MICHELLE is already proving its ability to bounce back with a steady stream of releases over the past several months. Their most recent single, “SYNCOPATE,” is a bright disco-tinged track leading the group’s upcoming album, AFTER DINNER WE TALK DREAMS. When they finish up tour with Parks in late October, MICHELLE has plans for their own headline tour in Europe come February. The group expressed some trepidation for the cold weather they’ll likely face but seemed eager to play to audiences overseas, explore Europe and, for Kaufman in particular, cover “She Loves You” by the Beatles in German while performing in Berlin.
MICHELLE is a name to watch, with their infectiously catchy snapshots of love and daily life in New York, and the palpable energy they bring to the stage.
Look for MICHELLE’s sophomore album, AFTER DINNER WE TALK DREAMS, out Jan. 28.
Daily Arts Writer Nora Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.