MICHELLE: New York gang’s vivid and heartfelt tribute to their hometown

Each week in Next Noise, we go deep on the rising talent ready to become your new favourite artist. Charming tales of family and city life permeate through the band’s second album. Words: Sophie Williams

When NME logs into a seven-way Zoom call with MICHELLE, it feels akin to falling into a brilliantly giddy afterparty. An excitable Julian arrives first, his words tumbling over themselves, as though he’s playing catchup to a mind that’s moving at 100 miles a minute. Jamee, meanwhile, is tucking into a bowl of noodles. Charlie is sitting on the floor, twiddling with a keyboard, while Sofia is keen to show off a handmade MICHELLE t-shirt, designed by her bandmate Layla. There’s also the slight distraction of the chatbox, which the group uses to display their own live reactions to each other’s answers throughout our hour-long chat. “This is so chaotic!”, messages Emma at one point. Quite.

The six-strong collective have taken their friendship and set it to music. Made up of vocalists and songwriters Sofia D’Angelo, Layla Ku, Emma Lee and Jamee Lockard, plus producers Julian Kaufman and Charlie Kilgore – they make exploratory pop that aches with immediacy and growing pains, their songs locating the area between finding eternal freedom in their hometown, New York City, and wanting to move outward into the unknown, together.

For this group of bright-eyed twenty-somethings, who refer to themselves as a “family”, being part of MICHELLE is what grounds them. They share a DIY ethos that they fuse with a lightly gonzo spirit and relatable pop choruses, illustrating youthful desire over bubbly drum pad beats (‘Syncopate’) and facing up to an uncertain future with post-ironic, Gen Z humour. City’s crumbling but I don’t mind / I think you’re hotter than the burning sky”, they sing on ‘End Of The World’, lifted from their forthcoming album, the vibrant and slinky ‘After Dinner We Talk Dreams’ (due March 4).

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With the pandemic bringing into focus the quality of maintaining relationships with our closest pals, the record encapsulates both the intimacy and the importance of the emotional bonds that we form with those around us. The lyrics are confessional, and unafraid to come to terms with complex emotions, as a neon melange of R&B, indie, pop, and jazz swirls and expands in the background. Much like their transatlantic peers Easy Life, MICHELLE is a group of the genreless age, one that is unbeholden to a specific style or sound.

Unlike its predecessor, 2018’s self-released ‘Heatwave’, which took “a few weeks” to make, the band’s second album underwent “countless rewrites” explains Charlie, who describes how they had to whittle down 50 songs to 14. “It was incredibly fucking gruelling,” he says, with a perfectly exaggerated sigh. “We were only able to complete the album because between us all, there is an unwavering trust in the taste of every other member of the group. If we didn’t all feel really confident in each other’s creative expression it would have just been just uncontrolled bloodsport. Choosing the right songs for the album could have evolved into a Battle Royale-style fight, where only one member of MICHELLE was left standing.”

After seven individual bursts of laughter reverberate across the call, Layla continues: “There’s no option to not get over [creative disagreements] in the same way as a relationship or family system – you have to work through your differences in order to grow together. In any positive friendship, there should be some disagreement, because it means that you are all making space to hear each other.”

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etting the template for the band’s mix of high-octane melodies and playful school gang energy, ‘Heatwave’ was crafted from MICHELLE’s experiences of growing up in New York’s inner-city music scene. They met at independent venues and art studios such as the teen-only 7eventytwo in Manhattan, and for ‘After Dinner We Talk Dreams’, have continued to work with the artists that they hung out with in their early days as a six-piece. Charlie’s partner created the visualiser for ‘Expiration Date’, and Layla’s roommate has made artwork for a number of singles. The band themselves, meanwhile, are responsible for the concepts behind their music videos: “MICHELLE is just a bunch of friends that come together for the purpose of making music,” says Sofia. “But we always want to expand our creative circles – people are drawn to our energy.”

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It’s this reaffirming of their community that has helped whenever living in the Big Apple has become difficult – they have many supportive peers to turn to. The claustrophobia of a city as large and storied as theirs is referenced on album highlight ‘No Signal’, where they stress the importance of sometimes keeping “a phone down off the grid”.

MICHELLE band new york
Credit: Aysia Marotta

“There is a real mystique to living in New York as a teenager. You’re constantly discovering new spaces and meeting people from different backgrounds,” says Jamee. “It can be overwhelming, but it’s the only world we’ve ever known. Our lyrics aren’t necessarily like, ‘Oh my god, I met you at Tompkins Square Park, and we got pizza,’ or whatever, but our songs will always be based in New York, no matter what.”

Charlie likens this localised approach to songwriting to that of their Transgressive Records labelmate Arlo Parks, whom they toured with across North America last autumn. He says that her Mercury Prize-winning debut, ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ has had a profound impact on every member of the band.

“The relationship that Arlo has with London is so clear in her music. It all takes place in her personal world, and we feel a real kinship to that,” he says. “On her debut album, you could listen to each song and push pins into a city map based on where she was singing about. We want our lyrics to be just as affecting, which is why we draw from our own respective stories.”

It’s clear that MICHELLE have built themselves on unspoken promises and layers of deep, collective trust, but that infrastructure appears to be too personal for them to unpack. NME asks if they have made any sort of pact: if one member chooses to leave the group by choice, will the others follow? Julian immediately and bluntly asks to skip the question, while the rest provide silent support from their separate windows. There’s clearly no room for discussion. It’s a mildly frustrating, but understandable defence mechanism: the band simply want to radiate catharsis, community and positive change for the current moment, without having to think about the creative and personal pressures that may lay ahead.

Yet given that they are such thoughtful songwriters, the answer can be found in MICHELLE’s music instead. “Choked up when we’re apart / You’re what I need to breathe / Too much history cause we have been through everything,” so goes the final verse of album closer ‘My Friends’. The loose, sun-soaked, 00s pop-inspired track recalls Natalie Imbruglia, who also inspired Lorde’s last full-length effort, 2021’s ‘Solar Power’. But crucially, it also doubles up as a paean to the formative and now-lifelong relationships that the members of MICHELLE have created not just with each other, but with their city, too. “I might roam / But baby I can’t stray that far from you,sings Sofia over subtle piano keys.

“The truth is that we are six different people, and we can only work altogether if we are taking care of ourselves as individuals,” offers Emma, who later chooses to revisit the question on her own accord. “But I remember once we had a week off, and I just missed everybody so much.”

When she pauses, it’s as though she’s curling up into a ball before the six of us, closing her eyes so that we might not see the vulnerability in them. “Not in a dramatic way,” she continues, “But reuniting with the rest of the band that one time was like coming back to real life, and being with the only people who know exactly what you’re going through.

“Struggling with being away from each other is a beautiful problem to have. I’m so grateful that I have these people, and even with time away, we’re always ready to go back out there and do what we do best.”

MICHELLE’s ‘After Dinner We Talk Dreams’ is due out March 4

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