NME Radar: Breakout

MICHELLE: New York indie-pop collective emerges from the city’s thriving teen music scene

The sextet create soundtracks for the summer ahead with their jazzy melodies and R&B-influenced vocals

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

It only took two weeks, a few calls round to friends on the local music scene, and the lofty ambition to document coming of age in the city for New York collective MICHELLE’s 2018 self-released debut album ‘HEATWAVE’ to come to life. Led by the talents of Sofia D’Angelo, Julian Kaufman, Charlie Kilgore, Layla Ku, Emma Lee and Jamee Lockard (the oldest of the gang are only 21), MICHELLE make slick dream-pop with beats that marry with the pounding of the city streets. Think of a more relaxed version of alt-rap group Luscious Jackson with ‘90s vocal group style harmonies.

They initially thought their creative exploits as MICHELLE would begin and end with ‘HEATWAVE’, but word began to spread, fans amassed, and the band signed with the labels Canvasback in the US and Transgressive Records [Foals, Arlo Parks] in the UK. Now, they’re continuing this superb project and their latest single ‘Sunrise’, an addictive indie earworm of a tune.

NME caught up with MICHELLE to talk about why they chose to be a collective, coming of age on the New York teen music scene, and working on new music during lockdown.

Tell us more about your new single ‘Sunrise’…

Emma: “We wrote the song in winter of 2019. Julian and Charlie came to us with the instrumental or this kind of piano section. We felt this kind of summer air, as MICHELLE often does I guess, but that was what we started to write about. From the first voice memo to what the song is now, it now holds a lot of what we originally made, which feels really good.”

Have you been working on any new music during lockdown?

Charlie: “We’re sitting on a pretty hefty collection of material that we’re going to start sprinkling out as time goes on. Lockdown has been a little hard because one of the most fun things about MICHELLE is having everyone or different little combinations of people all working together in the same room and that’s obviously not really a thing that can happen now.”

You recently signed to Transgressive Records. How did you kind of get on their radar?

Sofia: “In the States were signed to Canvasback which is under Atlantic Records. We feel very loved by them and they have a really great relationship with Transgressive. As soon as that deal was finalised with Canvasback, they said we’ve got to introduce you to Transgressive, all of our artists usually signed with them in the UK. We’re now on the same label as some incredible artists. We’re all huge fans of Arlo Parks, who we’ve become pretty close with and I think SOPHIE’s on Transgressive as well, which is crazy.”

Julian and Charlie, you produce MICHELLE’s material. How did you develop your production skills? 

Charlie: “I think the most important thing for me for learning how to produce was having a lot of people around me. It was first my parents and then I met Julian and all of these other people in this whole New York high school scene who were just a lot better than me and I found that really inspiring. In terms of production influences, there’s a lot of great record producers of the ‘80s. People like Russ Titelman, who produced a lot of Chaka Khan records, and Kashif, who produced Evelyn “Champagne” King and all of that New York ‘80s dance music stuff.”

Julian: “I liked to make beats in high school. I linked up with Charlie to make this record, and he taught me so much about how to do things from the ground up. Ever since I’ve been under his tutelage.”

You mentioned the teen music scene in New York – what is that like?

Sofia: “I went to an all-girls school so I was able to enter into the music scene through my guitar teacher and he introduced me to his other students. There’s a space called 7eventytwo. They would take over like a small, after-school art studio and turn it into a battle of the bands concert room. Julian was in a band called Foam. My band The Sectionals would play and it was a lot of rock music. Emma was in that scene too and I think Charlie was out a few other shows as well. All the New York City-based teenagers from different schools who loved music and loved to support their friends were in that room.

Who are the collective influences when you’re writing and performing

Charlie: “In terms of people that we all want to emulate, New York in the ‘90s is definitely something we go to. In terms of references, the most important thing in the beginning stages, at least when we were trying to figure out our sound, would have been ‘90s R&B vocal groups like TLC and SWV and to a lesser extent, but I’m very into them now, Boyz II Men.”

You talk about the city and its music scene there, but has New York influenced you in any other ways?

Julian: “I feel a very strong connection between my keyboards and the city. I have a keyboard called the Juno Six and to me that just sounds like New York City. I feel like I’m connecting with New York because the synth is so strongly grounded there.”

MICHELLE is defined collective. Why did you decide to define it as a collective as opposed to a band?

Layla: “It was really important for us to stay true to the fact that we were all brought together not for the purpose of forming a band, but more so for the purpose of working on a project. I think a lot of people kind of get caught up in like the optics of us and like the fact that we all grew up in New York City. There’s a lot of romanticising around that, but it really did happen organically, in the sense that we wanted to do this and we wanted to make music together. We realised that we’re in for the long game so we wanted to make sure people know that we all are our own individual musicians with our own bands that have nothing to do with MICHELLE or bands that are pieces of MICHELLE.”

With the term collective, there’s usually an idea that there is a defined mission or a goal. Does MICHELLE have a mission?

Jamee: “We want to foster a really inclusive community that is free of hate and calls out injustices. We just want to share our ideals with our listeners and spread positivity.”

You recently shared links to Black organisations that your followers can donate to. Do you feel like musicians have a particular role to play in this period following the widespread Black Lives Matter protests? 

Sofia: “The reason we work so well together is because we’re all like really socially conscious people who really care about our communities. We really care about helping not just each other, but helping people that we haven’t even met yet personally, whether it be like giving them places to donate to, or just giving them resources so that they can get educated on what these problems are and how they affect everyone. Since these problems are especially close to our hearts, having been affected by them, it’s really important that we all speak up and speak out, because, you know, all art is inherently political, right?”

MICHELLE’s ‘Sunrise’ is out now


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