“I feel like I’m living and breathing the manifestations of my younger years,” says METTE, AKA singer, dancer and actor Mette Towley. “I found an old notebook at my parents’ house recently and it had in there everything that I wanted to do. There were drawings of a microphone, a spotlight, music notes and a pair of tap shoes.”
After graduating from the University of Minnesota and moving to LA with aspirations of becoming a backing dancer, she went on to tour the world in Pharrell’s dance troupe, star in N.E.R.D and Rihanna‘s music video for ‘Lemon’ and act alongside Jennifer Lopez in the 2019 movie Hustlers. More recently, though, this triple threat performer has been shooting for pop stardom. Music had previously been a secret passion of METTE’s, having spent several years in nocturnal studio sessions and hiding her “wildest dreams” due to her own self-doubt. “I remember certain comments growing up about my voice or why I couldn’t do a part at school,” she tells NME. “They really sunk into me, and I believed them.”
Following years of personal growth, though, everything finally clicked into place when METTE’s brilliant debut single ‘Petrified’ turned heads across the music world in March 2021. Two years later, and having cathartically transformed old diaries and journal entries into songs, METTE returned with ‘Mama’s Eyes’ – an epic, gospel-infused and very much club-ready fusion of emotive R&B, pop and dance.
NME caught up with METTE to discuss her lifelong love of music and dance, overcoming self-doubt and letting go of her search for perfection.
NME: What are your earliest memories of music and dance in your family home?
“I’m a multicultural girl from Minnesota who grew up with tonnes of different influences. My parents would play Motown, James Taylor, Sade, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and Chaka Khan. My grandmother would take me to a lot of classical shows, and my uncle played violin at The Juilliard School. We really appreciated music. Other people around me listened to Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Papa Roach and Underworld. YouTube was starting to become a real thing too, so I got to go search for my kings, queens and amazing folks who inspired me.”
How did you get into music yourself?
“Growing up I did musical theatre, learned the bassoon and clarinet, was in band and did vocal lessons. At my parents’ house, there’s a tape of me doing a few Michelle Branch songs on guitar and singing when I was 12. I also remember singing the national anthem on the back porch as a child.”
What about dance – why did you enjoy it so much?
“Once I started dancing that gave me discipline, which I don’t think I had before. My parents weren’t pushy, so if I didn’t want to practice I just wouldn’t. But now I understand what it is to do 10,000 hours of work to excel in something. Back then I didn’t, and dance was the thing that made me feel the most free in the process of learning it.”
How did it make you feel free?
“It lets people observe you in your purest form. Live performance is where I’m able to be seen unedited. It also got me out of my head: dance rooted me in my body, so it was like a moving meditation. It gave me fulfilment and freedom.”
How did you end up touring with Pharrell Williams as part of his dance squad?
“My first job was a Jennifer Hudson video for a song Pharrell produced. Two months later, I got a call saying Pharrell was looking for back-up dancers to tour with him. I went to the audition, had the callback and an interview two hours later. Then I toured with him for the next five-and-a-half years! I had a great run with it, and was getting into creative direction, pitching for music videos and shadowing creative teams. I didn’t know what was next: I was floating for a while afterwards.”
How did starring in N.E.R.D and Rihanna’s ‘Lemon’ video change your life?
“‘Lemon’ was that moment for me – it was amazing. Dance was becoming a viral phenomenon [at the time], but it wasn’t only getting a lot of love and support online: I was doing the solo on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live!. After ‘Lemon’ I didn’t know how to chase that similar situation: ‘Lemon’ is an anomaly. There are very few artists who will give a platform [like that] to someone. While I worked hard for that position, it’s one in a million. That privilege isn’t lost on me.”
You then went on to star in Hustlers alongside Jennifer Lopez. What was that experience like?
“She’s one of the multi-hyphenate queens who inspired me growing up. She filled a grey space in the ’90s – I felt like I could identify with her, even though I wasn’t from New York. Jennifer made me feel seen as a young girl: I’ve always felt she’s had a positive, determined message to share. Eartha Kitt and Josephine Baker were huge inspirations too. All these greats that sing, dance and dabble in whatever their heart’s desire, because they loved performance.”
“Live performance is where I’m able to be seen unedited”
Why did you then decide to make your own music?
“I had a friend who did background vocals for Pharrell while we were on tour, and she and her husband had a home studio – that’s where I started to find my voice. I also got the opportunity to sing on N.E.R.D’s track ‘ESP’. I was in the studio that day, and the part of me that was preoccupied with why I shouldn’t or couldn’t [sing], once I saw in real time how music was made, the world-building and collaboration, I was inspired to silence all the doubt I carried with me. I thought, ‘Well, if I can do a solo on live television as a dancer and feel so free, I have things I want to say. I have stories I want to tell’. So I was like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna try’.”
Where did this self-doubt around singing come from?
“I grew up in a time when the female popstar [had] a very particular kind of voice. This is why I liked Jennifer [Lopez]’s voice, because Jennifer was singing in a different way. I knew that vocal coaching was really important, and I do that now. But when I was in choir, because I was an alto… what people say has a huge effect. It can root in places that take years to heal. That propagated the narrative within my own head, based on other people’s opinions. But it wasn’t true, and ‘Lemon’ reminded me there’s so much potential beyond the false narratives I tell myself about why I can’t do something. There’s a whole life beyond that. Something clicked in me one day and I realised, ‘Wait, why am I playing it safe? I’m at the helm of my internal dialogue, and I don’t need to speak disparagingly about myself to myself’.”
Why did you keep your songwriting secret for so long?
“I felt like I needed to be excellent at something in order to deliver it to the world. That was holding me back from sharing it. But it doesn’t: it just needs to be honest. My sensibility now is much more gentle: I don’t feel like I have to be anything but myself. There’s been a huge reframing for me; I’ve done the personal work to step into my own.”
How did your solo music progress from there?
“Once I got to London, I found producers and songwriters that wanted to work. I’m so grateful to all the people who have been on this journey and pushed me to go further, because finding my voice and making a record where I know I’m being truly authentic – that took about five years. The journey has been long and it’s going to continue, but I’m so excited as I have a lot of support.”
What’s the story of your latest single ‘Mama’s Eyes’?
“I started writing it in my bedroom during the pandemic when I was incredibly homesick. I was trying to make sense of it all, and when I sang into my Voice Memos a capella, with no backing track, I really recognised my mother’s strength. I looked in the bathroom mirror and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m becoming her. I have her eyes’. The song became a remedy to the hole I felt in my heart. Suddenly, I felt so full with pride. It was this moment of pure synchronicity and joy.”
What does the song mean to you now?
“It means the world to me, because my mum’s voice is on the track. I called her when I was in the studio and asked for her life advice. She’s just so humble: I think her brilliance is even elusive to her. It also represents the lineage; I have lots of aunts and chosen sisters. But all I’ve ever wanted to do is make people proud. I know I’m imperfect and I [can] fall short of that, but acknowledging it is part of the song. It’s an anthology of my life, and I played it for my whole family at Christmas and felt like they were super-proud of me.”
METTE’s latest single ‘Mama’s Eyes’ is out now