New York Pop Collective Michelle Muses Over Meals And In Google Docs

“Michelle loves some Guy Fieri.”

This is one of the first things said on a Zoom call with the six members of Michelle, a New York City-based pop group. To clarify, no one in the band is actually named Michelle (and they style their group name, album titles, and songs in all caps). But as Sofia D’Angelo, a vocalist and songwriter, points out, their collective affinity for the Mayor of Flavortown is one element that unites them. “One of my favorite pieces of food journalism is the review of his restaurant that’s just, like, a series of questions,” she admits, sitting in front of a large digital backdrop of Fieri himself clad in a flame shirt. “Have you read that?”

The resonance goes deeper than obvious meme status and the general Fierification of the internet. All six members — vocalists/writers D’Angelo, Emma Lee, Jamee Lockard, and Layla Ku; producers/instrumentalists Julian Kaufman and Charlie Kilgore — began creating music for Michelle separately, before they’d ever met in person altogether. Shortly after they completed a full LP in 2018, they finally gathered to begin touring to support it. To cut through that initial awkwardness around getting to know each other, they employed a popular tradition used through centuries, from Jesus Christ and his disciples all the way to the patrons of Mac & Ernie’s Roadside Eatery in Texas on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. They shared a good meal.

“A key component of tour life and finding time to settle and take a little respite from the hectic, crazy nature of being social and performing nonstop,” Ku says, “was the meals we would eat on tour. Even if it’s just McDonald’s in the van, we’re still all in one place doing one thing.”

Fittingly, the title of Michelle’s new album, out today (March 4), brims with culinary inspiration. After Dinner We Talk Dreams wisely pushes the group’s vocalists to the front of its R&B-inspired, keyboard-heavy dance-pop, letting each singer reside in her respective musical space. But not for long. On standout single “Mess U Made,” gorgeous harmonies arrive on each chorus as musical support, creating a mesmerizing wall-of-sound vocal effect. The bread has been broken. The collective spirit is strong.

That’s immediately obvious in the group’s homespun music video for “Pose,” where all six make the New York subway system their playground (as choreographed by Lee). Intimate close-ups of pirouettes and dizzying train shots make the visual hum with electricity and motion. The takeaway is that this is a group — one whose vivacity matches its home city. In press photos, music videos, and on social media, all six members are represented equally. But their beginning was less defined.

The comparatively lo-fi debut Michelle project, 2018’s Heatwave, was born from separate recording sessions; one member dreamed up and sang an idea, and Kaufman and Kilgore helped execute the vision. Michelle, as a concept, was still tenuous. Kilgore met Ku in high school and Lockard in college, and Ku and D’Angelo connected in the New York music scene. General creativity (and being friends of friends) eventually brought everyone together.

“It was very much like just capturing a moment,” Kilgore says. “We did a couple of takes in Julian’s bedroom with that mic right after we wrote it. Heatwave just seemed really like a snapshot of the moment in time that we made it.”

That moment also called for them to choose a name for this “summer project,” as Lockard says the group considered it at the time. “​​The story we tell is that we just wanted to name ourselves after a singular femme name, like all the icons: Brandy and Beyoncé and Rihanna and Adele.”

The gag, D’Angelo points out, is that there’s no singular femme voice in the group.​​ They are one. They are Michelle. “It was either that or Gertrude,” she says.

To support Heatwave’s release, Michelle lined up some live dates. To perform, they first had to meet in person. They linked up for the first time in a cafeteria at Bard College ahead of a gig there; Kaufman was still going to school in Ohio, so he couldn’t make it. But the vibe was bubbly among the five. “I had seen photos of everyone on the Michelle Instagram, and I knew who wrote what song, but it’s kind of like meeting your favorite artists for the first time,” D’Angelo says. “But these are people that you worked on the same project with.”

That first concert ended with a crowd singalong of “Stuck on U,” still one of their most-streamed tracks. Kilgore calls it a defining juncture for Michelle. “I was also going to say that exact moment, Charlie,” Lockard says, a few minutes after finishing a banana. “So it was funny to hear you say it.”

They’ve toured heavily around North America since then, opening for Gus Dapperton and Arlo Parks, and will join Mitski later this month. Lee says the differences onstage between that Bard show and current performances are stark. They’ve coordinated some dance moves. They know how to support their mates. They’re together, even when they’re not actively singing or performing on every single song.

“Part of that was just, OK, how do we split up all the harmonies and split up all the songs so that it’s equitable and feels like we can collectively share this vision with everybody else?” she says. Lockard says their stage presence has “pockets of synchronicity” with plenty of room for unscripted and unrehearsed moments. “It gives us the space where we kind of get to freestyle and riff off of each other.”

She likens the group’s evolution to “shifting back and forth between Michelle on a big-umbrella scale versus Michelle, the little people who are holding up the umbrella.”

Capturing all of those little people for After Dinner We Talk Dreams proved to be a feat, so Kaufman sought a warmer sound to unite the disparate voices in the group. “We had access to many different vintage mics from the 1960s and ‘70s, which let us dial in the right frequency response per singer, per song to make sure that every voice had a pocket and a cut, no matter what track we were on,” he says. The gliding harmonies on songs like “50-50” and “No Signal,” as a result, could light up an entire city block. Each track captures the strength of a specific member or two; the goal for the others is to support it.

Though its illustrated cover art suggests moony conversations lingering after a friendly potluck, After Dinner We Talk Dreams was chosen as a title to reflect both escape and communal love. The Michelle members used a Google Doc to workshop potential album names, and Lee extracted the line from its closer, “My Friends,” as a way to encapsulate all 14 songs (the full lyric: “After dinner we talk dreams / Like dancing and leaving the city / But where I go I’ll take you with me”).

“When I wrote that line, I was thinking more about living at home. After dinner, I would leave home and I would meet my friends in the park, you know?” Lee says. “That’s when it’s like, oh, now I can think of all these things that are separate from home, or these dreams and these fantasies. But it definitely has become significant within the actual group.”

Traveling together in a van and traversing the continent, in addition to performing together onstage, “redefines intimacy,” as Ku puts it. “You have to learn how to engage in a way where you’re maintaining your sense of self and your sense of calm and sanity, but also being aware and acknowledging the others around you.”

The Michelle Instagram account mirrors the members’ commitment to maintaining each of their own selves in a joint musical enterprise. Videos of D’Angelo singing The 1975, Lockard covering Chris Stapleton, and Ku strumming John Prine mingle next to group shots and photo dumps. That independence comes in handy when it’s time to make big collective decisions, like filming a live take of “Mess U Made” to add additional “heat and weight” that, in Ku’s words, were missing from the recorded version.

“Layla gave me and Charlie a call basically saying, ‘Damn, this does not go as hard as I remember it going,’” Kaufman recalls. “‘You guys gotta do something on this. Like, this is not cutting the mustard.’” At this, Ku naturally drops a “shoutout mustard” in the Zoom chat. “Shout out to mustard, yeah,” Kaufman says. “The ‘tard.”

Group energy is what powers Michelle. Food, of course, sustains that energy in the first place. And the restless buzz of their home city prolongs that power. “[Food is] maybe the new seventh member of Michelle,” Ku says, before backtracking. “Or eighth member — since New York is the seventh.”

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