MICHELLE on Community, Their Latest Album, and Social Justice

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MICHELLE care about their community. It’s not the type of care where the band play an occasional concert in New York City and shout “We love you, New York!” Their care looks like hosting community picnics and art shows, raising money for a local soup kitchen, and performing free concerts in the city that gave them their start.

Formed through a group text, the six-member group consider themselves to be a collective, always changing, evolving, and welcoming new ideas and new sounds. At times, there would be five members performing, or three, or at its bleakest, two.

Now more static, the band is composed of Sofia D’Angelo, Julian Kaufman, Charlie Kilgore, Layla Ku, Emma Lee, and Jamee Lockard. They recently opened for music superstar Mitski and are fresh off the debut of their sophomore album, After Dinner We Talk Dreams, earlier this year. The album is infused with inspiration from a plethora of music genres, but they all blend to create a cohesive vision. There’s crooning, dance-worthy tracks, euphoric R&B melodies, and sucker-punching lyrics that evoke an almost guttural shout from Gen Z. Take the hard-hitting line “cities crumbling, well I don’t mind, I think you’re hotter than the burning sky,” on their song “End of the World.” They seem say we dance while we cry, and we have to party as we watch the world burn.

The band is set to play a free show today at Hudson Yards and take over Chinatown Soup from July 29 through 31, creating a gallery experience based upon their recent album. The exhibit will feature hand-painted artwork by Lee, merch designs by Lockard and Ku, tape machine mixing boards for attendees to create their own MICHELLE remixes, and homemade lavender lemonade. It’s their New York sendoff before they vanish for a few weeks to work on a new project, then return to the city for their Lavender tour in the fall.

As MICHELLE continue to establish themselves and develop their relationship with their fans, they’re growing closer amongst each other too. “When we made our first album, we weren’t like a gaggle of besties, you know, like the band made us a family,” says vocalist Sofia D’Angelo. “The hang time is just as important to the performance as the rehearsals itself. … I think what really makes the MICHELLE show special is the interactions between the six of us on stage, we want to make it a party that everyone’s invited to.”

ELLE.com caught up with the band right before a show in Seattle to discuss their recent success, the dynamics of the band, and their commitment to social justice.

michelle band photo

Members of MICHELLE, from left to right: Charlie Kilgore, Sofia D’Angelo, Jamee Lockard, Emma Lee, Layla Ku, and Julian Kaufman

Aysia Marotta

I would love to know how you all met and what it took to get you all together.

Sofia D’Angelo: So MICHELLE came together when Julian and Charlie met through a mutual friend, and the two of them got along so well. And, these two silly boys were like, “We should make a record!” So, in the summer of 2018, the two of them decided to make an album and they reached out to their favorite songwriters and vocalists that they knew from different points in their lives. So, me and Emma had known Julian through the New York City music scene. Jamee and Layla both knew Charlie from school, Jamee from college and Layla from elementary school onward. We would all go to Julian’s apartment on different days to record this album. Then, [our first album, Heatwave], came out in September 2018 and at that point, we still hadn’t all been in the same room.

And a lot of you were in college when you all started working together. What was that like, having to balance school and creating a record?

Jamee Lockard: It’s very difficult. At first, it was fine, because we were all in school, and it was kind of like, “Oh, we’re on a break, let’s write this winter break, or let’s write this summer,” but then as time progressed, some of us graduated, some of us dropped out, some of us were still in school. Then we’d signed a record deal on top of that and had management, so it kind of became a full-time job while Sofia and I were still full-time students. And there’s a pandemic on top of that. So, it was a lot by the end, but we got out, we graduated, and now none of us are in school.

SD: Yeah, Jamee and I were reminiscing because during one of our big writing retreats for After Dinner, We Talk Dreams we would have sessions where I would straight up just be in Zoom class while like coming up with melodies with Charlie and Jamee. People would be making dinner and I’d be like, writing out my essay for a class I was in.

I’m also curious, where did the name MICHELLE come from?

Charlie Kilgore: So many of our musical heroes, especially in the kind of ‘90s R&B world that we love to occupy—like Brandy, Monica, and Aaliyah, and then if you go older, you have Madonna and if you go more recently, you have Beyoncé and Solange—they have the mononym female name.

SD: Cher, Lorde, Adele.

CK: And, I think we wanted to continue in that tradition. We put out like, a bazillion names, and MICHELLE was the only one that was good. Gertrude was a second choice, but that would have been admittedly horrendous.

But what made MICHELLE the name that was good? What was the thing?

CK: The fact that it wasn’t Gertrude…

Layla Ku: It was all we could agree on.

SD: Yeah, the fact that it wasn’t I Sniff Paint.

LK: Which was an option…

JL: Delicious Breakfast was another one.

CK: Delicious Breakfast was good. I liked that one.

I love it. So, can you explain why you call yourselves a collective?

LK: I mean, initially, when we talked about it, at the same time, during naming this and deciding what it was, we didn’t have any idea of what it would form into. Still now, we’re all artists of different mediums. Emma’s also a dancer, Jamee and Emma make visual art, Sofia and Charlie make music on their own, we’re all making music on our own at the time, too, [and] Charlie’s a playwright. We all have a bunch of different shit going on. We still all have our own endeavors outside of MICHELLE, and we’re still individual artists, as well as one kind of joint entity. But I feel like, at its core, a collective is just kind of more applicable for who we are as people.

Did you all envision MICHELLE being the success it is right now?

CK: No. No fucking way.

SD: I like to say your dreams do come true, but never in the way that you anticipate them to. So, all the things that MICHELLE is doing right now are things that I talked about doing when I was in elementary school, middle school. I was like, I want to go on tour, I want to play festivals, I want to cut records like, blah, blah, blah. And, I thought I was gonna have to do that alone or with my high school three-piece rock band that was trying to be Green Day. But instead it came to life with this miraculous group of individuals I would not have known if it weren’t for making Heatwave, you know, it’s crazy.

Julian Kaufman: This is a kind of dream. I feel like I had to sell this to Charlie, and sell this Emma, and sell this to Jamee. As we were signing our first management contract, everybody was still like, but I don’t know. What if I just want to do something else, and I had to like sit down and be like, no, here’s a path, here’s a reality, like, we can make this reality a thing.

I’ve noticed you put social justice and making an impact at the front of what you do. Can you talk about why?

SD: I think as an artist, you make art because you want to make the world a better place. You know, you want to make the world a better place for yourself, and maybe for others. But if you do that for either person, it affects everyone. So, let’s say I want to make the song that I want to hear. It could also be the song that someone else wants to hear too, and it could make their life better.

“I like to say your dreams do come true, but never in the way that you anticipate them to.”

But, as a collective, I think our goal is to make music for people to listen to. It’s a very selfless act for us, and part of our responsibility, especially with the platform that this music has given us. We make this music for others, we have this platform where people can see us; we would be completely remiss to not take advantage of it to shine light on things that need funding, things that need attention, things that people are not paying attention to. We’re native New Yorkers born and raised in the city, you know, not like, Westchester. We want to shine light on causes in our hometown to support our community, as best as we can. Because why would you have a platform and not use it to help other people? You have an audience and people who are willing to listen? Might as well take advantage.

JL: One tangible example of that is we had a community picnic a couple weeks ago where we physically brought people together to enjoy a nice summer day. But instead of just being like, let’s all vibe together, we also had a community element of, let’s make this a clothing drive as well and donate to a community center that we really believe in.

SD: It’s called The Door. They’re doing really amazing things.

Going off of that, I know you’re performing a show at Hudson Yards soon. What does it mean for you to come back to New York? How is performing in the city different for you all?

CK: I think, because it’s kind of impossible not to just write what you know, regardless of how far out your fiction is, a lot of our songs, because they’re very personal, even if they don’t directly reference places like the subway or whatever, they all sort of inevitably take place in New York. I think there’s just a way that the music resonates on a slightly deeper level, when you’re playing it in the world that the stories that you’re actually happening in, and also all of our friends and family.

SD: Yeah, the New York fans go crazy, which is nice, because usually shows in New York, the crowd is pretty chill, kind of like when you play shows in L.A., like, these are the cities where these things happen all the time. But, New York goes nuts for the MICHELLE party, as they should.

michelle band

Sophia Wilson

I would love to talk a little bit about After Dinner, We Talk Dreams. I think I read somewhere that there were a lot of songs that didn’t make it onto this album. How did you whittle it down to the final songs that made it?

CK: We chose 14 from 49.

Woof.

CK: Yeah, correct fucking response. Like, imagine all six of us each having a whole spate of individual favorite songs and having to be very civil as we campaign for the songs that we like. It was like if you’ve ever watched a like a documentary about what like the royal court in medieval times was like. It was high-level palace intrigue. There was the court there was assassination attempts. It’s rough, but we did it. And it was fine.

JL: And I think the process was kind of like, Charlie and Julian had divided those 49 songs into genres of like ‘80s pop, left-field tracks, and ‘90s R&B. So, we kind of picked our favorites from each category, that way, we didn’t end up with an entirely ‘80s album. We want it to be very fluid with our genres and just show our range.

Did any of you have to really kill one of your darlings?

SD: Oh, yeah, yeah, I’ll say it out loud. I wish “Fool for You” was on the actual album. I love that song.

CK: Yeah, everyone has that little one that they keep in the back of their mind.

Emma Lee: I think part of it too is that we picked a handful that we want to continue to develop. Those songs weren’t quite ready to be made and it doesn’t make them any less or lesser than the songs you know, it just means, these just aren’t ready, but they shall be.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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