For years, the national media has asserted that the music of Chrisette Michele respectfully invokes the spirit of Billie Holiday. And like Billie, her distinct vocals have made her musical performances distinguishable from her industry peers.
Although Chrisette Michele's talents were undeniable, her debut album stalled at #29 on the Billboard 200 chart, with 26,000 copies sold during the opening week. The strength of I Am resonated with music lovers across the globe, however, and the album would eventually attain gold certification from the RIAA and receive back-to-back GRAMMY nominations in 2008 and 2009: Best Female R&B Vocal Performance (for "If I Had My Way") and Best Urban/Alternative Performance (for "Be OK").
After her GRAMMY win in 2009, the stars aligned upon the release of Epiphany, her sophomore record. The groundswell of public support and her massive "underground" following propelled Epiphany into the #1 spot—taking the industry (and Chrisette) by surprise!
As Chrisette Michele embarked on a promotional tour for Epiphany, she managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on "Porcelain Doll," Billie Holiday, and her recording experience with Ne-Yo.
Congratulations on your recent number one debut. When you first found out, what was the first thing that came to your mind?
"Yeah, right!" [laughing] That's the first thing I said. Then I screamed and yelled at L.A. Reid because he was the one who told me. I told him, "Are you sure? Are you positive?" I was really happy.
Considering the fact that I Am peaked at 29, what were your expectations going in?
Numbers are really more for the business people. I think that when you sing from your heart, you write from your heart and you perform from your heart, you're more interested in the record than how many records you sold. So the first thing I wanted to know was, "What do they think?" I was getting feedback on how many records were sold or what number I was at. What I really wanted to know is, "What does everybody think? Did they like this song? Did they like that song?" My expectations were that people would enjoy the vocals and a new side of me that I decided to expose. It's really a new exploration for me.
Well, I am not alone, when I say that I thoroughly enjoyed Epiphany. And while it's hard for me to pick, I find "Porcelain Doll" to be my favorite track. Do you have any special memories from the studio that are attached to that particular song?
For that particular song, I was sitting in the room with Ne-Yo and a couple of friends. And like always, we were talking and laughing and joking. Somebody decided to play "Porcelain Doll." What had happened was Ne-Yo said, "There's this one song that I really, really think makes sense for you but they told me that you can't sing it." I said, "Let me hear the song." I listened to the song and I was like, "There's no way that I'm not singing this song. This song is me! This song makes sense. I played the piano. My dad called me porcelain doll. This has to be my song. This is mine." I told L.A. Reid, "Please let me do this." So I recorded it anyway. For some reason, everybody's minds changed.
You've gone on record to say that "Blame It on Me" is your favorite track. What is it about that song that you like the most? Is it tied to a particular life experience, or is it just the style or the flavor of the song?
Oh, man. I just love to blow my lungs out. Whenever I'm standing by a microphone, I just like to go hard. That's the song where I didn't hold back. There were tears in the studio. What was crazy is that I dreamt that song and I wasn't even in a relationship. I was wondering why I would be writing a song called "Blame It on Me" when I'm not even telling that to anyone in real life. For some reason, that message resonated with me and I had to go into the studio and record it. What's funny is that so many people are telling me, "Wow, ‘Blame It on Me' is my life story right now." So that song is for the people who are in a relationship that they really just want to get out of and they can't figure out another way except to say, "You know what? I'll say it's my fault. Just get me out of it."
When you look back on the recording experience for Epiphany, is there a particular thought that comes to mind? Is there a set of events that set the groundwork for this particular album?
So many changes took place in my life. Over time, I was recording after I put out my first album. We recorded about three different albums. One was very, like, spacey, kind of a mixture of Bilal meets Solange Knowles meets Diana Ross. Another album is very soulful, like Lauryn Hill meets Amy Winehouse meets [I Am], my last album. Then this album, Epiphany, we recorded in no time, in a matter of weeks. It's because me and Ne-Yo hit it off so well. We didn't want to leave the studio. It was like, "Let's keep going. This is exciting. This is great. This is fun." We just didn't want to stop. Before we knew it, we got a whole album. That wasn't even our plan; it just happened.
Do you see a long-term collaborative effort between you two since you had such chemistry?
I'm terrible, terrible, terrible at holding my attention for a long time. I mean terrible, because I loved working with Babyface – it was the most incredible experience in the studio. He was playing guitar and I was writing over it. There's nothing like it but for some reason, we didn't work together on my second album. I loved working with Ne-Yo. I don't know what's going to happen on my third album. I think my third album is going to have a lot of productions from me, though. I think me and my brother are finally getting out with a dream chance to collaborate and really put a record together, which is our dream.
The deluxe version of Epiphany included a bonus DVD with an intimate interview. During the session, you noted that you felt that your albums were "classic" because they respect classic artists and classic music. When you look at the contemporary music landscape, what elements of classic music do you wish other artists integrate into their work?
I don't want to say what other artists should or shouldn't do because at the end of the day, I really, really appreciate so many different types and styles of music and honesty. The main thing that I want to always see with an artist is honesty. As long as you're doing what's true and honest to you, I'll never knock you. I got everything in my iPod from Soulja Boy to Jill Scott to Jazmine Sullivan to John Legend, all the way to Diana Krall, Third Eye Blind. So I'm the last person to try and figure out how people can fit into things any better. But I'm the first person to talk about being honest and true to who you are in your craft.
As a classically-trained musician with a background of vocal performance, what lessons from your college experience or from your experience in church have shown themselves over and over again in your professional experience?
It's so funny. College and church are truly one and the same sometimes because if you are not on time to a church rehearsal, everybody is going no about it. If you weren't on black and white on Sunday morning, you weren't singing. If you didn't know the words to this song or the other song, everybody's going nobody. At college, you had to come in uniform. You had to be on time to class. You have to know everything on every sheet of music. Otherwise, you ain't going to be on choir no more. One thing I really, really loved about my church upbringing was learning how to be a professional at a very early age. That was being on time, being respectful of people's time, respecting people who are teaching you and understanding that everybody's got something that you can learn from them.
I'm not really sure how much experience you have had with spoken word, but you included three pieces on the last few pages of your liner notes. You also taped live performances of each for your special-edition DVD.
What did you think of that?
Oh, I liked it! [laughing] I think that a lot of people haven't been exposed to spoken word outside of Slam and Def Comedy Jam, so it was a nice surprise. Over the years, spoken word hasn't really gotten the love and shine that it deserves, so it was a really interesting addition to your CD. What kind of background experience do you have with the spoken word artform?
I was petrified, because I have a lot of experience listening to people do spoken word and being in different lounges and cafes hearing it in New York. But I was afraid. I wanted to make sure I had all the right inflections. Spoken word is a lot like singing. You got to say something high right here or low when you get to the next part and if you don't do that right, nobody's going to feel it. I wanted to make sure I was doing it right, you know? I wanted to make sure I had enough metaphors in them. I was nervous. I do pay respect to everybody who's come before me. I'm just glad that this experience came to me. I've been doing it for awhile.
I really liked "Appreciate Someone." What was the inspiration behind that one?
It's just what I call ABWS – Angry Black Woman Syndrome. It's a syndrome that we take into our relationships based on past relationships. A lot of times we are so upset with how we've been treated that we're afraid to treat our next love with what we want them to treat us with. Rubbing a man's feet is something that we're afraid to talk about it; it's kind of embarrassing. I just wanted to be the one who put it out there, that it's okay to be in a relationship with a lot of love and a lot of respect and let other people know about it. I don't think black men get the respect and appreciation that they should in society.
One black man that you identify as your "humble hero," in your liner notes, is your father. In fact, you state: "Thank you for giving up mom to the business and holding it down while she was away." What experiences led you to write those words?
My mom is my manager, so she literally does everything with me. My dad holds down the household when she's not home, humbly. For a lot of men that would be a very awkward position to hold, but he's always been an incredible father and always been there for us. I had to let him know that. He's incredible.
You also mentioned Tango. And you said, "Thanks for the pep talk." What's the best advice he ever gave you?
Tango is crazy and I love him for it because my family is very loud and rowdy. So is Tango, so he's fit in with my family. Everything was just drama for Tango so he always kept the studio real live. He gave me so much advice about how to carry myself with integrity, with character. He gave business pointers and different ideas to carry into the future.
When you look back on the work that you've put out so far, is there a particular song that you find it difficult to sing emotionally?
Yeah, "Your Joy" is really, really tough to sing. My dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer right after I wrote that song. That was really a tough time in the family. At the same time, I'm being hit with a major lawsuit that has been made public in different places like the internet and magazines. So whenever I sing that song, it touches a nerve about that particular time of life. My dad was suffering and my family was going through an emotional time with both what he was going through and the lawsuit.
Earlier on, I was reading a lot of different reviews for your latest album. A common thread that ran through Billboard's review, as well as other outlets, is that many music critics compare your voice to that of Billie Holiday. When you hear such glowing comparisons, how do you feel?
Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, even Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, these were people that I literally would put into my headphone and play over and over again. Every single riff, every single word, every single lick, I would play until I could emulate it as my own. That's the way I studied. Some people studied Bach in front of the piano. Some people studied different opera singers, whoever. Jazz was my first love, so those are the people I love the most.
For those people who are just now discovering you for the first time, based off of the buzz and successful launch of Epiphany, what would you say to them to encourage them to go back and buy your first album, I Am?
I Am was the record that I used to establish my sound, my self. This is the record that I used to say, "This is what Chrisette Michele has in her head." My second record was kind of a detour. "Okay now you know who I am exactly." Nobody took anything from me. I got to say exactly what I wanted to say, but this is something I've been thinking about, too. The first record is like the letter A. The second record is like the letter B. Now my third record, I keep telling people, is like, "This is the record that I've been waiting to show you. But I had to let you know my name first." I think it was a wonderful progression from the first record to the second record. I think people need to get the first one so they know exactly what they're listening to in the second one.
Coming off your recent GRAMMY win, did you notice anything different with the way people approach you or address you?
Yeah, now I'm Grammy-winning, number one album-having Chrisette Michele. I'm no longer just Chrissy. Now, I'm all those things that I just said. That's a little bit embarrassing. I'm thinking maybe I should go back to my nickname on my third album. [laughing]
For more information on Chrisette Michele, visit her official website.