The right kind of noise

Indie-pop collective MICHELLE on genre bending, writing in a group and what’s in a name

Aysia Marotta

There seems to be a cultural (maybe generational) shift happening; musicians are forsaking the rigidity and structure of a single genre in favor of mixing and matching different influences, styles, and content. New York sextet MICHELLE—composed of singers Sofia D’Angelo, Layla Ku, Emma Lee and Jamee Lockard, as well as producers Julian Kaufman (also bass) and Charlie Kilgore (drums)—is no exception. The group has been described as pan-genre, genre-bending, and genre fluid. 

“Genres were created to really separate Black artists from white artists and you can still see that in Billboard [charts] today,” D’Angelo says. 

MICHELLE is more a product of the fluidity that comes from combining the diverse influences of six different people into one sound.

“We were just, like, really influenced by music that we grew up listening to. And like, however we can describe it, whether it’s R&B, whether it’s pop, whether it’s rock‘n’roll, whether it’s alternative, whether it’s punk, whether it’s electronic, experimental noise, like whatever descriptions we use for it is whatever,” D’Angelo says.

“We make the music that we’re feeling that day. And then the descriptor comes afterwards,” Lockard adds.

Indie-pop seems the most apt catchall, however, as each MICHELLE song is designed to be catchy and vocal forward, with an emphasis on layered organic harmonies, songcraft, and DIY production full of synthesizers and percussion. 

The group’s name is an homage to beloved female musicians who perform using a mononym. It’s also a way of unifying a group of musicians as something larger than any one individual. “MICHELLE is a little bit of all of us, but also at the same time, MICHELLE is like existence outside of any of us individually,” Kilgore says, admitting that no one really expected anything to come from the group’s first release, HEATWAVE, in 2018.

“We didn’t think this was going to be a band,” he says. “We just needed a name to release it under.”

“What would you have named it?” Kauffman asks directly. “Do you have any good band names?”

All native New Yorkers, the individual members of MICHELLE met each other by chance, orbiting similar music and art circles in high school and into college.

“The high schools in New York, everyone kind of knows everyone. And if you don’t know someone, you know someone who knows them,” Kilgore says.

But it was the producing duo Kauffman and Kilgore who first solicited some 16 musicians to participate in the project that would become MICHELLE. The idea was to create an album about summer in New York City in two weeks through a sort of intensive writing camp. It was admittedly a bit daunting for some.

“Definitely when we were all invited to the project that Charlie and Julian were interested in making, I remember wondering what to write about with a group of strangers,” Lee says. 

But none of the writing is done with the group as a whole, instead two or three people branch off and write together, abandoning the chaos of six personalities, ideas, and thoughts for an easier collaboration. 

In the early days, MICHELLE was more of a collective, a side project for young people with busy lives. Some were still in school, others were working different jobs, most were trying to write with other people, and a few had their own bands. They were separate individuals coming together for the sole purpose of MICHELLE. At times, 10 people performed under the mononym, other times only two.

Then came a record deal, and the group really solidified into a sextet, bringing the compassion, self-awareness, and perspectives as mostly queer and “mixed-race femme POC” to the foreground of the music, even if unintentionally at first. 

“That representation matters to us, but it also wasn’t necessarily in the forefront when creating the group, which I think is important too,” Lee says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s do this thing.’ It was more just people coming together and then realizing we have this thing in common, and we have the opportunity to write songs or create art about it.”

From 2021’s single “FYO”:

I never asked you who I was / I’m not myself enough (you’ll never look like me) / Don’t look like anyone (are your eyes open? Can you see?) / I never asked you who I was 

You say I’m one thing or another / And your words, they suffocate and smother / Why do I turn to you to tell me who I am?

Lockard, who wrote “FYO” with Lee, Kilgore and Kauffman, says growing up she often felt caught between two worlds—at times a part of both, other times rejected by both. As half-Korean American, she struggled with her racial identity, especially as she shuffled between different public schools and never saw herself represented in any sort of media. But the feelings presented in “FYO” are more open-ended than that. 

“There are lots of people who feel this way,” Lockard says. 

MICHELLE’s sophomore release, AFTER DINNER WE TALK DREAMS, due January 28, was written in a year of turmoil—from racial injustice protests to political upheaval to the seemingly never-ending COVID-19 pandemic. And the group has used their social media accounts and platform as a way of talking to their fanbase about the world we’re living in, and the ways we all can contribute to its healing.

“We wanted to have the noise that we were making be the right kind of noise and not just, ‘Listen to our song, listen to our song,” Lee says. “We’re real people who have all experienced oppression in some way, shape or form, and therefore have empathy for other injustices that we may or may not relate to or may or may not be affected by.”

On the bill: MICHELLE opening for Arlo Parks. 7 p.m. Tuesday Oct. 5, Globe Hall, 4483 Logan Street, Denver.