Interview: Chrisette Michele
Mon, 02 Jul 2007 10:54:06
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An emerging R&B singer of the Jill Scott school, Chrisette Michele first stepped into the limelight with a guest spot on Jay-Z's Kingdom Come, on the standout track "Lost One." She quickly followed that up with a number of notable cameos on Nas' Hip Hop Is Dead, co-writing many of the songs.
Michele has just released her debut album, I Am, on Def Jam and the list of collaborators includes heavy-hitters like Babyface, Will.I.Am and John Legend. We caught up with her to talk about the new release, where she gets her song-writing ideas and inspirations like Ella Fitzgerald.
"Good Girl" really struck me as one of the knockout tracks on the album. It's got a bit of a classic Lauryn Hill vibe. Can you describe how the lyrics on the song came to you.
[Note: The track "Good Girl" features Michele singing about self-sufficient women "who don't need no sugardaddy" in between a repeated refrain of "What!"]
My mom was saying I should build the track around saying, "What!" And, originally, I thought, "Oh god, Mom, that’s such a stupid idea." Later though, I thought it wasn't bad if I freestyled in between all the "Whats." Salaam Remi said I should sing about girls and them having their own money and being on top, but I really freestyled most of the song. It came from my upbringing by my mom and knowing what it means to be a lady holding on.
I first learned about you through your guest spots with Nas and Jay-Z—your vocals are really what made those songs connect with me. Did you write those lyrics?
Yes, I wrote three songs on Nas' album. For "Not Going Back" I was freestylin’ on his video with StarGate—Kelis sings beautifully on that song. We came up with "Hope" when I was hanging out in the studio with L.E.S., Nas' DJ—that was really simple to record. It was almost a freestyle track because when I got there I found out that the song had changed. On "Can't Forget About You," I was all by myself listening to the lyrics and I just came up with something that I thought was beautiful; Shalik Berry [a Def Jam A&R] was in the room and he gave me some inspiration as well. Having those songs on Nas' album meant the world to me—I felt liberated, validated, special.
On the duet with Nas, "Can't Forget About You," it seemed like you were going for a really bright Ella Fitzgerald-style sound—was that because of the throwback sensibility of that cut?
You just used a great word, "throwback sensibility" is definitely what I felt when I looked into it. When I got to the studio, I felt like I really understood why I was there: I thought, "This is my soul." Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, those ladies are my soul. So yeah, i think I was matching that vibe I heard.
By the way, I love your description in a video I watched of Fitzgerald’s voice as a "bunch of balloons," how would you characterize your own vocal style?
If Ella Fitzgerald’s voice is a bunch of balloons then my voice is trumpets—it's raspy, colorful. I mean, my voice goes so many places. If you listen to "Best of Me" I can be Sade's sister, if you listen to "Like a Dream" I could be friends with Jill Scott, or if you listen to "Let's Rock" I could be homegirls with Ella Fitzgerald.
You worked with Babyface on a number of tracks on I Am. What do you think he brought to your sound?
He brought class and sensibility to my sound. My album is very free and liberating—Will.I.Am [who produced the track "Be OK" and "Let's Rock"] allowed me to basically say whatever I felt like saying. John Legend [who produced "Love Is You"], we walked around and had conversations before we wrote and it was very deep, but Babyface's style is very balanced and singable. He taught me how to relax, not do too much, make it sensible.
Speaking of your favorite song, what are your favorite cuts on the album and why?
"Best of Me" is my favorite cut on the album because it challenges you to walk out of something that's not good for you, and walk into yourself. That's what I'm trying to do, will continue to do, and I think we should all try to do. I like "Good Girl," too, it's a really fun song and I had a blast doing it. The hidden track, "I Am One," I absolutely love because it addresses so many things that have been happening over the years like Katrina, 9/11, teen pregnancies, and different issues that we all face. It's also about how we can help each other in similar situations.
—Jocelyn K. Glei