Chrisette Michele Rocks the Canal Room
This past Monday night LA Reid threw a small bash for singer Chrisette Michele at the Canal Room in New York City. Bringing back memories of yesteryear def jams, there was a flow of delicious sushi and a old-school open bar. There were also interesting folks in the house including singer/producer Ne-Yo (who produced most of Chrisette's new album), stunning publicist Jana Fleishman, former De La Soul dancer Asia Minor and Uptown magazine editor Tomika Anderson.
Of course, the highlight of the night was a short, but sweet set Ms. Michele rocked for us. Dressed in a fashionable white jacket and sporting blonde highlights in her short hair, Chrisette Michele opened with the title track of her upcoming album Epiphany. While the song is cool as an evening breeze, my personal favorites were “All in What You Do” and “Blame It On Me.”
On stage, Chrisette Michele was in total control with a charming presence and laid-back style. Epiphany is due on May 19th. Below is an interview I did with the ever-lovely Chrisette Michele while she was driving to church in her native Long Island.
It has been two years since sultry voiced singer Chrisette Michele released her stunning gold-certified debut I Am. Blessed with a gorgeous instrument and described as a “soulful songbird” by Entertainment Weekly, the Long Island native proved to the world that she could live up to the hype. Nominated for a BET Award for Best New Artist as well as two Grammies, I Am was both a critical success and a fans delight.
Two years later the singer returns to center stage with her follow-up Epiphany. Still, when it first came time to begin recording, the singer realized the need to challenge herself. “I felt like I was a little too shy and laidback my first time out,” confesses Chrisette. “On my new project I wanted to raise the bar and step-out of my comfort zone. I wanted to make songs that were more edgy, youthful and urban. I still have an old soul, but I’ve learnt how to flip it so I can be cool too.”
Recruiting talented collaborators that include Ne-Yo and Rodney Jerkins, the singer/songwriter has set aside her bluesy jazz vocal style for a more pop friendly soundscape. Marking a transition away from her traditional leanings to a fuller integration of hip-hop soul, Chrisette Michele was clearly conscious of the next level. Yet, as can clearly be heard on her newest single “Epiphany (I’m Leaving),” the 27-year-old has not sold-out, but simply expanded her musical palette.
Constructed by Ne-Yo and Chuck Harmony, the title-track is a beautiful broken-hearted song that reveals the emotional misery behind Chrisette’s lovely smile. “I sat down with Ne-Yo, and just talked about everything that was on my mind,” says Chrisette. “He’s such a humble guy, and he listened to me for hours. I spoke about my many joys and the pain of breaking-up with my former boyfriend.”
Opening with spacey keyboards and girl group backgrounds, Chrisette’s bold declaration of flye girl independence (“It’s over,” she sings) on “Epiphany (I’m Leaving)” sets the tone of most of the disc. “That word ‘epiphany’ just meant so much to me, because it was during the time that I was preparing to record that something clicked in my spirit.”
Even rougher was the fact that Chrisette Michele’s former boyfriend is also her former manager; the two have been in an ugly lawsuit for a year and a half. “It’s been grueling and the lawsuit is still going on,” she says. “Sometimes relationships can be too much to handle, but there comes a time when you realize you just have to let go. Believe me, this was a hard album to sing. I felt more vulnerable, but my singing is much tougher.”
Nowhere does that toughness come across more than on the soulful “Blame It on Me.” An awesome ballad that colors itself with a little Muscle Shoals soul, there is red dirt earthiness that is just completely raw. “You can say whatever you want, as long as its goodbye,” Chrisette wails coldly.
“The words to that song just popped in my head at 4 in the morning,” remembers Chrisette. “The next day in the studio, I talked to Chuck Harmony and he played me something a few hours later.” A producer/ songwriter who is part of Ne-Yo’s production collective Compound Entertainment, Chuck has worked on projects with Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson and Celine Dion. “Me and Chuck actually met by chance at BMI about a year ago,” Chrisette recalls. “We were fooling around on the piano in the waiting room, and I just got a great vibe from him. A few months later my A&R played me a track, and it was Chuck.”
Since the release of her I Am, Chrisette has always toured the world with the Roots, Raheem DeVaughn and Solange. “To me, nothing is more important than touring,” she says. “Commutating with the audience through song can be magical. Singing in the studio is one thing, but you must be able to bring it to the stage too.”
Citing Japan and Barbados as two of her favorite spots, Chrisette explains, “In Japan, it is just about the music, and an artist is judged by the material, not the latest gossip. While, in Barbados audiences just show such a passion, like they can pick-up what is going on in your heart.” In addition, Chrisette also found time to record with The Roots (“Rising Up”) and The Game (“Let Us Live”).
“Honestly, I was a little scared when I went to work with Game, but he turned out to be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Chrisette admits. “He said I was like his little cousin.”
As if that was not enough, Chrisette also started working on her acting chops after appearing on an episode of Girlfriends. Playing herself in "What's Black-A-Lacking," an episode directed by series star Tracee Ellis Ross, she says, “That experience was amazing, because they allowed me to have so much input and let me to write my own scenes. Truthfully, there is no feeling like seeing myself on TV.”
Currently studying with noted acting, Chrisette has set serious goals for herself. “I want to be able to do Shakespeare or a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.”
Though Chrisette admits to being rather conservative, it did not stop producers Harmony and Ne-Yo from trying to get her to be more risqué on record. “They used to joke about the ring that I wear that is basically my promise to myself to remain a virgin until I get married,” she admits. “As I told Essence magazine last year, I feel as though I represent for young girls.” In addition to working with the young girls who sing in the choir of her father’s church, Chrisette has set-up the American Young Ladies Foundation summer camp. “BET may not play my videos as much as others because of it, but I got to rep for my babies.”
It was from talking about her chastity that the Ne-Yo and Harmony were inspired to write “Another One.” Opening with a lovely acoustic guitar and Chrisette singing quietly, “Another One” slowly builds to the point of explosion. “That is my favorite song on the album,” Chrisette admits. Mixing rock guitars with hip-hop drum patterns, the track is an obvious winner. “Nobody capture New American music like Ne-Yo and the Compound crew.”
Working with producer/songwriter Rodney Jerkins was also another treat for Chrisette Michele. “Anybody who thinks they can go into the studio with Rodney and not work is kidding themselves,” she laughs. “When we worked on ‘Playing Our Song,’ he pushed me to the limit. Rodney is a genius who also works hard. I just kept thinking how lucky I was to have him on my album.”
While angst and heartbreak is part of Chrisette Michele’s persona on her sophomore project, the power and strength of Epiphany will not disappoint.