Record of the Week: MICHELLE’s ‘After Dinner We Talk Dreams’

Listen to the audio interview with Emma Lee, Charlie Kilgore and Julian Kaufman of MICHELLE

The band as a site of bonding is a romantic idea, and one that, as Ann Powers reminded us recently in her incisive essay on Get Back — the epic documentary of the late-career Beatles at work and play in the studio — has long been considered the domain of straight, white men. In the popular imagination, they’ve been the buddies lionized for finding and flexing their musical muscle side by side. But that’s always been a woefully narrow perception. The new album by MICHELLE, After Dinner We Talk Dreams, reflects an entirely different, and thoroughly contemporary, experience of band-dom. Theirs is an egalitarian inner circle where highlighting individuality coexists with the pop urge to connect broadly, and friendships form across a spectrum of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and musical specialty.

MICHELLE is made up of six, young New Yorkers who each have different ways of contributing creatively. It was player-producers Julian Kaufman and Charlie Kilgore who initiated the collaboration in 2018, reaching out to vocalists in their respective orbits to work on an album. As soon as Sofia D’Angelo, Layla Ku, Emma Lee and Jamee Lockard stepped into the process, they helped define the sound and sensibilities of what would officially become a new collective. Since then, they’ve spent a great deal more time in each other’s presence, many more hours bringing vulnerability to the sharing and appraising of ideas.

On their second full-length, it’s clearer that they value both performing prowess, vocal and instrumental, and the personal and particular nature of confession. (The three members who spoke with WNXP, Lee, Kaufman and Kilgore, were careful not to speak for the writerly intentions of any of their absent band mates when describing the origins of songs.) They’ve built their solidarity on the pleasures of well-constructed, feel-good grooves, some of which Kilgore and Kaufman made with hand-played instruments and others using drum machines and synths.  

“In everything we do,” Kaufman noted, “we try to make it feel homemade, but at the same time palatable for anybody. So, you know, we don’t want to make it feel like it was made in the bedroom, but we want to make it seem like real people made that.”

The members of MICHELLE do share one thing in common with contemporaries whose music gets categorized as “bedroom pop”: their vocal performances often convey casual intimacy. But they’re also devotees of the rhythmic precision of ‘90s pop-R&B vocal groups, and the polished studio innovation of those who filled their city’s dance floors during long-gone eras. When he talked reference points, Kaufman made a point to name groundbreaking DJs like Junior Vasquez, Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan, all of whom are among MICHELLE’s wide-ranging BIPOC and queer predecessors.

Their new tracks capture revelatory, solitary moments in the club (what Lee was going for with “Pose”), as well as the melancholy of leaving behind the familiar (the slow jam-ish “Mess U Made”). “My Friends,” a breezy ode to letting others get close enough to be instrumental in your growth, is the source of the album’s title. You could almost hear it as an expression of group ethic: “You made me well-rounded/cuz you shaped me/So captured by ya lately/ No one else could create me.”

Listen to Lee try to recall the many different versions of “Pose” she helped shape, on the way to the final version, and you’ll also hear Kilgore chiming in:

Here’s what Kilgore had to say about going for a very special feel, with a very specific New York dance club lineage, in “Expiration Date”:

This is Lee describing how “Mess U Made” took shape when group members gathered around an idea and fleshed it out with their own flourishes:

Hear Kaufman reflect on how he brings his own varied percussive training to the multi-faceted rhythmic foundation of the group, including during the track “Syncopate”:

On the Record: A Q&A with Emma Lee, Charlie Kilgore and Julian Kaufman of MICHELLE

Jewly Hight: At this point, MICHELLE is known as a group of friends who make music together, but I would really like to unpack how you got that reputation. So what made the collective click, and how would you say you fleshed out your identity together?

Charlie Kilgore: The roles of each person in the group have gotten more and more blurred as time has gone on, and I think that’s a really great thing. MICHELLE is a really incredible thing, because all of us are such strong individuals and have such specific unique identities on our own. And I don’t know that there is one thing that is MICHELLE. I think the beauty of MICHELLE is that it’s kind of this little six-person chameleon that can be whatever it wants to be at any given moment.

Emma Lee: From the start, I think you started to get a sense of who everybody was and what they could bring, or what they wanted to bring to the group. And then as it’s gone on, production wise, Julian and Charlie can play to that before you even come into the room or, you know, a vocalist comes in and says, like, “I want to try something totally different.” And I think it also extends beyond the music.

We spent a lot of time this summer thinking very intentionally about the music we’re about to put out and the roll out. And it sounds small, but what you wear to shows, like things like that, just trying to make sure that people who watch us see six separate people that are working together as opposed to just one thing.

JH: You use such a mixture of electronic instruments, synths, drum machines and then also hand-played instruments, guitars and drum kit, in ways that tend to give different tracks both rhythmic precision and also buoyant energy. And that often translates into rhythmic vocal patterns, too. What role would you say that rhythm plays in your music?

Julian Kaufman: I was brought up as a drummer, and I first started doing classical snare drum, and then I shifted to Afro-Cuban beats on a drum kit for a couple of years. And then I did three years faking it, doing jazz, and then I did three years doing rock. And so I think at all times, I’ve got four different kind of rhythmic modes in my head and whenever I’m trying to do some sort of drum track or anything rhythm I try to like, incorporate all four.

CK: One thing that we’ve always really emphasized, especially in songwriting and when it comes time to record the vocals, is that just as much as all of the drums and the bass are rhythmic elements, the vocals are also a rhythmic element. And in order for the song to really groove and drive and be really funky, the vocal has to be just as much of a rhythmic driver as the drums. And it has to be kind of pushing and pulling and having the same sort of unexpected stops and starts.

EL: I didn’t come to music as a drummer, but I came to music as a dancer, and I think the relationship between, obviously, movement and rhythm is a huge one. And I think that’s influenced, personally, how I write music or how I see and feel the music that we make. And so you can feel in the room when something changes and you can feel it in your body, and that’s a huge relationship between the writing and the rhythm. You had to just 13 feet, but now you’re dancing

JH: There are essentially four co-lead singers in the group, who also harmonize and all have subtly different characters to your voices, but seem to blend very easily. How does that vocal dynamic work? How do you work up your arrangements?

EL: I think every vocalist has a very different voice and a very different comfort zone and also range. You know, like, this person can hit all these high notes and this person can do this really well. So once you have those kind of cheat codes in terms of where people fit in arranging songs, it’s easier to go into that. I think Charlie can harmonize anything.

CK: When we’re recording, I write a fair amount of the harmonies and vocal arrangements for MICHELLE. I mean, it’s just a sound that I’ve always loved. I love vocal groups like SWV and TLC, and then also things like the Beach Boys. I mean, just listening to all this great vocal music has been really inspiring, because also I’m not an astounding singer. I had all these ideas about vocal harmony that I wanted to do in my head, and I just could not pull any of them off. And so being a part of this group of incredible vocalists is kind of the fulfillment of a very long dream for me.

JH: You were further along in your journey as MICHELLE by the time you made After Dinner We Talk Dreams. So what difference did that make?

EL: It’s a lot of work. You know, we try to keep the sort of freshness and the fun and the spontaneity of sessions and things, but there’s just a lot more that goes into it now. You know, stakes are a little bit higher, or the investment is definitely there in a way it wasn’t necessarily before. So it just requires a lot more out of everybody. So that’s a change. You know, we have sessions that are incredibly difficult or incredibly emotional, because now all of a sudden these people have become like a family and you can have those conversations, and that openness or transparency that maybe you couldn’t have before. So I do think it makes it more difficult, but also more rewarding.