The group joins Document to unpack their process, origin story, and the inspiration behind their latest singles
MICHELLE feels like an amalgamation of a few of my favorite artists—the sensual syncopation of a Little Dragon or a Hiatus Kaiyote, paired with thoughtful and cozy melodies in the realm of an Arlo Parks or Clairo. On the day of our Zoom interview, members of the six-piece band drop in one by one, each bringing their own morning to the screen. Singer Sofia D’Angelo joins as audio-only, and asks if we want to see something terrifying. She then turns her camera on to reveal a white sheet mask covering her face. It’s unclear whether we’re interrupting her skincare routine, or she just knows how to lighten the mood. Others are more subdued; it’s a Monday and it’s early, and we wallow in small talk until Julian Kaufman gets on, surrounded by instruments. He’s going to tease new MICHELLE music for us. He gets on the keys to his right and starts half-heartedly playing the melody to “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” calling it “Lamb of God”—a product of a recent writing session with Charlie Kilgore, who arrives on-screen to big smiles. Sofia shuts down the idea, saying it sounds too vintage and sends her to a time she really doesn’t want to remember.
It’s enough to leave me curious, though. To understand the group’s dynamic today, I want to go back in time, to hear about the group’s earliest memories of being in bands together. I ask how these experiences informed the way they collaborate as a group now. As we talk, I start getting a feel for the dynamic of this hodgepodge of twentysomethings, born and raised in New York. As a unit, they’re close and curious. They build on each other’s thoughts and ask follow-up questions. There are moments when I merely just let them flow, and they do the things that close friends or families do—sometimes saying things less for substance and more to get a rise out of someone else in the group. Towards the end of the interview, Julian somehow slips into an allegory, trying to justify cheating in Cards Against Humanity before suggesting that he’s only bringing it up to get a reaction out of bandmate Layla Ku.
When it comes to the music, they are thoughtful about what they’ve done and where they’re going. They describe their early releases, like their debut 2018 mixtape, Heatwave, calling it “raw”—their first chance to develop a group identity in song before more meticulously honing their sound with their debut album, After Dinner We Talk Dreams. Now they’re moving into a space that every artist or band hopes to be in, where each release is less about proving who you are, and more about pushing your sound forward—a progression evident in their newest single “PULSE,” out last week. The track sees the group leaning more towards dance music sensibilities than ever before. But let’s get back to the early days.
Jeremy Steinberger: What are some of your earliest memories, playing music in a group as kids?
Sofia D’Angelo: When I was in elementary school, I was in a girl group called the Sapphire Streaks. We released one song called ‘Your Secret’s Safe With Me.’ Everyone had a little eight-bar verse. And I remember there was some drama because one person was like, ‘I’m going to have the rap verse,’ and everyone was like, ‘Okay, you can do the rap verse.’ And then this other girl recorded her verse, and it sounded a lot like rapping. My friend who was originally going to do the rap verse was very upset.
But we went to studios that were kind of insane, and when I got the final recording back, it sounded nothing like the original demo that we had recorded at my friend’s house. It honestly was a real-life career experience for me.
Kind of like Charlie, I was in a band in high school—this was how I met Julian and Charlie in the first place. I was in a rock band called the Sectionals, which was my way of fulfilling my dream of becoming Jack White in The White Stripes.
Layla Ku: I was in a Destiny’s Child cover band in kindergarten. We were going strong for several recess performances and we broke up, unfortunately, after a couple of months, due to artistic differences.
Charlie Kilgore: Which one were you?
Layla: Guess. There is a right answer, and you should know it.
Sofia: Regarding artistic differences, though, that’s really how it was when I formed a girl group in elementary school—because that’s what happened to The Streaks.
Layla: Kindergarten is a ruthless, savage time in your life.
Charlie: I’m going to hazard a guess that you were Kelly Rowland.
Layla: We are no longer friends. I was Beyoncé.
Jeremy: How did the dynamics of these early band experiences inform what you’re doing now as MICHELLE?
Sofia: As I’ve gotten older, my biggest challenge is unlearning a lot of the creative process. The way I would write songs in high school was to just kind of run with wherever it was going. And now the stakes are a little bit higher, as you know—I have to show up, and we have to show up for each other creatively. We have to show up for the band, and that’s a standard that’s always changing. But sometimes, that freedom of just throwing good and bad out the window, the way you did when you were just a 14-year-old kid with a guitar trying to be, like, your idol. That’s the thing you’re trying to access now.
Emma Lee: There’s obviously a lot more pressure now. We’re in a very privileged position to have people who really want to listen to the stuff that we make. Once you actually have people listening to that, people tying what you’re creating to who you are, it’s like, I should be very intentional with everything I do. And that’s something that’s a little bit tricky, but it’s also liberating, because you grow up and learn exactly what you want to do. I’m still looking. I’m still discovering that, and I think everyone in this group is, too.
Jeremy: How do you balance this ever-changing standard for your sound as a group, with your individual desire for self-expression? It has me thinking about perfection—how the artist’s quest for perfection might change in the context of a group. How do you set reasonable expectations for your sound, and balance that with your individual goals and ideals?
Julian Kaufman: I think perfection is just when something is the best it can possibly be. And I think learning that is something that’s really helped me understand when something is done. I think where a lot of time-consuming, soul-crushing work can come is when you start to believe that everything has to be squared away and sharpened down to the millimeter.
Sometimes I think of it like this: If you have a fig tree, no matter how much you water it, it’s never going to grow as tall as a sequoia. There are some seeds that, no matter how much you work on them, they’re just not going to be huge.
Charlie: I totally agree with that. Not that things are predetermined. But sometimes writing a song or doing production feels a little bit less like building a sculpture and more like archeology, in the sense that you’re excavating this thing in some art dimension that already exists, and you’re just kind of uncovering it, and you want to make it the best that it can be.
Jeremy: With a group, though, how do you guys balance your ideas of what perfection is, with what that might mean for the group?
Charlie: I think we all try our best to be reasonable with each other, and understanding when something is a good idea, and knowing when something is a little more self-indulgent. I think it’s about working as a group to understand which idea moves us forward.
Sofia: Following the self-indulgent idea, you end up with a song and you’re like, Why doesn’t this feel the way that it should? And that’s just part of the learning experience. But I think we all approach the song with an open mind to whatever it might become. The creative process is very much concentric circles, not a direct line. So having respect for the fact that the song is an entity in and of itself—it’s kind of like its own little baby that’s going to grow on its own terms.
Julian: But not being the parent that’s like, ‘I always wished I could ice skate. So you’re going to ice skate.’ You know?
Charlie: You don’t want to be a stage parent.
Sofia: Yeah. I think the MICHELLE process of writing songs is trying not to be a momager to the song baby.
Jeremy: Lastly, talk to me about one of your recent singles, ‘PULSE’?
Emma: When we came into the session, we had just come out of a string of some very heavy, sad songs. There was a shared want to play on this track. I kept writing down ‘I want you.’ Something cheeky and clear, a departure from a lot of wandering and unsureness. When the boys came up with the house keys, it was over. The track started to fuel itself and really lift. I remember us listening back at the end, and none of us could stop moving.
Sofia: After spending a summer out dancing, it feels good to be a part of a song that reflects the energy I was always feeling or seeking on different dance floors. Now we get to take that to our listeners, and hopefully our shows in the future.