Meet MICHELLE, the band whose names you’re about to remember thanks to their latest single, “FYO” — fuck your opinions — which reveals the wrestling intricacies of what it was like for the band’s four female lead singers to grow up mixed race. Named by NME as one of 2021’s essential emerging artists, Sofia D’Angelo, Julian Kaufman, Charlie Kilgore, Layla Ku, Emma Lee, and Jamee Lockard are unafraid to write, sing, and share about their unique experiences. The creative six-piece fuses together R&B synths with today’s pop sounds to create eclectic song stories told in their own right, inspired by their lives growing up in NYC and their perspectives of being Black, Asian, and queer. Through charming melodies and the fearlessness and grit of a vintage sound, “FYO” proves MICHELLE are the memorable kind of inventive genius that music needs today.
“[The song] is about belonging to different worlds but feeling rejected by both,” explains Lockard of the song in a press statement. “Growing up as a mixed-race minority in the US, my self-concept was warped by other people telling me what I am and am not, pushing and pulling me between identities. We should never give others the authority to define who we are.”
MICHELLE spoke with EUPHORIA. about their journeys to each other through music, who and what inspires them to create, and what it was like to write a song and video as powerful and empowering as “FYO.”
How did you first get into music?
Julian: I had a toy electronic drum pad, and a family friend gave me a low-end Casio. I just had a lot of fun on those, until third grade, when at my school I could choose to play an instrument and I chose drums.
Layla: I’ve always been into music. Who doesn’t like music?
Jamee: I’ve always loved singing! I sang in a choir from ages 12 to 18, and that’s where I learned pretty much everything I know about vocal technique. I learned how to play guitar and bass in high school, and I was in a band with Charlie our freshman year of college. Although I’ve always been musically inclined, I never thought I’d pursue music professionally.
Emma: My first connection was through dance. I only started to find solace in singing when I was in small groups with friends in high school and learning instruments on my own. I didn’t see it being the path I’d pursue, but knew it would be there in some form someway.
You’ve been described as “six like-minded individuals who came together in an unlikely way.” What was that “unlikely way”?
Julian: In a certain way, we were bound to MICHELLE being what dictated our lives before we ever agreed to MICHELLE being a thing we wanted to take seriously.
Jamee: We recorded HEATWAVE in the summer of 2018. At the time, we thought of HEATWAVE as a fun summer project, and we didn’t have any intentions to form a band. But, after playing our first show, we really clicked as a group and our commitment to MICHELLE gradually grew.
“FYO” is a stunning single. Why was it important for you to address your journeys growing up as mixed race in your music and on this song?
Jamee: The sentiment of cultural dissonance that’s expressed in the lyrics of “FYO” is something I’ve felt my whole life. Throughout my childhood, my mother talked to me about her identity as a Korean immigrant and her conceptions of community, so I’ve always known that this feeling is shared by other multicultural individuals as well. “FYO” was written at a point in my life when I was finally able to articulate my thoughts and feelings about being a mixed-race minority in the US. Writing “FYO” was a vulnerable yet cathartic experience for me.
Emma: It’s an important story or sentiment to share through this particular medium, and it’s one that connects to Jamee and I very intensely, but it also involves the other vocalists and the greater experiences of who I imagine are our listeners so we felt it important to bring to this project.
What was the songwriting process like for “FYO”?
Jamee: On a sweaty summer day in 2019, we gathered at Charlie’s apartment and wrote the seed of the song that became “FYO.” Charlie and Julian looped the chords on piano and guitar while we brainstormed different melodies. Emma and I wrote bits and pieces about our experiences as mixed-race Korean Americans, and these stories were crafted into the lyrics of “FYO.” The writing process for this song was simultaneously personal and collaborative; we would spend a few minutes writing sections of the song individually, and then we’d collectively revise and combine what was written. And that’s how we wrote the call and response between Emma and me and in the chorus!
You all write together and then perform songs together. How do you switch gears between the two?
Layla: They both have their own pros and cons. Writing is rewarding and draining, emotionally. Performing is exhilarating and draining physically.
Sofia: I love both. Writing with these people is a really special experience because everyone in this group is truly top tier. But performing… Oh man, I have been aching to connect with people on that level again.
Julian: I think the studio is my favorite space. You can really get into details of creating a very specific sound that will last forever.
The “FYO” music video gives off this really cool, aesthetic vibe, but at the same time, an intimate, personal feeling. From the hands on your faces to the up-close shots, it almost ties into how personal it is to step out on a stage and sing about your identities. Is that the visual message you wanted to get across?
Layla: Emma and I directed it, so there’s no stone unturned as far as allegory goes. Performance is a part of the everyday for us as artists, as well as a part of the everyday for people of color in America. The video touches on assimilation, the white gaze, and the search for belonging.
Emma: We wanted to create something warm or easy to look at, but also something that depicted an uneasiness and frustration that I think the lyrical content holds. Hopefully, that comes across.
What was it like self-directing the video?
Layla: Hard, but empowering.
Sofia: Working with Layla and Emma was one of the best music video experiences I’ve ever had. They had a clear vision for the video but gave everyone on set the support and space to take risks within that vision. The set had the best vibes, which can be hard to cultivate on set.
Between “UNBOUND” and “FYO” and even “SUNRISE,” there are so many different sounds and genre-feelings your music gives off. Who are some artists that have inspired MICHELLE’s sound that we might hear in your music?
Layla: I love Jon Bap, Kylie Minogue, Mississippi John Hurt.
Jamee: Stevie Wonder, SZA, Amy Winehouse, Frank Ocean, and Orion Sun.
Have you grown as artists and creatives since you put out HEATWAVE in 2018? What about you, your creative process, or music has changed?
Sofia: I’ve definitely learned a lot more about the time and patience that goes into making a “great” song rather than a “good” song. I’ve also learned everything I know about “great” versus “good” from the people in this group. Musically, I think we’ve grown as a group by being open to taking risks and exploring outside the themes – lyrically and musically – of HEATWAVE.
Layla: Obviously, we’ve grown in age, we’ve grown in ability, we’ve grown in wisdom, at this young age, with time comes growth.
What about New York inspires you the most?
Layla: Despite the ugly developments nurtured by the fat dollars of the midwestern gentrifier, the real New York is alive and well. She is resilient.
Emma: Its resilience, all of its air, all of my friends. No place like it.
You meet a stranger for the first time, and you’re telling them about your band. What’s the first track you tell them to listen to and why?
Julian: “STUCK ON U,” I think. I had no hand in writing the chords of that, and only very little to do with the vocals, it’s the song I wish I wrote.
What do you hope fans and new listeners will take away from your music about MICHELLE and your band’s story?
Sofia: We love what we do, we love each other, and if the music impacts you positively in any way, large or small, then that’s a plus.