She has recorded with hip-hop stars Jay-Z, Nas and the Roots, performed three times on David Letterman’s show and earned a gold record for her debut album. But rising R&B star Chrisette Michele’s biggest honor came two weeks ago. She received her college degree.
“I went to the graduation ceremony, embarrassed in that big ugly black cape that I took off as soon as we finished, but I wore the hat around all day,” said the New York singer/songwriter.
After she signed a recording contract with Def Jam two years ago, she got sidetracked from her studies at Five Towns College on New York’s Long Island. But she recently went back to finish the final 20 credits. “I still had to take science and math - all the classes that you need for your degree that you didn’t feel like doing in the beginning,” she explained last week by phone while running errands.
Her degree is in vocal jazz performance. One of her projects was writing and directing a music video of “Love Is You,” the current single from her debut disc, “I Am.”
Michele, 25, is both old-school and old-fashioned. Vocally, she sounds like a blend of classics (Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday) and neo-soul sisters (Erykah Badu, Corinne Bailey Rae, Amy Winehouse). A proud Christian, she sings about abstinence in “If I Had My Way.”
“Abstinence is about so many things beside just not having sex,” she said. “It’s also about just making tough decisions and it’s about discipline. For me, I wanted to write a song that wasn’t written yet.”
The daughter of a high-school English teacher and a gospel-choir director (her mother is now her executive assistant), Chrisette Michele Payne grew up singing in church. She didn’t get turned on to jazz until a high school teacher handed her Astrud Gilberto’s “Girl From Ipanema” album. She has devoured the genre ever since.
Her break came in 2005 when India.Arie saw her open-mike gig at a New York club and invited her to open shows. The following year she was recording on tracks by Jay-Z and Nas (who grew up in the same housing project as Michele’s mother). Working with those hip-hop stars gave her confidence, she said, even though Jay-Z made her come up with four different vocal hooks for his 2006 “Lost One” single on his Grammy-winning “Kingdom Come” album.
“On the fourth time, he said he liked it,” she recalled.
The newcomer decided to drop her surname - “because it’s Payne!” she exclaimed. “It’s not a cute stage name. No one wants to hear `Payne is coming to the stage.’ My brother, on the other hand, who raps, thinks that’s a wonderful name. I’ve been writing my name Chrisette Michele since I was a little kid.”
She describes herself as ladylike, girly, smart, pink, sparkly, vibrant, funky, happy, showoff-y and humble. She acknowledges that she suffers from attention-deficit disorder. But her music is mellow and soothing, “a mixture of jazz, hip-hop, pop, R&B, adult contemporary - it’s just whatever I feel at a certain time when I’m in the studio. I never try to sound like anything in particular. I just kind of enjoy myself and see what happens. I really grew up with gospel and jazz more than anything. Jazz is my forte. But I definitely mix in things I heard along the way.”
In the 11 months since “I Am” was released, Michele has learned “that slow and steady wins the race.” This month, her album reached prestigious gold status, signifying sales of 500,000 copies. “That took time and effort - and patience,” she said.
Michele also is branching out on other projects. She can be heard on the Roots’ new single, “Rising Up.” She was asked to write songs for new albums by Michael Jackson and Jennifer Hudson, though she hasn’t heard if her tunes made the cut.
She appeared as herself in a February episode of CW’s “Girlfriends” (“That was definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever done”), and she’s featured in a new TV commercial for Nivea lotion.
“Exposure or creativity, you can look at it two different ways,” she said of the commercial that showcases her song “Love Is You.” “I’m excited to be helping in a creative process of whatever it is that somebody’s putting out into the world. I was excited that my creativity got to be heard by people.”
Sounds as if besides those jazz-vocal classes, Michele maybe took a college marketing class, too.