[8 May 2009]
NEW YORK — Chrisette Michele laughs as she turns to her hit-making collaborator and confidant, Ne-Yo, who’s seated nearby at Electric Lady Studios in the West Village.
“Do I tell this story?” she asks.
“You might as well,” Ne-Yo replies.
“It’s a horrible story,” Michele explains, “but a good story because we all learn.”
For the Patchogue, N.Y., native, it’s a story that explains a lot about her — how she approached her Grammy-winning debut, “I Am”; how things changed for her new album, “Epiphany,” which hit stores Tuesday; how she ended up working with Ne-Yo; and how she turned down one of the biggest hits of the decade.
Her voice gets quiet as she starts: “The last album, I was like, ‘There is no way anybody is writing on my album. I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I’m a poet. I can recite “Crystal Staircase” and I’m from New York.’ I don’t know why that was a part of it, but it was.
“So I get this song that my A&R plays for me and it’s ‘Irreplaceable’ and I’m like, ‘Nah! It’s cool, but it’s not me. I’m a jazzhead,’” she continues, laughing. “So I turn it down. A couple months later, ‘To the left, to the left’ is every-stinking-where.
“Love that song now! Love it,” Michele says, as she thinks of what she could have done with the song Ne-Yo wrote and Beyonce turned into a smash. “And so, I learned something about myself. What I learned was that it takes a village to raise a child. No man is an island. I’m not here by myself. Somebody else besides me has a great idea. And that was part of my epiphany over these past six months — recognizing that there are amazing people all around me who don’t want anything more than to lend themselves to who I am, to give to me who they are and allow me to experience life through their eyes. And that’s what Ne-Yo was able to give to me, he was able to give me a beautiful perception of my own life.”
Not that Michele’s life was in a bad place. A performance major at Five Towns College, she made a big splash in 2006 by singing on Jay-Z’s “Lost One” and Nas’ “Can’t Forget About You,” memorable appearances that landed her a record deal with Def Jam Records and her own debut, “I Am.”
The album, which was filled with Jill Scott-ish neo-soul and jazz-tinged R&B, landed Michele a lot of admirers, including in-demand singer-songwriter Ne-Yo. “It doesn’t take a long time to find someone in this business who’s truly genuine because they stick out like a sore thumb,” he says. “There’s so much phony floating around in this business that when you come across real, you know right off the top and I knew that about her.”
What “I Am” didn’t have, though, was an all-out smash, something her new collaborations with Ne-Yo, Rodney Jerkins and Claude Kelly — not to mention her own songs — may soon change. The new duet with Ne-Yo, “What You Do,” already lined up as the next single from “Epiphany,” shows a bit of the shift, combining a contemporary groove with some Sarah Vaughan-influenced scatting. She adds some classic Patti LaBelle moves to the big, Mariah Carey-style ballad “Blame It on Me.” And “Fragile” blends some jazzy flourishes with reggae guitar and a hip-hop vibe.
“It’s different because it ventured into Urbansville, definitely bobbed my head really hard this time, and definitely got involved with the hip-hop element of who I am,” Michele says.
On this album, Michele seems set for something bigger, both artistically and commercially — a combination that starts with “Epiphany’s” title track, which is also the first single.
“‘Epiphany’ is a song about a girl who is fed up with this dude — I’m gonna say his name is Bill,” Michele says. “She’s fed up with Bill. Bill hasn’t come home — now, it’s going on two days. Bill isn’t answering the phone calls she’s giving him ... And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, she’s just sitting on the couch and she’s like, ‘You know what? I deserve better than this. I am better than this. I don’t have to be in this situation.’ In the video, you see me picking up all his things from my apartment, throwing them in a box and throwing them outside and saying, ‘I think I’m just about over being your girlfriend.’ Then you see me standing on a rooftop and the sun rising into a new day and you see me having this epiphany — a metaphorical epiphany and an actual one — metaphorical because the video goes from nighttime to daytime and an actual one because I’m realizing something. That girl realizes that she doesn’t have to be in a crummy relationship. She can get out and she has the power to do so.”
Michele attributes finding that inner power, as well as her eclectic nature, in part, to her Long Island roots.
“Growing up in Patchogue made me color blind — there’s so many different cultures,” she says. “My brother — Lem Payne, shout out to my brother! — is a skater. He skates at the Patchogue skating area. He’s a rapper, he goes to the studio on Main Street. He’s a dancer, he dances in Medford. He’s a surfer. He bikes. This is a culture that we’ve embraced where we’re able to do so many different kinds of things and it would be welcome.”
She’s also learned to find strength in others, not just herself. And working with Ne-Yo has helped her learn what she needs in collaborators. “We sat there and we talked — and Ne-Yo, he can talk — but what’s amazing about him is that he’s also a great listener,” Michele says. “So when you tell him something, it doesn’t go in one ear and out the other. You know he’s heard so many things. He’s been around working hard for years now. It wouldn’t be too hard for him to say, ‘Yeah, that’s great. Here’s a song.’ But it wasn’t like that at all. It was, ‘What’d you say? Oh, really? All right.’ Jot. Jot. Jot. Then all of a sudden come at you with this song and it’s straight from the bottom of your own heart through his eyes.
“It was a humbling experience because it made me know that I’m not the only person in my life,” she continues. “There’s someone who cares enough to give me more facets of who I am — like a diamond in the rough, and he’s chipping away and making it shinier and shinier as time goes.”
Chrisette Michele performs May 12 on “Late Show with David Letterman,” May 22 on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and May 23 on “The Early Show.”