Some albums are like homes: they arrive ready to be lived in – headphones like house keys, songs opening up like rooms – providing a soundtrack to the act of living. Fortunately for audiences, Michelle Chamuel’s debut album, Face The Fire, is move-in ready. Set for release in early 2015, the full-blown pop opus inverts pop conventions while refining them, thanks to hand-crafted production, precise songwriting and an exuberance that could jumpstart a stopped heart.
From the moment Chamuel made her television debut on season 4 of The Voice, the bespectacled singer from Massachusetts charmed audiences and pop stars alike with her soulful covers. While some may have leapt at the chance, Chamuel was initially wary of the realities (no pun intended) of submitting to a reality television show – though she soon found herself happily on team Usher and taking home 2nd place. “I went to the show looking for a teacher and it turned out Usher was looking for a student” says 28-year-old Chamuel. “I was craving the challenges and rewards of being part of a top musical community, and I found that on The Voice.”
By time she took The Voice stage in 2013, Chamuel had spent the better part of a decade fronting the seven-piece Michigan rock band, Ella Riot (formerly My Dear Disco). In the band, Chamuel cut her performer teeth touring around the country 200 days a year, releasing several albums, and learning to drive a tour bus that ran on waste vegetable oil. Eventually the fuel ran out, Ella Riot parted ways in 2012, and Chamuel returned to Massachusetts in search of home and solitude. From here, she began working on self-produced tracks under the moniker, The Reverb Junkie – “I wanted to create my own vision from start to finish,” says Chamuel. “The band was such a great collaborative experience, but when it was over, I realized I hadn’t ever tried making music on my own or developing what that sounded like.”
For Chamuel, the drive to create music began with a feeling. From a young age, Chamuel would find herself taken by the emotion conveyed in a piece, and spent hours attempting to replicate the sound that induced that feeling. “For me, singing is about resonating,” says Chamuel. “If I feel an emotion in a song, I want to resonate it in my entire self – by singing.” The effect is songs like beacons, broadcasting the emotional frequency Chamuel effortlessly transmits.
Considering all the emotion contained within it, Face the Fire came together at a breakneck pace. For three weeks this past winter, Chamuel and her collaborators, Tyler Duncan and Theo Katzman – college pals and My Dear Disco band members – holed up in Chamuel’s home, building the album from musical nuggets each had brought to the sessions. The trio alchemizes several genres from across the history of music – spanning from 80s pop (“Rock It”) and melodic house (“Weight of the World”) to VHS-infused reggae (“Money”).
The title track on the album is no exception – showcasing the convergence of Chamuel’s vision and her collaborators ingenuity. “Face the Fire” serves as a sort of pulsing mission statement, a vamping call to action that Chamuel relates to her own experience in harnessing musical passion. This track, which like the rest of the album was recorded and produced in Chamuel and Duncan’s home studios, features a tapestry of interlocking percussion, surf-punk bass tones, and a rousing call and answer between Chamuel and her choir. “The imagery I get when singing the song is that I’m in front of a big, camp-like fire. There are people all around, and I’m not sure if they’re ghosts or strangers, but they chime in while I sing. It’s almost a trance-like state – being pulled towards this fire. Everyone is being pulled towards it.”
Chamuel’s drive to create comes from her desire to provide a world for the listener to inhabit. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been searching for the place where I feel an unequivocal sense of belonging. Music is that for me, as I know it is for many others, and it’s my goal to bring music into the world that people can resonate with – where they feel at home.”
Michelle Chamuel will be touring the album this fall during the month-long Turn It Up Tour, which begins November 2014. Her forthcoming full-length album will be dropping on February 10th 2015 via The EndRecords / ADA, and the high-energy lead single is now available on iTunes.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Michelle Chamuel to discuss her musical roots, her journey in the music industry, the challenges of bringing her new album, ‘Face The Fire,’ to life, her upcoming tour and much more!
Music has been a huge part of your life. Going back to your early years, what are some of your first memories of music?
Oh, man! That is such a good question! My dad is super musical. He would whistle a lot and he loved classical music. I was really young when he taught me to whistle the main theme from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. I have this memory of him explaining it to me, trying to imitate it and being really happy when I got it! My mom also had a lot of records. She had Barbra Streisand, The Supremes and Michael Jackson, along with a bunch of music that reflected where my parents were from, some French, some Arabic and some Middle Eastern stuff. Those are some of my early musical memories.
In those earlier years, who were your biggest influences as an artist?
My first influences were definitely my parents. Watching my dad play music and my mom and dance around to it really got me into music. Neither of them do that professionally at the moment but their passion for it was inspiring. In middle school, I was listening to things like The Dixie Chicks, Christina Aguilera, and all this stuff that Max Martin was putting together. I don’t know how I found out, I guess the internet told me, but Max Martin was the guy writing a lot of the songs that were blowing up on top 40 radio. I was just obsessed with Max Martin and how he did what he did. He was definitely a huge inspiration. In addition to that I discovered Imogen Heap and Ella Fitzgerald, who opened me up to the idea that one could sing melodies like an instrument. Also, Imogen Heap was the first female producer I came across. That was hugely inspiring and I love her music too.
A career in the music industry isn’t for the faint of heart …
Oh, yeah! I would totally agree with you! [laughs]
What made you take the plunge and pursue a career in the music industry?
I didn’t really think about anything else. Music was all I was thinking about. I just couldn’t tear myself away from it. Even when I was in high school, I was spending four to six hours a day on music, whether it was learning to sing by teaching myself or I had this keyboard where I could take apart songs and figured out the different layers. It was an old school sequencer but it worked great for me! I just spent all my time doing that, so the idea of not being able to do music was not even an option. I just had to go learn, practice, and put it into action.
What kept you inspired through the years and where did you look to fuel your creative fire?
I guess I have never really thought about it like that. I guess I am one of those people who thinks people are vessels or channels for things. I don’t know if I can take responsibility for generating anything because I think things come through or come to people, whether we want them to or not. That passion and fire is within you. To delve a little further into your question, staying in touch with myself, taking care of myself and learning to listen when my gut says something feels right or wrong and following that voice helps me stay in touch with my creativity. Following that voice, making sure I can hear it, that I am healthy and doing the things I needed to do has allowed me to do this for a long time.
Many people discovered you through NBC’s “The Voice.” For those who may not be familiar with your musical past, tell us about your career leading up to that period of time.
I joined a band. We all met in college and it was called My Dear Disco. Later we changed the name to Ella Riot, right before the band went on indefinite hiatus. For all intents and purposes, it was My Dear Disco. Anyway, we were a seven-piece when we started out and it was this crazy learning process. We took it really seriously. We incorporated as an LLC and everyone had their role. We just put everything we had into it and that is where I really cut my teeth performance-wise and also industry-wise. I learned a lot about teamwork and what it takes. We did pretty well. I had a lot of fun and made friendships that will last a lifetime. They are like family to me. I am actually collaborating with two past band members on this current project, “Face The Fire.” Theo Katzman and Tyler Duncan are two of the co-producers on “Face The Fire,” and Robert Lester did a lot of the graphic design work that will be seen and also did the single cover. The band was a great collaborative experience. Right before going on “The Voice,” I really started getting into The Reverb Junkie, which is my producer’s alter-ego/moniker. I really wanted to write something completely on my own without checking in with six other people or two other people. That is what led up to that. What else can I tell you? We traveled the country and were on the road 200 days out of the year. We played Lollapalooza, Rombello, The Rock Boat, Summer Camp and played the Alaska State Fair. I am not sure if any of this is helpful but it is a big part of who I am.
It is interesting to hear that backstory and what led to this latest chapter in your career.
Totally! With “American Idol,” they are very much about the camera and behind-the-scenes and that wasn’t something I was comfortable with. With “The Voice,” they are more about having a mentor, learning, and being taught, so that made me more comfortable with the whole televised element. Even with all that, I was a bit reluctant at first, but I had a great support network of friends, family, and colleagues saying, “Michelle, that show is made for you. Just do it!” And after a while, I decided, “OK! I want to do this!”
Was it difficult to transition from being a part of a band to stepping into the spotlight as a solo artist?
Yeah. I think most of us in the band were ready to see what we as individuals needed and wanted, because we had been giving everything we had to the band for so long, so I was ready for that. The part I wasn’t ready for was learning how to remove the barriers I was used to setting up between me and the listener or the viewer, in this case. A lot of artists, SBTRKT, Burial and Daft Punk, that I admire so much, have this strategy where you focus on the music and not who they are as actual people. This is where I come from. So learning how to let people connect with me as a person was very new to me. This was a direct result of being on The Voice, where expert producers help show who you are to the world, emphasizing the person behind the music, which for me has been the most challenging parts.
What was the biggest lesson you took away from your time on “The Voice” and the people you worked with there?
There were a lot of new lessons as well as a lot of lessons that I had learned from before, as part of a band, that were reinforced. One of them being, no matter what you are doing, whether it seems super magical, as menial as playing to an empty bar, or performing on stage for millions of people on a broadcast – it’s all about human connection. There is a person behind the camera, a person that helps you on stage, and people playing the music with you. In the band, we would sometimes drive 500 miles and six people were there. Instead of being bummed out, we would encourage each other. I learned this from Bob, Theo, Tyler, and Mike – things like, “Let’s meet the bartender!” Or “Let’s talk to those six people!” It was more about connections than success or failure. That was really reinforced on The Voice ,because no matter what, I would get a smile, a hug, or whatever from the people I was with, and that made it all worthwhile. No matter what happened, if I got cut or did a bad job, it was OK because the connections were really strong and I still got something out of it that wasn’t contingent on winning or losing. That was huge!
Also, Usher has this concept that was very helpful, called “visualizing the win.” That means to see in your mind what you want and having it play out in your mind, so you can get comfortable with it and execute it because you can take into consideration those variables. Envisioning yourself succeeding is really important for actually succeeding.
You have been hard at work preparing your album, “Face The Fire.” What were your expectations or goals for this album?
The goal of ‘Face The Fire’ is to make a fun, well thought out, honest, well crafted pop album, because I have been studying pop since I was really little. The kind of music I wanted to make was this project as Michelle Chamuel is something a little more accessible and in the vein of the pop that I have been studying that anything I’ve released before.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in creating this album?
Hmm, biggest challenges? I think one is patience. You work on something and are so ready for it to come out. When we started this, Theo, Tyler, and I got together at my home in Amherst in February and wrote these songs in about two weeks, pretty soon after that, we wrapped up the production. So it’s been a while that these songs are ready for the public! Patience and pacing ourselves to get to the finish line has been a really big challenge and a good one as far as learning how to do it!
“Face The Fire” is the lead single as well as the title of the album. What does it mean to you?
Part of the process of making this album is sort of facing the fire I have. Fire for me is a passion to do something and to be something you believe and know you are but maybe people don’t recognize it yet. I think that is why it burns. It’s like, “This is who I am. I need to express this.” At the same time, these passions that people have can be really consuming. I think we all know someone who went super nuts or got super weird because they were trying so hard to achieve or accomplish something. So, there is a danger when facing a fire. It seemed like a really great metaphor for how I feel about all the things that are happening, that could happen or have happened in my life. I felt it would be a good representation of where the album was coming from, the strength it takes to be yourself, the rewards that come with it and the challenges that present themselves along the way. It is a certain type of honest celebration.
What can you tell us about your songwriting process for this album? Does what you are doing today differ from what you have done in the past?
I think every time I write a song, it is shaped by the experiences that comes before it. By this point I had come off “The Voice,” where I was singing a lot of other people’s songs and then I went to the complete other side where I said, “Cool. I need to release this album of only my stuff … ,” which was The Reverb Junkie side. Then I kind of came to more of a happy medium, not that any of these other things were unhappy, but I came to a type of place where I wanted to do this more collaboratively. It changes from song to song. Basically, Theo and Tyler wrote a bunch of nuggets before they came to Amherst and then I wrote a bunch of nuggets as well. Some of them would be a groove, an instrumental line, a chorus, a pre-chorus or different sections. Then we would flesh out the ones that spoke to us the most.
My main comfort zone in writing is when there is an instrumental track and then I get to write the song over it. I don’t know what it is, but I hear stories in these musical textures. When I hear it, I am like, “Cool! I want to write that!” It’s like I am bringing out the song from the music itself, rather than generating the melody, the chord progression and the textures all at the same time. On the track, “Face the Fire” Theo and Tyler had come up with instrumental parts and I was able to go into the other room with the track and come up with these clear ideas which they helped me flesh it out, refine, and add all of these beautiful parts to. We are all writing the lyrics together but I got really to hone in on this concept and work in the way I’m most used to.
You are in the process of preparing for the “Turn It Up Tour” in support of the album. What do you have in store for us?
The tour is going to be a lot of fun and fans can expect to have fun, I would hope! [laughs]. It is going to be a really musical experience too. We are figuring out how to adapt this album to play it live. I have an electric guitar that I have had since seventh grade and I have added some pedals to it, so that I can play some of the guitar parts off the album, along with some of the bass parts. Julian is going to be playing drum kit and also a drum pad, and Tyler has a crazy keys rig – which means everyone is using multiple instruments to cover these parts. That said, we want it to feel like a live experience and not like people behind technology. It is going to be super fun, super energetic and, I think, a unique and exciting interpretation of the album.
Also, we just put tickets for the Meet and Greet on sale! VIP packaging has always been an interesting conundrum from me of like, “Cool. If you pay money, you can hang out.” I wanted to do a little more with it – I just wanted a game or joint experience where everyone could hang out and get to know each other. It isn’t about, “Oh, it’s 50 bucks for a picture.” It’s about a whole experience, making friends, and being part of something. So, I’m really excited about the Meet and Greet! I put this plan into actions and I think this meet and greet is going to be really special.
Looking back on your time in the music industry and as an artist, what was your biggest evolution?
Wow! That is a good one. I feel this is a two part answer. Part one is learning to allow people to access me, in some ways, while making this music rather than it just stopping with the music. I used to wear dark shades and people weren’t able to tell who I was or what I was like. I didn’t really talk to a lot of people in a business sense. I talk to people all the time as friends. I think I am still learning and evolving into someone who is more comfortable with allowing people to know a little more about me, while also making music and infusing more of myself that people can recognize in the music. I think it is a constant learning process.
The second part is getting more comfortable running the production side of things. I feel it is so gendered. I don’t know a lot of female producers. I know the Max Martins and the Timbalands but there aren’t too many women you can point to who are producing for others in this capacity. We have Linda Perry who has done a lot of stuff but as far as people naming one female who produced a ton of stuff, like Max Martin, who I mentioned earlier, you don’t see it as much. For me, it has been a process to really own, “OK. I am going to make sound and take up my own space. If I want the kick drum to sound like this, it is OK. It’s not less good because my ears are different because I am a woman.” I know that sounds absurd to talk about in that capacity but I think these things are in my subconscious. Learning to take up the sonic space and establish my own sound has been part of the process for me and a huge goal. I feel so fortunate that, on this album, my collaborators have helped support that and bring that out, while also imparting their sound too. I feel so great taking the next step toward making my own type of sound.
You serve as a great example of someone who continues to work toward making their dreams a reality. What is the best advice you can pass along to aspiring artists?
It’s very important to learn how to listen to yourself. There are a lot of knowledgeable and sometimes unknowledgeable people that will have advice and input. If you learn to hear your own thoughts, it’s much easier to happily navigate the sea of opinions and shine. Follow what brings you positive energy and joy, even at times when others are afraid it won’t succeed. If it doesn’t make you feel good, you won’t be able to do it for a long time, and music is a long game.
Thank you so much for your time today, Michelle. I can’t wait to catch you on tour and I wish you nothing but continued success!
Thank you, Jason! You’re the man! You are the best! Talk to you soon!
Catch Michelle Chamuel live during her ‘Turn It Up’ tour this Fall. For updated tour dates or to purchase tickets, please visit www.michellechamuel.com.