Michelle Chamuel is a pop singer who can still rock a button-up. Photo by Andrew Taylor.
As a fan of competitive reality television shows, The Voice offers a compelling premise: a singing competition based solely on one’s voice. That’s a novelty among the slew of reality game shows where contestants are disproportionately judged by their physical features, including their gender, race, and overall attractiveness. On each season, contestants go through an auditions where celebrity judges listen to the next potential “voice” with their backs turned to the singers, soaking in each note without being distracted by their physicality. But after that, impartiality quickly fades away. As the competition progresses, personalities and narratives emerge and the phone lines open up to a popularity contest.
With her big glasses and unique tomboy style, Michelle Chamuel is not someone who would typically turn up on a reality show. Before the fourth season of The Voice, she told the production team during her audition, “I think I represent nerdy people.” But her fierce rendition of “I Kissed a Girl” won over The Voice judges, sight unseen, during the fourth season of The Voice. She landed a spot on the show with Usher as her mentor and wound up doing very well: She was the runner-up that season. Recently, I rewatched her energetic performance of Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” and was so moved that when the toll-free number popped onscreen to vote for her, I almost reached for my phone to vote again—years later.
After that running jump into the industry, this year Chamuel released her debut album, Face the Fire. Chamuel had previously released music under the moniker The Reverb Junkie where her sound was more experimental. But Face the Fire is exactly the electro pop record her Voice fans would expect: It’s fun, catchy pop layered with her distinctive voice and beats reminiscent of The Postal Service’s first records and a little of Lily Allen playfulness.
Why are you interested in making pop music specifically?
I’ve been listening to pop music since I was really little. I had this little radio that I would take into the shower and listen to all of these songs that everybody else loved too. I understood that other people also felt something when they heard these songs. Those songs kept me company and I loved them.
Pop music combines all of the fringe music too. For example, parts of fringe bluegrass might make it onto a pop song and become more mainstream and accessible. It’s a big melting pot of sound.
Pop isn’t just washed-up, hashed-up sound over and over again. For the most part, the people making pop music are really thinking about it. Pop is one of the most difficult kind of music to write because there is so much craft in it. There’s so much care, for me, for your audience. You’re writing for your audience in mind.
The popular understanding of pop music is that there are these music factories that churn these songs out. But there are artists behind the scenes who write some of these incredible songs that become very popular.
Sure. I think that for some of these people who would considered to be “churning songs out,” had to have studied and cared about the craft of making music. Behind most number-one hits, somewhere in there, there’s passion. Even if it’s just that chord progression. It’s made for the listener.
You have a solid background as a musician, having performed in your own bands before being on The Voice. How did the process of being on The Voice influence your art as a musician?
I think the biggest thing is that I don’t know if I would have ever made a pop album. They gave me access to an audience. And now that I “met” them, the audience, and I really like them. I realized that I want to write pop music for them. Without the show, I don’t know if I would have gone down that path. Even though I had been co-writing pop music for other people, but not for myself to sing or perform.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, you talked about how it was really important for you to stay independent. This is interesting, especially in the industry and pop music segment where artists strive to be on a major label. What does it mean for your art to stay independent?
Staying independent means that I’m involved in almost every aspect of getting my music out there. I’m doing a lot of the graphic design. I’m collaborating with the marketing concepts. I can say no to things, and yes to things. If I was on a really fast-track with a major label, there’s no time to think about things. In my case, I can think about it and have more time to learn and get better at things that I personally want to get better at. On tour, I had time to practice guitar and bass and feel more confident in my own skills. If you’re go-go-go, you don’t have time to smell the flowers. If you want, you can smell other flowers, but I want different flowers.
It sounds like, as an independent artist, it’s more about being able to cultivate your art rather than just promoting it.
Yes, that makes so much sense. It’s not a hard and fast rule. That’s how I feel about it for me.
What was your songwriting process like for Face The Fire?
Before going on The Voice, I’d finished most of the songs on the first Reverb Junkie album. That stuff is a little more weird, not weird-weird. But like we were talking about earlier about the difference of how pop music is being written more for your listener in mind. And with indie-type music, the mindset might be more like “I’m expressing this, and I’m writing this for me because I have to make this.” The Reverb Junkie was more in that vain where I was experimenting with a lot of things. I put that out right after being on The Voice. I had to let people know it was different, that this was a more experimental side. People seemed to really dig it, a couple people said, “What is this? We don’t like it. You were much better on the show.”
Then I was able to focus and work on a “Michelle Chamuel” album. The songwriting is different for that because it’s not that indie, experimental side of me. It’s pop, it has a system, it has more serious rules. It has a very established history that I’m drawing from. The collaborators that I chose to work on that album with me, I know that they respect pop music the same way I do. The three of us, Tyler Duncan and Theo Katzman, got together for about two weeks to write the songs. We developed pieces of songs that we all brought to the table and had passion for. The rules and guidelines for pop were all in our heads while we were making the music.
When there are so many people in the process of making pop music, does it take away from the artistry of it?
The process is really special to me because the writer, producer, and engineer were just the three of us. It’s a really tight ship. We didn’t do it the traditional way with many more people involved.
If I were to introduce a new listener to your music, what are some tracks that you think will make a new listener get into your music?
One of the tracks that I think encompass a lot of things at once that I’m trying to communicate would be “Golden.”
I don’t know… It’s a feeling I get when I listen to it. It’s a feeling from when I sing it, how it came together, how it fits in on the album. Another track further on the pop spectrum is “Give You.” The message and feeling of that is very warm.
One of the interesting things about “Give You,” is that felt like you were talking to the listener. Going back to your Voice experience, I had read that you tried to stave off as much of a makeover as possible. In a way “Give You,” reaffirms that in saying: “This is who I am, this is the artist who I am, and I won’t pretend to be anything else to get your support.” Is that the feeling of the song? Or are you the type of artist who lets the listener interpret the song?
I definitely make the music so that people can put themselves into it and interpret it however they want. But if people were to ask me what I was referring to when I wrote it, that would be a different story. The idea I have when I sing it is about saying, “If you support me, and I’m not myself, then you’re not actually supporting me.” If somebody loves you because you’re not you, it’s not worth it. This song is not about The Voice, but you could apply it to the show.
In the Rolling Stone interview, you also said, “I don’t prefer to be known as a female singer, or a queer singer, I just want to be a singer and musician.” What’s the role of your personal identity and how it plays in your presentation of your music?
That interview was done during my Reverb Junkie time. So it’s very much in line with the idea that the listener doesn’t really need to know who’s singing, it’s about the listener and they should put themselves into it. If they dig it, then they dig it. There’s something about holding the music close, and there’s something about trying to get a piece of the person. I’m more comfortable with a fan listening to my music for the music.
The difference is in being an entertainer and a singer-songwriter, is that you-yourself is the entertainment.
Rather than your art being the entertainment?
Exactly. That’s more of what I’m trying to communicate. I’m not trying to infuse the music with my personal details or politics. Those things are important, but I’m not trying to address it in an overt fashion. That’s not where I get my enjoyment. That’s why I really do appreciate people that speak out in that way, it’s equally important. I just fall on the other side.
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Amy Lam is Bitch Media’s associate editor.