Maybe you’re one of the millions of people who fell in love with Michelle Chamuel on The Voice. Those glasses! Those blazers and cardigans and leather jackets! Her, well, voice! After flawlessly and powerfully performing Pink, Taylor Swift, Cyndi Lauper, U2, and Annie Lenox, Michelle became the reality singing competition’s fourth season runner-up. Or maybe you know Michelle Chamuel as Mary Lambert‘s girlfriend, and the person who co-wrote the new song, “Hang Out With You,” that every queer woman you know is playing on repeat this summer. Maybe you know Michelle Chamuel from her time in the band Ella Riot, or from her creative production work as The Reverb Junkie.
Or maybe you don’t know Michelle Chamuel at all. That’s what this interview is about, really: How it’s possible that a queer woman who came in second place on NBC’s mega-smash-hit The Voice could, three years later, still be unknown. The short answer is that before Michelle Chamuel could fully tell the world who she is, she had to figure it out herself.
She’s still working it out (aren’t we all?), but for the first time in her career, she has gone into the studio and emerged with something she crafted entirely by herself, from the ground up. She’s in the midst of releasing a series of EPs that are an experiment in authenticity and vulnerability, as a way to connect with people not as a brand, but as a person.
After a long day in the studio, Michelle talked to me about her career, her dreams, her music — and funnily enough for someone who is so clearly a heartthrob, the frustration of trying to succeed in an industry where people need to fall asleep dreaming about you as much as they listen to your albums. The thing we circled back to again and again was identity, echoing the sentiment queer people have grappled with very publicly in 2016: How can we tell our own stories?
Here’s a peek at her new EP, Feel It Up.
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You have some new projects in the works. Tell me all about them.
Basically, I’m writing a lot of music that’s probably a few album’s worth, but it’s coming out over time as various EPs. I wrote so many songs! I’ve been done about a month now. What’s scary, but also exciting, is that I’ve chosen to have complete control over this artistic output. I feel a great responsibility because of that freedom. As I’m working on this project, I’m remembering what got me into music in the first place. Music is about vibrations, whether you’re standing in front of a speaker or someone is talking to you, you’re getting hit with waves, even though you can’t see or feel them. That’s why music resonates.
So having complete control in the studio means I can choose how to prioritize what resonates. The vocals are a huge part of it, but now I get to decide how the drums interact with the guitar, and how the guitar interacts with my voice. When I was doing gigs, I was lugging hundreds of pounds of stuff with me to try to create a sound — which is something you don’t really get to oversee when you’re just performing — and I realized I was burning to get into the studio and meticulously craft a piece of sound.
What’s the most challenging part about making music that way?
It’s easy to get caught up in something I love, or in emulating a sound I enjoy — like I’m into all the synthetic sounds pop music is coming up with these days — and then realize the finished project is really exciting, say, sonically, but I forgot to focus on the other things I’m good at or that I know people enjoy. So I’ll be getting ready to master a mix and realize that and suddenly I’m rewriting the whole thing. I’m not clairvoyant so I can’t know what people are going to like, but I know I’m excited by what I’m making right now, and I hope that gets other people excited too. It’s challenging, but it’s so rewarding.
It seems like every step of your career after The Voice has been fighting for a very conscious authenticity, which is sort of the opposite of what you’re told coming off a wildly successful reality competition, right? Conventional wisdom says you have to suck up as much of the spotlight as fast as you can. Like, “This is your one chance! Don’t ruin your life and let it pass you by!”
It’s hard because there are a lot of people reminding you that your moment is going to fade. A lot of people saying, “You can do what you want later, if you’ll just capitalize on this now! Why won’t you just do it? You’re being weird! You’re squandering something people would kill for!” No one was being mean, but these are the things you hear from other professionals and people offering you opportunities, and even just the sound of your own voice in your head. But it was easy for me because I just knew what I needed. I knew I needed to go home, I knew I needed to recuperate. It was hard to even fathom what I’d done for the last five months of my life when I left The Voice. In some ways, I’m still reeling. The show does a great job at presenting people to the country, and I started to wonder if people thought they knew me better than I actually knew myself. I needed to figure that out.
It was so fascinating after The Voice watching the way the press interacted with you about your sexuality and about fashion. You’d been out before you were ever on the show and you wore your blazers and your glasses, and suddenly everyone was treating both of those things like a commodity. The questions were never about who you were; the questions were about how who you were affected how much money you could make, how much radio play you could get.
Totally. I hadn’t really thought about it as commodifying those things in my life, but that’s exactly what it was. I’ve realized there’s a little bit of a distinction between being an artist and being an entertainer. Humans are social creatures, right, and we place great value on other people that we can look to to tell us what’s cool, what’s socially acceptable, what looks good, what will make us popular. We want the people who sing to us to also be heartthrobs we can go to sleep dreaming about every night. The way a lot of people interacted with me after The Voice was asking me how I was going to get to that place, to be an entertainer, and I was like, “Man, that’s resoundingly not who I am.”
Has the dichotomy between being an entertainer and an artist shifted for you since the show?
It’s always shifting, actually. It still is. This is a lesson I’ve learned over and over again, about the stepping stones in the industry. When I was in the band Ella Riot, I loved my bandmates but I didn’t really want to be in a band, but we just kept getting closer and closer to “making it.” Yet every time we got to a landmark I was sure would be “making it,” we still hadn’t “made it.” I kept feeling like, “Why haven’t we made it? This should have been making it.” But then I realized there’s actually no such thing as “making it.” We played Lollapalooza for 5,000 people, and if you’d told me at the very beginning that I would have been playing in front of 5,000 people, I would have been like, “Wow! I’ll have made it and then I’ll get to do what I want to do!” You know, or The Voice. I was on national TV in front of millions of people; have I made it? And the answer is no. I think you can follow the noise, or you can do what you love to do.
You wrote on your blog earlier this year about soil needing a rest period if you’re practicing sustainable farming, and you made an analogy about the life of a creator, about how you can burn up hard and bright by capitalizing on momentum, or you can understand that longevity as an artist requires rest.
It’s so important, I think, to constantly check yourself and ask what it is you have momentum toward. Is it fame and is it money? Okay, then, yes, you’ve got to capitalize on every second of spotlight you have after something like The Voice. People who only know me from the show, I’m sure are like, “Dude, where are you on social media? Where are you pictures with Usher?” I have a different kind of checklist in my mind, so I’m not in front of people every day, but I am in the studio building something, and that’s the kind of momentum that sustains me. I’m excited to start sharing it with other people.
Social media is an interesting thing. There’s this idea that the more people are looking at you do what you do, the more successful you are at that thing. There was a lot of conversation post-Voice about how you felt about people looking at you, but in this weird sort of like, “Wow, people really liked your music, even though you are a woman wearing a blazer and glasses!” What’s your relationship with being looked at, as opposed to just listened to?
You know, it’s interesting. At Lollapalooza, when Ella Riot played in front of 5,000 people, which was unbelievable to me at the time, I was wearing sunglasses. I was always wearing sunglasses. People thought I was cold or mysterious or elusive, like that was my “thing.” But I wasn’t trying to be a personality. I was trying not to be looked at. I wore big jackets. I was just trying to be a singer. I actually wanted to audition for The Voice with my dark glasses and they kindly but firmly, “No way, people will never get to know you.” I feel so lucky that so many people connected with me and with my music and I would never be like, “Hey! Don’t you look at me! How dare you!”
Sometimes I think I should post more pictures, but they’d be like my computer, or my synthesizer, or my guitar, because that’s what I’m staring at all day! Just a photo of my face glowering angrily at a program that has crashed on my laptop. People have plenty of stuff to look at, I guess, so I’ll focus on giving them something to listen to.
You were one of the first openly gay people on a reality singing competition, and one of the conversations at the time that drove me nuts was gay viewers being like, “She’s not out enough!” How did you deal with that?
I did have a lot of anxiety about it. I was never closeted. I never hid my sexuality. I was out to all my friends and close family, but my family is huge, and so on the one hand I had this fear about my grandparents’ 85-year-old friends, just showing up in their living room, like, “Time to have a conversation about my sexuality!” But on the other hand, I realize how important it is for people in my position to foster and facilitate those conversations, because there are so many places even in the United States where I will think twice about mentioning my girlfriend in a conversation with a stranger because I don’t know if it’s safe.
Right. Coming out is perpetual.
Exactly. We have to come out all the time, over and over again. Every new person we meet is another chance to come out. For some people, it feels better to just bring it up and get it out there and say “gay gay gay” to every person they meet, and I admire and respect that. There’s no chance anyone’s going to come off an airplane with you saying they’ve never met a gay person. And that changes the world, one step at a time. And then there are people like me who are generally more quiet about everything. I am in love with another woman; that’s such a huge part of my life. But it always is a thought on my mind. Is it safe to tell this person? Is it a good time and the right place? People like their boxes.
You’re not a box person with your music either. There’s a cohesion in your work, but from project to project, you’re always doing something new and different.
The thing people say to performers all the time is: Define yourself better. I actually have spent a lot of time mentally trying to deconstruct what The Voice worked so hard to build with me. And they did a really great job! “She’s the gay one with the glasses and the suits.” It’s true: I am in love with a woman, and I do like my glasses and blazers, but that’s just one cog in the very complicated machinery of who I am. I’ve struggled with this box thing for so long. Even when I was in a band and people were like, “Okay, you’re the singer.” And I was like, “Ah! But that’s not all I am!”
And now you’re in total control of your music. Is it box-free?
I can see all the songs I’m writing forming into different categories. The first EP is more pop, vocal-centric electronic-style tunes. Then there are singer-songwriter tunes with me and my guitar or keyboard. And then there’s a whole other section of tunes that could be in music or film, just a story with sound or strings. And because I’m the boss entirely now, I can release them and title them however I want.
Creating music in a studio must feel so different than creating music in front of an audience. Do you get energy from playing live shows?
I actually feel like I give a lot of energy at live shows. I have to recuperate pretty hard after them. You know those people who, after a hang out, they’ve had so much fun with the people they love, but then they need to just be quiet for like a week? That’s me.
Oh, you’re a true introvert.
Yes! You know after The Voice when they do those reality interviews? They’d always be like, “How do you feel? You nailed it! You don’t look excited, though!”
And I’d be like, “I am, I am. I just need to go sleep.” So. Obviously none of those made the YouTube channels.
You did a Ted Talk a couple of years ago that I’ve watched at least five times about finding your home in music. And one of the things you talked about was feeling really weird and different growing up. How did your relationship with music develop during that time in your life?
I had a lot of alone time as a child because my parents worked a lot, and also I’m just an independent soul. I like to read by myself and go on walks by myself. One time my second grade teacher accused me of cheating; she said, “Your mom called and told me you cheated on your homework.” And when I went home and asked my mom about it, she was like, “What the heck? You do your homework by yourself. You’ve never even talked to me about it.” Which was true! I did mostly everything alone!
Human beings need community and social interaction, though. I was reading a book recently that talked about how music and books and TV are actually a form of community. They’re a very safe and controlled form of community, but they are a kind of reaching out. So when I put on one of my favorite albums when I was a kid, even though I was maybe alone, I was extending myself to participate in and enjoy something countless other people were enjoying as well. I think I felt that connection. It made sense to me. Music did, and still does, feel very much like home to me.
I’m going to close this interview out by talking about your actual home with Mary Lambert. What’s it like to live with your biggest fan?
Ugh, it’s great. We have to be careful not to overstep because we’re such huge fans of each other and we’re also each other’s person, so I don’t want to be like, “Gosh, I don’t know about that one line in this song.” That could change the entire course of a song or an album for her fans. But the flipside is that when I’m maybe feeling down about a piece of music or like it’s something that should be just for me, I can play it for her. I did this with my new singer-songwriter stuff. I played it for her and when I saw her reaction, it filled me with joy and excitement and I knew it could be a whole other EP.
And just to double down on home, we need to talk about Hogwarts houses. When I interviewed Mary, she sorted herself into Hufflepuff and you into Gryffindor. Do you think she’s correct?
We’ve actually had long discussions about this. I don’t pretend to know what the Sorting Hat would do. I’d like to think I’d be in Gryffindor, but Mary could be too. I think the Hat would let her choose. It’d be like [deep, British accent], “You could be in Gryffindor. Or you could be in Hufflepuff!” And then she’d chose whatever she wants. But Gryffindor or Ravenclaw for me, because I’m pretty bookish. No. Gryffindor. I choose Gryffindor.
That Sorting Hat, always wanting to put you into a box.
But it lets you choose the box at least!