Michelle Chamuel’s ‘Face The Fire’ Q&A

While talking with Pollstar, Michelle Chamuel described her debut album coming out in February, what it was like competing on NBC’s “The Voice,” and how she went for years without singing a note.

Although Face The Fire is Chamuel’s first official album, the artist is no stranger to recording or performing live.  The world may have discovered Chamuel during the fourth season of NBC’s “The Voice” where the Usher-coached singer was runner-up to Danielle Bradbery, but by that time she had already played in bands My Dear Disco and Ella Riot.  Working under the name “The Reverb Junkie,” she released her self-produced All I Want album in 2013.

Chamuel’s Face The Fire doesn’t arrive until Feb. 10 via The End Records/ADA but the first single – the LP’s title track – is available now via via this link.

During our conversation Chamuel walked us through her creative process, describing small pieces of music she calls “nuggets” that eventually grow into complete songs.

You were already playing in bands and recording music before you appeared on “The Voice.”  From that viewpoint, do you see such a program serving as a stepping stone in one’s career, or is it the ultimate breakthrough?

[There are] many answers.  I think the first part of that depends on how you use it.  You can use a tool like “The Voice” as the ultimate breakthrough.  You can also use it as the ultimate career killer. They give you some pretty nice tools, resources and support to work with and it’s up to you to figure out how to do the rest.

Having worked on previous projects where you were your own boss, was it difficult to take direction in “The Voice” environment?

They do a great job letting the artist know where their direction will start and where your [direction] will pick up.  There’s a certain amount of freedom for the artist to decide and shape things.  There are times where it was difficult, where they would have suggestions or input.  It’s not like, “You have to do this right now.”  There’s no heavy handedness in it.  It’s just saying, “Look, we think this is best for you.” And learning to take that input and be like, “I hear that.  I respect you.  This is what I feel I want to meet that with.”  It was a learning process to make the most of their very knowledgeable advice while learning how to speak up for yourself.

Were people other than Usher giving you advice?

Usher had an entire team, his people.  I got to work with them, which was incredible.  Also, “The Voice” itself has people to help – wardrobe, styling, the producers, the people who make the segments [and] the musicians, so you’re getting a lot of educated, knowledgeable people that have ideas.  I had no idea how TV worked.  I was taking in as much as I could.

You studied piano and violin very early in your life and your history reads as if you’ve been preparing for a career all your life.  Was there ever a moment when you thought you would do something unrelated to music?

Definitely. When I was 3 I really wanted to be an author.  When I was 4 I really wanted to be someone who pushed buttons.  I was really obsessed with that.  Like a cashier, they push buttons.  I thought that was the coolest job.  Once I got older I knew what I wanted but I wasn’t always in touch with it.  I think it really solidified when the options for picking out a college came up.  I applied to different types of colleges but the only ones I would consider … were the ones where the music programs were very strong. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else or spending that much time studying something I couldn’t throw myself into completely.

Was that how you ended up at University of Michigan?

That’s correct.  I went to a songwriting camp, a two-week program in New Hampshire, and we got to write this songs with the other campers.  Not so much of a camp as it was an educational thing.  I wrote the song, I was really excited about it.  The guys recorded it and I heard it on the disc … and my face just fell.  “What? What is this?  Why does it sound like this?” And they said, “Honey, that’s production.  You gotta get into the behind-the-scenes stuff if you want to control that.” And I was like, “Ah … OK.”

So the rest of high school and onward I was like, “I want to write but I also need to know what goes on behind the scenes.”

The University of Michigan had a program that allowed me to do that and study all the different behind-the-scenes things.  It’s called “Performing Arts Technology.”  I learned about writing … I concentrated on music but it was a lot of behind the scenes stuff.

There’s a YouTube clip of you performing during a listening party for “Face Of The Fire.” During that clip you’re manipulating a device placed in front of you.

There are two things.  One is a vocal processor. … It has a bunch of vocal effects and a harmonizer in it.  In order to control the harmonizer, you use a keyboard. So I plugged a keyboard into that unit [allowing me] to play harmonies that samples the voice I use to sing, in real time.  What’s really cool about that particular keyboard is that it’s also a sampler. … You can actually store audio with each note, so I can play certain samples or instruments and then turn the volume down to just use it to control harmony.  It’s really flexible, intuitive and super fun.

It looks as if it’s so easy to use and frees you up to concentrate on the performance.

That was a huge part of the intention.  I think, at least for my shows, [it allows fans] to engage in the live experience without feeling like I’m behind a wall of technology or not focused on delivering the emotional message.

When did you first perform in front of an audience?

It’s funny.  My history goes, when I was really little, up until about third grade, I performed as much as I could.  I did … some community theatre stuff and I was all about performing.

Then the next year it all went away.  I was terrified, upset and didn’t want to perform.  I don’t know why.  I think self-awareness started to kick in.  For a lot of kids, they just start feeling awkward in those pre-teen years.  I didn’t really perform again until freshman year of college.

In college I almost failed my aural theory class, which is the class where you’re supposed to look at sheet music and sing what you see, or learn how to recognize with your ears.  Everybody had to sing.  They give you the notes on paper and you have to sing it.  I couldn’t do it.  My voice would shut down, my eyes would tear up. 

I figured out, finally, if I went into hallway and sang from the hallway – in the hallway nobody cares, nobody is looking at you – I could sing it into the classroom.

The teacher was super nice and let me do that.  I did a good job, the class clapped, and that was kind of the beginning of that process. “OK. I can figure out how to do this.”

Were there any techniques you learned for battling that kind of stage fright?

For me, a lot of it was about the timing.  I don’t know if it was because I felt self-conscious of the kids or maybe felt if I took the limelight it would take it away from someone else. … It’s this weird sharing thing, almost inappropriate, embarrassing sometimes.  That’s just me. … I grew up feeling that way.  So when there’s an opportunity or when it’s my turn I feel very comfortable being on stage.  It’s my turn. People are expecting this.  I can step up and do it.  I’m happy to.  It’s a passion of mine.

But if I don’t feel the setting is quite [right] to bring that out, I’m usually pretty uncomfortable.

Considering high school life is all about image, during your high school years, was there ever a feeling that if you did perform others might consider you to be an egotist, somebody saying, “Look at me.”

Totally.  I think that’s something that is valued in my family is humility, sharing and being kind.  I interpreted that as don’t step on people’s toes.

I think I did perform in a band a couple of times while in high school because I was asked.

Were you still studying piano, violin or other instruments at that time?

I had dropped off from studying … around sixth grade.  Piano stopped a lot younger.  They couldn’t get me to read.  I just wanted to play by ear.  [Piano] stopped around 1986, violin was about sixth grade. My dad was the one teaching me and at that point my parents were not living in the same place.

Today is it still about working by ear or do you use sheet music, chord charts and such?

I do shorthand.  For me, I’m not very fluent in note reading.  I know how to do it, I can do it, but it’s not like it’s my most current language of music.  I’ll do shorthand if I want to remember a chord progression.  It’s more like jazz shorthand or something.

From that first spark of an idea for a song, where do you go from there?

It depends on which track and where the spark comes in during the process.  For example, with the album Face The Fire, two of my good friends, former [My Dear Disco] bandmates and collaborators, Tyler Duncan and Theo Katzman, came to my house and we each brought nuggets of songs … whether it was a chorus, instrumental line or first chorus / bridge.  Anything that kind of has these skeletal ideas.

For me, to generate one of those nuggets, it comes in different ways.  One time I woke up with an idea in my head and I ran to the piano and kind of plodded it out, then flushed it out on the computer.  That’s how “Golden” came about. Then Theo and Tyler came in and helped me refine the verses and redo a lot of the instrumentation based on the template I had set up.

Something like “Rock It,” I got a nugget from Theo and Tyler where they pretty much had that chorus plotted out and I was like, “Oh, cool.” Now the spark comes in and I’m [saying], “How about this?”  We talk about different ways of being yourself and how you can just rock things.  We went through a whole bunch of different lyrics, a real collaborative process. 

My favorite way [of creating] or the one I’m most used to, the one that comes most easily to me is either I’m given or [I] create an instrumental track.  And from that music I hear stories in it, melodies or lyric fragments.  I’ll flesh that out.

Having worked with other students, your collaborators and artists such as Usher, do you feel that there’s a kinship shared by all musicians no matter their level of success?

I think [their level of success] definitely is something that doesn’t matter. As far as me feeling alienated from someone because of where they are, I don’t really feel that way. You connect with the music and their message.  I think I would make an analogy to a family.  You have distant cousins and a certain bloodline can expand really far.  You have something that links you and you don’t feel separated, necessarily, based on class, who someone married or what state they live in.  But you’re closer to some people than others.  That’s what I would liken to our relationship with other musicians.

Have you had opportunities to help budding musicians start on their own paths?

Yeah.  I think there are a lot of different types of advice one could offer.  One mainly being take good care of yourself, don’t forget that.  It’s really important if you want to have a long career to be able to listen to yourself and learn what you need, whether it’s sleeping eight hours or making sure you go home for a weekend per month.  Finding these things from the get-go and not just saying, “Oh, cool.  I’ll take care of myself when I get a Grammy or whatever.”  It never stops.  The things you practice today only get stronger tomorrow.  From the get-go, make it good, have fun, do your best and take care of yourself.

How do you take care of yourself?

I need a lot of sleep.  I have to sleep eight hours a night when I can. I try to stay relatively active, go outside.  I need to be home a good bit.  Not necessarily to not work, but just to work from home.  I feel like my home life is stable.

Do you have any non-music hobbies that your fans may not be aware of?

I like playing casual basketball, playing catch, biking.  I’m taking a bike class to learn how to fix my bike.

Your album comes out in February.  Does anticipation build up before an album’s release, like a child looking forward to Christmas?

I think so.  The only difference being, I think being a kid and enjoying Christmas is different than being an adult and enjoying Christmas.   As an adult you’re getting ready, making sure the house is ready … there’s a lot of ramp-up.  The Christmas tunes start playing on the radio … the whole pacing of it is something someone on the other side has to take into consideration.  So an [album release] is a very big day, a special one that’s exciting.  But it’s also a lot of work.

What are your plans for after the album comes out?

I’m not a big tourer.  The tour coming up this fall is two weeks on the East Coast and then two weeks on the West Coast.  That’s giving people a taste of the album; they’re going to be able to pre-order it and get instant tracks.  That’s kind of like engaging everybody in a big, “Hey guys!  I care about you.  I’m so excited to see you.”  Then after the album comes out, I think another short round [of touring] but nothing crazy.  For me, … playing the songs live is so sacred.  I think it’s different for every artist.  For me, it’s almost like a tank.  If I play a song enough times in a row, the tank gets empty.  So I’m being cautious to make sure that for every  show I’m in it, I mean it, I know what I’m saying.  It’s not just routine.  That, for me is important.  To be able to connect like that when I perform live.

Do you take any special care or preparations on show days to preserve your voice?

I watch out for talking too much.  That’s the one most people forget about.  Getting enough sleep is important.  And don’t stress out. That’s the worst.

Who are some of the people that have inspired you?

Starting from when I was really little, my parents both have their own special relationships with music.  My dad was my first music teacher, my mom loved to dance around the house, singing. … So I had two very enthusiastic music lovers.

After that I fell in love with the radio.  I would listen to the Top 40 every week. That was huge.  Then I realized that Max Martin was a huge part of the Top 40 so I studied his work, his chord structures, and all that stuff.  Obviously my friends and bandmates and people along the way that I’ve learned from and worked with.  Also Imogen Heap, Ella Fitzgerald, the list goes on.  So many incredible people.

If you could talk to the Michelle Chamuel from five years in the future, what would you ask her?

I’m one of those people that think you probably shouldn’t know things like that because the space-time continuum explodes.  I don’t know what her answer would be but I’d probably ask her for advice, what I should be doing right now.  And she’d probably say, “Exactly what you’re doing. You’re doing great and you’ll end up here.”

And then the space-time continuum explodes.

Cover art for Face The Fire (click on photo for complete image).

Upcoming shows for Michelle Chamuel:

Nov. 10 – Detroit, Mich., Shelter
Nov. 11 – Pittsburgh, Pa., Stage AE
Nov. 13 – Philadelphia, Pa., World Cafe Live
Nov. 14 – New York, N.Y., HighLine Ballroom
Nov. 15 – Northampton, Mass., Pearl Street
Nov. 16 – Boston, Mass., Brighton Music Hall
Nov. 17 – Washington, D.C., The Howard Theatre
Nov. 19 – Atlanta, Ga., Vinyl At Center Stage
Nov. 20 – Nashville, Tenn., High Watt
Dec. 2 – Seattle, Wash., Chop Suey
Dec. 3 – Portland, Ore., McMenamins White Eagle Saloon
Dec. 5 – San Francisco, Calif., Slim’s
Dec. 6 – Los Angeles, Calif., The Mint
Dec. 7 – Santa Ana, Calif., Constellation Room
Dec. 10 – Dallas, Texas, House Of Blues
Dec. 11 – Houston, Texas, Fitzgerald’s – Downstairs
Dec. 15 – Chicago, Ill., Lincoln Hall

Check out Michelle Chamuel online, including her website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, Tumblr blog, Instagram page, YouTube channel and SoundCloud page.