First Dips: Every Monday, we chat with our friends to find out what tickles their musical impulses and fancies. What was their first hip-hop or urban music love?
Soul and R’n’B vocalist Michaela Therese comes from music pedigree, being born into a musical family and learning the piano at 4. She was in one of Singapore’s hottest Hip-Hop collectives, Urban Xchange before striking it out on her own. It took her a few years to find a voice and material which represents her own unique voice but Michaela has done so on her new album My Name Is MEEKELLAH.
Fresh off a short Malaysian tour, Michaela shares with us her philosophy behind her work, her love for Erykah Badu and if she could rap.
We can hear the immaculate love and passion which went to crafting the album, down to the details. How long did you take to write and record this album?
This album was technically 16 years in the making. The oldest song on the album ‘Standstill’ was written in 1998 while I was still in junior college. The other songs span my entire career. I wrote these songs in good times, bad times, times of uncertainty and times when I was completely grounded.
I write all the time and the 11 songs on this album were the ones that didn’t get trashed. Haha. My band who plays on the album with me helped me to re-conceptualise and rearrange some of my oldest songs. We spent a couple of months on that. The recording, mixing and mastering process took us about 10 months.
It was definitely a labour of love and I’m glad you can hear that when you listen to it.
There is a strong ecological theme running throughout. How does that appeal strongly to you?
I grew up in a family of people who are very eco-conscious. My grandparents taught us to treat all living things as we would have ourselves be treated and to respect life. When we sit down to dinner as an extended family of aunties, uncles and cousins, we talk about the wonder of animals and plants and ecosystems. I think I have always been concerned about the things human beings take for granted because of this. Human nature boggles me. So I write about it. I’m just a crazy cat lady who thinks people should treat each other and everything that exists in our world better because it’s really not that hard to do.
You have worked with several collaborators like Tim de Cotta, Christy Smith, Kelvin Ang. How did that come about?
I met Christy Smith when I was a very young musician. He was one of my first mentors in the scene and has become a very good friend over the years. He always took the time to encourage me and to teach me something new. The fact that Christy could be part of this album really makes me smile because he is part of the reason I am the musician I am today.
Tim De Cotta and I first played together in an Erykah Badu tribute band that we called BaduLab. The band has since gone on to be known as L.A.B. (Listen And Believe) together with Aya Sekine on keys and Teo Jia Rong on drums. Because our chemistry is so tight and we can read each other so well, I asked the band if they would play on the album with me. It was during the time that the band was working on some of my material that I knew I would need another pair of ears I could trust to see me through the whole production of the album. Tim thought he could be that person and here we are. I could not have produced this without him; he was there for me and with me every step of the way. Tim had also been working with Kelvin Ang for years so it was only natural that we decided to record with Kel.
All of the collaborations on the album have humbled me. To work with such brilliant musicians and good friends is an honour and a blessing. I’m so lucky to have Marques Young on trombone, Mohamed Noor on tabla, Riduan Zalani on pandeiro, and my old friend Munir Alsagoff arrange and play guitar on a song called ‘Over The Rainbow’ with me.
A girl couldn’t ask for more.
You have a huge love for Erykah Badu. Was she one of your first exposure to urban/ soul music? What particular tune of hers still resonates with you?
HUGE LOVE FOR BADU.
I think, yes, she was probably one of the first cats in the Neo-Soul scene that I listened to. Her music made me feel like my music had a place somewhere and that my influences kinda fit somehow. But it was years before I really understood how to make that work for me.
There are so many tunes that I love but if I had to pick one, it’d have to be ‘Didn’t Cha Know’ off her Mama’s Gun album. It has that signature Badu sound and these lyrics: “Love is life, life is free, take a ride on life with me. Free your mind and find your way, there will be a brighter day”. They sum up her early message for me.
Are we wrong to assume that ‘Makes You Think’ is a slight tribute to D’Angelo? It really has that vibe.
It makes sense you should mention D’Angelo because he’s also, of course, a huge influence for me. However, ‘Make You Think’ is actually written for Lauryn Hill. Her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill redefined the art of writing and producing music for me. And if anything, that’s an album that really makes you think. She has so much to say and she presents it in that one incredible piece of art.
‘Make You Think’ is also a tribute to anyone creative who makes you think about something bigger than yourself.
The line “I’ve been told many times I can’t rap but I can sing”. Who the hell has said that to you?!
Hahahaha. I think when I was younger there were things I just didn’t feel confident about. Rapping was one of those things. And because of that, I never quite knew how to deliver what I wanted to say in that medium. So I’ve had people tell me, “Michaela, we love you, but we don’t think you should rap.”
Haha. When I wrote ‘Make You Think’, it took me a few performances of the song to do it without feeling self-conscious. I feel better about it now. I still feel like I could possibly get away with a spoken word/rap type of thing, maybe not rap itself. I don’t know, let’s see how this skill evolves!