Being a professional musician in Singapore can be hard, but jazz/soul singer-songwriter Michaela Therese remains undaunted. Her 14 years of experience in the local music scene is an illustrious one - having released two EPs, performing in places such as London, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and opening for the likes of José James and more. Michaela is as passionate as ever before, and this month marks yet another milestone for her, for she will be releasing a full-length album titled My Name Is MEEKELLAH. We chat with the unshakeably talented musician ahead of her album launch on the 30th of April to find out more about her latest venture, London and the power of names.
Hey Michaela, what are you up to these days!
Heya Bandwagon! My days have been full to the brim with finishing up the new album and planning the launch, which will be on the 30th of April 2014. I also have two weekly gigs in Singapore. Thursday nights I play at Longtail (at The Customs House) with Tim De Cotta, and Fridays I play at OCF (The Arts House). Apart from that, I’m also busy writing new material with my band, L.A.B.
You've about to release a solo album, tell us more about My Name Is MEEKELLAH and why you describe it as a 'biography'.
I’ve been writing songs all my life and each song is representative of a particular moment or era. I have so many unreleased songs and the songs I chose to put on this album span my entire career. I wrote the oldest song, “Stand-Still” in 1998, while I was still in junior college. In fact, almost right after I wrote that song, I made the decision not to go to a regular university and to go to music school instead. I have a song dedicated to my first real heartbreak, and a couple of songs about my reaction to the state of the world as I was growing up and becoming more aware of social concerns. There’s a cheeky song called “Snooze Queen” I wrote a few years ago, about how I hate getting out of bed. And of course songs about my great loves and songs about my greatest creative inspirations, like “Make You Think”, which is an ode to the brilliant Lauryn Hill and all the other artists who have unknowingly moulded me all these years.
The first single off the album is called, “Final Call” and it’s about closing the chapter on all of the beautiful and painful things I’ve experienced, and about moving on to this brand new period of my life, now that I am releasing this and sharing it with everyone. And I believe everyone’s story begins with their name. That’s why I named the album My Name Is MEEKELLAH. I think the only way for my listeners to really get to know me is to first know how to say my name. Our names are such an important part of our identity.
At the same time, you're also involved with L.A.B. together with other prominent musicians Aya Sekine, Tim De Cotta and Teo Jia Rong. Tell us more about L.A.B. and how this superband got together.
I’m super proud of my superband! I look forward to every rehearsal and really enjoy playing with these fine musicians. I also love and respect them for the people they are.
L.A.B. actually began as BaduLab. I wanted to do a tribute to my all-time favourite artist, Erykah Badu, and I approached Aya with the idea and she was totally onboard. Shortly after that, I played a gig for the first time, with Jia Rong, our drummer, and I was pleasantly surprised that when I suggested doing a Badu song on the set, he knew it. So I asked him if he would be keen to do the tribute and if he would suggest a bass player. He had been playing for a while with Tim De Cotta with their other band “TAJ”, and he called Tim on the gig, and we had our band.
We called ourselves BaduLab because we felt like we were researching and experimenting with Badu’s amazing music. We did two successful gigs as BaduLab, but we knew we couldn’t ride on Erykah Badu’s name forever, so we decided to just call ourselves Lab. Somehow we weren’t convinced by that name, so I suggested we abbreviate it and asked them what they thought about Listen.And.Believe over a supper of briyani. L.A.B. was born that night in December, at the end of 2012.
Many local musicians here seem to be involved in various projects with each other at the same time – how does this help in your own personal creative process?
It has been so encouraging to me to see all the collaborations happening in the scene. I think it’s important to try to play with different people because every musician brings something fresh to the table. I have mentioned in previous interviews that I am very heavily influenced by the Singaporean musicians around me, so of course working with someone I don’t ordinarily work with makes me listen and write and arrange in a different way and possibly even play or sing in a different way. Every collaboration inspires ideas and art is nothing without grand ideas.
You’ve performed in various countries including Hong Kong, London, Sri Lanka and more… which overseas show was your most memorable and why?
I think my first show in London was probably the most memorable so far. Even though it was only a little, cosy venue and it was a stripped down setup with me on the piano performing my songs acoustically, it was special to me because it was the first time I secured an overseas gig for myself on my own. It was more of a sense of achievement that I managed to get myself booked at a club in London than anything else, but then the gig turned out to be one of my most well-received gigs ever. People were lining up to buy my EPs and ask about my music and they were genuinely interested in my art and that made it very fulfilling.
Having said that, I always enjoy playing in KL too. That city holds many great performance memories for me as well.
Your style is deeply rooted in Jazz, but you're fascinated with rock, drum & bass and hip-hop. How has the range of influences affect your songwriting and sound style?
You guys tell me! I try my best not to be constrained by genre when I write. However, soul and hip-hop always come through the strongest in my songwriting. I don’t like to follow the rules, I learn them so I can bend them, and in my songwriting, I let it flow without boxing myself into anything.
I think rock music has influenced the way I write lyrics more than anything else because it is so emotive, and I have always found myself steering more towards that in my lyric writing.
When it comes to drum & bass and the other electronic genres like house and techno, they are my release. When I go into a club and I can dance to a driving beat, it calms me. I let it get into my soul and when it comes out in my music, it’s usually subtle. But I will be exploring that a lot more with my alterego, Miss Mic. I am trying to get a Miss Mic EP out soon too. I put on that hat when I do club nights with Darker Than Wax or Midnight Shift or any of the club crews.
What’s next for you in the upcoming months?
I will be promoting the album and spending some time trying to plan regional tours. I am really looking forward to taking this album out of Singapore and letting the rest of the world hear it. I will also be doing shows with L.A.B. and hopefully eventually recording a band EP as well sometime in the next 6 months.
Top 5 Influential Albums
Off The Wall | Michael Jackson
This album is the epitome of everything musical to me. It is my perfect mixture of soul, R&B and Motown. “I Can’t Help It”, which was written by Michael and Stevie Wonder is, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant songs of all time. This is such an important album. I studied it because I love how clever it is. The songs on this record influence me to this day, probably more than I know.
Mama’s Gun | Erykah Badu
Badu is probably the artist who has influenced me the most as a musician. I’ve always been honoured to be told I sound like her, but it’s her energy and her ability to write songs about life with such attitude that reminds me what it means to be an artist everyday. This album kicks ass. End of story.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill | Lauryn Hill
The first time I heard this album, my mind exploded. I didn’t understand how someone could be that phenomenal a singer and a rapper at the same time. Lauryn Hill’s poetry is not confined to her flow, it’s also there in her melodies and this is a piece of art to constantly aspire to. This album will always make me try to write music as good as this.
The Bends | Radiohead
I love this album. It gets under my skin and makes me feel something more every time I listen to it. “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Street Spirit” still make me cry. So it’s no surprise that they are two of my favourite songs to cover.
Lateralus | Tool
It was a hard fight between The Colour And The Shape by Foo Fighters and this album for this last spot. But if we’re talking about which album has influenced my music more, it has to be this one. This record is so tight and the arrangements are so evolved and I’ve always wished I was a rock star so that I could make music like this. Tool is one of my favourite bands and I always go back to their lyrics and melodic lines and changing time signatures for inspiration.