MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. R&B singer Chrisette Michele burst onto the scene in 2007 with her first album, "I Am." Her melodic and unique voice caught a lot of ears and earned her a Grammy for the single, "Be Okay."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE OKAY")
CHRISETTE MICHELE: (singing) Think it's time for me to let go, 'cause my heart can't take it no more. You were all I lived for, but I'll leave you behind. I'ma be okay, I'ma be okay. I'll survive, I'll be fine, I will cry away. I'ma be okay, I'ma be okay.
MARTIN: Well, six years later, Chrisette Michele is now an established star in the R&B firmament. And after taking a short break from the spotlight, she is back with her latest studio album, "Better." And Chrisette Michele is with us now. Welcome.
MICHELE: Thank you.
MARTIN: So are you better?
MICHELE: I am better. Although I really, really like that song, "Be Okay." Still makes me feel better.
MARTIN: Well, good. Yeah, I like that song, too.
MICHELE: Thank you.
MARTIN: A lot of people like that song.
MARTIN: So why are you better?
MICHELE: I'm in the best space, emotionally and physically, that I've ever been. I took some time away from any type of media where I just felt like I would have to explain myself and took some time to not explain myself to anybody except myself. I got along with God a little bit. I meditated some. And I juiced. I went on a sixty-day juice feast.
MARTIN: A juice feast?
MICHELE: I didn't want to say fast, 'cause that just sounded like I wouldn't make it through. But if I heard the word feast, then I knew I could buy all the fruits and vegetables I wanted.
MARTIN: How did you get into that? You're quite, what's the word, evangelical about it now.
MICHELE: I feel great talking about it because it felt so good going through it. A friend of mine, Harold Lilly, a songwriter who's written for so many people, offered me something green in the studio. And I always joke, it was green but it wasn't what I usually see in studios. He's calling out to his assistants, I need more carrots, I need more celery. Next thing I know, I'm drinking this green stuff and I'm like, I'm not drinking it, this is disgusting. I go home and something was just like, try it. So I bought an Angel juicer and all the fruits and vegetables I could think of, and put them in there and did a bunch of experiments.
MARTIN: And then what happened?
MICHELE: I expelled so much, spiritually, emotionally. And I found out that there was this great connection between food and the soul. And so I started writing about it. Of course, the record is not about food, but it is about healing. And it is about knowing that there is healing for you and that you can fall back in love.
MARTIN: When did this happen? Was this while you were taking your break or is this what caused you to realize you needed to take a break?
MICHELE: This was what caused me to realize I needed to take a break. When you're juicing, the more you juice, the more you want to stop, the more you want to sit still, the more you want to hear what your heart is saying, what your mind is showing you. And so yeah, I kept saying, no, I'm not going to do that today or, you know what, mom, can you just give me another week here or mom, you know what, I'm going to go over to Paris and I'm going to explore some things that I've been thinking about for me. One time it was Audrey Hepburn. Another time it was just fashion. I just wanted to stop and look around and get reacquainted with things.
MARTIN: It's fascinating. It's also, I think, welcome that you're willing to talk about these issues because one of the things that you talk about - and I've seen you talk about this in some of the interviews you've done in connection with the album - is that some of it was just exhaustion.
MARTIN: Some of it was just exhaustion. And then you're eating road food.
MARTIN: And then you're putting on weight.
MARTIN: And you're not eating the best and then that becomes a cycle where, because you're putting on weight, you don't want to go out.
MICHELE: Right, right, right.
MARTIN: I bet you don't have to be an incredible R&B star who lives in, you know...
MARTIN: ...To experience those things.
MARTIN: But it does make me wonder whether it was hard for you to then tell of all that was going on.
MICHELE: Well, I have a really hard time being embarrassed because my mom is a - studied psychology and my dad studied sociology. And we always had all different types of stories around us. My mother wouldn't tell us other people's stories but we would meet them and they would tell us themselves. And I'd be like, okay, so I'm fine because she's going through that, too. And so we always knew that it was important for us to talk and share what we were going through with each other, 'cause that's how we would get through it.
MARTIN: You do have a different - I hope it's okay I'm mentioning this - a more, what I say, hopeful view in many of the songs on this album than we saw in some of the previous work.
MICHELE: Oh, sure.
MARTIN: Although a lot of your work was lovely before...
MICHELE: Yes, some of the...
MARTIN: ...And very refreshing. But there is a more hopeful spirit.
MICHELE: When I first got signed, I said, I'm not going to sing any sad songs because I didn't want to be upset ever. So I wrote "Be Okay" and "If I Have My Way." And then I got into the studio with Ne-Yo and he said, Chrisette, people need to know that people hurt because people relate to hurt. I was like, no, they don't, no one hurts, I never hurt. I started singing these songs and I connected to them really well and I was like, oh, God, I'm really upset about something. Somebody needs therapy and so I went. And the songs got happier as time went by. But my second two albums were sadder sounds, for sure.
MARTIN: Is that something that's endemic to R&B? People just feel that - is that part of it? It's like the blues, R&B being kind of a - the blues being an ancestor to R&B. People feel like, if you're not miserable about something, you're not really real. Could that be part of it?
MICHELE: Absolutely, I think so. People always say, the best time to write a song is when you are upset. I want to write a song when I'm happy and I don't want to have to be upset to be able to be a singer. And I made that decision. And I decided that - because people were sending me all these songs that were sad and broken-hearted - and I said, I don't want to be in that space anymore. And I'm not the type of person who can sing about what I'm not experiencing. So the album is what I'm experiencing now.
MARTIN: Speaking of that more hopeful view, here's "A Couple of Forevers." Let's play a little bit of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A COUPLE OF FOREVERS")
MICHELE: (singing) Oh, oh, me and you are built like armor. Nothing can stop love from loving on us, you know I'm not asking for much. Just a couple of forevers - a couple of forevers. I'm the only one, you're the only one, together till never. I'm talking about forever, just a couple of forevers.
MICHELE: I'm telling you, there's a point in your life where you're so upset that everybody looks bad, do you know? You're like, I'm not talking to him, 'cause he's crazy. You didn't even meet the person. All of a sudden, you know, like I said before, I felt better about myself and I began to feel better about other people. And so when I went into the studio, this was one of the first songs that we recorded, 'cause I just felt like it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A COUPLE OF FOREVERS")
MICHELE: (singing) Guess we got to struggle just to stay apart. Oh, oh, me and you are built like armor. Nothing can stop love from loving us, you know I'm not asking for much. Just a couple of forevers...
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with R&B diva Chrisette Michele. We're talking about her new album, "Better." And not only is the album better, so is she. Well, you know what, this is a good time to play that. Let's play a little bit of the title track.
MICHELE: Oh, I love this one.
MARTIN: Do you?
MICHELE: I may have to sing along.
MARTIN: Okay, let's do it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER")
MICHELE: (singing) I won't let the pain get me down, oh no, I won't fight back. Let the cupid take me wherever he wants to go, fly me to the moon like an old jazz love song. Cupid, do what you want to do, the choice is yours. But when I get where you're taking me, love's gonna make me feel better, better. Better, better. Better...
MICHELE: (singing) Love's gonna make me feel better.
I love that song. All right, I love it...
MARTIN: Do you think - I hate to ask this - but do you think your fans want you to be better?
MICHELE: I had to coach them to get there with me. I did. I showed them everything I was doing. That's the reason why I got an Instagram. I had to show them, okay, look, I'm making juice, y'all. Okay, look, I'm, you know, breaking up with this guy, y'all. Okay, I'm going to smile a little bit more, y'all. I'm going to the gym, I'm going to work out, y'all. And I had to give them a mix tape and say, this is the way I'm feeling, pray me well. I didn't want to just throw it out there and all of a sudden, I'm fine. I had to tell them, I'm at the therapist right now, I'll text you later or I'll tweet you later, so that they would know that this didn't just come out of nowhere, that nobody quote, unquote made me do it. Because people tend to think that when you're a signed artist, that somebody coaxed you into doing everything that you're doing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER")
MICHELE: (singing) I'm not my best but I'm right where I need to be. Might not be right here but he's on his way to me. Love's coming soon and I've found my prince. It won't be long till I'm in love with him. Better, oh, oh, oh, oh. Better...
MARTIN: What do you make of the fact that, though, there seems to be so much traffic in pain? I'm tempted to say, although I could be wrong about that, certain people's pain, in particular. Like I'm talking - I'm thinking about certain reality shows where people are like, literally, fighting each other and pulling on hair and throwing, not just throwing shade, but throwing, you know, water on each other's faces and slapping each other around and business like this. And you're saying, oh, okay, well, okay, really? I mean, do you really? And then when you talk to the people who make these shows, you say to them, well, gee, do you really - do you want your kids acting like that? Is that really how you live? And they say, oh well, but the fans like it.
MICHELE: Well, this is my take as a artist, right.
MICHELE: When you're broken, you have nothing to lose. Do you know, because you want to give away being broken. You don't want to hold onto that. So when you're broken, you have nothing to lose. You can put it on camera. You can put it anywhere you want to put it, because you want somebody to take it away from you. When you're feeling great and you're feeling amazing, you don't want to lose that. So it's uncomfortable for somebody to come into your beautiful atmosphere and take your love, take what's good away from you, put that on camera, put that on television. So it's very hard to ask somebody who's happy to film their lives and put it on television for the people to take away from them.
I ask a lot of my more positive celebrity friends, why don't you have a reality show? How come you're not on television? How come you're not doing what this TV show is doing? And they say, 'cause I don't want to lose what I have. What we have is great.
MARTIN: Interesting. So how do you feel you will translate this new phase of your life into something that then can live...
MICHELE: I have to be really brave.
MARTIN: ...And still retain for yourself, retain something for you?
MICHELE: I have to be really brave and I have to believe that God put me here to share what I'm sharing, do you know? And so if he did that, then he'll give me a grace to share it. It is very scary. And now that I do feel better, I am nervous that maybe somebody will take it away. Maybe somebody, you know, maybe somebody won't like it. Maybe I don't do it exactly the way it's supposed to be done. But I have to believe that I'm put here for this reason and that what I'm sharing is valid, necessary, and that I have the grace to do so.
MARTIN: Talk a little bit too, though - there's still a sexual piece that you're exploring in this album. A lot of singers these days, artists - though, well, I think maybe they probably always have, really - I don't know that there's anything really new about it - it's just come out in a, kind of a different way, much more explicit way, that a lot of singers feel they have to be very sexual in order to be popular.
MARTIN: And I'm interested in how you feel like you've grappled with that yourself.
MICHELE: I'm just very shy. And I have been very shy. I really don't have a problem with nudity. I really don't have a problem with magazines that I look through in Europe and people are naked. I don't really have a problem with it. I just personally would be very shy to do so. But we were in the stylist - what is that thing called, when you're getting ready for a photo shoot and there's clothes everywhere? Where - we were in there...
MARTIN: I think style. Yeah, I think style.
MICHELE: Yeah, and mom pulled out these pair of golden shorts. Now in my house, I'd wear them easy. But behind a camera, I might not because I don't know what people will think. My mom said, put these on, see what you like, see how you feel about them. And the label was there, my mom, of course, and a couple of friends. And they were like, oh my God, they look so nice, ra, ra, ra. And I was like, I love them but I can't show this to anybody. I was really brave when I decided to go ahead and show it.
MARTIN: Well, let me just say right here that you are fully attired here. You're showing your tats.
MARTIN: So you're showing your tattoos, you know. Your skin is fabulous, by the way...
MICHELE: Thank you.
MARTIN: ...Which I have to attribute to your...
MICHELE: (laughing) ...Shea butter regimen.
MARTIN: ...Your shea butter regimen and also your healthy diet.
MARTIN: And - but you talk a little bit about - there is a song on the album about kind of what we just talked about. I'm just going to play it. It's called "Can The Cool Be Loved?"
MICHELE: Oh, I like this song.
MARTIN: Yeah, let's play a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN THE COOL BE LOVED?")
MICHELE: (singing) I try to act modest. I'm not the star, art is. I'm just a muse, artist. And to the heart, I'm true. Trying to make my dough honest. Sometimes I'm rich, honest. Sometimes I'm poor, honest. But when I quit, I'm blue. Can the cool be loved anymore? Loved anymore, loved anymore?
MARTIN: What have you figured out? What's the answer?
MICHELE: I still do not know the answer to that question. I really don't. You know, because what is cool, first of all, is what everybody says. When I think about cool, I think of Sammy Davis, Jr. I think of Ella Fitzgerald. I think of Lena Horne. I think that swag, that kind of class matched with swag is super cool.
MARTIN: Yeah, but for women, I mean, being, can you be modest and be - as modest as you want to be. I mean, there is a level of explicitness that seems to be demanded, particularly of younger artists...
MICHELE: For sure.
MARTIN: ...younger women artists, like yourself.
MARTIN: And I think the question is, you know, why? Why is it necessary? Why is it that you can't leave anything to the imagination anymore?
MICHELE: I have no idea. I love Janelle Monae. I love Emeli Sande, Esperanza Spalding, Solange - a lot of beautiful women who travel the world and sing their song who are not willing to, you know, change their image to something that is a little bit more showy of their skin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN THE COOL BE LOVED?")
MICHELE: (singing) I'm avant garde, hipster. Shows in the park, summer. Live for the art, sister. But for the art, I'm blue. I'm only cool, no pretense. I'm on display, no defense. Saying what I say, no offense. I seize the day, I move. I'm only real, no magic. Do what I feel, no antics. Don't like it dear, no bashing. I'm only me, just cool. Can the cool be loved anymore?
MARTIN: One of the big changes you've made is going vegan.
MARTIN: Yeah and you're working on a book. Do I have that right?
MICHELE: Yes, this book is called "Fat Vegan" now.
MARTIN: Okay, yeah, okay.
MICHELE: I keep getting yelled at for it being called "Fat Vegan," but this book is sort of laughing at my journey through this music industry. I started off being so uncomfortable with who I was. I was so uncomfortable around all the quote, unquote beautiful people and I didn't know that I was as beautiful as they are. It's so funny that now, I am the same weight that I was when I first started. I had gained weight through the journey and lost it recently. So for me to be this confident now, the same way I looked in the beginning, it's kind of ironic. It's a little bit funny. So that's what "Fat Vegan" is talking about.
MARTIN: Well, what do you think people can learn from your story who are not fabulous R&B divas like yourself?
MICHELE: Everyone's a fabulous R&B diva.
MARTIN: With incredible skin.
MICHELE: You know, you can say yes and you can say no. You know, that's the lesson that I learned through this whole entire thing is that I have the power to say yes and no and I will still be my amazing self, whoever that is.
MARTIN: Chrisette Michele is a Grammy-winning R&B diva. Her latest album is "Better." It's in stores this week. And she was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Chrisette Michele, thank you so much for joining us.
MICHELE: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME WIN")
MICHELE: (singing) I think I need a lifeline. It's like I'm in a crazy game. And I don't have the words to say, to win this guy's affection. I may need a lifetime, I'll never know the perfect play. Hitting this day by day, but I've got good intentions. Look me in the eye. Do you think I'm fly? I can tell you're into me, so why you acting shy? Lay down all your cards. I won't make it hard. Let me be the window of your heart. Oh, oh, this game is like a gamble.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME WIN")
MICHELE: (singing) You should let me win. I'm not sure how to play it. Don't know what to say. I'm trying to catch a break, boy. You should let me win. Oh, oh, oh, you should let me win. Oh, oh, oh, ohh. I never been a loser and I don't want to be one now. I always get my way somehow. Why should this be different? Felt it when I kissed you, kissed you, drove me just a little bit wild. I always knew I liked your style. I never thought I would be with you. Look me in the eye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.