She first stepped onto the scene with vocals for Jay-Z’s “Lost Ones” and Nas’ “Can’t Forget About You.” But soon enough the young chanteuse released her first album in 2007, “I Am,” which garnered her some Grammy nods and a win. Her second album, “Epiphany,” released in 2009 unveiled a spunky, funky side. And her third, “Let Freedom Reign” revealed yet another layer of the singer as she “boycut” her locks, going short and natural. Each time, the girl just gets more empowered.
We caught up with Chrisette as she took some time out to talk to the Queens Ledger-Brooklyn Star about why she loves singing, how she’s trying to come to terms with the word, “fame,” her hair and why she loves Long Island, Queens and Brooklyn. Oh, we also found out what her ideal date would involve. Guys, take note.
LF:You’re a Grammy-winning songstress. Congrats! You’re often compared to a lot of the jazz greats and what’s really great is that you’re from New York, you’re repping our state. What was it like for you growing up in L.I?
CM: I grew up around skaters, puppies, basketball players, cheerleaders, nerds, band junkies – Third Eye Blind was our favorite band…I was raised a classic Long Island girl. Everything that is very typical about being from Long Island I was.
LF: What are some of your favorite spots?
CM: One of my favorite spots was Adventureland. On my last album cover, I got to go back to Adventureland and did the album cover photoshoot right there. I have a lot of favorite spots – my college (Five Towns College) … and my favorite place to get a slice of pizza is Gino’s Pizzeria on Main Street in Patchogue and café MBT and – oh wow, I’m feeling really Long Island right now. I love Italian food!
LF: So, tell me, why does Chrisette Michele sing?
CM: I have to. It’s the easiest way for people to relate to me. It’s the way that I’m able to communicate with people best and I feel l have a lot to say.
LF: You’ve come a far way from your first album to the current one, "Let Freedom Reign."
LF:What have you learned on this journey and rise to fame?
CM: To be okay with that word “fame.” The word fame still makes me a little queasy because there are so many different connotations and it could mean so many different things to so many different people. But to me it’s just really simple, it just means that when I’m in Bloomingdales I’ll maybe sign a couple of autographs or take a few pictures and to other people it means so many other things. I’m not sure what fame means and if it’s a positive thing or negative because it comes with a lot of responsibility and I’m not sure a lot of people take that responsibility seriously.
LF: What was that transition like from when you first signed to Def Jam to where you are now? You said you had to come to terms with some things. What do you mean?
CM:The words that people use to describe me. And not that the words mean any harm but they are words that I don’t associate myself with not because I don’t like the words, but because it never occurs to me.
LF: What kind of words are you talking about?
CM:Words like, “grammy-award winning.” It never registers. I never get it. Another one is “number one album on the billboard charts” I think maybe there is some special type of humility that occurs where you can say those things about yourself and still be those things but I’m just realizing what’s going on. Up until last year, I was telling my mom: “you know mom, if this doesn’t work out I’ll go back to college and become a teacher,” but she’s like “stop it.”
LF: I had planned to ask you that. If you weren’t singing, what would you be doing?
CM:You know, music is my whole world but if I wasn’t singing I’d probably be a U.N. ambassador, going over to different countries, hanging out with the people, promoting peace, agriculture and the economy … the big secret is, that’s my secret ambition.
LF: How do you remain grounded? Is it your family that plays a big role in keeping you humble and, I don’t want to say “sane” but focused?
CM: You know, sane is a word that I identify with – and insane. Those are words I understand very well.
You know, one thing that I do is I tell myself to never stop doing things that I like doing. I ride my bike through Brooklyn still and still get pizza at the pizzeria. I go to the regular nail salon as opposed to the one where the nails cost $97. I still go get boxed color to dye my hair, you know what I mean? Because those are the moments, where, when you’re having a conversation with somebody on the street you could relate. I try not to take myself too seriously and go into this other world and I try to have a little bit of the best of both worlds.
LF: Which part of Brooklyn do you normally ride your bike?
CM: Well, it’s pretty safe in Williamsburg.
LF:Do you ever go to Park Slope?
CM: I get my hair done there – well, when I have hair.
LF: Another thing I was planning on asking you. Your image, it’s evolving and it’s been evolving because every album you’ve had, you’ve looked really different each time. And you’re rocking the boy cut right now. Is it freeing?
CM: It was in the beginning and then it became binding because I had to stick to it. When you do something, people ask you about it – when you shave it, they wonder why you shaved it. If my hair grew two inches, I’m doing interviews on why my hair grew two inches. It’s kind of like, you keep it so that people could relate to what you said you were doing. It’s just like if you say “oh, I’m not getting no more relaxers” but then you go and get relaxers, people get confused. I got to stick to my guns.
LF: Do you have any plans to grow it out or get a different style?
CM: Well, I’m definitely thinking about growing it out and having this huge, nappy thing growing on my head.
LF: I’m pretty sure that that’s going to be cool either way. It might work out for you.
CM: I think so.
LF: So, “Let Freedom Reign” for someone who hasn’t heard that album, what can they expect?
CM: Well, first let me just say that the inspiration behind that album was much like the inspiration behind a mixed tape. I just made it just to be honest. I didn’t really care if anybody bought it and I said that to the record label. They said, “Chrisette you know it’s not going to be a commercial success.” And I said yeah, but I just got to get this off my chest.
What I meant to say was what freedom means to me, and our freedom here in America. We don’t even realize how many things we have. We’re always complaining about the government, about politics, about everything all the time. And because social media makes everything so accessible, we kind of feel like we run the world. When really government and politics are important, people who work in office are important and they’re there for a reason … so it’s just my way of saying that I’m a young person who appreciates living in America.
LF: What have you learned about yourself after each album? How would you say that you have grown?
CM:After “I Am,” that album was projected to sell 0 copies until 27,000 copies were sold. It was totally embarrassing probably for the label but I was psyched! Here I am, jumping around in circles and then I get to the label and they’re like, “that’s not a lot” and I’m like, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
After “I Am,” me and my mom took our whole life on the road and sold that album literally hand-to-hand around the country. After that I found that I could do anything that I put my mind to.
After “Epiphany” I felt like I could be cool. That was when I realized that maybe I could be cool if I tried, which I still don’t think I’m cool but whatever.
On “Let Freedom Reign” I just realized that, you know what, I think this might be the career that I’m going to have. It’s the first time in my life I thought of really embracing me being a recording artist. The next album it’s going to be me actually trying. I don’t feel like I’ve ever really tried really hard yet because I never took it seriously.
LF: You really feel like that? I guess only you would know, right?
CM:Absolutely. I almost quit every two weeks. If it wasn’t for my mom, I definitely would not be doing this anymore. It’s really hard, it’s not just kind of hard. It encompasses your entire life, your relationships, all of your money. Everything that you do is a job. It gets really hard but when you realize that it’s working, it’s like oh, okay.
But at the beginning, going on five years now I didn’t know why I was doing it some days. It was really tough but now I’m here and I’m here to stay.
LF: Would you say that you’ve made it?
CM:I don’t feel like I’ve made it, no. But I feel like I’m going to go ahead and make it. I feel like that’s for me. I didn’t know if it was what I wanted before but now I feel like it’s for me.
LF: What are some of your favorite tracks from any of your albums?
CM: “Best of Me” is my number one favorite song that I’ve written.
LF:What was it like when you won that Grammy for best female R&B vocal performance?
CM: The song “Be Okay” it was in my mind, I had to record it and nobody was listening. Finally, I recorded it and “Be Okay” won a Grammy. It was one of those moments that let me know just how it pays to listen to your own and follow your intuition.
LF:What do you want fans to get from your music?
CM: I want them to feel positive, I want them to be touched and feel happy and feel joy. Everybody has a crazy life so for them to be able to come to a concert or listen to an album and walk away from it feeling better than before they’ve heard it, I feel like I’ve done my job.
LF: Which artists do you admire today?
CM:Oh Land, saw her perform the other day. Incredible artist, she’s like Lady Gaga meets Kanye West meets Bjork. And Janelle Monae.
LF: Would you want to collaborate and do something with her?
CM: I would love to collaborate with her. But first, I need her phone number.
LF:Who else would you want to collaborate with?
CM: You mean if I could have my dream? Beyonce. Also, Trey Songz, Keri Hilson.
LF: Are you working on a next album now?
CM: Yes I am working on something. I’m going through a total transformation for this next album, hopefully it works.
LF: One of the things about singers/actors and anyone in the limelight is that they do so much. How do you find time for you?
CM: You know, just recently I decided that I have to be me throughout all of that and my time has to be all the time, otherwise I’ll lose it.
LF: When it comes to your image and you putting this image out, do you ever find yourself at odds about it? I know that the industry puts this image of what “sexy” should be. Do you ever find yourself being conflicted between these two?
CM: Yeah all the time. I think everybody probably does. I can’t believe the amount of people who I’ve ran into and are beautiful, supermodelesque who are in the club, looking at the mirror, uncomfortable about the way they look – the most beautiful people in the world. There is so much insecurity in this industry, it’s incredible.
The red carpet for so many of us is torture. The reason why I decided to be so open with my security and insecurity and the way that I look is because I know it’s normal. It’s normal to be constantly dealing with the way you look.
It’s insane the amount of pressure put on celebrities. I remember over and over, the people taking my photos at my latest album cover shoot saying, “Does she have a wig?” “Does she have a hat?” Because they were uncomfortable.
The reason why I decided to show my whole body on the last album cover and the album cover before that is because I knew that there were other women who have my same figure and who somebody told them, “Do you have a jacket?”
LF: Chrisette, how do you deal with haters?
CM: I’m terrible. I get angry, I’m from New York so don’t be stupid. That’s not funny, you want to talk let’s talk. I think that’s just because I’m from New York. I don’t think that’s right or wrong; I think that because I am from New York, I’m loud and confrontational.
Here are a couple of wild-card questions I decided to ask Chrisette while I had her talking with me.
Favorite nail polish color? Jag-u-are by Essie.
One guilty pleasure you wouldn't be ashamed that you admitted later on: Like so many people, I’ve downloaded the Paris Hilton reality show and loved it.
Favorite place to escape to: Rome. I adore Rome.
Three elements that would make for a perfect date: Hopefully my Pastor doesn’t see this. A great kiss; corny – a picnic and Pinkberry.