“I believe artists have an important role – we have to make you think about the larger picture,” says Michaela Therese in an email interview with UrbanWire.
As a student at Catholic Junior College, Therese would forgo classes to tinkle the ivories on the baby grand in the school hall. With the support from her family and her passion for the craft, she was able to pave the way to her dream of making music.
A self-proclaimed “storyteller”, the 33-year-old neo-soul and jazz singer-songwriter tells UrbanWire that she intends to start a movement in the local music industry, by collaborating with other artistes and spreading their messages and awareness of local music.
As part of Esplanade’s ‘Late Nite’ concerts, Therese will be headlining “Power to the Pore” on September 26. With her band L.A.B, she will be performing original material as well as her own renditions of her favorite local music.
UrbanWire (UW): Hi Michaela, what have you been up so far?
Michaela Therese (MT): 2014 has been incredible. I kick-started the year with the 1st single, “Final Call” from my new album, then premiered my 1st ever music video.
In late April, I released my album, My Name Is MEEKELLAH. Since then, I’ve played the 100 Bands Festival, Sofar Sounds and many more to promote the album. I’ve also come up with my own videos to profile Singaporean artists and to start a movement to empower our art scene. I’ve just filmed the next music video for my 2nd single, “Make You Think”. Currently,I’m working on my “Power To The Pore” show.
UW: You are a singer, pianist, songwriter, producer and teacher. How do you manage each of your roles?
MT: I’m still learning how to compartmentalize and give myself enough time to be in the mindset required for each role. Performing and writing have always come naturally to me, but producing and managing myself are totally different skill-sets, teaching is a whole different ballgame. I’ve put teaching on the backburner for a while because I feel I need more time to commit to students, and everything that’s been happening in the last year and a half hasn’t given me that time.
On a daily basis, I just try to manage everything as best as I can and make sure I still have enough energy to do the most important thing – be a musician!
UW: When you were a teen, you won a national music competition with a few of your friends. What motivated you to enter that competition, and eventually choose music as a path?
MT: Haha, yes! That was “Rolling Good Times” in 1994, and I was 13. Music has always been a part of me and I think not choosing it would have gone against a basic instinct that I’ve always had. When my friends (Jacqueline Peeris, Sabina Fernandez and Vanessa Fernandez) and I entered that competition, we’d already been singing together for a while. That’s why joining the competition felt like a completely natural thing to do. It was the same for me when I decided to pursue music. I’ve been playing the piano since I was 4 and it still continues to be my first love.
When I was in junior college, I was trying to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. My schoolmates were deciding between Literature and Geography, Business and Political Science, Physics and Medicine. I somehow knew none of these paths were for me. If any of my teachers from CJC are reading this, they won’t be surprised to find out that I used to skip classes in my 2nd year and sneak into our school hall and play the brand-new grand piano we bought for our school’s 25th anniversary (I had access because I was “Head Of Music” on the school council, I know, I totally abused my authority). It was during one of my solitary practice sessions, playing that marvelous piano with the hall’s acoustics, that I decided to go to music school instead of university. I told my mum about my decision that night and she told me that as long as I knew it wasn’t going to be easy and worked my hardest, she would be behind me 100%.
I took a year off to prepare for music school and got my first gig in that year. I’ve never looked back.
UW: Tell us about your band L.A.B. How did you guys meet?
MT: Aya (our keyboard player) and I have been friends for years. In 2011, she was programming an event of hers called “Ayaschool” and she asked me if I wanted to collaborate with her. I’d just seen singer-songwriter Erykah Badu perform at Java Jazz (an annual international festival in Jakarta) that March. I was so inspired, so I told Aya I wanted to do a tribute. She loved the idea, so we started looking for a band. Around that time, I was doing a gig with Jia Rong (our drummer) and I randomly called a Badu tune, “Orange Moon”, not really thinking anyone would know it. But he did, and we just jammed to the tune together. I immediately asked him if he’d do the tribute gig with me. He agreed, and roped in Tim De Cotta as bassist.
At first, we called ourselves “BaduLab”, because we felt like we were analysing and experimenting with her music. But after 2 successful tribute gigs, we knew we couldn’t keep riding on her coattails. Although we acknowledge that Badu is the reason we were brought together as a band, we dropped the Badu in our name and kept Lab. However, we decided it wasn’t impactful enough, so we abbreviated it to L.A.B., which stands for Listen And Believe. Playing and writing music with them has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done in my 14-year career, and I love them dearly. I also feel very lucky to have had them play with me on my album.
UW: You’ve quoted Erykah Badu as one of your influences. What would you say was the definitive record or song that you were influenced by?
MT: Mama’s Gun – what a record. It begins with “Penitentiary Philosophy”, which is punishingly funky. Then there’s “Cleva” that is a neo-soul standard. It spoke to me as a woman who truly values smarts and wit but who understands insecurity. “Orange Moon” as well..
But the definitive song on the album for me is “Didn’t Cha Know”. “Free your mind and find your way, there will be a brighter day,” goes a line from the song. I still listen to that song when I know I need to be reminded of that, and I know I need to hear Erykah Badu’s voice telling it to me. And that bassline. Killer.
UW: On to your music – your album came out at the end of April. This album has been said to be a biography in itself. Tell us more about this debut album.
MT: I call this album a biography because it contains songs written throughout my music career and highlights so many of the milestones I went through in my personal growth. I wrote “Stand-Still” in junior college, leading up to my decision to pursue music. I wrote about love and loss with “Only You” and “If I Let You Go”. As I started to understand my responsibility as an artiste, I wrote about the social issues that troubled me – the abuse of the environment, corrupted forms of government, prejudice and acceptance, identity.
I consider myself a storyteller and a deliverer of messages. But I know that in order to send a message and be heard, people need to take you seriously. In my whole career, people thought of me as a singer and pianist, and I needed for them to know that I had something bigger to say with my music. So with this record, I wanted to empower and redefine myself so that people would start listening.
UW: What kind of statement do you want to make through your music?
MT: I want my music to inspire and heal. I want it to make people reach out and connect, and I want it to make people question our systems. I want my music to be all-round good for your soul.
UW: Your new show, Power to the Pore, is concerning a movement that is work-in-progress. How do you think this movement will help to create awareness about a possible “renaissance in the Singapore music scene”?
MT: All any of us can do is try. I’m hoping to set off a spark that will bring a lot of great Singaporean music under one roof for a night, which will hopefully get my audience to check out all the artistes I’ve talked about. Hopefully this will start a chain effect of people sharing music they wouldn’t have known otherwise.. I’m also hoping to educate my audience and get people as I am excited about the talent we have in this country.. Every movement starts somewhere! I’m just hoping to be the one who starts it and inspires enough people to continue it.
UW: What can audiences expect from your concert?
MT: They can expect world class musicianship from my band (Tim De Cotta on bass, Teo Jia Rong on drums and NAz on keys). There’ll also be guest performances by my amazing peers, Vanessa Fernandez, Kaye of Darker Than Wax and Aya (of L.A.B.) They can expect to hear my renditions of local music from one of our forefathers, Zubir Said, as well as a medley that includes songs from Humpback Oak to Inch Chua. I sincerely hope they will enjoy every moment and come out learning something about our vibrant scene.
Michaella Therese’s Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/miss-mic/make-you-think