The Emeline Michel Interview: The Songstress on Love, Life and Her Career in Music
After a career that has spanned several decades, Emeline Michel doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone, but she hustles and bustles as if she still does. Michel’s latest album is Quintessence, her first in nearly five years. Michel wrote all the songs on the 12-song album, except for two tracks, and as with previous Emeline Michel productions, she lent an artistic hand to every single track. When she is not composer, she is arranger, and in some cases, she wears the singer tiara, the composer tiara, and the arranger tiara. She is a pretty cookie, but she’s not the sort of cookie who’s there to decorate the table. She’s cooked all the little goodies on the table—thank you very much.
Michel was born in Gonaives, and recalls growing up in the countryside area of that city, and relishing in the unique pleasures of country life: sitting across the shadow of bonfires at night, listening to stories, eating tropical fruits with her close family, and most of all, and being fervently drawn to singing. Her penchant for singing would take her to atmospheric heights unknown to any other Haitian female singers before her: recording contracts with the world’s biggest labels, before venturing out on her own, and highly-acclaimed solo albums, and an envy-inspiring career that has been consistent and artistically fruitful. “Enormous,” is songwriter and composer Ralph Boncy’s one-word answer when asked about Michel’s significance to Haitian music. Boncy worked as producer on Michel’s debut album. He elaborates: “We wouldn’t even talk about a Haitian music industry when she started, in the mid 80s. Nearly thirty years and [several] albums later, she’s still hanging on. She has also been a major influence on most of the female singers who started after her, needless to say.”
Yes, indeed, needless to say. Singers like Misty Jean and Tifane, for one, who have always cited Michel as a musical influence. When asked to name her favorite Emeline Michel song, Misty Jean is at a loss of which to name. “I got so many I love,” says the singer. “Just to name a few “Pè Letenel”, “Lanmou Se Flanm”, “Vant Kòde”, “Pa gen manti nan sa.” Each of the songs that Jean names are from a different era of Michel’s career. From Michel’s artistic apogee came “Pè Letenel”. Watching the video of “Lanmou Se Flanm” with Michel in a Grace Jonesque high-top fade, and shaking her hips, it’s apparent that she was exploring her sensual side, as was clearly the case with the puffy lacefront Emeline in the “Pa Gen Manti Nan Sa” video.
With each album, the singer reinforces the Emeline Michel brand. Practically everything she wears on stage, she designed herself. Every outfit is calculated, every move orchestrated, down to her twerks on stage. Says Fabrice Rouzier, who initially met Michel in the early 1980s, “She, without a doubt, is the Queen of Haitian Music. She is a major and perhaps the first and foremost influence on young women trying to make a career of singing. She is also an influential musician always trying to innovate and bring something fresh to the table.”
Q & A
How did you discover your talent for singing? Well, there is a magical thing called church. My family was very religious. Early on, I was surrounded by the church. I was going on prayer nights. That’s where the music started. I had to go to church every morning. To God be the Glory. You had to sing for God. You sing with spirit. You’ve gotta sing with faith. All the music people were there. One day, the director of the choir—he was maestro of the choir—realized that I could sing solo for the choir. He gave me more and more songs. And I realized that people reacted a certain way; they clapped a certain way. I thought maybe I could sing something different too. And then slowly, gradually, I started to get with a friend that played guitar to sing things that didn’t have to simply do with the choir. I end up realizing that, okay, at my school at College St. Pierre, where I went for secondary school, I could sing for a birthday party for one of the teachers. Then Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. And I’m like, “Yes, I probably could do that for a living.” So early on, I would say the ground was the choir at my church. I went to church all my childhood and adolescence. And in school, which was College St. Pierre, where they nurtured talent. And I realized that I enjoyed doing it. First I was doing it for the fun of interpreting all the different French singers. My first gig was like for $50 [Laughter] Then it became like, “Yeah, I got $50 for a show at L’Institut Français.” [Laughter] That was my first pay. I was so proud to bring $50 home. So, that’s how it started.
What did your parents think about all this? You know…at first, when you’re singing for God, that’s always totally fine by them. My family always dreamed of me getting married to the pastor’s son because we went to the same church. [Laughter] But it was not happening. My father was the one that opposed [my musical career] the most. My mother—she was different. Sometimes she would be sewing new clothes for me—a long skirt that I like. Because she was like, “I don’t want you to show up with the same clothes all the time, the same dresses.” I found more support—at first—from my mother than my father. My father was like, “You don’t go to church and sing? De towo pa ka viv nan menm kay. [There can’t be two heads in one house]. One towo had to go. You can’t live in this house. If you don’t change, you will not find food at this table.” You wouldn’t believe how drastic he was at first. And then one day, he gave up. There was this theater near Champ de Mars called the Rex Theatre—I said to him that my dream was to fill up that place. It seemed so impossible. Two years down the line, I ended up being in TV. He [turned on] the TV and saw someone announce that “Oh, we’re hoping that the next time the artists will come and help.” There was a traffic jam in front of the theatre. It was the first show under my name. He looked at me, and said, “You know what? Chante pa mennen manje. Singing won’t put money on the table. You do whatever you want. If you break your teeth, it’s going to be your responsibility. You can do whatever you want.”
When you had that performance at that theater, what year was that? Oh gosh. I’m not good with dates at all. I can’t remember dates at all. So it was around…It was after Jean-Claude Duvalier left, so 86-87.
I thought you had like three, four albums, and then I read that you actually have, like, ten to eleven albums. Are you going to be reissuing the other ones— your old albums?. They’re really hard to find. I went online, Ebay… Unfortunately [they’re not available]. I will—certainly in the near future [make them available]. One project at a time. You have to catch your breath in between. But it is true, that in the future we can have a catalog keeper. In the industry, there is no such thing at this point. But I really look forward to getting all that material organized. But it’s really hard to find the whole albums. I have a total of eleven albums. One was a compilation made by Sony Japan. They took all [sorts of] different songs from different eras, and they put it out as an album—they called it Flanm.
There was thing song that you had performed during your show that’s on your new album. It was called “Djannie”. I’m just wondering—have you ever been in a—because to me that song—I’ve never actually heard a song like that—to me that song is extremely powerful—and like wow. I hope that’s one of the main songs that you end up doing videos for, and what not. And I’m just wondering, have you ever been in a physically or verbally abusive relationship? Um…some times you know…[pause] yes, one time—that was the first time and the last time. You are not proud when something like that happens to you. You could have seen it coming and everything. But that happened. I kinda remember my mother’s words, saying: “The first time is not the last time.” And I think the song and my personal story were at first very separate. It was when I met with Kali, and he made me listen to the melody without no words. He was like, “Emeline, we’re doing it, but I want your touch on it. I want your essence on it. Let’s get into what inspired it.” It was a woman that was beaten so bad by her husband, that she died and the child she was carrying as well. How do you manage to change something so strong and put something else into it? Kali was kind of reluctant to embrace something so heavy. But I was like, ‘Go for it, Kali. Because you know what? I think it will be helping someone who is in a situation where they’re afraid to move on.’ Sometimes they don’t want to start over again. Because they think that when the man is beating them up in a relationship, and they’re jealous and they think that it means they love them. That’s why in the song, I said: ‘Mwen di ou mwen pase la deja—I’ve been there before. M pap pale met la. Because I’m your friend—that’s why I’m telling you that—because I went through it.’ I think it was important to be honest about my own experience and how much—in being able to get out of it—I was able to love myself. Love, love, love and embrace the idea that I could find someone who could love me better. So that’s why I think “Djannie” came across so strong—it was a true story.
Some people who are probably reading this, will probably think to themselves, “How can somebody like her, who’s famous, could have gotten into a situation like that? What would be your message to someone who might have that sort of reaction? Well, I think we all—when it comes to love and emotions—there’s no famous. There’s no, ‘I’m this, so therefore, I’m exempted’. We are all subject to being so numb, so blind—when it comes to someone we love. We’re gonna give all the “good” excuses. We will say, ‘Oh, you know it was in jest.’, ‘You know he really did it because he really—‘, ‘You know that was just one time,’ ‘I can understand where he’s coming from’, ‘Oh it’s really jealousy because he’s in love with me.’ You when when you’re working or you’re going out and this person picks your seat. It’s easy to get caught up on the nonsense, and not realize his true intentions. But I think my mother did a wonderful job. She always told me: “Don’t let anyone raise their hands on you. If it gets to the point where you can’t communicate with each as a human being and listen to each other, then there’s no love.”
When someone sits here and studies your career—you’re actually like the first Haitian female solo singer of modern times. How did you know how to act—because you didn’t really have a precedent—there was not really a tradition. I have read about the Lumane Casimir lady, but she was from the 1930s-1940s. How did you know how to carve this career? People like Fiona Lewis in the U.S. music industry, and everybody else had someone who paved the way. Studying the Haitian music industry history, you didn’t really have anybody before you. How did you carve this incredible career for yourself? Is this something that you learned as you went along? You didn’t really have anybody guiding you? I appreciate the question ‘cause sometimes it’s good for me to hear it and to question myself. I don’t really come from a family that had any music background at all—especially in Gonaives. There’s quite a few singers from Gonaives. In my family, we didn’t have no singers, no guitar players, no piano players at all. I was ridiculous. I would get up early and take the broom and sing in front of the mirror [Laughter]. My mom would say, ‘Be quiet. All the neighbors already know when you’re coming from school’, because I was singing loud. It was really the love and the passion for music and for art that really took over. They took over. I was passionate about the arts. I had the chance to study with Daniel Marcelin—he taught drama [in Haiti]. We would lie down on the floor, pretending we had fleas. Sometimes, we would fall asleep. These are the experiences that I had with people as [mentors]. When I first started in my career, my father was like, “No,no one is going to be picking up my daughter!” Yole and Ansy Derose—they were doing a big show: Journée International de la Jeunesse [International Youth Day]. Yole would come to ask my father for permission to take me to rehearsal. The driver—their driver would come to drive me back. I remember the next day, Ralph Boncy had an article—my first article [concert review]. [It basically said that] I was only eighteen years old, and I was in front of 12,000 people at Sylvio Cator [stadium].
In terms of those people who were instrumental in your early career, how did you connect with them? When it comes to Daniel Marcelin, my sister was taking a class with him. One afternoon, I came along, and it wa like, “Whoa, what was that all about.” With Ansy and Yole Derose, they were planning a show and they were looking for singers. They wanted someone to represent every department [region] in Haiti, including L’Artibonite, where I was from. I went to Radio Nationale to audition.
What do you remember about your first album? Putting it together, the reaction to it? I was so mad! Because, for me, it didn’t come close at all to what I really wanted.
The sound? The cover? [Laughter] Everything about the album! I was like, “Why is my voice so low? I can’t even heart it.”
What was the name of the album? Douvan Jou.
How many songs? I don’t remember. [pause] There were nine songs. There was usually nine. It was a vinyl record. That was the era.
Did you write them? Or did you have co-writers? Co-writers. Because at this point, I was working with co-writers. With Ralph Boncy and Sharp—it was like an association that was producing new artists.
Did you have an artistic say in the arrangements…the— Of course. I always did. Thank God. I will always be grateful to Ralph Boncy. He’s the one who pushed me: “You can do it. You can write your own song.” And later, when I wrote “Flanm”, he was like, “Ah, you’re on your own. I’m not going to touch that one.”
Was that the first song you wrote all by yourself? The first one I wrote was “Ayiti Peyi Solèy.”
When you’re about to launch a new album, how do you determine its style? Do you wait to be inspired, and go from there? You will [usually know] what to write. [It all has to do] with what’s going on in your world.
Your record label–Cheval de Feu—what inspired the name? I am a horse on fire. [Laughter] In the Chinese calendar, you have your pig, your horse, and I am a horse on fire.
You have this song called “Pa Gen Manti Nan Sa”. Oh my God! How did you come up with that song? [Laughter]
Did you write it for someone? I wrote it. Actually, we were working together Mushi Widmaier and I. It was written in Miami, actually. In Florida. At that point, Ralph was the one who produced that album also. We rented a whole house and all the musicians were together all day long. Then we went to the studio. It was a beautiful experience. I told Mushi I wanted something that would take your breath away. He did a good—an excellent job. That’s one of my favorite songs too, actually.
Do you ever see yourself living in Haiti for good? Absolutely. I’m raising my son. He’s twelve years old. But further down, I see myself living in my country.
Who would you want to play you in a movie? Wow. I honestly never thought about it. It’s not an ambition. I don’t know. I never really thought about it, really. I’m sure if someone had an intention of [filming a movie] that would capture my past, they would be able to find someone who could do an excellent job…a really wonderful artist.
Do you have any regrets about your life or career? Never. What better life is there?
Say for example, if you could speak to yourself, what would you say to yourself when you were first starting out? Actually…[Laughter] What would I say to myself? I am born in March, the first day of Spring. If I could…I would teach myself not to be so impulsive. There was a part of me that was [impulsive].