Back in September, Michael Love Michael released their staggering debut album XO. Offering a richly varied sound palette, XO is a powerful pop record, harnessing the expansive essence of pop and distilling this into varied, genre-defying multitudes. It’s also a deeply personal and intimate release that sees the Manhattan-based artist pour themselves into each track with raw emotivity and self-assurance.

Opening with the blistering ‘Rope’, Michael Love Michael’s distinct artistry is immediate and vibrantly, compellingly tangible. A flurry of driving, grunge-rock guitars and spellbinding, ethereal vocals, ‘Rope’ holds an atmospheric tension reflecting the powerful lyrics as Michael expresses their experiences of “being under constant pressure as a Black, queer, nonbinary person in 2020″. Elsewhere ‘JFC’ offers skittering, heady beats and brooding electronica, whilst ‘6 Jaguars’ shimmers with glossy, 80s-inflected synth-pop. Each track on the record holds a pertinent message and encompasses an expansive sonic cosmos in itself, with the record as a whole comprising an inherently political and deeply authentic personal expression. Speaking on the record they state, “I see my music as a statement of love, even if I’m not shying away from what’s real in my world, and in the world around me”.

They have also recently released haunting, ethereal new single ‘Apple’ which already has us excited to see what’s next in store for them.

We caught up with Michael Love Michael to talk nature, pop, the making of XO, and what’s next for them.

– Firstly, how are you?

2020 has been an insane year for all of us, but I’m healthy and blessed in many ways. I have really taken this time to dig deeper into my art and consider what it is I value most. I find myself becoming even more honest about those values and the kind of person I want to be. I’m holding less back. I’d say those are some major pluses in an otherwise pretty shitty year.

– You released XO to coincide exactly with the New Moon, can you tell us about the significance of this for you?

I really love symbolism, especially if it’s in any way connected with spirituality, numbers, planetary movement or astrology. I’ve intentionally planned all of my single releases around important events either in my personal life or cosmologically. It’s kind of like a manifestation exercise for me. So to have something like my debut album planned for release around the New Moon feels like it’s me giving the work an extra boost, so to speak. The New Moon is all about possibility, renewal, rebirth. The album is an introduction to listeners, of who I am and what I’m about. It’s also my way of saying “here I am, and I’m ready for all that’s to come,” specifically all the good stuff.

– There’s a really potent, captivating array of different sounds contained within the album – how did this come about? And what was the creation process like?

Thank you! I have always been a person of many varied interests. I have always resisted the idea that I should ever just focus on one thing in life. I think as a Black person, society is always trying to place me in a box somewhere, and I’ve always said that Black people contain multitudes. So that translates to sound. I grew up listening to Britney Spears, Liz Phair, TLC, Tupac and Biggie and Nine Inch Nails. I guess it makes sense that my influences find their way into my sound. I think the sound is rooted in pop music, from songwriting structure to melodies, but it’s the texture me and my producer Rich Dasilva created around it that I feel especially proud of. It elevates the message and the lyrics to have a sound that is in constant evolution. Many of these songs came to me in dreams. We were about three songs in and then the pandemic hit. I started having these wild dreams in quarantine and I would wake up in the middle of the night and sing voice notes into my iPhone and wake up later to realize I had threads of lyrics and melodies. I’d even hum out guitar lines or synthesizer notes that I’d hear in my head. In my dreams, I imagined myself performing my songs, with full-on choreography and everything. I’d take all these ideas to my producer, or I’d write a complete song and take that forward. The process just continued on like that. I’m honestly shocked to have an album. But once the songs started coming out of me, they wouldn’t stop. This is still the case. For someone who went through writer’s block several years ago and felt like I’d run out of new ideas, I consider this fountain of inspiration the biggest gift.

– I think the sonic and stylistic diversity across XO reflects something of the way pop has expanded and evolved over the years to encompass a lot more. As a pop artist, what does pop signify for you?

Pop is everything you want it to be and also nothing you want it to be. I think what I love about pop is that it usually reflects demand. For instance, right now- and always- hip-hop and rap is topping the charts, but it can definitely be argued that folks like Nicki Minaj, Doja Cat, DaBaby, Young Thug, Post Malone, City Girls, Megan Thee Stallion, and others are pop musicians. And back in the ’50s and ’60s, it was rock and folk music. In the ’70s, pop was disco. In the ’80s, it was New Wave. I don’t think pop needs to have a specific sound or identity. It just needs to reach people. If you’re true to yourself and what it is you want to say, I believe you can and will reach the people you want and need to reach. I wanted XO to represent this sense of being true to myself and my inspirations, and not feeling like I need to compromise what I’m about to achieve massive success.

– The raw emotion you’ve poured into XO is tangibly powerful; how did it feel for you releasing this and sharing such deeply personal work?

I think I had the experience of so much love and labor going into making the work and that was coupled with so much excitement. In the days after releasing the album, I definitely went into a little bit of a depression, which is something I’ve struggled with all my life. But this was different. I could tell that I was feeling down from having really put my all into this body of work, and of course the normal self-doubt started to kick in: Am I fooling myself by thinking I deserve to release art? Who do I think I am? But then, I realized that few people ever share such personal things about themselves publicly, especially as an artistic practice. But for me, this is the most powerful way to carry a message. In songs like “On God,” I’m advocating for the lives of Black trans women by sharing my own experiences with violence. In “Mother’s Day,” I’m singing about the labor of sacrifice, which is an experience I think all marginalized people can relate to, or just anyone who’s ever had to give themselves up to feel happy. That song also makes references to my grandmother, who died last year of cancer, and is someone I love very much. In “The Hatred,” I examine what it would be like to let myself fully become cynical and hateful, as it seems most of the modern world operates that way. I included a very personal poem at the end that I wrote about the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in death and injury of counter-protestors. But still, these messages are things I think people need to hear. It’s my truth but it’s also about looking at the world we live in and looking at a way forward.

– You also draw on nature a lot within your work. What importance does this hold for you?

Nature is sacred and healing. I am so grateful to be able to experience it fully. I just spent my summer on a permaculture farm out west and I was reminded that even in a global pandemic, we can turn to nature and find ways to give back to the earth. It’s so important to acknowledge that the land we stand on was stolen from indigenous people, and then be in a space of reparation for damage caused. My ancestors were slaves and also land-owners and farmers. I think one of the most revolutionary things I can do as a Black person is establish a relationship with land that is not rooted in the historical trauma of slavery, but rather is about sovereignty and a sense of personal power. This connection to roots is something I’m writing more about in my new music.

– You’ve got another EP just about to come out right? Can you tell us a bit more about that?

I’m not sure what shape it’ll take just yet, if it’ll be an EP or an album. I think I want it to be an album. I’m a bit old-fashioned in that way. I like albums that can be listened to from start to finish. That’s the way I grew up listening to music and is the way I want to make music. But definitely as I just mentioned there will be more songs about my ancestry and roots as well as songs about my past, my sexuality and you know, where I am now, where I see myself going. I just released a song called “Apple” last month. Rich produced it and I wrote it with Jesse Saint John. I’m diversifying my collaborator pool this time around as well, so we’ll see what that yields. The video to “Apple” will be out on Halloween and is definitely a signal of where I’m headed artistically. I think the best is truly yet to come.

Buy: XO

Photo credit: Ross Days