“I wanted to start over from where I first started running,” Michelle says. “It’s been a complete identity shift, and it’s still happening. That’s why ‘Running’ was important. To say, ‘This has been a part of my process.’”
Michelle grew up in Wilmer-Hutchins, the daughter of a pastor, listening to everything she wasn’t supposed to. Hip-hop, Friday night band music, soul and R&B influenced her just as much as her father’s gospel music.
“Because I was raised in my dad’s church, I wasn’t able to express that, but we always snuck and listened to it," Michelle recalls. "So on Friday nights, I was like the cheerleader dancing in the middle of the field, and so with this new music, I really wanted to give myself the opportunity to go back to my roots.”
“Running” won’t sound like any one of Michelle’s influences, but like an amalgamation of those influences culminating in a gritty, raw exploration of self.
Michelle dubs her new direction “experimental soul,” a reflection of the things she’s experienced told through brutally honest, introspective lyrics atop a soundscape that blurs the line between noise and formal song structure. It’s trippy, intense and visceral, the perfect backdrop for the messy throes of an identity shift.
Though music has pulled at her soul for as long as she can remember, a younger Michelle thought she should strive for a normal life. She went to Texas A&M for two years between 1994 and ’96, before dropping out to pursue cosmetology school.
“I tried to do something else than just be a musician for a time, and that was like, let me try and go to college; let me try some regular shit, and it just didn’t stick. It didn’t stick,” Michelle says.
Doing hair may still be what pays the bills, but music has never let her go.
“That’s what I’ve been doing most of my years, professionally, but music has always been there kind of as a backdrop. I would pull it out at times and be like, ‘OK, I’m going to do this full time,’ and then hair just kind of comes back in because it’s what pays me,” Michelle says. “Now, I’m willing to make bigger sacrifices being able to have music be a bigger part of my life.”
Over the last six years, Michelle has been investing in her musical career. Her journey started when she was in The Black and Blue with Keite Young (Medicine Man) and Snarky Puppy’s Mark Lettieri back in 2008, and though the group disbanded, she stayed friends with Young while going solo in 2010.
“I’m willing to make bigger sacrifices being able to have music be a bigger part of my life.” — Mattie Michelle
In 2012, she started doing her solo act at RBC joined by Young during the monthly Medicine Man Revival nights. She says the music she made back then was all about past relationships, but during the Revival years, her personal transformation began to change what she was writing about.
This led to the creation of Mattie Michelle and the Mystics, which began playing together four years ago, incorporating funk and gospel motifs into their collective exploration of consciousness. Eventually, things slowed down for the band, and the Mystics went their separate ways. And though Michelle says there is always a chance the group will reunite, for now, she is on her own musical journey.
Last year Michelle started writing songs without music or melodies, the raw, lyrical outworking of her spiritual awakening.
“I didn’t want to tell that story for a long time," she says. "One of my friends encouraged me. He said, ‘You can’t just jump over that … you need to stretch out and let people know who you are, where you have been, and be completely OK with being vulnerable enough to share that.’”
His advice struck a chord, and Michelle took “Running” to producer Jordan Edwards, aka IAMYU, to start putting her meditations into song form. She told him she wanted a track that felt grimy, dirty, a reflection of the way she felt while she was confronting the ugliest parts of herself. Michelle met him in his East Dallas home studio to go over ideas, and the song materialized almost instantly.
“I had picked out a few tracks that were roughly minute-long sketches/ideas that I thought vibes well with Mattie," IAMYU says. "The first track was a sketch called 'FluteBaus.' It was based off a sample I found in my sound library that I slowed down, reversed, and then added these flute samples that I had wanted to play with, kind of Eastern and mystical. It was a dark, almost grimy track.
“As soon as I played her the sketch, I could tell that it had inspired her. It was no looking back. I joked about it afterward that we didn’t even give the other tracks consideration … gifts for the future in my eyes.”
After two or three takes in the studio, Michelle and IAMYU minted the single as “Running.”
The song’s journey culminated in Michelle going back to Hutchins to record the track's music video. She and video director Alex Curington searched the town for the spots from Michelle’s childhood, shooting the last few scenes in her old family home.
Though she had her doubts about baring her personal growth to the world in song, ultimately Michelle says this is the only way it could have been.
“The bones to artistry is being willing to be honest. I’m just going to keep being honest,” she says.
“I’m not really sure where that’s going to lead me or who will listen to that, but I don’t care. I just want to be able to say it.”
Watch the video for "Running" below: