Michelle O Faith in conversation with Chapter Z

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Michelle O Faith on ‘Black Lolita’

Born in South London to an East-African mother and West-African father, Michelle O Faith is a vocalist, songwriter, and producer making music that pushes the boundaries of Alternative Pop and has previously received support from CLASH, Hunger Magazine, Record of The Day, The 405, and DropOut UK.

Her carefully crafted sonics, raw instrumentation, and unique vocal style – rooted in her concert level Opera training – creates a striking sound that is instantly recognisable and has earned her comparisons to Kate Bush and Lana Del Rey.

Michelle sat down with Chapter Z to talk about her latest release, Black Lolita – the inspiration and the important message behind it. 

Z: The track title and lyrics reference the iconic novel ‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov. What about this story inspired the track and how much do you align yourself with the character of Lolita – if at all? 

Michelle: My interpretation of the novel is that Dolores does nothing via her presentation or engagements with Humbert to entice his nature of attention. She is simply herself. And the character of Lolita is one created in Humbert’s mind, based on his own sexual fantasies; and then projected onto Dolores whom – in so doing – he unspokenly tasks with the burden of fulfilling them. Dolores becomes “Lolita” without assuming the role of Lolita herself. The above is what strikes me. 

Saying this, then, the song’s narrative is not that I am willingly Lolita. But rather, in situations of a highly specific dynamic, the character is projected onto me by the male gaze. Experience means I am not oblivious however. The song is me narrating my acute awareness of the above as it unfolds. I know what this older, more powerful gentleman is up to – or, at least, has the propensity to get up to. I am one step ahead. When I sing on repeat “I’ll be your Black Lolita”, it’s a dare. I knowingly dare him to succumb to the role experience has shown me his type so has proclivity for. Through my acute awareness, the power changes hands; and I subvert the role of “victim”. I feign innocence but, really, the oblivious one is him.

At a base level, Black Lolita is about the abuse of power that is all too rampant in the music industry. And, more specifically, the fetishising of young black women at the hands of older white industry males. The sonic is lush and light. But isolate the lyrics, and it’s a sad song, really. 

Z: In general, what is your creative process like? Did it differ when you were creating ‘Black Lolita’?

Michelle: I generally receive a song title before anything else. The subject matter of the song comes with it. I love a title that jumps out – that makes the potential listener think, “Oooh – I wonder what that will be about?” I’m a producer as well as a songwriter. So – for the songs I produce by myself – I might have lyric ideas based on the title floating around in my head.. But I will start with the production. Then, once that’s more or less “there”, I’ll sit down and start writing to it. 

With Black Lolita, the title popped into my head, one day; and I knew exactly what I wanted to write about. I also knew the kind of production I wanted to go for. But didn’t start anything on my own. I went into the studio with Max Honsinger, who’s this incredible producer. I played in the guitar riff you hear in the opening bars, and then Max built the production round that. I told him I wanted strings – it had to be cinematic. Then, I went into his kitchen to write. Meanwhile, he cracked on with the production. It came together super fast that first day. A lot of the vocals on the final track are from the first demo. 

Z: The lyrics and video contain some very compelling imagery and perfectly crafted stories. Are these inspired by personal experiences? What would you like the listener to take away from these stories and the track as a whole?

Michelle: Thank you so, so much. They aren’t inspired so much by personal stories. But there are 4 characters in the video – and each is intended to represent a facet of me based on the experience I sing about. In the first scene, we have The Ragdoll. In situations like the one described, I have often felt viewed as an inanimate object, a toy of sorts; confined by the character projected onto me by these men. You feel trapped within their gaze and fantasy of you, unable to break out (for want of trying). Me in the car is The Lolita as she has come to be known in the zeitgeist – a youthful playfulness and zest for life meets an unmistakably adult, female sensuality. In the bedroom on Verse 2, I am The Imp. The little girl in me who, on the one hand, feels out of her depth; but on the other, is able to find a lightness and humour in the situation, with a precocious cheekiness that makes her want to play these men at their own game.. And win. The Runaway is me in the white summer dress. (As per the lyric). I wish there were no game to play, or not play. I hate the whole thing, and long to run away from it. But somehow, feel unable to break free. (Bringing us back to The Ragdoll). 

If there’s anything I want the listener to take away from the song, it’s that things aren’t always what they seem. 

Z: There is what seems to be an intimate and personal voice message at the end of your music video, is this a real voice note? And what made you include it?

Michelle: Everyone who hears Black Lolita asks about the voicenote. Is it real? If so, who is it? Etc etc. I’m a pretty open book but prefer to leave some things a mystery. The above aside, I included the note because I felt it added a certain element of storytelling to the track. I wanted to give the listener an idea of how the guy in such a situation may approach things. 

Z: You directed the music video for ‘Black Lolita’ alongside Parri Thomas; and single-handedly produced it, styled it, edited it, and wrote the treatment. How did you find the production process and what advice would you give independent artists looking to start creating and directing their own music videos?

Michelle: I always write my treatments, as I have such a strong vision of who I am as an artist and exactly what I want to convey. Same goes for directing. Me producing, styling and editing, though, was literally borne of necessity due to budget restrictions! I don’t tend to shy away from a challenge – and I now have an entirely new skill-set, which is a bonus. 

The production process of the video damn near killed me! I’m an independent artist – and many will tell you there’s nothing like the above to make one resourceful! I had to be clever with how I pulled stuff together. An added difficulty was 3 of the 5 scenes being outside. Being all too familiar with British weather made watching the forecast and trying to plan shoot days around it pure anxiety-inducing! It was the tail-end of summer, as well – so, I had everything crossed. In the event, each day was beautifully bright and sunny – a feat I thank the Universe for! 

To indie artists looking to start making videos without a “team” – the first thing I would say is be resourceful. Look to your immediate network for people you can pull in for favours etc. Particularly people who are up-and-coming like yourself. There’s a lot of talent there, and you’d be surprised by how many people just want experience and something to show work-wise etc. Also – trust your vision. Work with people who also trust it but have the skills to help bring it to life. 

Z: Congratulations on being granted funding from The MOBO’s Help Musicians Fund! How does it feel to be acknowledged by the MOBO’s and how do you plan on utilising the funding?

Michelle: Thank you so much! And thanks to Queen Kanya King and the MOBO’s! It feels incredible to be acknowledged by an organisation so instrumental and influential to the growth and recognition of black music in the UK. The MOBO’s has proved simply seismic. I would argue that you don’t think of black music in this country without thinking of them. So, I’m humbled for that. The grant is also special to me because I am aware that – as a black artist – sonically speaking, I am quite different. I curve expectations and stereotypes. This is something that could breed insecurity in me but, actually, I embrace – even as genres like Grime, (which I love), grow increasingly popular in the UK. Saying this, the “stamp of approval” from the MOBO’s feels especially important, right now, as – at a time when black artists in the UK are receiving more love than ever from the mainstream –  it signals that black artists are not a monolith. In the same way black people aren’t. The above can be forgotten, sometimes, I feel. 

I have used the funding to create my new project – a trilogy of EP’s titled Lagoon. Vol I came out in June. Vol II is scheduled for an Autumn release; and Black Lolita is its lead single.

Z: This issue of Chapter Z explores the idea of home and what it means to us. Where do you feel most at home when creating and why? 

Michelle: I feel most at home creating wherever I catch a vibe. To catch a vibe, though, I have to be comfortable. So, wherever I am, so long as I am comfortable, I feel at home creating. It isn’t down to your environment so much as it is your state of mind. I find, anyway.

Stream Black Lolita here.

Follow Michelle O Faith here.