Released April 17, the track finds him crooning “I just can’t get too close,” over a propulsive house-inflected bass-line. The second single released in promotion of Michaels’ upcoming, as-yet-unnamed, debut LP, “Close” also features Woodmere rapper Joey Aich, who remembers a missed connection and calls for “space, boundaries.”
In reality, Michaels began writing “Close” more than two years ago, on Nov. 26, 2017. He knows the exact date because the Cleveland songwriter routinely records fragments of songs on his phone categorized by date, creating an up-to-the-minute log of his creative process.
Scroll further, and three days earlier in 2017, you’ll find the first sketches of “Fair Fight.” The fiery, Weeknd-indebted track is his album’s first single, released last March, an electropop mission statement coolly outlining Michaels’ unflappable inner strength.
Like many creatives, he’s been perfecting his new pieces for a long time, teaching himself production on music software program Ableton and workshopping ideas on his first instrument, the piano. But after completing the album last October, performing at WJCU’s annual Blizzard Bash and opening for Aaron Carter’s Odeon show, Michaels was preparing for a long stretch of 2020 gigs to promote his album. And then the coronavirus happened.
“It’s pushed me, honestly, to make more content,” the 23-year-old says. “It doesn’t have to be new songs all the time. Sometimes it’s just how you engage with people. People seeing you, interacting with you, that’s essentially what content is for, right? To build a conversation between you and the people you want to talk to.”
That’s included making lyric videos, like the vibrant one he released last Friday for “Close,” or the clip he released today in support of the track, featuring a montage of fan performances (some donning their protective face masks) and at-home performance clips. While they can’t see Michaels perform the new single in concert, fans can request “Close” on WOVU and WJCU, where the track is enjoying regular airplay, or access all of Michaels’ music on streaming platforms.Michaels was considering making a music video for “Close” before the pandemic, but for now, fans can smash replay on the strobe-lit clip for “Fair Fight,” which Michaels filmed in the basement of his church, Richmond Heights’ Church of the Nazarene, last December. His first official music video, the clip was a team effort: Michaels recruited friends and collaborators such as co-director Joseph “Joyo” Young and film production outfit Ghetto Kids Big Dreams to build a black box inside the basement, help with makeup and act as stagehands.
The resulting video is sleek and commanding, tracking Michaels down shadowy hallways and into bright, bare rooms as he asserts a newfound self-assurance. But the clip begins in a classroom of sorts, the artist deep in thought in front of a blackboard covered in epithets: “Fatty,” “Queer,” “Loner.” They’re the jabs and insecurities others, and Michaels himself, once aimed his way, words he casts off with one pointed look at the camera before the single’s slick bass-line starts.
“My old EP [2017’s Die In Me] felt very much like that —very dark, very emotional, very tinted in self-evaluation,” says Michaels. “I was 19, evaluating where I was at in life, who am I, what is true … so that scene is me coming out of that into this new space of ‘I haven’t exactly figured it all out, but I’ve figured me out.’”
For Michaels, that means, in part, a comfort and confidence in his identity as a queer, black, Christian pop artist, and a strengthened belief in advocacy for causes close to him, such as LGBTQ rights and music in schools. Those pieces of himself coexist, intersect and help propel his music to rich new spaces. During social distancing, he believes that kind of deeper self-awareness and inventory of beliefs is crucial for artists reaching out to the world.
“It’s forcing us to [adapt],” he says. “You can’t just say ‘I’m a gigging musician, I’m going to play in a restaurant for three hours and that’s how I’m going to live.’ You have to be not just a musician — you have to be an artist. It’s forcing you to have an identity, say ‘I stand for these things.’ You can’t just release songs anymore, especially when it’s so crowded with so many people releasing music online. So if you don’t figure out what you stand for, you’ll get blown away.”