In a very short span of time, R&B singer/songwriter Chrisette Michele shot from small-time performer up to one of Def Jam’s most promising talents, purely based on her unique instrument — a gorgeous and effortlessly versatile singing voice colored with Billie Holiday-esque inflections of vocal pop and jazz. The jazz-influenced vocalist, born Chrisette Michele Payne in 1982, developed her pipes through singing gospel, first performing for a congregation at age four. God and music were clearly instrumental in her upbringing: her father, who also played the organ, was a deacon, and her mother was the church’s choir director. Growing up in Patchogue, New York, a small town on Long Island, the young singer’s parents always kept her busy with tap dancing, piano lessons, choir rehearsals, and the like. But at age 17,Chrisette had an epiphany. After a teacher gave her a CD containing the bossa nova standard “The Girl from Ipanema,” she was immediately won over to jazz by Brazilian jazz singer Astrud Gilberto’s voice. She spent endless hours isolated in a room with a piano learning jazz standards as they were sung by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and other greats. She wound up studying vocal and jazz performance at Five Townes College on Long Island.
When she began doing gigs at local venues, it was mainly for small audiences at open mikes or for auditions. However, shortly thereafter, neo-soul singer India.Arie, who spotted her at Manhattan’s Village Underground club, enlisted Chrisette to be her opening act, as did Kem and Angie Stone. And at that same club, she was also discovered by representatives of Def Jam, who were enamored with her vocal abilities and had her signed to the label by 2006. At the end of the year, Def Jam brought her out in full force, allowing her to write and sing the hooks for Jay-Z’s “Lost Ones” and Nas’ Nat King Cole-inspired “Can’t Forget About You.” Her album debut, I Am, followed in June 2007. Adding to the album’s influences of gospel, adult alternative pop, and hip-hop, she wrote all the songs herself and worked closely with artists/producers Babyface, Salaam Remi, John Legend, and will.i.am. For Epiphany, released in March 2009, the majority of the songwriting was farmed out to the likes of Chuck Harmony and Rodney Jerkins; it topped the R&B and Billboard 200 charts despite lacking a major single. Chrisette was back to writing most of the material for November 2010’s Let Freedom Reign, an album produced entirely by Harmony. While it debuted within the Top Ten of Billboard’s R&B chart, it was her last album for Def Jam. She switched to Motown for Better, released in June 2013, with input from several producers, including Harmony, Carvin & Ivan, Oak & Pop, and Wizzy Wow.