For years now, Michele Thibeaux has been workin' it.
Workin' what, you ask? Well, she's been workin' her talent, which is singing. But she also has been workin' herself -- as a persistent entity on the local scene. Wherever there's a funky gathering of people enjoying some laid-back music, chances are she'll make an appearance. Not that she's there to insinuate herself with possible collaborators, sprinkling her voice about to the point of oversaturation. She just lets her presence be her calling card. If anybody likes what they see or hear, they come to her. Her understated approach to marketing seems to work well for the luscious-haired, honey-colored R&B songstress. Not that there was ever much doubt what she would do with her life: Music is simply in her bones.
"Honestly, it's something that I couldn't deny," says the Oakland-born Thibeaux. "I don't think music was an interest. It was more like a love. I've always loved it, absolutely loved it. And it didn't really matter what kind of music it was, 'cause I could remember a time when I'd be in my room with my AM radio and listen to Olivia Newton-John. So it didn't matter to me."
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But as a little one, it wasn't just Olivia Newton-John that she would get physical to. Thibeaux recalls sneaking into her brother's room and feasting on his album collection. "He had all the hip-hop, which was beautiful, but he also had a lot of jazz," she remembers.
Thibeaux's first stab at singing came in 1991, when she was attending Nashville's Fisk University. There she recorded one of her own compositions, "Come into My Heart." (According to Thibeaux, only two copies of that song were ever made -- and she has one of them.) After this false start, Thibeaux busted out of the blocks in 1994 when she transferred to Texas Southern University. Around that time, she slipped into the local music scene by approaching soul vocalist Zoe. While performing with a group at a TSU showcase, Thibeaux went to Zoe for some choreography tips. Singing was still in the back of her mind. "I knew that I wanted to sing," she says, "but I wanted to ease into it."
Thibeaux soon began singing backup for Zoe at many of her live gigs. But she couldn't deny her desire to be front and center. She hit the open-mike shows at Mahogany Cafe and Billy Blues Bar & Grill, both now closed. "Every Monday I'd get up there and just sing something," she says about her Billy Blues performances. "I felt like, 'Okay, if you do wanna sing, then you gotta get out there.' I didn't feel like, 'Okay, I wanna sing, I wanna go make a record.' I felt like, 'I wanna sing so I can get some experience being in front of the mike and knowing how to blend in with the band and see what my vibe was.' "
After this apprenticeship, she became a vocal-hook-for-hire for rap-metal group ragtag as well as for rappers Example and ZIN. Thibeaux knew that moving from background singer to the front of the stage was the next logical step.
She first started doing solo gigs at such places as the Travis Cafe, Cafe Brasil and the just-shuttered Current Nightclub, where she sang with Corey Stoot and his band, the Groove Ensemble. When she does such gigs, she often sings cover tunes by artists she admires, like Nina Simone and Amel Larrieux, but she mostly performs her own material. Thibeaux takes an organic, boho perspective when it comes to composing. "I have to live life," she says of her songwriting process. "I have to experience life. I have to do my everyday thing. I can't just sit there in my house and try and be creative. I can write songs in that way, but I'm inspired by just getting up every day, going outside and seeing a beautiful day."
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With Thibeaux, it always starts with a melody or an idea. "What I've learned is that whatever hits you, I don't care if it's three o'clock in the morning or four o'clock in the morning, whatever it is, I've gotta write it down, right then and there, or else I'll lose it," she says. "Write it down, and a couple of days later, I'll go back to it."
Whenever Thibeaux composes a song, she makes sure everything is polished to a high sheen. It's something she believes isn't emphasized enough these days. "Just because you have a verse, a chorus, a verse, another chorus, and maybe a rap doesn't mean it's done," she says.
Thibeaux says she has about 20 songs, seven or eight of which she will release as a still-untitled EP in the fall, which she will distribute independently. Not that she wouldn't mind joining a big-time label, but previous experiences have made her wary. "The more experienced I am, the more knowledgeable I become," she says. She first got the bug to go national in 1997 when she was part of an all-girl group called Flame, compiled by Erykah Badu producer Jah-Born. When the lead singer for that group dropped out, they snagged another member and formed Blak Ink in 1998. When that singer got a deal with Mary J. Blige, they found yet another vocalist and redubbed the group Butterfly 3. But after all this Destiny's Child-esque shuffling, Thibeaux decided to walk away at the end of last year. "I wanted to see what it was like to do my own thing," she says.
It seems like she has been doing nothing but that -- and it just keeps going that way. Next February, Thibeaux will marry her longtime companion Gerbralle Lyons. The couple already has a year-and-a-half-old son, Marley. And she will continue to perform her invigorating smooth grooves for anyone who's down with them. "What I call my music is plain ol' soul music," she says. "That's all it is."