Che’nelle: World View

There are many words that Che’nelle’s camp use to describe her sound- ‘NuUrban’, ‘Rhythmic’- but truth be told, the dancehall influence underlining her melodies are hardly invisible. While Jay-Z looks at the UK Grime scene to bring some originality back to Hip-Hop, DJ Sir Charles, a longstanding DJ in New York City, headed to a […]

There are many words that Che’nelle’s camp use to describe her sound- ‘NuUrban’, ‘Rhythmic’- but truth be told, the dancehall influence underlining her melodies are hardly invisible. While Jay-Z looks at the UK Grime scene to bring some originality back to Hip-Hop, DJ Sir Charles, a longstanding DJ in New York City, headed to a remote city in Australia after coming across Che’nelle’s MySpace page. He returned to NYC determined to get her signed to a major label. Weeks later, as the Christmas season approached in 2005, Che’nelle was sealing her fate with a six-album deal on Virgin Records.

This Malaysian-born, Australian singer, songwriter and producer is now back in New York re-recording a large chunk of her original tracks for her soon to be released debut album. Although she realizes that America might take a while to fall for her rhythmic sound, she’s living the international dream of artists all around the world. Before she headed back to Australia (on a 20 hour flight) to open up for Kanye West’s tour, Che’nelle took time out for, so we can get to know her before all the others come a-knocking. Alternatives: So how does it feel to be signed to a major label?

Che’nelle: It started off to be really overwhelming, now it’s like, “Sh*t, we got to start working.” I’m just trying to get my mind re-focused.

AHHA: In a nutshell, tell us how you got into the music business? Did you work with anyone locally in Australia?

Che’nelle: I started when I was four or five years old. In Malaysia my dad had a karaoke joint, and I was always there singing. I moved to Australia when I was 10, and my mum used to put me in competitions in malls [and other places]. During school I was in a band, and I did that for about four to five years, and that’s where I got my performance skills. After I finished high school, I decided that music is what I wanted to do, so I went on a search for the best R&B and Hip-Hop producers in Perth. At that time there was only two – Audius and B-Side. Audius is more commercial, while B-Side is more deep urban. I worked with B-Side for about three years.

AHHA: You also studied music at this time?

Che’nelle: That’s right. At the same time I met B-side I entered University for a Diploma in Contemporary Music. I built a home studio and began recording my own vocals.

AHHA: What was the sound like at that point? When did dancehall play a part of it?

Che’nelle: Even when I first started, the way I sing and the way I do my melodies, always has a dancehall thing to it. But I actually never knew it would become the direction I would go in. At first my sound was very R&B. My songs are very much a cross between R&B and soul, not very much Hip-Hop, but there are elements of Hip-Hop in it. And, yes, a lot of dancehall.

AHHA: How did your major deal come about? Tell us the story of how a small town girl gets signed to a major label in America.

Che’nelle: It’s so unreal! Australia is the most isolated country in the world [geographically] and Perth is one of the most isolated cities in this country. My manager, Amy, put up a MySpace page around May last year. A couple of weeks later [Sir] Charles, who runs his own label called Skip, and is now my production manager in New York, left a message to call him.

We were a bit skeptical, but we thought we would give it a shot. We had been talking to him for almost seven months. Through those seven months his whole plan was to understand me, see my vision, and see what I was like as an artist. He loved what I did. He tried to create a little bit of buzz too, because he’s a huge DJ in New York- a part of the Bumsquad crew.

After eight months he came all the way to Perth to see us. He was really serious. I showed him the studio and how I worked. He went back to New York very excited. In a week he called me back and said Virgin Records was interested in my stuff. He had a meeting with the CEO following week and put me on speaker phone – I think I was a little shocked. I went to New York, met everybody the first day, second day I was in my lawyer’s office going through the contract they had offered me. By the third day, I had signed it.

AHHA: Was [Jermaine Dupri], President of Virgin’s Urban division, involved in the deal? Have you met him yet?

Che’nelle: No, he wasn’t there when I was there. I think he was in L.A. Basically because I’m under Skip, Skip is the imprint, and I’m signed to Virgin through them. Labels can be so confusing. I met hundreds of people from Virgin, because every department is involved in the project. All the departments are so separated but they still work together.

AHHA: Tell us more about the music.

Che’nelle: Well, we recently did a cover of “I Fell in Love with a DJ” which we originally recorded over an R. Kelly loop. We did it as a promo mixtape thing, but Virgin really liked it and wants to release it. The song is dancehall crossover beat. The departments at Virgin are so confused because it’s urban, pop, dancehall- it’s everything.

AHHA: What did you listen to growing up? A lot of dancehall fans are going to be wondering how some girl in Perth got into this style of music?

Che’nelle: I know! Seriously, I am the strangest story. Growing up my dad would play Tom Jones. My mum would play Diana Ross. My mum listens to a lot of reggae. It would always be playing in the background in my house, and I always remember the beat. Besides that I grew up with Whitney, Mariah, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan. Right now I listen to a lot of commercial stuff- from The Carpenters to Beyoncé. I get into phases of rock and trance, but I always come back to R&B.

AHHA: How do you think America will handle your music?

Che’nelle: Don’t take this the wrong way but America is so used to the American sound. They might be confused at first, but I’m confident that people will want to listen to new styles of music, to a whole new vibe. They will eventually get used it but it will take time. I kind of like that way though. I felt that way with India.Arie. The artists that grow on me are they ones that I love forever.

AHHA: Tell us about the upcoming album. Any collaborations?

Che’nelle: It’s a journey because each song is a story. I like to party, but I’m deep too. The album is almost done. Virgin is happy with so many of the songs that I’ve written, so now we’re in the process of choosing tracks. Producer-wise we’re checking to see if a collaboration will happen. Rich Harrison just passed me a beat, so we’ll see if I can do something with that. A lot of producers are actually new producers with mad skills, and I’ve produced a couple myself. Maybe the second album I’ll have more chance to collaborate with other artists.