Updated: Mar 1, 2021
By Kate Iida
“I would say my music falls into the singer-songwriter genre,” Michelle Shen began, sitting across from me in the dimly lit back room of Max Café, sipping on an iced chai latte. “…That genre is defined by presenting a certain narrative in a very honest way through rawness and simplicity, and I feel like that’s what a lot of my music is… at the core.”
Michelle, a senior at Barnard College, writes, records, and performs her own music in venues around New York City. She started performing when she arrived at college, and spent much of her first year in Morningside Heights performing in open mics on and off campus. In the past few years she has begun performing in shows around New York City booked through Artery Showcases, a grassroots booking platform for up and coming New York City musicians. She has performed in more odd-ball environments than she can count, and most notably, a six-day long summer music festival organized by Brooklyn Wildlife, the largest indie arts collective in Brooklyn. Michelle also releases her music on Spotify, under the artist name Miesh.
Illustration by Julia Cobb
Michelle places specific emphasis on personal connection in her music, and she strives to bring this out in her live shows. “Shows are about connecting to the people while they ́re there,” she explained enthusiastically. In her most recent live performances, Michelle has started improvising, using the last section of her act to create songs with the crowd. She invites the audience to give her some words, and builds a song around those contributions.
“Improvisation… is just in the moment and it only exists in the moment and then it ́s gone…. That is a means of connection to people,” she said excitedly, recounting a memory of the first time she improvised at a show and had to create a song on the spot using the words elephant, ferris wheel, and isolation.
Before seriously pursuing her passion for music, Michelle swam competitively and danced. She spoke about how both activities, dance especially, have influenced and helped to shape the way that she creates music today.
“I used to dance very seriously,” Michelle explained, “… I did ballet for 12 years (and) I did all these different kinds of dance like jazz, tap, (and) modern… I ́ve always loved watching dance and being a part of it, so music has always been tied to the movement and to the body and to the whole spiritual experience of being in a flow.”
Michelle balances her life as a New York City musician with taking classes and completing the last semester of her sociology major. “I love looking at the way that social systems and structures intersect with people’s lives, (especially) the dimensions of race, gender, class but also more complex things that come with that, in terms of who has privilege, and power dynamics in situations,” she said, her eyes lighting up with excitement.
Though Michelle said she loves analyzing social and political race dynamics in an academic context, she rarely brings any explicit discussion of these topics into her music. She does view the two as interconnected, however. Her work in sociology has reinforced her belief in the importance of human connection, which she strives to create through her music. Though she focuses on more personal, emotional experiences, especially surrounding love and relationships in her music, she views her emphasis on honest emotion as another type of social and political statement; a political statement that can empower women.
“Love and desire are political,” she said. “Men are given the space to philosophize about love and intellectualize about it, and when they intellectualize about love it ́s suddenly valid. (But) when women want to talk about relationships, it’s viewed as just being a girl, just being a woman, being irrational, being kind of weak. Love is a profound force… that really connects people on a deep level.”