EURODISC AGENDA April 1994
CATCHING UP WITH MELANIE
by Tony Traguardo
On Saturday, February 12th, I had the pleasure of seeing Melanie perform at the InterMedia Arts Center in Huntington, New York. It was her first performance here in over five years, and from the moment she took the stage, a rousing greeting from the sold-out audience proved that she had been greatly missed. Over the course of the next three hours, Melanie delighted the crowd with classic older songs like 'Psychotherapy' and 'Brand New Key', songs from her new album 'Freedom Knows My Name', on Lonestar Records, and newly-written, unreleased songs which will hopefully find their way onto a future release. Melanie played guitar, of course, and was accompanied by Norman Rockwell on guitar and dobro. Vocally, she was complemented beautifully by her two lovely daughters Leilah and Jeordie, who showed during this night's performance that their mother's talent is continuing at full strength down the branches of the family tree.
On March 2nd, I had the occasion to speak to Melanie. For over two hours we talked about a number ot topics including her career, her new CD, and plans for a twenty-fifth anniversary celebration. Throughout our conversation, Melanie was witty, charming, and genuinely pleasant. Her comments and anecdotes were often accented by both gentle laughter and thoughtful pauses. Unlike many artists, Melanie seems to have remained completely true to herself as a person. Quite simply, she still retains all of the fine qualities, which she has shared with her audience through the great music that she has played for us during the last twenty-five years . . .
Here is a transcript of that interview. Special thanks go to Peter Schekeryk and David Bruen for all of their assistance and, of course, to Melanie, for lending her time and sharing her thoughts. Please note that the information provided in parentheses is meant to lend further clarity to some portions of the conversation.
Starting from the very beginning, Melanie, there's an interesting story behind how you got your first recording contract, isn't there?
Well, I always sang, and I always knew that I would make music, but I didn't know how I would use that as a career. At the time (the mid 60's) there weren't a whole lot of openings for girls in music, and I didn't see myself at Juilliard (classical music school), so I ended up going to an acting school, The American Academy for the Dramatic Arts. I went to about four auditions; not because there weren't more out there, but because of my reluctance to go to auditions.
I graduated from school, and lived in New York and I would read all the trade papers that advertised auditions. I would circle one here and there and, most likely, not go to any of them. I had an 8 by 10 glossy made, and a resume that made me look like I had experience in something and I would ...(laughs] think about auditioning. At one point, I had a terrible experience at an audition for 'Fiddler on the Roof' and I thought I would never do this again. Finally, though, I went to one audition for a girl who could play the guitar and sing. They needed someone to play Barbara Allen in a play called 'Dark of the Moon', and because I loved that play, and because I played the guitar and sang, I figured I belonged at this audition. It sounded more like me. When l went, I couldn't find the office number. I only knew it was at the Brill Building, which was also the big music building (in New York). I didn't know this. I didn't even realize what size the building was, and I figured I would just knock on a couple of doors and find them. I asked the doorman if he knew where they were holding the audition and he said "Go to 511, they're always doing weird things there". lt was a music publisher, Hugo and Luigi, and they were not home but their secretary was. I asked her if she knew where they were holding the audition for 'Dark of the Moon' and she said "No but I'll try and help you". I was worried that I was going to be late; because if I was late I wouldn't get the part, and I was so sure it was for me. It meant a lot for me to find this room. Well, while I waited for her I was standing with my guitar, nearly crying, and these two men who owned the publishing company, Hugoand Luigi, came in. They thought I was standing there waiting for an audition, and they asked me "What do you do?". Then they said "Joyce, set her up for an appointment on Thursday". I was looking around thinking, "What is this? What kind of an appointment?" When I went back for the appointment, I went into their lush Louis the XIV office with chandeliers and facing desks ... and Hugo and Luigi are there with six-inch carpets and I'm thinking, "What's this? What is a music publisher?" They said for me to just sing the songs that I sang. I said I had some that I wrote myself, which I played for them. They said they were producing a Broadway show, and that they had written ('I Can't Help Falling In Love With You) for Elvis. They were major publisher/writer people. They had also just hired this guy Peter Sheckeryk and they said I'd meet him next week. Well, I got the part in the play, and I went back and thanked Joyce for her help, but the play never happened because they ran out of funds after about three rehearsals. In the meantime, l met Peter Schekeryk and sang him my songs, and he loved them. So, that was the beginning of our relationship. He was the first person who got real excited about my singing and writing. My personality was (such that) I believed in everybody. I mean ... I never would have believed that any harm would come to me. I would walk the streets of New York anytime, day or night, and ... I just believed I had this angel following me, and I'm not so sure I didn't. It could be a great movie.
So, Peter Schekeryk, your husband, has produced you from the very beginning hasn't he?
He's produced every single recorded thing that I've ever had out, except for when I was four years old. My mother brought me to a studio around the corner from where our apartment was to a man who made records of people either aspiring to be in the record business, or as souvenirs. It was a tiny little room, and this little old Italian man put on a reel-to-reel player and we made a record of 'Gimme A Little Kiss'. Other than that, Peter is my only producer.
Were you married yet when you began recording?
No, we were doing the sixties thing, just living together. I probably always would have kept it that way, but Peter is very old-fashioned, and he wanted to get married. He's old world, born in the Ukraine, and .. that's how it's done. It didn't matter to me (laughs). I had this 'throw caution to the wind' attitude. I just said "Sure, if you want to get married, why not!". I never would have believed (it would last twenty years)... I wasn't the type. I just went with the flow, so I figured I'd probably flow out of this in a few years, but that didn't happen. I kept staying with this guy and we had a family... three fabulous kids. They're all really great... at times (laughs].
Spoken like a true mom...
Well, you know, you're living with people and they all have their little quirks. Especially in a family that's been pretty quirky. If I would go out on the road for too long I'd want to see them and I'd pull them out of school. The girls (Jeordie and Leilah, who are currently touring with me) made it through very easily. With my son Beau we decided to let him learn to read and all the harder stuff (laughs], and then we'll take him out. He's very musical. He's on the new record. He sounds a lot like me right now, at his age. (Pauses) I love it when families sing. I think they have the best blends. It seems to come together better with a family.
On your current tour, what is it like meeting the long-time fans?
It's great. Some of these people were mere children when I knew them. Now they're grown-ups with jobs. It's amazing. It's great. I like meeting them. It seems like my fans didn't grow up in that horrible way, or if they did... they're puzzled by it. They're kind of looking around thinking "What happened?".
I notice you still have a great rapport with a crowd.
Yeah, well to me that's the reason I do this. Some performers take a stance of "Yeah, well I'm going to impress you" and... I think the audience would kill me if I tried to do that. I just don't have the stance. It's not my style. I can't ignore people. There's only one way I can go and that's absolute, vulnerable, complete gushing on a stage. And that's it, that's my style. There are a lot of cynical types that don't like it. I mean right now I'm cool, I'm OK... but if I have a hit record then they'll be all over me. They'll hate me. If you please people too much, they don't trust you (laughs).
You still perform 'Candles in the Rain' on the tour. The recitative that appears before that song on record mentions Meher Baba. Peter Townsend has spoken out the most about him over the years, but how did you find Meher Baba?
I didn't know (Pete Townsend) was into it back then. I knew that 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' was Baba, that was his line. Of course, that became a hit record years later, and very few people know that that was Meher Baba. That attracted me. Being a very worried person, I needed to hear someone say that. I went to the meetings and it seemed nice. It just didn't pull me through in times of crisis so I went on to other things. I don't know who told me about him. Some of the people were really nice... and I liked the ideas. I had been a vegetarian. And I wasn't doing very well and he would say "What you eat isn't important; what comes out of your mouth is more important than what goes into your mouth", or something like that (laughs). I thought, "Yeah, that's a good one". I mean, when you find any kind of spiritual teaching that has a truth in it that really indicates something to you, you think "Yeah, that's for me". Most spiritual teachings have something that's absolutely true, but then they get you down the road with some things that may not be so true. I don't really follow it anymore.
This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the Woodstock festival. Will you be involved with the events marking that anniversary?
Yeah, I'll be at Bethel (New York, the site of the original Woodstock) and there's one in Florida. There are lots of tributes to Woodstock on the silver anniversary. The main one is going to be on the site. I think it's going to be two days.
Will it be free, or a benefit?
I don't know, but I know it'll be a lot more expensive than the original (laughs).
Woodstock is the most remembered festival of the time, but there were many others, right?
Sure, after Woodstock everybody was trying to cash in on making a festival. I did Isle of Wight and Strawberry Fields which was in Canada, I think. There was one in Louisiana, and by this time they had 'trip tents' put out. They were all prepared for the 'casualties'. Festivals became things to do.
The reason why Woodstock was so special... it was a spontaneous thing. People just didn't know that that many people were going to come; that was a surprise. There was a surprise in Woodstock and there weren't too many surprises after that. It seemed like there was something in the slogan 'Three Days of Peace, Love and Music', and it wasn't so much in who was going to be performing. The line-up was like "...well, this one is coming, but maybe not" and "... that one's coming, well, maybe not". It was more like "let's go see all of our generation together", or something like that. It seemed like a spiritual call almost. I did panel shows with anthropologists analyzing the significance of this thing because it was unique, unlike anything else. There was no major event that really was calling to our generation in particular or to people who had kindred spirit. It seemed to just 'click'.
The situation in music helped must have helped too. Nowadays, there are so many subdivisions in music; so many labels of music types...
Oh, I despise it too. I think it's anti-artistry to do things like that... and the media just loves it. The industry loves it because they know who to market it to. They waste less time, less money, in marketing. They'd rather just know who it is, what kind of clothes they wear what kind of cars they buy and what kind of music they listen to. They have his kind of very dangerous control. Controlling art and music is controlling a vision of a whole society. I've always felt that dreams... the dreamers are artists.
... And now, they try and fit everyone in a box.
They try and put a ceiling on it, a limit. And the radio stations (in the U.S.) are being bought by major corporations and they're ultimately... not directly, but ultimately, responsible for what gets played and what doesn't.
You had a number of records that came out in Europe or England that were unreleased in the U.S. What was the reason that those were unreleased here?
lt's just distributorship; a technical problem. What happened is, and this is interesting if you like the silly details of the record industry, for the first time in history three of the biggest (U.S.) independent distributors have gotten together under one roof, and it's called INDIE. This distribution makes it possible for my label (Lonestar Records) to be distributed nationally as if it were a major label. Before, as an independent label, there were all kinds of problems in getting distributed and in getting paid. You could have records floating around and not be getting money. Collecting was a problem. With this major distribution, while still independent small labels can become as big as a major, so they can give the majors competition. They're really behind Lonestar.
What the concept of the label is... the whole thing... is artists. I want to promote and get as many great people out as I possibly can in my lifetime, and I have the thought, with Peter, that I want to give other artists a place to have their product distributed nationally (while they know that) they can go whenever they want. They're not locked into a contract. If an artist puts out a record with us, (there's no delaying and) they can tour immediately, and they'll make more money... major labels give a mere pittance. And then when CBS comes around and says "Here's four billion dollars, come and sign with us", they can leave. It's a safe place. I mean, I've been on every label and I'd be out on a major tour and we'd be doing a lot of promotion, and there would be no records in the store. As an artist I can't call a local promotion man and say "Why are there no records in the store?" You have to just smile and say "Thanks for screwing me" (laughs). I have had so many bad things happen to me that have had nothing to do with artistry or the music ...
You have a Silver Anniversary album coming soon on your new label, don't you?
Yes, it's finished. At least, my part is. The cover needs to be done... and I might go back and add a new song called 'Cerulean Blue'. It's all live in the studio; we just did one take of all the songs. I think we're calling the album 'Silver' because (with the name) 'Silver Anniversary' I picture two sixty year old people sitting around a table, with their grandchildren, with a funny tablecloth and bad lighting, so I don't wanna call my album 'Silver Anniversary'. It's just 'Silver'. I was going to call it 'Unbugged', but I thought the whole 'Unplugged' thing could be over in six months. People could be listening to big band music by then.
... Or Harry Connick Jr.
He's something. He seems very authentic. He's like a reincarnation... I've seen him in movies and he's a good actor, too; very natural.
I always think of Elvis when I think of pop stars in movies.
Oh, Elvis. The poor thing. When he was alive, during the last terrible years, it was completely out (of fashion) to like Elvis. He represented the establishment in some way, with the money, the glitz and the whole glamour thing. It's funny now to think that people are worshipping this man, and just hanging on by a thread to some old nostalgia. I think it was Hollywood, the movies and selling out that ruined him. He had such a style and he refined it but... I got the feeling that Elvis just started doing imitations of Elvis.
After I made my third album, I started feeling like I was imitating myself because I had such a 'sound' in my voice. I started to feel that I was doing an imitation of my voice, and I felt really nervous about this. I wanted to try and sound like something else, so I got in to odd productions and things to try and get out of that feeling that I was imitating me. The time I was really trying to be myself, to see if I had really developed in any way, was on 'Stoneground Words'. I loved that album and I loved 'Photograph'.
Do you think MTS's 'Unplugged' has helped bring about a new awareness from the public of acoustic music?
Yeah. Though I don't want to be cynical about it, 'Unplugged' is far from unplugged, but at least there's more acoustic, more organic, music that's being sold to the masses. It makes it available, anyway.
What do you find yourself listening to these days?
Oh, God, I listen to a real variety; old stuff I like Terence Trent D'Arby I should make a list because whenever I'm asked this I draw a blank. I like Cheryl Wheeler. I like singer/songwriters; somebody with their own point of view. I like someone who has his own little way of saying something. I love stylists. I like Billy Holliday and Edith Piaf. They're two opposite ends of music, but both are 'street' people. I've never been much of a fan of smooth singing, where you know the singer just wanted to hear the sound of his voice and that's it.
And I always thought of Jim Morrison that way. I was a peer, and I was there with him, and he seemed to me to be such a crooner. It was that (impersonating Morrison in 'Touch Me') I'm gonna love you…' with that real crooning bravado in his voice (laughs) There were punk groups that would imitate Morrison and I thought it was so funny at the time.
CATCHING UP WITH MELANIE (2)
Jim Morrison was part of a San Francisco' scene' and we often hear reference to the New York 'scene' and London 'scene', but what was it like from the artists perspective? Was there really a division?
Well,.. I don't know, I think I was just not in a 'scene'. I know there were scenes, but I know I definitely wasn't a West Coast person, I was a New York person and you how New Yorkers are. It wasn't a 'hanging-out' kind of thing in New York. There was a studio scene. I always felt that New York was where you make real records and (laughs) L.A. is where you make the other kind. I like working in New York because I'd go in, and it wouldn't be as pretty as an L.A. studio. They were pretty funky then, even funkier in New York, and the rent was expensive and there were very rarely any nice areas to hang out in. You just went in to make a record. For most of my records I was under a building, in a basement, in a studio called 'Allegro Studios'. Every once in a while the train, a subway, would go by and you would have to wait. You could be in the middle of a take and it was over, because you'd get a rumble. We just always felt like we were there with the purpose of making a record. I've been to all the different kinds of studios, like the 'glam' studios where you go to a ranch and ride a horse, then go in for an hour and make a record. Then you go out for a hike, eat a gourmet meal, sleep, watch a movie, get up at three in the after-noon, eat another gourmet dinner, ride a horse and then go in the studio for an hour and you get very little done (laughs). I can't produce like that. I like to go in and do the business of recording. I mean, it's not that much fun when your audience is a microphone, so you just want to get it over with and get out
…and play live. Will you be touring extensively this year?
The new record ('Freedom Knows My Name') is gettiing good response all over the country, and I'll be out there promoting it.
I'll be doing a lot of tours this summer. I have a folk tour with Al Stewart, Tom Rush and Steve Forbert. Richie Havens will be at all the Woodstocks with me. John Sebastian is doing a tour with me. The sad thing is, there aren't that many living from the Woodstock era and it's really sad. They would have been great people if they had just held on.
Do you still see many of the surviving people from that era?
Mostly the New Yorkers like Richie Havens, John Sebastian and Arlo Guthrie; East Coast people. I would love to find Fred Neil (the author of songs like 'Everybody's Talkin' and 'Other Side of This Life' among others,) and put him on my record label. I think he was a brilliant songwriter.
For the sake of your fans in Europe, I must ask you, will you be playing there soon?
Well, I'll be in England in the fall, and I may hit Holland. I hope I do because that's where it started. I mean, I had a hit record in France, but I had my first number one album in Holland. I had heard a weird statistic that one out of three households had my album at one time. (When I went there) they thought I was English, because I had this hit in France. The English thought I was Dutch, and everyone would always speak to me in another language.
'the Dutch thought I was English, The English thought I was Dutch, and everyone would speak to me in another language…'
It's funny, but every time I go over there I find some other package or bootleg. I even had a hit record in Italy that I didn't know I had (released). I had done 'La Bamba', and it was beautiful, I loved it. We had recorded it in Nashville, and I was on Arista at the time and there were problems with the albums and stuff, and it just didn't get out. Well, it came out in Italy and it was way up in the charts, I mean a hit! Somebody sent me a copy with a picture of myself on the cover, and I never got a penny for it. I don't know how they got the tape. It was never released. It was never even mixed (laughs).
What made you decide to re-cut 'Detroit or Buffalo' from your album 'Arabesque' on the new album with a new arrangement?
I had always loved that song, and I felt it just didn't get heard. And it feels like the story of my life. I don't know where the girl who wrote that song is. I think her name is Babara Keith. When I recorded it, she was a waitress in Boston, and she had one album and that was it. I got it in one of those record stores, with all these obscure albums, and it was one of those with a hole in it. That song really stuck out, and I really wanted to put it out, but it was just lost in the shuffle. I hope I can make her a million dollars some day, and maybe meet her. I never heard from her and I don't know anything about her life except that she wrote a great song and (if that song is an indication of her life) that we've shared a lot.
Do you have any songs that you'd like to cover?
Harry Nilsson's 'Mournin' Glory Story' from the 1968 LP 'Harry' is one I've always loved. God, it was a shame about Harry (passing away).
'I know I definitely wasn't a West Coast person '
You just got the feeling that if only he could have hung on I met Harry at a restaurant in New York years ago and Harry, Peter and I shared a bottle of wine and talked for a few hours. He seemed like a nice guy, but he seemed to be always hustling (Pause)
There aren't that many songs. I'm saving some. I'm waiting for them to get old enough, so that nobody remembers so much. The problem is that these (U. S. radio) stations that play old songs play them in such heavy rotation that nobody gets to forget about some of these great old songs so you don't want to sing it while they're still playing it.
How did your biggest hit, 'Brand New Key', come about?
I had this feeling that I had written this sort of Cajun or 'swamp' thing. It was this picture of sitting on a porch somewhere in the South with a couple of black women and a guy playing the harmonica and maybe a tuba and we were just rockin' away and stomping our feet. (She breaks into a female Leon Redbone-type vocal) 'I rode my bicycle past your window last night'. It had that kind of groove to me. I wasn't trying to say something or trying to write any secret message. I mean, it was banned from radio stations because they thought it was all kinds of things; a drug song, a key club wife-swapping thing, maybe a key was drugs… but it was just a whim. I was on a fast, and I broke the fast, and it was a week later and I had this desire for a McDonald's (hamburger). I was a vegetarian, so that was very weird. I went and had a McDonald's, and French fries and a milkshake, and that song came popping out. I had no thought of what I was talking about. It was a nonsense type of thing, like "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" (by Paul Simon). I never though it would be a hit record. It was the equivalent of a doodle. It was gonna be recorded for the album, and I went into the studio where Peter heard this hook (which was the tack piano 'lick' that opens the song), and as soon as that was played it was gonna be a hit. I think we used little sugar packets as shakers (laughs). I was a big Mungo Jerry ('In the Summertime') fan, so that got put on. So I left the studio because I had put my part down, and it was time for Peter to go to town and he did! He put in what, at the time, I thought was this hideous background vocal part. The singers were the guys who sang 'Lavender Blue', 'Dilly Dilly' (Sammy Turner and members of The Cadillacs). I was gone, and I couldn't protest, and when he sent me that tape I knew I was convinced that it was over. I had a hit record, and it was so cute. Elton John told Peter that after he heard that song, he thought it was OK to be silly and he wrote those other silly songs like
Yeah, 'Crocodile Rock' and all that stuff. He said he was riding his bike in London and fell off his bike laughing because it was so cute. So, that's OK.
People and record companies have tried to put labels on you over the years. Without trying to do that to you, let me ask how you would describe yourself?
I think I'm a stylist, and I want to create a song on a song. I want to create and, of course, I don't go out to sound like the person who did it. I have the feeling that I can communicate something with a song, so that's why I wanna do it. It probably won't be on the collection, but I heard 'Long, Long Time', (the Gary White composition) by Linda Rondstadt and I really heard it for the first time, and I fell in love with this song. Her performance was really smooth and well I just don't know if the person who wrote that song was really feeling the way she sang it, so… I really needed to sing the song. Three days later we went into the studio and I recorded it. I don't know if it'll fit (on the album). I just love a beautiful song, or something that really needs to be communicated. It has nothing to do with whether it's my life or something, but it's been a moment in my life or some other life that I lived. It's real and it's some kind of truth that I hit, or that somebody hit on, and I just need to sing the song. It doesn't matter who did it, I'm completely irreverent. It could be God. I mean, I did 'Purple Haze' (on the new CD) because I really needed to hear those chords translated the way I would play it. And I love the way it turned out; was really happy with it.
Well, Melanie, I'd like to wish you the best of luck with the new CD, and with your tour, and I'd like to thank you for talking to 'Eurodisc Agenda'.
Thanks, I enjoyed it.
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