RIGHT ON is the television show. Devoted to the music scene today. The whole music scene. It can have Soul Brother No. 1 James Brown being frantic one week—Tiny Tim doing his thing the next.
HP: Can you give me some biographical information? Where were you born?
M: I was born in Astoria, New York, February 3, 1947.1 can remember from about four years old, living in this little apartment building in Astoria with my uncle, my grandmother, my mother and my father, other people. We all lived in the same little apartment, and I had a little cot that was in the living room that folded up in the day. I always wanted my own room and never had it.
The reason, I'm getting into this is because I just went to Astoria, where I remember all this. I didn't t even remember that I slept on a cot when I was little. And that's where I had my attack of tonsillitis, and I remember being rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night with tonsillitis and adenoid trouble. I had my adenoids removed in Astoria. ..
Then we moved to Bayside. You know where Bayside is? Around Great Neck and Little Neck. Then my father left my mother, and we lived there for about three years, I guess, and we moved to New Jersey with my father, and my father left my mother again. He left her for the last time in...0h, no, it's final now, they made the last step. But we're all friends. My uncle is a singer; he lived in that apartment when I was little and we all used to sing together. He and my mother taught me to play the ukulele, baritone ukulele.
HP: How big is a baritone ukulele?
M: It's a little smaller than a guitar, but it has four strings. It looks more like a guitar than a ukulele. In fact, it was a monster instrument for me when I was little, cause it's really big. I learned to play when I was about four, I guess. There was' always a lot of singing going around because my uncle sang folk music and played a lot of folk records and my mother sang jazz and blues.
MELANIE - moods and faces
M: She never made a record, but she used to sing in clubs.
HP: When did you start thinking of singing as a career?
M. Even when I wasn't singing for a living, I always thought that this is what I was doing . .for a living. But I started recording about four years ago, on Columbia Records.
HP: Was anything released on Columbia?
M: The single "Beautiful People" was released on Columbia. It was really going well, like for the first week. Everybody was getting response to it, they were playing it on underground stations and a lot of areas went on it, and I thought I was gonna be a star, cause this was the first time I had made a record. It was an audition session, it wasn't a regular session. It was like if they liked it, they would sign me up. And so they liked it. And just the fact they signed me up on Columbia Records, everybody at home was so impressed because Columbia has such a big sounding name, and when you have nothing to do with the record business, you don't realise that that doesn't mean anything at all, less than not anything. And well I wasn't a star.
I sang at Clive Davis' housewarming party. (President of Columbia Records.) I thought that that's it, I had arrived, because I was invited to sing at a party by Clive Davis, and Tony Bennett was there, and I figured, what else do you have to do in life except sing at a party where Tony Bennett is? He was the first person I had ever met that was famous, so I thought that was all I had to do But everything just flopped and nothing happened, and they didn't want to make an album with me, so I left. They weren't too reluctant to let me go. But then Peter (Schekeryk) and I were wandering around on the streets, looking for labels, and we found Bob Reno, I think it was, first. I think we signed through publishing first, with Bob Reno. He was interested in my writing, and we worked out, that I was signed as a recording artist as well. But it also had a lot to do with Neil Bogart.
It is really incredible when you think that I was absolutely nothing I mean, very nothing, because at that time I think everybody; was afraid that the girl thing had just died out. It was a strange thing that was happening. People were thinking in terms of fads: One little fad would go on, and then, that isn't happening any more. And it was the time when every body figured that the girls aren't doing things any more, so we're not going to push girls any more. It was like I had come at the wrong time, a little after the whole thing
It was really incredible how nice everybody was here. They sent me on trips to Europe to broaden my mind. And it was always like home here, it really was. And truthfully, it doesn't feel any different now than it did then, except that I can have what I like on my album covers now.
HP: You couldn't before?
M: Well, I didn't want to be pushy?
HP: When did you start writing songs?
M: I started writing songs when I was little also, really dumb little songs, but I wrote them anyway, kind of imitations of what my mother and my uncle sang.
And I suppose the songs I sing now I started when I was about fifteen or sixteen.
HP: Who influenced your writing, besides your parents?
M: The records I listened to, I suppose, in a way Billie Holliday. Old folk singers. We had Library of Congress records in our house. I can't remember who the people were who sang the songs, but they were these people they would find in the Ozacks and then get them to the Library and record them. I guess anything I was in contact with influenced me. Lotta Lenya, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, Threepenny Opera, Mahagonny. There was a time, I guess I was about fourteen, when the Threepenny Opera was really my favourite. I used to listen to it a lot. "Pirate Jenny . . ." Now I think the Incredible String Band. "Peace Will Come" reminds me of, like, commercial Incredible String Band. I think maybe it's the little penny whistle. It's only after I listened to it that it reminded me of them.
MELANIE - with the Edwin Hawkins Singers
HP: Why do you think you caught on so mush more quickly in Europe than in America?
M: It was a strange thing. My record was released here, and they got calls right away from Europe, who is she? First they didn't think I was American, they thought I was some European from somewhere. I really don't know, because I don't have a European Background. Maybe my Lotta Lenya records did that....New York. . People in New York are more passionate than anywhere else in the country. This east coast, really. Like look at the group music that was coming out of California; it was all nice and interesting, but it wasn't really sweaty passion, you know. New York has a way of really bringing out. . .misery. And strong feelings. Really it does. You know, extreme loneliness and extreme feelings. Maybe that's why. My grandmother was Italian and my father was Ukrainian, but I wasn't really exposed to all that much.
HP: Are your songs autobiographical?
M: Sometimes a line will come out of something that really happened or that I really feel, and then the rest will grow out of something that didn't happen.
HP: Many of your songs seem to be about personal relationships that don't work out, or communication that doesn't get made. Why is that?
M: That's on my first album.
HP: No, on the other ones, too. . . l mean the ones that have to do with individual people.
M: Well those are the experiences that move you to write a song. .I've had a hard time with individual relationships. I think everybody in this business does. The sign of Aquarius is that. It's true, it's supposed to be their trait, they have an easier time communicating with large masses of people than they do with individuals.
HP: You're really into astrology? What good does it do you?
M: It's just sort of a guide I have an astrologer, and I don't get daily word on what to do or anything like that. Just to get your chart is to know yourself a little more. Maybe you knew all those things before, but they'll just bring it out so you can see it. I'm sure you know about the idea that when people are really following astrology you don't think: oh my God, that's going to happen to me at a certain time It's just a tendency that that sort of thing might happen. It might be nice to know that there is a tendency for you to be careless in September, so that you can guard yourself a little more There's something to it; there has to be.
I was really led to this astrologer in a strange way, too. I was in a really bad way; I wasn't writing anything and I was in one of those times when everything was flat and I didn't feel like anything was going to happen. I'm not talking about record things, I was just sort of in a dry time . . . And I was talking to Bob Reno at Vanguard He's a very businesslike sort of person and you just wouldn't imagine him to advise an astrologer to you. He said, you've got to write to this man in Italy, and I said all right. So he gave me his address and I wrote my birth information down and I was going to send it to him Weeks passed by and I never sent it out, and all kinds of little strange things happened, like I had written down the wrong birth time. I didn't realise it until I was reading it over. It was really a good thing I didn't send that out.
Weeks and weeks went by before I ever sent this out, and the reason I sent it out finally was that my arranger was writing to the same astrologer, and Bob Reno and this guy don't even know each other. It was such a strange thing that this arranger that I had just started working with was writing to the same man.
And I'll tell you something. Since I've been doing this meditation that the man's given me, there is some strange energy following me around! I'm not kidding you. I've really got this strange kind of positive energy with me. .
HP: What kind of meditation?
M: I just meditate on symbols, and there are some. . .I suppose they're poems that he sent me to read, think about. There's something really there, really. It's fantastic.
HP: Besides astrology, are you into any other kind of religion?
M: I'm guided by something I some times think it's this and I sometimes think it's that, but I'm not into any on particular thing. I used to be one of those people who sort of went around sampling religions. But it's something you really have to make up for yourself as you go along I'm inspired I think by Meher Baba I love Meher Baba
HP: How did you get interested in him?
M: I was at a press party in California in the early times when I was first starting, and there was a guy there in fact, he's one of the people from the Fire sign Theatre! He had this button on. It was a terrible party and I was really scared. It was so frightening, you know, those parties where they sort of set you up in a hotel room and put all these things around you and say: Here, Melanie, play songs for the nice people and just be yourself, do the things you'd normally do. I'd normally run out of this room! Anyway, it was a really scary party, and this guy was very friendly, very warm. He didn't say anything to me, but I just gravitated toward him constantly. Every time there was a lull I'd sort of walk over to him, and I looked at his button and said "Who's that?" and he said "Meher Baba".
HP: He was wearing a picture?
M: He was wearing this little button I didn't wear mine today for some reason. It was a little button, and this man smiling like this (attitude of prayer). I was just looking at it, it was just fascinating to me, such a happy little thing to wear, and so he gave it to me at the end of the party, and I wore it all the time. And people would ask me, "who's that?" and I would say "Mayor Baba., some mayor of somewhere." I had no idea who he was, no idea whatsoever. But somehow I was led to it. I found out more and more about it as I went along. There's a big society for Avatar Meher Baba, they're all over, and there's one in New York City. This woman called me up and she told me she wants to take Meher Baba out of the freak category. They want to give him a new image. They want me to do a radio interview or something about it. But the thing is, I really have nothing to say except that I have a good feeling about him, and I was led to him for some reason, and that I have a feeling of love. I always feel that people want me to go into some kind of explanation about' what is Meher Baba I realty don't know what he does for other people but I know what he does for me. I found it, and if other people find it, well, fine If they don't, well, this wasn't meant for them. They may find somebody else or some thing else or nothing else. Or maybe they'll find a nice song to sing.
HP: How do you feel you relate to your audience? You were talking before about relating to individuals being different from relating to a group.
M: When a concert is going over well, or even if it's not going over well, there's a giant feeling coming from a group of people that doesn't come from an individual. It's spiritual!, that's what it is After a good performance I feel like I suppose another person might feel after they've been to church, if they really believe in that church. I feel cleansed. And that's why it's so important to me to make it good.
HP: Carnegie Hall must have been like that.
M: Oh, it was really nice! It was such a fantastic thing for something like that to happen.(Several hundred of the audience poured gently onstage toward the end the concert.)
HP: Did that happen again?
M: Since then it's happened often, but before that it didn't. It was the first time., That was really nice. We're gonna have another concert at Carnegie Hall, October 23, 1 think of it as being a kind of reunion. I was afraid to do it again. It was so soon from the last one; I just have a couple of new songs. You see,- they booked the date without me knowing it and then said, we've got Carnegie Hall, but if you don't want to do it, we can get it for somebody else. That was after it appeared in the New York Times. But that's not why I'm doing it. I really think I'm gonna like doing it again. New York is really...New Yolk and the south; they're spiritual places; they're places where there's some kind of extra energy. And it's really the location. I could have this great week, and if I was plopped all of a sudden in Los Angeles, the whole thing could be turned around. There is just something horrible about Los Angeles. There's something bad in the air, bad vibrations, bad whatever you want to call it. And there's something lacking in other places. But the east coast is really the place, for me. There's something really happening on the east coast, and I feel it when I go down south. I'm afraid of the south, by the way. There's some thing in the air there, something in the atmosphere, you know, aside from the political thing. The people are really very open; it's such a sad thing that they can't be more broadminded. They extend themselves to you, up to a point, and then it's all over. And that's what frightens me.
HP: Ale you saying that as a performer, or just as a person?
M: As a person As an audience, they're probably more enthusiastic, more uninhibited. Just to jump up and say "Keep goin', girl!" or something. But it's not as moving as if something like that happens in New York, because you know that something's been done for that to happen in New York. New York is my favourite place in the whole world. New York, and second, Philadelphia.
HP: Philadelphia? Why Philadelphia?
M: I suppose that's where I did my first college concert, and I had a very good experience there And every experience - I had in Philadelphia has been good I also went to the Main Point; it's the only club I'll do in the whole United States. It used to be a very good listening club, and the people around it are good. It used to be a Quaker meeting house or something The Troubadour in Los Angeles is such a terrible place I really didn't like California. I like looking at San Francisco, it's very pretty. It reminds me of New York, that's what it is. I'll never leave this city. It's where everything starts, you know. I love to go to the country. I just went upstate New York this weekend. I did a concert in Skidmore. And it was such a nice place. All these old feelings stuck around these old buildings, and the leaves change incredible colors. They don't change colors down here, in New Jersey.
HP: Are you conscious at all of having a Stage image?
M: I used to think that I'd like to have one, but I don't think I do. I don't have one way of being, my personality s too inconsistent. I'm affected by things that happen I may have some kind of image that I'm not aware of. When I was about sixteen I wanted to be a very serious singer, very . um .thin. You know that type: thin, long hair, boots, singing little songs . . .But it just never worked out that way. If I tried to pull one of those I don't think it would work
HP: What was the situation or train of thought that led you to write "Baby Guitar"? - '
M: It's really a sad story. It's really freaky actually, the evil verses were removed from that song. It was really an evil song at one time. I was in England and I had just given one of those press things, and in England, I'll tell you, it's really frightening to meet the press. Especially as a foreigner, as an American. American: dumb, you know. Unsophisticated. The New Country. Even the people with long hair, even the in, groovy people over there regard Americans as being stupid. And everybody was so serious. Like: OK, you've come to England, Melanie, what right do you have to sing? I had this feeling of really having to prove myself worthy of singing. And it was mostly what I had been conditioned to think before I went over there that made the whole thing worse. I'd gone to acting school and had a couple of English directors, and I remember them saying the English have fantastic ears, and they really have a way with sounds and language, and sometimes in criticism of what I'd do I would always get this sort of thing like: You'd never last at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts So I was really frightened when I went to England I was thinking, "Here are these people with great ears, and they're gonna listen to my songs and really pick apart the lyrics " That's what I was really afraid of, that they were gonna sit and analyse my lyrics. Every time I sit and analyse my lyrics, they don't make sense. I was afraid to open my mouth. l was afraid they were going to say Aha`, a stupid American.
After this party - party, it was like a nightmare - after it was over, the guy from the record company said...he was an older man, and he drank too much, "You know, Melanie," (very British accent) "you don't just come over here and start singing; I mean what do you do it for, what makes you tick?" I was taking everything he was saying as a personal assault; I really felt he was attacking me. And he was saying, like: "What's your sex life like?" and he's going through this whole thing . . .And at the time it was really bad, so I didn't even have a good answer for him. Like everything was really bad and I was really lonely, really at a bad time in my life, and here I had just done this party that really didn't go over very well, at least to me, and here's this guy attacking me and finding out what my sex life is all about, and so I went home- with my guitar. Not home, I went to the hotel room, and I was sitting on the bed, and the guitar was next to me, and I was going through this imaginative thing with my guitar. It was really strange. I was thinking of this whole thing, like here I am, what kind of a life am I living? This fake sort of set-up life, you go in, you sing for people you sing, about your life, and then you come back to this empty room, and there's nothing there, and there's no people, and you've just been dug into by some nut, he's just been digging into your brain, picking you apart, and you're thinking about all the things he's said. I was really upset that night I stayed up the entire night writing that song. The song had about 67 verses. It had terrible verses. It had things about taking pieces of myself and putting them in formaldehyde. It was really a gross, disgusting song And by the morning I had forgiven everybody, and it turned out to be just a sort of little, funny song. It was really a nightmare. That was one of the only songs I can tell you an exact story about. I hardly ever sing "Baby Guitar" any more. There was really one point when I had to say, this is really too freaky to even sing. It was too true.
HP: A public personal life? Do you like it?
M: It's sort of nice. You get out of your self a lot. A lot of times I have to take a rest, a real rest, not just not work as much, but stop work altogether. Because you just have to get your balance again, know that you're just a human.
Back to Chronology
Back to Melanie