'Gone are the quiver and the little girl voice, along with the reputation of being one of the pop world's most difficult stars. And in their place?'
Sometime during the past year Melanie Safka became an established artist. It was a shock to those of us who thought of her as our very unknown. A couple of years ago you could invite a few people in and say "Listen, there's this singer you've got to hear." The voice took some getting used to at first but, by the end of the evening, everyone had found at least one song to live with. That was Melanie's strength from the beginning. In tapping the core of her own emotional life for material, she tapped ours as well. There was always one song that said so clearly what you felt that you couldn't believe you'd never met the girl. You felt as if you'd told her everything.
God knows it wasn't gold records, stage presence or musical technique that attracted her original followers. She was once booed off the stage at the Olympia Theatre in Paris (although it happens to all the best people - Elton John flopped there, too). She was often outrageously late to concerts and, when she finally stepped out from the wings, looked as if she might just turn around and run home before she reached the spotlight. Part of her appeal to live audiences grew out of sheer anxiety over whether or not your friend, who seemed to be singing your own thoughts, would make it through the night.
Today, she takes over a stage as if she owned it. Her presence seems to fill it, in fact and audiences are less inclined to climb over the footlights and share it with her as they once did. She plays better and sings more confidently.
Part of the new confidence derives from sheer exposure: "The more you do the easier it gets," she says. "I've worked more in the past year than I worked in all the other years I've been singing. Three and four concerts a week. I know that's nothing for some people, but it was an incredible pace for me. I used to do one concert a week and be wrecked - I'd make myself so nervous that I could hardly go on. I used to get to the auditorium and throw up. But I've finally learned that I don't have to spend the whole day getting ready. I can get up in the morning and go for a walk, visit a museum or a park, and enjoy part of the day. I still prepare a lot, though, I don't eat starch the day of a concert, because starch makes you lazy. And I have a regular ritual of breathing exercises that I do before I go on. I find performing much easier now. I just don't have time to worry myself into a nervous state over one show any more."
The nerves used to show off-stage as well. Chronically late for everything, including one concert 20 minutes from her home, she began to develop a reputation for being unreliable.
Her nerves, tastes and interests all became part of the difficult pampered image, fed by the people who worked for her. A health food addict, she was said to throw a tantrum if she couldn't get bottled water. The semi-joke around the studio was that Melanie needed two roadies, one to carry her guitar, another to tote the antiques she bought everywhere she went. The star lapped it all up. Wouldn't you? Virtually everyone who succeeds in the music business takes the same trip. Those with the character to survive it with their sense of reality intact eventually come back to earth. A six-month marathon road tour ended the trip for Melanie.
"First of all," she explains, "I went on tour with two road managers I'd never met before. They'd heard all these stories about me and they were terrified. They treated me like some kind of bomb that was about to go off if they made a wrong move.
I was just as scared of them. I'd never gone on the road with total strangers before.
I was terrified of ending up in a motel out west somewhere with two people who hated me and no one else to talk to. So I spent a lot of energy convincing them that I wasn't difficult.
I swallowed my tantrums, got to every interview and promotion date and tried very hard to be on time. I really became a supergirl. After a while they became friends.
There was one bad night when I lost my voice, and even I thought I was crazy. Here I'd been living for nothing but my voice, everything depended on it. The two road managers were my only friends in the world, and they were living for my voice as well. When I lost it I thought, "If I don't get it back I'll lose my friends. I won't have anything" I remember yelling, "I don't have anything!"
Of course, my voice came back and everything went on. But that's the way you get on the road. Absolutely everything is devoted to your performance. All your efforts go towards it. All your relationships are defined by your role as a performer. If you lose your ability to perform you lose everything.
Right near the end of the tour - in Minneapolis - I woke up at 5 o'clock in the morning very depressed about this whole artificial scene that I was living in. I had three days before my next concert so I called down to the desk and asked when the next flight to New York was. I got up, got myself into an airport car with all my luggage , my guitar and my cat. I tipped the man all by myself, got the plane by myself, changed planes in Chicago by myself, took a taxi in New York and checked into a hotel all by myself. Without telling anyone.
I know it was an immature thing to do, but I had to prove that I could do it. You're treated like a child. Everything is done for you.
It's always "Do you want to eat now? Do you want to sleep now? Can I get you anything?" I finally decided I had to prove that I didn't need two road managers to make travel arrangements for me to run away.
Of course, I went back in time for the next concert. It wasn't a total cop-out, and I finished the tour. The whole trip was good for me. I worked at a pace I never thought possible, and I learned that I'm not the dependant, delicate princess I thought I was. I can take care of myself and work every night of the week if I have to. And I showed everyone that I could."
Today, 25-year-old Melanie is back from Never-Never land. We are in the warm, antique filled living room of her home in suburban New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and producer Peter Schekeryk (yes that's the right spelling), four dogs, two cats and a goat. She is much thinner than when I last saw her, over-eating being another of the indulgences she has given up. She is still tired from the trip and a little culture-shocked at being home for the first time in months.
"I've proved what I had to on the road. I need to experience something else now. I think I stopped just in time. It's a very seductive world out there, for all the artificiality.
It's a dream world make-believe. You never really talk to anybody or get to know anyone. All your relationships are very superficial. Your only responsibility is performing, and the rest is taken off your shoulders. You're like a race horse, pampered all the time except when he's running. But once you get used to it you can become addicted to it. It got to the point where I was afraid to come home and deal with ordinary responsibilities and relationships. I kept calling my manager and telling him I wanted to work another month.
Just one more month. If I'd pushed it any longer the tour would have become an indulgence. I'd have become really distorted. I've got to come home now, even though it's a difficult adjustment. It's hard to be normal. It's hard to live."
Perhaps this is a good time for a breather. She's released six albums now (nine counting two released by her former company, Buddah Records, since she left them - more on that later - and one best forgotten movie score). If you play the first album "Born To Be", and the last "Gather Me" (the first release on her own label, Neighbourhood Records), the changes are obvious.
"I think 'Gather Me' is the most honest album I've done," Melanie says.
"It's certainly the one I'm most relaxed with. 'Born To Be' was very self conscious. I was fumbling around for a direction and didn't know whether or not I was doing the right thing.
So I believed everything everybody told me. I was told at that time that I had a very unusual voice. I started listening to myself and I thought, "Wow, it is pretty weird. Well, I figured that was what people liked about me, so I grabbed on to all those mannerisms - the quiver and the little kid voice - and hung onto them. Also I was terribly nervous in the recording sessions. I was terrified of the musicians. I was sure they'd think I wasn't anything and had a hell of a nerve taking up their time. Even though music has been my life, I'm really not a musician. I don't read or write music. I think my melodies come from another life.
Really I have no control over them. I just wake up with a tune in my head and I have to record it for someone else to write down. I don't really play an instrument well - my guitar playing is just accompaniment. So there I was, scared to death of the studio musicians and very unsure of myself as a singer. As a result there's an incredible amount of tension in that recording. I can't apologise for the songs, though. There are songs on 'Born To Be' that I still sing and love. Some of them took a lot of energy to write, like "Bo Bo's Party". I really struggled with that song. I still think it's good even though I don't like the sound of it on the recording. Now that my voice is deeper, and I've gotten rid of some of those mannerisms, I'd like to record it again some day."
Melanie's last and biggest hit was a cutesy little filler from the 'Gather Me' album called "Brand New Key." It sold a million singles, opened up her audience from the original college kids to include younger teenagers and older adults. It also confirmed all the boutique revolutionaries' darkest suspicions about her - namely that she is a bubble-gum head.
The underground press in general - and Rolling Stone in particular - hate her, for reasons that I can't figure. So much for "Babe Rainbow", "Good Book", "Peace Will Come", "Living Bell" and all the other intelligent beautiful non-hits that make up the bulk of her work. I delicately pop the question: "What about "Brand New Key?"
"Oh God,. Well . . . look, I can't put the song down. I'm not ashamed that I wrote it.
It's such a bore to hear people say, "My hit song wasn't my best." Of course, I don't think it the most substantial thing I ever wrote. It's just a goofy little song. We really worked hard on the 'Gather Me' album, and I was sure "Steppin'" or "Living Bell" would be the hit of the album. But when I sang "Brand New Key" at concerts, everybody would laugh and have fun with it - looking back, it's pretty obvious that it would be the song that the pop radio stations would pick up on right away, it's that kind of hand-clapper they love.
I was just too absorbed in the other songs at the time to realise it. I certainly don't mind having a hit, but I hate seeing it become so distorted.
You have to live with your own work. "Brand New Key" is like those two Buddah albums. After I left Buddah they put out two more albums that were nothing but old studio tapes that we felt weren't good enough for release. If I'd know I'd have erased everything before I left. As it is, I have to live with them. It's very frustrating when people ask for them at concerts. I can't tell people who like a song that they're wrong, that what they like is no good. I just have to sing it.
Hopefully, I'll be around when "Brand New Key" and the Buddah albums are forgotten.
I can feel that I'm moving in a new direction, but I can't explain what it is. It's in the new songs I've been writing. They're more about relationships and less about purely personal things. I could sing them anywhere. I'm so relaxed with them. Beyond that, I can't really say where I'll go from here. I've left a lot of things behind and I don't know what's ahead of me. You just have to wait and see and be yourself, or as much of yourself as you can find."
Melanie, I suspect, is finding more of herself every day.