Rolling Stone, March 10, 1977
MELANIE LAYS DOWN HER CANDLES
by Vicki Sufian
San Francisco - "Nobody wants to have a twit image," says Melanie, who definitely had one through the late Sixties, and who is doing all she can to be rid of it forever. On her tour last December (her first since 1971), she sang with hardly a quaver; she left her two biggest hits -- "Brand New Key" and "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" -- out of her repertoire; and she was singing songs from a new album (Photograph) that does not include astrological charts or organic recipes inside. Even her audience was new: there were no reverent fans lighting candles or laying flowers at her feet.
In response, critics in the nine cities she toured called her the "new Melanie." But despite a successful tour, her album, out since November, has yet to make a serious run at the charts. Atlantic Records mumbles something about her difficulty "breaking the old image."
Melanie herself isn't much for labels, "I don't think my music has changed that much," she said, but added: "My presentation and attitude are very different."
Seated in the Singapore Suite of the Fairmont Hotel, Melanie, now 30, displayed the same warmth, humor and energy so appealing onstage, her mobile face and hands emphasizing her words. Her speaking voice modulates with the same dynamics evident in her singing. She talks sometimes in a whisper, other times -- recalling the old days -- in a syrupy, shrill imitation of Melanie, queen of the flower children.
This image still plagues her. "Before I'd even start singing there were candle-lighting ceremonies and people would be calling out, 'We love you.' They weren't reacting to what was actually happening. They were reacting to the aura that was built around me, what they had read in magazines and what was being promoted."
Indeed, Buddah Records once packaged an album called The Four Sides of Melanie, the sides represented by portraits of Melanie surrounded by vegetables, rainbows, her favorite songwriters and a Madonna. It was all geared to make her look like "a bliss ninny. I'd meet people and they would think that they would have to talk to me in one-syllable words."
Even her musical range, which actually is quite extensive (she was frequently compared to Edith Piaf and Barbara Streisand) became frozen into one image. "I was doing a whole diversified kind of music, but the only thing that would ever get played was things that sounded like 'Brand New Key.' Being categorized by that was one of the things that drove me to frustration." She laughs and adds, "It just happened to be the reason that I got out of the business."
But lyrics like "I don't eat animals and they don't eat me" and album titles like Please Love Me -- not to mention the lack of a last name (actually Safka Schekeryk) -- did nothing to counteract her vulnerable, childlike image at a time when the Haight-Ashbury had already been deflowered.
So Melanie just "slithered away" for three years. She had a second child, did an occasional benefit and recorded an album a year. The records, she admits, weren't "up to the energy level" of Photograph. Basically, "it was my time to be away from things."
Still, her low profile, she says, was to some extent imposed on her by Arista, her record company at that time. They were more interested in "things that sounded like they would be commercial successes. I was bitter about it because I knew that the thing I needed most was encouragement. I have never become any kind of success by doing the things that were along those acceptable commercial lines. And so for two years, two albums at least, they just weren't really even put out."
By 1975 Melanie was eager to get back to performing. "It's not the applause, it's the craft of doing it." She tested the waters by jumping in, flamboyantly booking London's Royal Albert Hall. The 5600-seat auditorium sold out. Encouraged, she and her husband/producer, Peter Schekeryk, began cutting some tracks at a studio in Los Angeles where Ahmet Ertegun heard her and within an hour struck a deal to sign her with Atlantic.
As evidenced on Photograph, her lyrics remain intensely personal. "My songs aren't meant to be persuasive," she says. "Some songs are autobiographical, some songs are ways of leaving the body behind and becoming somebody else. There is a person I've invented" -- Melanie dashes into her bedroom and returns with a cotton-candy-pink curly wig. "This is Dolly McFarland. She worte 'Sweet Misery' and maybe even 'Brand New Key.'"
Photograph shows the versatility -- jazz, blues, gospel, country -- she has always attempted, but with a new self-assurance and control of the emotional excesses she was always criticized for. Her current and first backup band, the Hand-Made Band, is another example of this control. "I was never enough of a director to be able to have a group of musicians working with me.
"I think the best thing a performer can do is reach for something that you're not sure is going to work. And it might not. But the thing is if you don't try that then you can never have a magical moment. That's what having this group has required of me -- going for something that I wasn't sure of."
But experimenting is nothing new for her. She used the Edwin Hawkins Singers on "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" and added a Bulgarian flavor to "Peace Will Come (According to Plan)" with the Pennywhistlers. She's always used her husky voice to explore different dynamic ranges, and admits the criticism of her histrionic excesses in the past was sometimes justified. "I would beat the hell out of my guitar if I wanted to intensify the dynamics. Maybe I'd scream at people too much or maybe I'd whisper too much. My big fault was that I was hearing things in my head that other people weren't. What I used to hear in my head is now onstage.
In concert she talks easily with the audience. She'll put on her curly pink wig and become Dolly McFarland because "I really enjoy blowing it onstage; then that thing is gone. When you first walk onstage it's like you're behind glass. Sometimes just blowing it, putting a stupid wig on your head or screaming or doing some asshole thing will just break it. I'm not out there creating musical masterpieces that only the few can listen to. I'm really a communicator."
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