"After I was back in myself and singing, it was like nothing was wrong and nothing could hurt me. All these people were just flowing this power to me, and I was flowing it back to them. It was totally magic. I think that I had this unique experience at Woodstock..."
In Conversation With... Melanie
Melanie reflects everything that The Pirate Media was inspired from; pirate radio, vinyl, music, and that Do it yourself attitude. Melanie discusses everything from Woodstock to legal battles, from iconic songs, to new material...
From a musical mother, to your own desire to sing, can you tell us about your musical upbringing?
I just thought everybody had music in their life growing up. I lived with my whole family; my grandmother, my uncle, my father and mother, and they were all musical. My grandmother was from Italy, and she had that uninhibitedness: she would walk down the street and start singing. My mother was a little more shy, but she was a jazz singer. My uncle was a union organizer and I learned all these Woody Guthrie songs from him. My upbringing was so varied sociologically: I had the capitalists; like my father (who played the saxophone), and opened a businesses believing in the American Dream; and my Italian side, with more of a proletariat type of upbringing. I also had the Pagans versus the Christians. With all of it going on, it all burst into song, endless arguments and debates about politics – about what was right and what was wrong. My father was the oddball in the room, but because he was so funny, I tended to go with him.
The most successful parties I’ve ever been to are where the people have different ideologies and opinions. It’s gotten to the point where people only mix with their own viewpoint and it’s boring.
This cluster of ideologies certainly is reflected in your writing. How was you discovered, before signing to Columbia Records?
It's very odd because most people work their way up. I would sing in Greenwich Village, but that didn’t have a direct line to what happened afterwards. I’d go the Village with my mom when she sang in little coffee houses and jazz clubs; like the Blue Note. I’d have my guitar strapped to my back and I’d go off to Washington Square and sing. I really was a very shy and introverted person, and I don’t even know what possessed me, but I did have a drive to have people hear me. I would plonk down in the middle of Washington Square and start singing. I had such a loud voice that I would draw a crowd! I never got to the place where I collected money because I was so shy that I would just leave and never do the part where you pass the hat or left your guitar case open – I didn’t use a case anyway! I was never discovered in the village; I just sang the songs I’d written and ran away. I wasn’t a self-promoting person.
I went to acting school because my dad wouldn’t hear of me graduating high school and just ending my education. I actually ran away from home because I wanted to prove to my father that I was serious about not going to go to college! I wanted to find a music school, but they were only taking applications from people who already had a musical education and knew how to read music. I realized I wasn’t going to get into Juilliard, so I found the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and I thought Well, it’s similar! I auditioned with a reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and I did the whole thing with total emotion – I got to be a madman! I got in, but people became afraid of me because it was pretty vivid!
After I graduated, I was still shy and didn’t want to go to auditions. I shared an apartment with four other aspiring actresses and I would read the casting calls in the trade papers like all the other girls, but at that time people went to auditions on Broadway and even off-Broadway in a certain attire: basic black with pearls and well-coiffed hair… I was definitely not into that. I had my own way of dressing. I loved peasant style and long hair hanging down and my guitar over my back. That was me. One day, I picked up the paper and it said: Wanted: girl to play Barbara Allen in Dark of the Moon, which was a very esoteric play. I knew that play, and not only that, I knew all 27 verses of the song, and I actually played the guitar and sang, which in itself was very unusual then. Yes, there was Joan Baez, but mostly it was men who played guitar. Somehow, it was just like a calling. I knew I was supposed to be there. I was Barbara Allen and I knew it.
The audition happened to be taking place in the Brill Building, a skyscraper on Broadway. There was a beautiful bronze art deco doorway and a doorman with epaulettes, and I realized I didn’t know where to go! I finally got the nerve to walk up to him and I said Do you know where they’re auditioning for Dark of the Moon? It’s being put on by the Actors’ and Directors’ Guild of New York but I don’t have the office number. It was one of those Twilight Zone moments: he looked me right in the eyes and said Go to Room 511. They’re always doing weird stuff there...
I went to Room 511 and it turned out to be the office of music publishers, but I had no idea what music publishers were. I met the receptionist in the outer office and said I'm here to audition for Dark of the Moon. She looked me like I was from another planet! I was a little hysterical and upset because I knew this was my moment and I was supposed to be auditioning for this part and I didn’t know where to go. She said Wait a minute, I’ll check some offices and see if I can help you, and while she was doing that, in walked Hugo & Luigi (the music publishers who wrote Can’t Help Falling in Love and produced lots of hit records: Sam Cooke, Jimmy Rogers). I knew nothing and I was not impressed. I just wanted to find out where I was supposed to go for the audition!
Hugo & Luigi were standing there, looking at me and said Joyce, what does she want? An audition? I explained that I wrote songs and I sang and I was auditioning for Barbara Allen. They set me up for an audition where they told me they had just hired a producer, Peter Schekeryk, to run their production company while they were working on a Broadway play.
Well, I met him, we got married, I had a hit record and he produced all my subsequent hits for ever and ever. That’s the story and it’s true!
Despite your subsequent success, you did not initially find it with Columbia Records. Was this due to lack of promotion and support for a folk singer?
I was signed to Columbia Records when John Hammond was the A&R man. It was a time when the record business was mostly controlled by people who knew music, and I was signed by people who got what I did and saw some value in the early songs I had written, like Beautiful People and Momma, Momma.
But there was a coup in the music business and the people who took over were lawyers. Clive Davis became the head of A&R, and not to be unkind, because he was surrounded by a lot of good people who did have ideas, he did not get me at all. When Beautiful People came out, they were promoting a record by Kenny O’Dell which was also called Beautiful People – it was very cheeseball. Hollywood was split; the Austin Powers take on the Sixties, and this real near-Renaissance where people were interested in all kinds of music and art, and they were drawing from all sources. Clive Davis did get the Austin Powers version, but didn’t get the Melanie version, and he pulled Beautiful People from distribution. A couple of meetings happened where Peter decided it wasn’t a good fit, so we went to Buddah Records, and that’s where I had my first album and hit.
Tell us more about your early hits.
Beautiful People had already become what they called a 'Turntable Hit'. You couldn’t buy the record but you could hear it on the radio. This was a time before Clear Channel, where a DJ could just hear a record on the street and start playing it, and if people liked it, it would be requested. The term viral didn’t exist yet, but it went viral. I was totally unknown; I’d never done a television show or radio show, hadn’t got my picture in the newspapers or magazines, but here I was with this turntable hit and my career started happening.
Peter believed that my voice was very European and that I would appeal to the European market and England – we went and promoted me in Europe. I didn’t have a hit record there yet, but that was who I was when I did Woodstock: I was relatively unknown except for this one song that maybe a percentage of that audience knew.
Bobo’s Party was a hit record in France to my surprise! It was before everybody knew everything instantly – even I didn’t know. I got off the plane in Paris, because I was supposed to play the Olympia theatre and Gilbert Bécaud was going to present me to the French public, and I was second on the bill! Julien Clerc, who became a massive star over there, was way down the list, and there was twenty other acts: acrobats and comedians and singers and dancers.
What was your experience like in France, as this was the beginning of Melanie?
At the time, I think America was very unpopular both with the Vietnam war and politically, so being American wasn’t something that went for you. There I was, being presented to the French public.
I had a big dressing room because I was second on the bill, and your dressing room size increases when you have star billing. As it was big, I had to share it with a camel! I think there were twelve acrobats and this camel, but it wouldn’t fit in their room, so I was chosen to share my room with the camel because I was just one person with a guitar and a lot of room! There was a camel in my room the whole time; for forty days and forty nights, because there would be matinees and evening performances.
I went to my pre-rehearsal to meet Bruno Coquatrix, who was a great presenter at the Olympia and had presented Édith Piaf, who was one of my great influences. I was impressed I was here in Paris, but I knew nothing. I started singing Beautiful People the way I performed it; sat on a little straight-backed chair, bob my feet back and forth for percussion, and put my head down so my hair would nearly cover my face. I would just sing in a very introverted style. I wasn’t a veteran performer, I didn’t have jokes and panache: I was very, very shy and just sang my song with a major amount of intensity. Bruno Coquatrix holds his head, looks at Gilbert Bécaud and says This is not possible! What in the hell did you do? You can’t put that girl on my stage! Gilbert, who was known as Monsieur 100,000 Volts because he was a very high-energy guy, went over and explained, and I could see him gesturing with his hands, but Bruno was just saying No, I know the French public: they will never like this. We will have to do something!
He came up with a plan that the New York City Ballet – who were not ballet dancers and they had never been to New York; they were a burlesque act! – would be scantily dressed, with feathers to cover certain things but that was it, and I was to descend this golden staircase with music that was [over-the-top grander!] I wasn’t a dancer, I kind of clumped down those stairs, and I would get to the bottom stair where the last girl would pass me my guitar, then I just clumped over to my little chair and would sing. When Bruno saw how this was panning out, he said Never mind, we’ll go back to square one: she’ll sit in her little chair and she’ll be on her own, and I know the French public are going to hate her.
On the first night, Gilbert Bécaud came in with his 100,000 volts and said Melanie! You’ve got to take the French audience and fuck ‘em! Nobody had ever said that word to me! That was my pep talk, and I went out there and I did my best. The reviews were amazing, absolutely astounding. No-one could believe it because it was so different from those big show movements. I was very intense, I must say. I live my life painfully real. That was my introduction to Paris. However, the first night I performed I got the most unbelievable rave review, and he said I was Édith Piaf with a black soul, which I always took as the highest compliment.
Living painfully real, what is your approach to song-writing?
It happens differently with different songs. For instance, Brand New Key just came out of a memory of learning how to roller skate, and a scent of hamburgers... No, really! I had been on a 27-day fast of nothing but water, and I had been a militant vegetarian up until that time, but my fasting guru actually suggested that I eat meat at least once a week. I was on my way home from an early morning flea market and we passed a McDonalds and I smelled this incredible thing. I consumed the whole thing: the burger, the fries, the milkshake, everything. After not eating for 27 days, you’d think I would have died, but I'd no sooner finished the last bite of hamburger than I wrote Brand New Key!
I like to tell people that I slave over lyrics, but I really don’t. They just come out.
I had never worked in Hollywood before, but someone contacted me to write lyrics to a theme for [the televised series of] Beauty and the Beast. I thought Okay, let me see if I can do this! They sent me the melody and I instantly had the lyrics. It was called The First Time I Loved Forever and I fell in love with that line, and I wrote the whole song that night. I handed it in the next day and I think they were shocked! I guess seasoned writers in Hollywood know better than to hand in their ideas too fast, because [the executives] do like to think you are earning your money and slaving away, tearing your hair out and suffering and all that. The producer called me and said I have to run it by the actors..., I think it needs more of her point of view..., I think it needs more of his point of view... All this tedious analysing of what was wrong with the lyrics went on for weeks, and finally I had the nerve to just hand in my first lyrics again, which I knew were right: they were honest, they came from my heart, they fit the melody. Sure enough, the producer called me the next day and said You see, all that hard work paid off! I won an Emmy for that!
I’m not going to say that I always write everything complete: sometimes I live with a song for years and it isn’t finished, and then one day some light will turn on and I’ll have the third verse, or the bridge, or something that it had to have. Sometimes I write songs before I know what I’m talking about.
There are a lot of very mediocre people who want to be famous and they now have the ways and means. If they’re good with social media they can have tremendous success being nothing more than a good exhibitionist with a computer program that plays arpeggios, but what they can’t do is write melodies and countermelodies with that computer program. Mostly what you’re hearing on the radio right now is just one-note, without much deviation. It has nothing to do with Young kids deserve to have their music and this is their music. This is the music business: this is a controlling force dictating what you will hear and what you will like, because if you hear something enough, it becomes familiar and likeable.
One of your most famous songs is Lay Down (Candles in the Rain). It’s a beautiful response to Woodstock. Tell us about how that song came into fruition.
I have to preface it with the whole day leading up to my performance. I hadn’t performed in front of many people. There was an industry buzz, and I had a hit in France, but I wasn’t a veteran performer. My husband had an office in the same building as the people who were organizing An Aquarian Exhibition, which became Woodstock, and one thing led to another and I was put in the lineup. At that point, I'm picturing it as arts, crafts, music, and families with picnic blankets!
For that whole year I was in England, writing a film score, and I really enjoyed that part of creating. I didn’t want to be a celebrity, and thought this was maybe the direction my career was going, writing music for films. Over the year I didn’t hear any of the hype of what was going on, and we seriously thought about cancelling, because there was much bigger stuff going on in England: The Rolling Stones were in the studio next to me, there was lots of cool underground stuff going on, and I was writing this film score. Peter decided he would stay and finish the score, and I went home to do this little festival thing.
My mother picked me up and drove me up to Woodstock, and it wasn’t really until we hit the traffic that I found out that what I was doing was a major thing. I went to the hotel and there was Sly Stone and Janis Joplin, larger than life, slugging her Southern Comfort, surrounded by media microphones, and I'm thinking, I have to get out of here! A guy comes up saying Let’s go to the helicopter. I’d never been in a helicopter in my life. I didn’t trust them as they didn’t seem to be built to fly. I’m scared. We get in the helicopter and he says Oh no, sorry Mom, musicians and managers only! My mother and I said goodbye and I was off to do this festival.
I realised I am now in full blown terror. How am I going to get out of this? Nobody knows who I am except for a small, small percentage who had heard Beautiful People on pirate radio. I asked the pilot What is that crop under us? He said That’s people. We’re a mile from the festival... It was people, miles of people. I get there and there’s this football field-sized stage, and I’m led to a little tent with a dirt floor and a box. That is pretty much where I stayed the whole day, terrified, and the terror built and built and built.
It started to rain, and Chip Monck went up on stage and made this inspirational announcement about Hog Farm passing out candles and people should keep them alight and the rain would go away... I was sure that this was my reprieve, that my prayers had been answered and that I would be able to go back to England, and just at that moment, someone came and said You’re on next. All day I had been told I was on next, and every time my heart would be in my throat. This time it was for real.
I went on, and I left my body. I don’t know if other people have had this experience, but it is quite amazing. I was not in my body. It was all quiet, and I watched myself sit, and then boom! I came back singing and people were resonating. I don’t know if they knew, but they watched a person leave their body and come back. They watched a spirit. I always thought that had something to do with the phenomenal response I got.
After I was back in myself and singing, it was like nothing was wrong and nothing could hurt me. All these people were just flowing this power to me, and I was flowing it back to them. It was totally magic. I think that I had this unique experience at Woodstock because I was unknown: I had no records, no TV appearances, no magazine articles. I walked on stage an unknown and walked off the stage a celebrity, because 500,000 people resonated, and took that bit of what I did home with them.
There was such a dynamic range of performers at Woodstock. Do you ever feel there is a monotony in today's music?
There’s just too much control that needs to come back to the people. It’s a double-edged sword: the technology is great, everyone can release downloadable music and you can have social media up the wazoo so that everybody knows who you are, but it also floods the world with mediocrity, so people have to wade through and figure it out for themselves.
I think that’s why there’s such an interest in sixties music: a lot of the production style is very dated, but the thing is that people were really interested in where music came from. People were exploring jazz, blues, rock, rockabilly, folk, and it was all coming together in this new pop music. There was also different instruments! I would go to Studio Instrument Rentals in New York and look for weird instruments. What’s that drum? , That’s from Africa and it sounds like this! One time, Laura Nyro was there and I heard her saying I want something that sounds blue! I thought that was kind of funny, but the thing is people were searching for some sort of truth to express their music.
Leaving Buddah Records and starting up your own Neighborhood Records to express your own truth, did you have a fear that it was going to fail against you, especially for a woman in such a male-dominated industry?
I wasn’t thinking! I became independent by owning my own record label, which was unheard of except for The Beatles, who opened Apple Records and had plenty of legal help. I was flying in the face of the music industry and I didn’t realize that I was making enemies in doing that.
I was doing it because I wanted to be free from being pushed to have a certain image and look that I didn’t want. I wanted most desperately to communicate directly to people, and I thought that having my own label would enable me to do that. And our first hit record was Brand New Key, and that reallyirritated Buddah Records!
I won my copyright back as there were many, many loopholes and Peter was always very good at finding them. Yet, I am still in the position where people are collecting my royalties, and I own them! If Paul McCartney could help me with a lawyer, that would be really good! With all of his clout and power and money, it took him a lot to get his rights back from Sony. It's like trying to sue the IRS: a major deal. I’m working toward doing that someday. In fact, the proceeds from Melanie at the Metropolitan Opera House, NYC 1974 will help fund the Article 27 Music Rights Project, which is working entirely on behalf of getting artists what is right.
If I was British, this wouldn’t even be an issue, because in the UK you can’t sell your copyright, and the cheques always go to the person who copyrighted it. The artist should always be compensated for what they do.
When you released your follow-up to Brand New Key, Ring the Living Bell, Buddah then released Nickel Song, which is now one of your staples. Did you ever actually receive any royalties from the label, or was this just them capitalising on your success?
The records on Neighborhood was mine when we released it, but when Neighborhood was dissolved, I didn’t get anything anymore. Somehow, it just got acquired and it became so convoluted, and it was a major legal thing.
I was more concerned with getting new music out and I went independent… I was buried alive. It takes major PR to be visible.
Is Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma the result of frustration at record labels?
Absolutely. I didn’t have a hit with that record. I had a hit with Lay Down, and The New Seekers aped my version of What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma, and then a lot of people started recording it. It became one of those songs that a lot of people identified with. I definitely wrote it out of frustration. It was pretty literal. I’d record in a certain way and they’d want it editing, they’d want it this way and they’d want it slower or faster, and Peter would be forced to speed it up. Although, he was very happy to have hit records, no matter what!
He wanted to make everything I did a hit, and sometimes I felt that was compromising the message of the song. If I’d recorded Brand New Key the way I wanted, it would never have been a hit. It never would have become the quirky thing that it was. I used to be a reactionary against it, because that was all that anybody knew – they forgot about Candles in the Rain, Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma or Peace Will Come – they called me a one-hit wonder sometimes!
There came a moment when the politics of music became crucial to a person’s career, and because I had done things to irritate and fly in the face of corporate music companies, they were pretty active in my demise, but I didn’t really know what was going on until I found out later. Krist Novoselic from Nirvana said Melanie has been carefully airbrushed out of history. I was at war and I didn’t know it. Things would hit me and get me, but I didn’t know where they were coming from.
People are always congratulating me; I heard your song on the McDonalds’ commercial! but I got nothing! I’m happy that the song is still vital and seems to transcend production styles and everything, and I understand now that it is just a cute little song and I should have enjoyed it, but I was in my own world of being cast out as a leftover from Woodstock. In fact, mostly people didn’t even say that I wrote the songs. If they did, they called me the female Bob Dylan... but they never called him the male Melanie!
We’re going to do this. It has to be made right. That’s all. It’s not just for me: it’s for other artists. You should always be compensated for what you’ve done.
You’ve always stood your own ground. The Powder Ridge Rock Festival has been hailed as a terrible disaster of an attempt to replicate Woodstock. There were legal injunctions, but you still played anyway. What made you do that?
It was really odd. I lived in New Jersey at the time and the festival was in Connecticut, not too far away. Peter said We can’t go, there’s an injunction, any artist going will be arrested and I said We have to go!
There was a press conference at the ski lodge, because several artists had already gotten there, thinking they were going to do a performance, and everybody wanted to know what they were going to do. Everyone said they were going to honour whatever agreement came about, but there was about 40,000 people already there! I somehow got a ride from the 1010 WINS news team, who were very willing to help me: they threw my guitar in the trunk and I rode in the back seat between anchor people.
Somebody had set a generator and a makeshift stage, and kids from the audience were singing and playing. Somebody announced that Melanie was here and it was like I was Santa Claus! I didn’t mean to be that brazen. There was just something that told me that I needed to be there. So 40,000 people got to hear me sing Peace Will Come and other songs that were being played on the radio at the time.
Then there was a little bit of a commotion and somebody said I think we’d better go! There were threats of arrests and $10,000 fines if we performed or were even present at the site, so we got out of there. I escaped serious stuff through people co-operating and thinking that I should do this. I’m not a band, so it was easy enough for me to be mic’d up and sing with my acoustic guitar.
I think everybody was afraid, because it was a time when people were getting clubbed and tear-gassed and killed for protesting a little too loudly, or for not being on the right side of whatever politics were going on. The threat was serious, and I don’t know what took over me, but I did it, and I’m the only person who did perform at that festival.
I didn't face any legal ramifications because they didn’t get me! I went back in the 1010 WINS news car, and they didn’t see me! They didn’t go out of their way to prove that I was there. I was gone already.
You're live-streaming concerts now, mixing hits with unreleased music; what can we expect from you?
I’ve got a whole album’s worth of new songs at least. Now that my husband has passed away, I’ve got my son Beau Jarred, who is a monster guitar player and also an amazing engineer and sound mixer. We do it all ourselves. We’re just trying to survive, especially in this time of not being able to do tours.
[With livestreams] there’s so many things to test to get the audio perfect. The person who does the streaming helped us with the audio and video, and he did literally hundreds of tests. It’s bad enough that we aren’t physically sitting in front of each other, and I wanted it as real as possible. It takes a lot of work: a lot more than just I’m here, I’m live, I’m going to turn on my phone and I’m singing.
I’m going to continue doing livestreams because it’s a way to survive, and to get my music out to people and maybe help lift spirits, which is what I’m supposed to do.
For those new to you, what songs would you say embody Melanie?
I'd say Lay Down (Candles in the Rain), which my husband wanted me to call Woodstock because it is about Woodstock, but I wouldn’t have it because there was no mention of it in the song! I would say that’s a really good first one to hear. As far as new songs go, I think Ruin is so me, and Happy People is so me, and Ferris Wheel is so me. Finally, after all these years, I figured out the thread that makes me, me!
Visit Melanie's website and Facebook page to keep up-to-date with upcoming releases and concerts, and support her and Article 27 Music Rights by clicking here to purchase Melanie at the Metropolitan Opera House, NYC 1974 for a truly magical live performance. You can also click here to stream Melanie's influential body of music.