Redefining Melanie: The Interview
Get ready: Melanie Safka, better known as simply "Melanie", is coming back to Eureka Springs this July as part of a 2012 concert tour that began June 2 in (drumroll please...) Woodstock, New York, and so far has taken her across Germany.
Those of you familiar with Melanie are likely already hearing Lay Down (Candles in the Rain) in your head and running to the attic for your bell-bottom pants and tie-dye tunics. Those of more recent generations may be scratching their heads and wondering "Melanie who?"
And after spending an hour talking to her, we have to ask: Did any of us ever really know Melanie?
With her aptly titled newly released CD, "Ever Since You Never Heard of Me," co-produced by her son Beau Jarred (who also accompanies her) and late husband Peter Schekeryk, Melanie redefines herself to the Woodstock generation and introduces herself to a whole new one as she takes us on a delightful journey to the world of the fading, if not lost, art of raw folk with inspired singing/songwriting. No mass-marketing whitewash or shock value ploys -- just pure, unfiltered Melanie.
She is not a bit bothered by the idea that some "original" fans expecting to find the old Melanie in her new CD may be disappointed with what they hear. In fact, the basis for the title, "Ever Since You Never Head of Me" not only speaks to the newer generation who has not yet been exposed to Melanie, but also to those original fans who never truly heard the "real Melanie" instead hearing what was, according to her explanation inside the CD cover, "flushed out and embellished for the purpose of reaching the masses."
Ever down-to-earth, she says, amid laughter, "I think enough time has gone by that I am merely new. Everybody I know knows who I am, but there [are] a billion people who don't. It's like, sort of a well-known unknown person."
Despite her introverted and accommodating personality, she feels with this album she has finally been able to convey the essence of the Melanie that she has always been. She says of her new release, "I think this... all began with my voice, whereas so many productions begin with the band. This one was Beau and I sitting there and just playing the songs; and he, with such detail, duplicated the exact rhythm, the exact groove from the original from what I actually sing."
The passing of her husband and long-time producer, Peter, in 2010 makes the post-production of this new CD a bittersweet one for Melanie and her son Beau.
"We were in the process of getting it out when he [Peter] was here and then Beau and I were left." With obvious emotion in her voice, she explained "this is the last album that Peter worked on with Beau," and that "he is so grateful that he got to have that experience... now, whatever he does, he runs it by his dad, cause he knows the comment that Peter would have made, and he never would have gotten that experience had he not gotten to collaborate on that production."
Asked if her move to Nashville had influenced some of the obvious bluegrass nuances in several of the new tracks, she explained that they have mostly been on the road, so it really wasn't a factor. However, she pensively reflected, "I don't know; I think my voice always had that bluegrass thing."
The question reminded her of when she was returning back from the Isle of Wight Festival with Jimi Hendrix. "We talked about how Bluegrass music was Appalachian and how he was influenced by Appalachian music, and I was. You know, I always loved early folk albums."
Melanie's artistic expression is not limited to singing and songwriting. Her play, "Melanie and the Music Man" opens in October 2012 at Blackfriar's Theatre in Rochester, N.Y. She began writing what would become the script as an "instinctive response" immediately after her husband, Peter, suddenly and unexpectedly passed away.
Just as in her songwriting, it was never about getting the approval of the masses, but was born of a desire to find an outlet for feelings that needed to find a voice. "Melanie and the Music Man" is the story of her 40-plus years of marriage to Peter. He had long been after her to write about her life, telling her "just clear everything up and tell everybody what you did."
They were constantly on the road, "driving everywhere," she recalls, "we drove to Massachusetts and he had given me this leather book. It was empty and he said, 'I want you to start writing... Just start out anywhere. Talk about Woodstock and then talk about the Ed Sullivan show or anything. Just write.' So, when we were in Massachusetts, on the road, and he died suddenly; it was as unreal as anything that's ever happened in my life. He went to a store and didn't come back, and we -- Beau and I -- were with him. We never drove. We never had this experience of just being on our own. We were always three people on the road, you know, and he was the driver/organizer person and we were the artists and this is how we were left.
"And, in this state, I started writing and the first line was..." (Melanie's voice now becomes much softer and broken as she continues), "it really wasn't my story, it was our story... even though people didn't know Peter -- he was the one who got me out there. And I started writing and said, 'sometimes you don't know it's a story until it has an end,' and that's how I began the book."
How does one follow up a singer/songwriter of the year career? A mother of three musicians herself, Melanie has led an adventurous life, and while she may have fallen off the radar for some, she has actually stayed busy professionally in Europe with extensive music tours and still makes it to venues in the U.S. She has been bestowed the title of Peace Ambassador to South Korea as well as the official spokeswoman for UNICEF. She also won an Emmy Award for her lyrics to the theme song for the TV series "Beauty and the Beast."
We are a long way from Woodstock now, and of today's music market, Melanie says, "It doesn't have much to do with a desire to communicate something or to create something beautiful... Musicality has definitely suffered in the flood of mediocrity that's out there."
Many things can and have been said about Melanie, but "mediocre" is not one of them. She says that the best singer/songwriters tend to be introverts, like herself, and they are not going to try to push as hard to get themselves out there because it is about the music, not the popularity.
Melanie will be in concert in The Aud on July 12. Come out to Eureka Springs' beautiful, historic Auditorium, take a step back in time, and rediscover the far-from-mediocre Melanie!