ONE OF THE COOLEST EFFING PEOPLE: Melanie Fiona Interview

melaniefiona
It’s been a long journey to The Bridge for Canadian songstress Melanie Fiona, one that’s taken her across the world. I ask how London matches up to all of the cities she’s visited while virtually living out of her suitcase. “I love it! If I could live and work here I would.” …Over her hometown Toronto? “Well, I can’t live AND work in Toronto…” she responds, addressing something I was preparing to discuss later in the interview; Canada’s sparse black music scene. While Toronto has a plethora of diverse urban talent, the opportunities for them to penetrate the mainstream Canadian music industry is almost non-existent.

So how did Melanie find her big break in a scene with very little provisions for her talent? “I guess my big break found me. I met my execute producer, Carmen Murray, from my production company, Title 9, in Toronto and at the time I’d already been doing music independently; writing, working with different producers and I met her while she was in the process of developing her production company and helping artists get major distribution. So we went down to LA, I was just there for a few weeks at a time and I was just working with different producers, really just trying to figure out who I was going to be as an artist, what to do, what I wanted to do, what I didn’t want to do… It was a process.”

During this process Melanie met industry heavyweight Steve Rifkind, the CEO of SRC Records who has influenced the success of many artists, including Wu-Tang Clan, Big Pun and Akon. “I was shopping my demo to all the major labels and he came to one of my studio sessions. He loved the music right away, he flew me to New York two weeks later, had me meet up with the staff and the next day he put the deal on the table.”

Following signing with SRC/Universal Motown late 2007, Melanie spent most of 2008 preparing her debut release, The Bridge. The leading single, “Give It To Me Right” has a growing buzz, with unofficial remixes by Busta Rhymes, Talib Kweli and Raekwon also in rotation. It samples The Zombies’ “Time Of The Season” and was co-written with Andrea Martin, who has penned hits including Monica‘s “Before You Walk Out Of My Life” and Leona Lewis’ “Better In Time.” With saucy lyrics like, “I don’t want it all the time, but if I want it I better be satisfied!” there is no questioning what “Give It To Me Right” is all about. “It’s true to who I am as a woman and as a person. I’m really no-nonsense, I know what I like, I know what I don’t like, I don’t have time to be wasted, on any levels! Not in the business, not in my personal life, not in friendships, relationships, nothing.” Melanie grins.

Also receiving airplay in the UK is album cut “Sad Songs,” which samples legendary lover’s rock song “Silly Games” by Janet Kay. “You know, it’s so crazy, at the time, I didn’t even think, I just loved the song; I didn’t even think about how huge it could be! And knowing that [“Silly Games”] was a number one record over here, the UK just immediately gravitated towards that record. And I’m so happy because “Sad Songs” is a very cool blend between that ‘doo-wop’ sound and the calypso, UK lover’s rock vibe. So it’s great, because that’s how I feel I am, musically and culturally. I am West Indian, so it was really important for me to have that on my album.”

Melanie imparts her Guyanese heritage in much of her music; particularly on “Somebody Come Get Me” and “Island Boy” which aren’t featured on The Bridge but are making the rounds during her promotional stint. I ask why this is important to her to feed her culture into her music. “Travelling I meet or see a lot of female artists who do dabble in the music that feels very ‘reggae-esque’, feels very Caribbean and they’re not Caribbean. I AM Caribbean, my parents are first generation immigrants to Canada, I grew up very traditional outside of living in the Islands, and I felt like when I had to go to the States I really had to figure out what was different about me as an artist. I’m a Canadian, West Indian girl so I wanted people to understand that; I can do a little bit of everything because that’s really who I am. That’s what I was exposed to and that’s how I was brought up.”

melaniefifi

Melanie cites growing up in Canada as one of the biggest social influences on her music; while the music scene is lacklustre, Toronto is in the top five cities for cultural diversity in the world. “I grew up around all different types of people, I accepted all kinds of cultures; it’s everywhere – it’s acceptable and it’s natural there, it’s just a way of life. As I started travelling abroad and looking at lots of other cultures it made me really look at Canada and really understand how that influenced me.”

The soundtrack to Melanie’s childhood is also where she draws much of her inspiration from. “My dad used to play guitar in a band so live music was in the house. My parents listened to a lot of big bodied vocalists and a lot of soul singers in the house so artists like Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, Bob Marley [and] Whitney Houston all musically influenced me.”

With all these different forces influencing Melanie’s sound, how is this reflected on The Bridge? “It’s a story that is really who I am. I’m proud of it because I think that it’s a body of work that people have been longing for and wanting. I didn’t want to put it in one box and classify it as one type of music. If I had to put it in one box it’s pop-soul, because it’s something old, it’s something new. It’s soul music mixed with the likes of R&B, hip hop, reggae, pop, and when I started playing it for people, I would see young children love it and old people who loved it; black to white, male to female, so I felt like calling it The Bridge would be perfect because it seemed to be bridging the gap against things that separate people.”

Bridging between genres and social constraints through music is quite a utopian ideal, as the music industry often tries to define artists in a specific category in order to market them. I ask Melanie if people have tried to pigeon-hole her before. “Absolutely. Ab-so-lutely! When I first started going to the States that happened to me a lot. Everybody had their own judgements on what type of artist I should be. I used to have a lot of frustrating moments because I used to be like, ‘you guys don’t know me’, and I felt like nobody was taking the time to get to know me, and find out what it is that I was trying to do. A lot of the record labels, when I was shopping [around for a deal], loved the record, and they wanted to sign me but they were like ‘we might want to take it in THIS direction after’.”

The direction that some labels wanted to take Melanie in was based on selling her image rather than her talent. “They wanted me to be more of a sex symbol. They told me ‘you don’t have to sing as much, because you look great.’ And that isn’t happening. I’m not by any sense of the imagination banking on my looks or my physicality because I feel that my talent and my intelligence is more than that and I think that’s what I’ve witnessed being in the industry, working and seeing artists come up; I’ve seen the gimmicks and I’ve seen how they’ve tried to market people on something that really doesn’t last long. And I feel like people appreciate real singing and real talent more than they appreciate a pretty face. I want to have a career where I can sing even if I become 800lbs! I don’t want it be about that.”

Melanie also found labels challenging her lyrical content. “They wanted to tell me what kind of music I should be doing; more pop with less substance, ‘you can’t say that, you can’t sing like that, people won’t receive it well, it’s not easy enough to digest’, and I said ‘I don’t want this to be easy!’” Adamant not to sacrifice her artistry, Melanie chose to sign with SRC Universal Motown because “[they] didn’t want to change it at all, and they understood the diversity of it all, in me and in the music, and I appreciated that.”

Seeing her determination to control her product in the industry and ‘keep it real’ is about more than her as an artist, according to Melanie. She’s also thinking about the message she’s portraying to her audience. “I just don’t think that people want to see fake anymore! I think they’re relating more to people who they feel go through the same things they do. I’ve seen so many young girls lose themselves in this industry, so for me I was like, I don’t want to be one, and I want to set a standard for a little girl who’s 12 and has interests in being a singer to understand that it’s okay to be beautiful, it’s okay to be talented and intelligent, it’s okay to speak your mind and stand up for yourself. And I always say this; the more you insist on being who you are then the less people will try to change you.”

Relating to her audience is something Melanie seems to find important; using all the obvious social platforms – from video blogging to twittering – to connect with her fans online. I ask how helpful she feels her online communication has been to her increasingly rising buzz, much of which has been amplified by blogsites and online portals. “I definitely think it has [been helpful]. I mean, there’s some artists out there that kick my ass in the online department. I personally do my best but I’m sure if I wasn’t as busy as I was right now it would be even more because it is such a helpful tool. But it definitely has been because when I started doing my video blogs people were able to see what I looked like and how I spoke and feel like they get to know me because I hadn’t started touring yet, it was great. And touring with Kanye – that was a great thing for people who weren’t at the concerts to be able to see.”

We talk further about opening on Kanye‘s 2008 Glow In The Dark Tour. “It was one of the best accomplishments I have done to date in my career,” Melanie gushes proudly, “it didn’t even register what I had done until I got off the tour…I just performed for over 20,000 people a night opening for Kanye West with NO single out, sharing the same stage with artists like The Roots, Santogold, Kid Cudi, Mr Hudson – I was floored.”

Aside from being overwhelmed by the achievement, Melanie took away some lessons from the tour. “If there’s one thing that I learned, it’s that it’s hard work. People don’t understand how hard it is when you’re travelling on a bus everyday in a different city and country.

“Kanye is such a great example, he’s so passionate about what he does, aside from being talented. It was a blessing being able to watch him night after night and aim to please and perfect every show. And [to learn] what it took; how to adapt when the microphones didn’t work and things didn’t go well, and you didn’t get a sound-check. How do you survive, how do you still put on a good show and stay calm amidst of the storm? So you know, it was really great watching him; he’s such a showman that it really inspired me to be a better performer, to always make sure that it’s an experience for people and that’s how you sell out arenas.”

Now I knew how Melanie had gotten to The Bridge, I take a moment to tap into Melanie beyond The Bridge. Where does she see herself in five years time? “I’d like to have another album out hopefully, maybe a couple awards – maybe Grammies and MOBOs, I’d like to be on Oprah at least once, I’d love to say that I’ve been to every country in the world to meet as many people as possible that the music touches and say ‘thank you’.”

Next I ask what’s Melanie Fiona’s guilty pleasure. Before I finish explaining Soul Culture‘s feature to her, she is grinning widely. “My guilty pleasure right now is “Turn My Swag On” by Soulja Boy. I should hate that record, and I do, but I love it! Like, when it comes on I become someone else! I screw my face up, my hands go up in the air and I act stupid…it is a guilty pleasure, I can’t lie!”

And what does she find the hardest about being a new artist? “Being compared to different artists and breaking away from that comparison.”

Finally I ask, what’s the best thing about Melanie Fiona? “The best thing about me?!” she groans jovially after hesitating for a few moments. I push her to be narcissistic before she declares, “The best thing about me is that I think I’m one of the coolest effing people you’ll ever meet! And on July 20th The Bridge is coming!”

The Bridge is out on 20th July 2009 (SRC/Universal Motown)

melaniefiona.com / myspace.com/melaniefiona

–Tahirah Edwards Byfield

Privacy Preference Center