Melanie Talks “Brand New Key,” Starting Over, and McDonalds
Though best known for her folk-pop ditty “Brand New Key,” (also known as “the roller skate song inBoogie Nights“) Melanie Safka hasn’t stopped making music over a four decade span. Her latest,Since You Never Heard of Me, is full of the wry, sturdy songs that have defined her oeuvre (when the bouncy, not-very-characteristic roller skate hit is removed from equation).
These days, Safka finds herself spending a lot of time in Arizona (she lives her “about as full time as a traveling musician lives anywhere full time”). Her husband and business partner, Peter Schekeryk passed away unexpectedly last year, and being her has given her a chance to be with her children and regroup. “Art and career don’t always go together,” she explains.
Her three children, Leilah, Jeordie and Beau-Jarred, have all collaborated with Safka — most notably Jeordie and Beau-Jarred, who will join her for an intimate performanceTuesday, January 10, at The Rhythm Room.
I spoke with Safka about her novelty hit, her career, and “how big” lyrics can be.
Melanie Safka: It’s more tongue in cheek. A joke? I don’t know. I think I have a very strange career. I had some Number One records and there were times I’m a household world. Then I’m not. I have maintained fans all over the world, but some people just don’t know who I am. Which is natural, especially now, because you have have to do bizarre things to have people know who you are. It’s kind of poking fun at celebrity.
Sure. But people might not recognize the name, but they recognize the songs.
They do, which is more important I think. For me anyway.
Have you been writing in the last year, since your husband’s death and the last record?
Oh yeah. I never stop writing. I write all the time. I write too much. Same with [daughter and Mixology songwriter] Jeordie. She’s always two or three albums ahead of herself. Sometimes it’s good to just create and lay it down as you go, but when you’re way ahead of yourself, you tend to want to do the new songs when you’re performing. I do some old stuff, some old things. I always feel it out. When I’m in front of an audience, I can really sense what they want. I’m a people-pleaser, I’m ashamed to say [laughs].
Obviously you want to explore your newest creative work, but is it also important for you to share those older songs?
I’ve come to terms with it, because I understand totally. If somebody knows one song that you did because it was a hit – “Brand New Key” or “Candles in the Rain” – if you don’t do it it’s a let down. That was the song that pulls them in. Like advertising cheap televisions in your store, and when people come you don’t have them. Not that my songs are cheap television.
It’s the calling card. Then there are other people, diehard fans and they know all my 47 albums worth of songs from the very beginning to now. They could care less if I do “Ruby Tuesday” or “Brand New Key.” I have a good balance of people. I feel comfortable doing the hits, because I feel a lot of artists don’t want to play the hits because what they do now is not as good. But if you’re into what you’re doing, you’re not in competition with yourself.
The song, “I Tried to Die Young” features an interesting lyrical approach.
It’s a turnaround. I love lyrics. I’m an unabashed, shameless lyricist. I love playing with words, and turning them around, and having a punch.
When you sing about “making friends with your demons” what are you discussing there? Or does it not work to explain it away?
If I was articulate enough to explain it, I probably won’t be a songwriter [laughs]. I think a lot of art comes from the inability to express in other ways. Even if I could [explain] it would certainly take the magic out of it, and I couldn’t do it as well as I can in a lyric. [Recites the line]. It’s so perfect. Why would anyone want to explain that?
You’re an artist from a time in American history that’s now legendary. I guess it’s more fun for me to imagine what you’re singing about there.
Yeah, go right ahead [laughs]. It could apply to all of the above or none of them. That’s how big a lyric can be. It can accomplish things in other people’s heads the best.
“Brand New Key” certainly did. It was banned by radio stations for its content. It could be the most innocent thing in the world or the farthest from. Depending on your what you decide to make it.
It’s true. I don’t think I was thinking of how clever I was when I was writing it. I was having that kind of memory that came back to me in a big woosh of memory. I was on a fast, and when I broke the fast I was very carefully you go back to eating some cooked carrot or [something]. You’ve gone 27 days of not eating you don’t want to shock your system. So I was going back to eating and this fasting guide, this fasting guru said “Your perfect diet with occur to you; you’ll sense what you are supposed to have,” and I was about a week after the fast, and I was going to a flee market at 5 in the morning. On the way back, I smelled this incredible smell. This aroma of something.
It was McDonalds. I went and had some McDonalds, after being a vegetarian for four years and then fasting for 27 days — it just seemed right. So I went and I had the whole thing, the combo. No sooner had I finished that last bite I wrote “Brand New Key.” That’s the absolute truth. It had no other inspiration, I wasn’t thinking I wasn’t crafting. Lyrics are funny. When I look at it – when I analyze it from a far, it’s like, ‘Wow, all those innuendos and symbolic keys [laughs] all that Freudian stuff. It wasn’t premeditated at all. I was remembering roller skating when I was little. Just round the time I was learning to ride a two wheeler, just letting go and knowing there wasn’t anyone holding me. Just falling down, and getting back up, and going down suicide hill.
It got banned, and it got interpreted as a drug song. A “key” is a kilo. And…you know, I could say that it couldn’t be further from the truth, but I can’t say that it’s not true. Because sometimes you do things beyond your consciousness. I could very well have been putting that stuff there. Maybe they were right. Maybe they should have banned it.
That was the kiss of death for me as far as being taken as anybody who had any social commentary. All the women who were arriving, you had to be very full of angst, and angular. I was too cherubic, and “Brand New Key” was so cute. It kind of doomed me to be cute.
It’s not a song that really defines your records.
That was a real one-off song. It wasn’t typical. So much is marketing, the look, the package. That has so much to do with what people will read into. Even being a woman, as a matter of fact. It was not being…there was certainly cute things that other female people did, but they weren’t perceived like that. I was being a package, a beatific flower-child. That kind of put a little bit of fluff on it. Too cuddly and fluffy. Nothing could have been further from any of the other albums. A song might be cute, and the next one is [sad] like, “let’s cut your wrists.” I never thought I should write “this” so people think “that.” People will say what they will say.
And mostly I smiled in my photos. It was also a bad time for women to smile in their photos [laughs].