Melanie’s new album is not available right now on iTunes, Pandora, Sirius/XM right now, and I feel lucky to have a copy of the singer-songwriter’s latest work, “Ever Since You Never Heard of Me.” Melanie, who is one of my mother’s favorite singers, has had a limited number of copies produced, and has not sought to distribute it widely, following her husband-producer Peter’s death in 2010. She and Peter started the second independent, artist-owned label in rock music (the first being the Beatles’ Apple Records); she has long been committed to artists’ creative independence and self-publication. So now, after decades in the music industry, the Woodstock legend of pop-folk is learning herself all there is to know about making a living as a musician in the twenty-first century, including our new paradigms of music distribution. Last year, a group in Australia posted a rough mix of her new album to iTunes, and collected all of the profits for themselves. She spent most of last year tracking those people down and getting them to remove her original content, the last production work of her material by her late husband. Successful, she has copies to distribute while on her sporadic tours this year and last—in Arizona, in the Northeast, at the 2012 International Folk Alliance Conference in Memphis, and across two nights at the Tupelo Music Halls in New Hampshire and Vermont. Melanie’s career has come full circle; she began amongst others, as a Greenwich Village folk troubadour in the mid-1960s, and the value of her live performances have returned to being her ultimate experience.
Melanie’s career has included over thirty albums (two of them gold), an Emmy for lyrics penned for a 1989 television adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, a stint as a UNICEF ambassador in 1972; she has had a long and close family experience with her husband Peter, her partner and producer, raising her three children, Leilah, Jeordie, and Beau-Jarred. Peter and Melanie were married in 1968, and her first few hits appeared in Europe came around the same time: “Bobo’s Party,” on the Buddah label went number one in France, and “Beautiful People” was a hit in the Netherlands. In mid-August of 1969, after substantial press coverage of her live performances overseas, as well as a television appearance in the UK, Melanie found herself in a helicopter above the American masses gathered at Woodstock in upstate New York, a defining moment, and terrifying experience, in her life. In a recent interview, Melanie told this writer that at Woodstock, she waited in a small tent to perform, and that all day, she was told by the event producers that she’d be on stage next, only to be suddenly told, ‘oh, wait, nevermind.’
Melanie described herself as an introvert, one who will find a quiet corner at any party; it was her husband Peter who always did all of the schmoozing that helped maintain her presence in the public sphere. “I like people. I like people sitting down in front of me,” she said, as we talked of aspects of creative introversion and live performance. In the year following Woodstock, Melanie wrote and released “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” to widespread acclaim, a lasting pop favorite; the lyrics described the moment during her Woodstock performance when Hog Farm distributed candles to concertgoers, and the rain-soaked audience became aglow in soft light. The first few minutes of her performance was a spiritual experience, one in which she saw herself outside of herself: “I was faced with a massive humanity,” she said. It was from this moment during her performance at Woodstock, the practice of an audience illuminating a theater during a concert via lighters or cell-phone apps was developed; Melanie was contacted by MTV a few years ago for a documentary on concert behavior, as this illumination is part of her legacy: “I wish I had a penny for every time someone used one of those apps,” she said.
Even if she did, I think Melanie would still feel the need to get herself across in song. Her new album, “Ever Since You Never Heard of Me,” is the home production work of her late husband and her son, Beau-Jarred, and is a strikingly honest compilation of their work: Beau sought the “pristine, totally musical” recording, while Peter was “old school,” and sought to have sessions with many instrumentalists present at the same session. Melanie talked of the advent of home recording as something that supports one’s need to “live with your creative source energy, and that’s not babble.” From the first track’s multi-tracked Melanie melody-voices across various reverb stages, her new album shimmers with a digital gloss of production and equalization: soft guitars, pianos, quiet guitar licks. Some of the production choices augmented the stellar songwriting; very few choices, in whole, detracted or distracted me. “Tried to Die Young” is a striking ballad that sounds seems to improve upon an early (good) Indigo Girls tender verse-chorus-bridge structure; I’d want to hear Amy and Emily cover this song, electric fiddle solo and all. I realized Melanie had been making records and strumming away in her own rhapsodic trance to audiences for twenty years before the Indigo Girls produced their own first album in 1987; she was a contemporary of Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, and other women’s voices in pop and rock that crackled through AM and FM radios in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her career was important to the development of the genre that today supports Natalie Merchant, Alanis Morrisette, and Jewel. Some of the songwriting on “Ever Since You Never Heard of Me” is a fine reflection on her lifelong commitment to her craft;
On Melanie’s latest release, there are lyrics of rains in Nashville, compromised dams and floods that hover above nylon-string, electric, and acoustic guitars, subtly-brushed snare drums, and a variety of digitally-apparent keyboards. In fairness, the home production value of the recording reveals a growing edge in Beau-Jarred and Melanie’s collaboration: the bass, when present, is sometimes soft and synthetic, and the middle-ground of the equalization sometimes left something to be desired: on my Auratones, the drum set nearly disappeared on “He Died for Love,” a shuffling country song about Johnny Cash, featuring brash pasting of sound clips of his introduction of Melanie, from her appearance on his show long ago. Melanie’s voice is up-front present in the mix throughout, and bears little digital effect; some of the musical genre-hopping in the setting and production surrounding her chord changes and melodies makes this album an inventive endeavor in the face of loss. Some of the material on “Ever Since You Never Heard of Me” represents Melanie’s husband Peter’s last production efforts; this album represents her “picking up the pieces” following his passing. I was interested by the song that follows the Cash tribute, for it sounded like, and was as good as, any Peter Gabriel studio effort, with choruses of repeated syllabic chants and sweeping electronic drum programming, including a dramatic large cymbal break, the whole thing bearing a likable Lion King soundtrack vibe. Besides one crude virtual fader-rise at the song’s close, this track was an interesting work in itself. I didn’t expect to be brought to tears by any of this album, but “Hush-a-bye” was such a suddenly simple song of leaving and departure, and sought to imbue love upon sad leaving just hit me, like a ton of bricks, in its lilting and continuing: by the time Melanie had gotten through the tender verses (“life will take over/no won will have won/hush-a-bye, baby, bye bye”), and was simply repeating the song’s chorus against a small-volume band of electric keys, drums and such, the song had become anthemic, and had gained my emotion; I was hearing my own experience being described. I didn’t expect to be so moved.
And, the instrumental that followed this emotional song was perhaps one of the best choices in production, though the flamenco-guitar riffs across the hip-hop beat could have been avoided, or could have come on faster. Instead, the track evolved into something even larger, involving a vocal counter harmony, a synthetic marimba, and a closing featuring some sort of hiss. There were tracks I preferred less for their production, but these sins of overproduction might be overlooked for the album’s songwriting: there wasn’t much keeping this Melanie album from being a female counterpart to Paul Simon’s Brian Eno collaboration albumSurprise (with lyrics like “if everyone smiles we’ll have a hometown all over the world”), complete with interesting Eurotrash-commentary bridge-drum-breaks—though Simon, unlike Melanie, might refrain from the Beatlesque waltz-based sing-along coda. “Every Breath of the Way” sounds like a Steve Forbert song, in production and drive—and some sort of electric mandolin riffs are massive and entertaining, huge and bearing over the mix in a funny and unprofessional way. A bluesy electric number closes the album, and sounds something like Bonnie Raitt or Grace Potter.
On the basis of “Hush-a-bye” and the album’s first four tracks, I was glad to have gotten a copy of this album, and am excited to see Melanie live—because the creative artist might be actually formed and reformed by their interaction with their audience, however dark the theater. It is in that relationship that the spirit of creative human expression may best flourish, however tricky and slick our studios may become. Melanie’s favorite venue of all time is not Woodstock or any outdoor festival, but the Stables, a 400-seat venue in Milton-Keynes, UK, under the direction of Dame Cleo Laine [www.stables.org], and supported by the Arts Council of England. And if she could perform onstage with anyone, Melanie named Nat King Cole—because, she said, she’d be too in awe of Billy Holliday. She mentioned Cat Stevens (now Yusef Islam) as someone she’d like to collaborate with; I told her that was a fantastic new project for her to pursue. For now, besides completion of her touring in 2012, her next project is the production of a work of musical theater, a memoir of her life with her husband, with production, arrangements, and musical direction by her son, Beau Jarred. Melanie and the Record Man, with Nicolette Hart playing the role of Melanie, debuts at the Blackfriars Theater in Rochester, New York in October of 2012. Reviewing her discography—with many titles out of print or unavailable—I am most interested to hear her 1999 release Recorded Live @ Borders as much as I am her 1972 at Carnegie Hall release. I most look forward to seeing her live.
For more from Melanie: http://www.melaniesafka.com/home.cfm
Catch Melanie at Tupelo Music Hall
March 9—White River Junction, Vermont
March 10—Londonderry, New Hampshire