A Conversation with Melanie
Mike Ragogna: Who could this be? Why, it’s the very lovely, very iconic, Melanie.
MR: Hi Melanie, how are you?
M: I’m good.
MR: I have to get my clapping over with. Okay, there we go. Melanie, it’s a joy. Your latest album isEver Since You Never Heard Of Me. Traditionally, on all of your albums, we would see the credit “Produced and Arranged by Peter Shekeryk,” though this one was also produced and arranged by Beau Jarred Schekeryk, your son.
M: Yes. Beau did get to work with Peter, and he always says, “I’m so grateful, I got to work with dad on this album,” because Peter is strictly old-school and Beau is best of both worlds, new school and old school.
MR: Because you guys taught him well.
M: Well, Peter was all about the feel and capturing the feel. He would let the artist reign. That was his gift–to really let the artist come out with the album they wanted to come out with. Beau is much more in control of everything. In the technology realms, you sort of have to be in control of everything. But the magic part is making that appear as if it happened with the spontaneity and the magic of a live session.
MR: Let’s go into that. The marriage of traditional recording and modern technology really benefited you on this album. You even have a couple of spiritual songs such as “Motherhood Of Love.” I guess you’re a follower of Mata Amritanandamayi, right?
M: Amma. I’m not exactly a follower, but I’ve gotten an embrace from Amma, and it is an amazing, magical experience. It’s nothing that I could take with me for the rest of my life except in memory, but I think you have to do the hard work yourself, the meditations and the chanting. I think it’s not just the hug from Amma, although I’ll tell you it’s a nice way to jumpstart any kind of spiritual practice.
MR: Yeah, that’s what a lot of people who’ve gotten the hug have said.
M: They say that?
MR: Yeah, as far as getting a jumpstart in their spirituality.
M: Yeah, that’s exactly it. I’m always amazed when somebody thinks of something at the same time as I do.
MR: Oh, that wasn’t to downplay your experience.
M: No, I think it just occurred to me that that’s what that is. The other day, I just thought of something and I thought, “This is amazing! I have to put this out!” and there was another person who thought of this already and I thought, “How is that possible?”
MR: Well let’s talk about that for a funny moment here. What about those times, when you think you’ve had the most original idea for a song and you put it out and somebody else has the same idea on another record?
M: Yeah, that’s what happened with “Beautiful People.” I had a song that I had just written called “Beautiful People” and we produced it and Peter had it put out on Columbia records and Columbia had just released the Kenny O’Dell song “Beautiful People.” So they made me change the title of mine to “My Beautiful People,” which was not exactly what I had in mind, but they were Columbia records, so they won, but it was totally a different thing. His went like [sings] “You’ve got to be one of the most beautiful people in the whole wide world. It’s true, it’s true, it’s true! And I love you.”
MR: [laughs] Thank you for that concert just then! Melanie, in the context of you putting out your own album and self-promoting it and touring for it, you’ve been indoctrinated into the new model for the music business. Those days of needing a major label to promote your record, market you and break you are kind of going away.
M: Oh, they’re gone! I mean…that’s if you’re interested in mainstream media. If you want to be a celebrity for the sake of being a celebrity, you know, being promoted and having your face everywhere, you need a major label. I’m just amazed. Half the people, I see their faces and I say, “They’re famous for being famous,” you know, that phenomenon that’s reared its head in the last ten years or so, people that are emerging. And you’re like, “What do they do? Do they sing? Do they act? Do they write?” The amazing thing is that you don’t need to have a major label, but what your competition is–and this is what I’ve been discovering–is this flood of mediocrity. Yes, we can get everything directly, but we have to weed through the guy who plays the broccoli and whatever it is. Somebody gets their name out as a YouTube artist and people get famous for being good at getting themselves out there. Quite frankly, most creative people are not the best at getting themselves out there, so again, the competition is the flood of mediocre or less than mediocre people. I just wish people who don’t do something would stop wanting to be famous. What is the deal? Why don’t they just do something useful? You can write songs or poetry as a hobby, you don’t have to take up people’s valuable time.
MR: Well, if they play the broccoli, I have to see that. Hey, Melanie, what about the fact that everybody can be a star for five seconds, because of machines like American Idol, The Voice, and all that?
M: Well, that’s degrading, especially American Idol. That’s demeaning, that’s degrading. It brings out the worst in us. I just hate that sort of degradation.
MR: Anyway, enough of they, them, let’s talk about you! I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to throw out some Melanie hits because, hey, they were hits.
M: That’s true! I did have to live that down, being a person who was called a “folk singer.” There was a whole group of folk people who just didn’t think I belonged because I had a hit record; that was called “selling out.” Unbeknownst to me, I sold out because I had a record that was being played on the radio, and that in itself was highly suspect.
MR: Yeah, you sold out because you merely contributed to the culture songs like “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain),” one of the great Woodstock-era anthems. How could you!
M: Well, you know what was really the most wonderful comment? Jerry Leiber was a good friend of Peter’s–Peter having been my husband and producer–and he had a phone call and told Peter something. Peter said, “You have to tell this to Melanie” and he put Jerry Leiber on the phone. I hated when he would just hand me a phone…
MR: …yeah, Peter did that to me and you a few times.
M: “Here, say hello to Mike!” “Hey Mike!” [laughs] So I was put on the phone and Jerry Leiber said, “You and The Beatles have had this knack for…” to paraphrase, to make commercial music blend with art. I think that was one of the most amazing compliments that anybody’s ever paid me. He always loved “Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma” and he was trying to convince me to do a version called “Look What They’ve Done To My World.”
MR: Okay, now let’s go back to “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).” As I’m nodding to your contribution to the culture, you’re also one of the heroes of Woodstock, and people know you from other hits like “Brand New Key,” “Nickel Song,” and your versions of “Ruby Tuesday,” “What Have They Done To My Song, Ma.” And there’s “Psychotherapy,” “Animal Crackers,” “The Good Book,”… You have quite a few classics. Looking at that body of work, what are your thoughts?
M: Well, it all just continued. I never stopped. When people say things like, “Melanie from the sixties,” it’s like, “Well, yeah, from the sixties, from the seventies, from the eighties, from the nineties to the new millennia, and into the beyond.” You want to know what my feeling is about that era, the sixties and seventies? As far as genre, they never knew what to do with me. Pop music was so forgiving at one point. They had The Edward Hawkins Singers with “Oh, Happy Day,” and then there’d be Connie Francis or something or Nancy Sinatra, you know what I mean? All kinds of music were coming together and the source of different genres were crossing over, so you’d hear on a pop radio station with all kinds of different influences. It was a near renaissance on Earth and people were investigating and pulling from different sources. Art was alive and music was alive, because of this interest from artists. Basically, people were doing things because they were interested. Now they’re doing things because they want to be interesting.
MR: Wow, good point.
M: It’s such a different place to come from. “Ooh, I’m going to look like this, and I’m going to sound like this, and my voice is going to do things like this,” just doing things to get people to look at them. “Look at me, look at me!” It’s unpleasant. Back then it was, “Oh, listen to this, this classical thing with the strings…I would go to SIR, the studio instrument rental place in New York city and bump into Laura Nyro who was looking for some interesting percussion to use on her session and I was looking for different flute-y type instruments–maybe a didgeridoo, you know? But it was because it would express what I wanted to express, not because, “Ooh, everybody will see that I used that and I’ll be so interesting.” It’s totally different motivations. The reason why people say that there was a value in that era of music–is it just nostalgia or is there something else? And, of course, there is something else and it comes down to motivation and intention.
MR: There’s something I wanted to throw out at you. There are a lot of indie artists out there, and I would even include you and your son in this, as far as people who are interesting, indie acts, many of whom you can find on the internet if you search. Unfortunately, we don’t get to hear it all. A lot of music seems regional again, like it was in the fifties.
M: Yeah, that’s definitely possible. I mean, I don’t think that is such a terrible thing because then they’re backing it up with performances and people have a reality on what they actually do.
MR: Good point. Now, I wanted to talk about a few other things that you’ve worked on, for instance, your book Tales From the Roadburn Café.
M: I’ve been writing journal entries for some years, and I just put them out on my website and people have been reading them. I don’t read well on a screen. I like to have stuff on paper, I like to turn a page. I’m not a big Kindle person. I’ve tried, but you know, there’s something that’s missing without the ink. I like ink on paper and I like it with books. I decided I was going to collect some of the journal entries and put them out in a book called Tales From the Roadburn Café. We published it ourselves.
MR: I want to read what it says on the front cover. “Whimsical observations told with pathos by the iconic music festival queen with photographs by Beau Jarred Shcekeryk.”
MR: You have always been about “family,” it seems. Your husband produced your albums, your kids performed on them, and you’ve all been so supportive of each other. That’s a very hard thing to do when you’re in entertainment, isn’t it?
M: Yeah, it really is, make no mistake. And over the years, so many people were really, truly envious of it, and it’s bizarre because it’s such a hard life. Being in the entertainment business at all is a very hard life. I tried to talk my kids out of it. “Be a vet or something. Something where people aren’t going to attack you,” because you’re really a target! I love that they’re all artists. I didn’t necessarily want them to pursue that as a career, but they all did. My daughter Leilah is a writer in Nashville, and Jeordie sings out in Arizona all the time. She’s actually in Chicago singing right now, and writing. She has her own website and she’s very into social media. I’m just dabbling with Twittering and stuff like that. We’ve just been a gathering of artists, really.
MR: And this latest album, Ever Since You Never Heard of Me was, of course, a family project. But then again, the last few projects you’ve released have been about the family as well.
M: Well, I never think of it that way, but I guess you could see it that way.
MR: And when you read the credits, it’s pretty obvious, you know?
MR: You’ve got yet another project going right now, one in the theatrical field.
M: Yeah! Well, before Peter passed away, he gave me an empty journal. He said, “You have to write a book. Everybody wants to hear about what you have to say.” I said, “I can’t get the order right, and it just doesn’t fit me to do this. I think you have to be very old to write a book of memoirs and I’m not old enough.” I would just back off from it all the time, but on this last road trip, we were going on tour and be in Massachusetts and Colorado. We were going to do it by car the whole way, and we packed it up, and he gave me this leather bound journal and said, “I want you to start writing this book. Just write it, it doesn’t matter what the sequence is or the order. Just do it and we’ll worry about that later.” So I didn’t do anything. I didn’t write a thing. But a few nights after Peter passed away, I realized that the story–and it is a story…it’s some story–it was our story, because really and truly, I don’t think there would be a public Melanie if there weren’t a Peter Schekeryk. I was his only client and he was dedicated to spreading the word. In fact, his last words were, “It was Melanie,” because I found this out. He had gone to upgrade his phone at a Best Buy so I wasn’t with him, and I wanted to know how it went down. The guys from Best Buy came in and they were crying. They said he came in and he said, “Did you ever hear of “Melanie? No? Oh, you’ve got to check her website,” and he had them put the website on so they could see who I was and he said, “Melanie was the one who started the lighting of candles at concerts. People don’t know this, but look,” and he was showing them this stuff but then said, “I don’t feel so good.” He keeled over and his last words were, “It was Melanie.”
MR: Oh, my God.
M: When they told me this, I had to write it, and I started the book with, “Sometimes you don’t know it’s a story until it has an end.”
MR: I’m sorry you had to go through that.
M: So this is going to be a musical. I call it a musical mystery comedy of errors.
MR: Let’s take a look at that for a second. I love the fact that you’re doing this, and with a beautiful dedication to Peter as well. I have to tell you, how I came into Melanie was of course through the singles, but I also came into your music through a magnificent album. I know everyone says Photograph is your best, but I came in through Madrugada, which I feel was an album of emotions that had music to it.
M: Yeah, thank you. That’s absolutely a great way to say it.
MR: Right from the beginning to the end, it was just one of those magic records. Also, with Peter, I had spoken to him over the years, getting a call from him like every six months, his trying to work something for you. I was never in the right place until I was at BMG, since they owned your old Buddha Records masters. But my point is that, yeah, it was always about trying to get something going for Melanie.
M: Right, exactly. He was on everybody’s time zone. He would get up at four and be talking to England. He was a one-man Melanie campaign.
MR: And those orchestral arrangements that he came up with were magnificent, I really think so.
M: Oh yeah, and some of the things that he had to do to get those strings. He was a producer for CBS when I met him, and he actually lied to CBS and told them it was a session for a group he was producing called The Marshmallows, a psychedelic group, and it was me, but I had no idea what he was up to. I had a full-out orchestra with a string arranger and the New York session strings and I did it live. It was “Beautiful People.” That’s going to be in the musical. It’s called Melanie and the Record Man and it’s going to be at the Blackfriar Theatre in October in Rochester, New York. So if you’re in and about, or not, if you want to just come in and see this…
MR: …and if people did want to get tickets, I imagine there’s a website?
M: Yeah, it’s Blackfriar’s Theatre in Rochester, New York.
MR: All right. Melanie, what advice do you have for new artists?
M: Wow. God. I would just say examine what your motives are and be careful what you wish for. People ask me this a lot. Listen…listen to things that move you and then if you have something to add to that, great. If not, maybe you want to be an archaeologist or something. Not everybody has to be a famous person. But okay, if you’re beyond that and this is what you’re going to do and no matter what this is what you have to do, if you’re driven and you know what you’ve got to do, then just follow that.
MR: Beautiful. Now, you’re going to be touring, ain’t ya?
M: Yeah. Go to my website and we will put the dates up. I’m going to be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on November 9th, and I’m going to be at the New Hope winery in Pennsylvania on the 23rd and there’s talk about a European tour and about dates in Florida and Texas, but nothing is absolutely solid yet.
MR: And don’t forget about that Fairfield, Iowa, date!
M: I know! When am I coming to Fairfield?
MR: We’ve got to figure this out.
M: I’ve never performed in Iowa.
MR: Iowa wants its fair share of Melanie, too, you know. Hey, let’s close with a thought or two on a special song from Ever Since You Never Heard of Me, “I Tried To Die Young.”
M: I think there was this “Never trust anyone over thirty” sort of thing, there was this thought that nobody cool ever gets old. We all leave before we get ugly. Of course it doesn’t happen.
MR: Too late for me!
MS: The good die young, so here we are.
MR: [laughs] Any other words of wisdom?
M: Oh, gosh. Nothing’s coming out. I’ll Twitter it.
MR: [laughs] You got it. Thank you very much, Melanie. I really do appreciate your time. It’s been beautiful. You truly are beautiful people.
M: Thank you.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne