a Q&A with Melanie Edwards

As cliched and as terrible as it sounds, we often are separated by six degrees of separation from each other, especially if you work and socialize in specified circles. Indeed, as a music blogger, I’ve found that although New York is quite a large city, it can be paradoxically a small city – I frequently find out that people I know professionally know someone who’s a friend of a dear friend and vice versa. At this point, in my professional life, it’s not surprising but it’s kind of amusing, really. 

Last summer, I covered one of the rare hip hop shows at the Bitter End, and it featured Max Burgundy and local collective BR and TImebomb. After writing some deserved kind words about BR and Timebomb, their drummer Jibrail Nor contacted and invited me to the band’s anniversary show and webcast at AM Studios. It was a real family-styled event as they invited musician friends who they had collaborated with in various incarnations. Melanie Edwards performed at the anniversary show and I was impressed by her charm, quick wit and her beauty. So I’m honored to have had the opportunity to speak to Edwards after her return from an extended artist residency in Finland, where she recorded her latest effort, Back to Basics.

In this Q&A, Edwards talks about her musical childhood in Jacksonville, NC, her wildly eclectic influences, how her time in Finland influenced the new album, and as a confident, self-assured artist she gives some great advice to indie artists, and to women artists. She’ll be performing a homecoming show in Chapel Hill, NC on December 9th, so if you’re in that part of the world, you should come out and check out the beguiling Melanie Edwards. And with that in mind, check out the Q&A below . . 


WRH: How did you get into music?
ME: Well, I sang before I spoke.  Truly.  My mother would carry me around, and I’d sing Christmas carols to the neighbors, but couldn’t even hold a conversation yet.  I have a lot of musical family members, and began singing in church as young as three years-old.  I started having an affair with the piano at nine years-old.  It just made sense to me, when nothing else did.  I still feel that way.  Then, I added violin into the mix and studied under the Suzuki method, played in orchestras and started composing my own works, with both instruments.  
WRH: I saw that you’re originally from Chapel Hill, NC. How long have you been in NYC, and what brought you here?
ME: Actually, I’m from Jacksonville, North Carolina, but I graduated from UNC Chapel Hill.  I’ve been in NYC for nearly a decade.  After college, I moved to Savannah, Georgia and earned my MFA in performing arts, from the Savannah College of Art and Design.  Just like Big Boi from Outkast.  Not really, but he’s from Savannah.  I didn’t move to New York straight away, because I wanted to build up my craft, and so I decided to start in Austin, Texas.  Really loved that city, but, after a year, I was ready to make the move and I’m still here.  I’m excited to be returning to Chapel Hill next month, on December 9th, to play for my hometown crowd.  
WRH: Who are your influences?
ME: Artists who write from their soul and not from an industry point of view.  Songwriters and storytellers who are brave and take risks, like Mike Skinner from The Streets, Tori Amos, Citizen Cope, Bon Iver, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Melle Mel and Mos Def, to name a few.
WRH: How would you describe your sound?
ME: It’s like if Natalie Merchant and Tori Amos scissored and had a love child.
WRH: Who are you listening to right now?
ME: Big fans of my friends in Alcoholic Faith Mission, out in CPH [Copenhagen].  I’m in a Scandinavian cloud right now, after coming back from Finland.
WRH: My first introduction to you was during BR and Timebomb’s anniversary party/webcast at AM Studios last year, and from what I understand you occasionally play violin for the band. How did you meet them?  
ME: I’ll always remember subbing for their violin player, Olivia, during a February blizzard.  That’s the love of the game, yo!  I met their drummer, Jibrail Nor, after he booked us for a show at Europa Cafe, back in 2009 and he started backing me, shortly after, when I went solo.  
WRH: When I had first seen you live, I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of your material then, dealt with relationship issues, love, sex and the like with candor but also with a sense of playful wit and humor. How much of your material is actually based on real life events and circumstances that happened directly to you or to someone you knew?
ME: My songs are the spandrel of my reality.  The bridge and arch of my projections of the events on this journey.  I’m a conduit between two sides, and I channel that energy to present a story in it’s most primal and present form.  The songs are the soundtrack to my mental scrapbook; the pieces of my life that I play nearly everyday.  They change form, as the years go by, but they’re still with me, just like my photos.
WRH: You were recently in Finland for an artist’s residency where you wrote and recorded material for your new album. How did the experience of being overseas in a totally new environment influence the new effort, if at all?
ME: It influenced every bit of the record.  I was out in the middle of the Finnish woods, in a tiny town, stripped clean of consumerism and social interaction, minus the times we’d collaborate or have open studio.  I wrote a song called “Mind Chatter” that really sums up the experience.  It’s interesting how much NYC gets in your blood.  When you put yourself in a foreign environment, particularly a silent one, the frequency is still buzzing about, with no vessel to contain it.  It took me weeks to come off of city life and get real with myself, so I could produce an authentic project.  I was also void of my usual instruments, which can be a challenge.  I didn’t have my personal piano, or my microphones and used a mini-Tascam recorder with a Lexicon mixer.  I draped blankets over my head for acoustics and had to get creative, non-judgemental and free with Finnish equipment and the Zachary organ.  It’s like having a one-night stand, over and over again, playing these creatures and hoping they like you too.
WRH: How does the new album differ from your previous work?
ME: My Lab producers picked the album’s title Back to Basics and it really sums up the project.  I wanted to get back to the fundamental basics of music.  As you know, I’m classically trained, and felt the need to strip back over-production, and thought the Scandinavian woods would provide the perfect setting.  Finland’s a holistic organism and the energy was perfect to develop a very intimate, raw and personal record.  
WRH: Your work is kind of unusual in the sense that it bridges pop, hip hop, R&B cabaret and jazz. In such a seemingly indie rock and hip hop-orientated town like New York, have you had trouble booking shows because venues don’t quite know what to make of you and your work? And generally, what has the response to your work live been?
ME: Most NYC venues are interested in making their rent, using musicians to bring in crowds, to buy over-priced drinks and giving the acts $20 out of a tip jar, to split five ways.  I’m very particular about where to play, because I respect venues who respect musicians.  Also, because my work bridges the line between cabaret theater and niche songwriter style, I don’t fit in with every, single venue.  It’s delicate and not everyone wants lace.  That’s why I tour more now than ever, and play for events, house parties and art openings.  
WRH: As an indepdendent artist, what advice would you give to other independent artists trying to make it? Would there be any advice in particular to female artists?  
ME: I would tell other indie artists, no matter the medium, to stay authentic.  To find your bliss and know your power.  The digital age is opening and connecting artists in ways that have never been appreciated, so keep creating.  I don’t spend a lot of time analyzing what I’ve done in the past, because then you’re locked in the logistical.  In a world running on economics and politics, artists re-create the myth.  So own that and embrace it.  As far as advice for female artists, I would say keep going.  In an industry predominantly dominated by males, it can be extremely difficult to have your own voice, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t listening.  Trust your intuition, your own compass and stay fearless.