Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Star Quality - Melanie Fiona Interview

Melanie Fiona Interview

She may not have had a hit yet but new Motown/Universal Records artist Melanie Fiona is already a "star". 
The following factors have given that impression; firstly she’s supported Kanye West on tour, secondly at her showcase UK gig supporting this time, Bond style villain-recording artist Mr. Hudson, both Shola Ama & Reggie Yates (from CeeBeebies) were spotted in the crowd. Thirdly she’s rocking an entourage of 4 people, and lastly but leastly, I’m sat with her in a dimly lit studio in London’s West End and she’s wearing sunglasses. Admittedly it’s hard to spot the shades at first as Melanie has her head lying face down on the desk.

“Hello Melanie … am I on the graveyard shift?”
“What's that?” says Ms. Fiona raising her head.
“Am I the last person?” I reply
“Oh, really?  Have you got somebody after me?”
“Oh, maybe you are … unless Lee is not coming.”
She looks at her manager in hope more than anything. It’s been a long day.
“Right.  Okay.  So you've been interviewing all day?”
Reclining now she says “Yes, forgive me if I like - I'm going to lean back and I'm gonna be comfortable.”
“That's fine.  Get comfortable.”
“I am so exhausted.  EXHAUSTED!”
“Ok … Am I allowed to just kind of, you know, poke you if you fall asleep?”
It’s important to get permission.
“Yeah, poke me if I start nodding, if I fall off. Yeah please, keep me up”

It’s not surprising Ms. Fiona is knackered. Last night supporting Mr. Hudson at Scala (in Kings Cross) she gave a blinding performance, combining gutbucket R&B singing with slick, stylishly choreographed dance moves over a selection of “cut & paste” sampled pop soul tunes from her debut album The Bridge. Today’s agenda has involved back to back interviews by a succession of journalists & DJ’s from media outlets such as the Daily Mirror, Evening Standard & BBC Radio (I spotted them scribbled in the studio signing-in book on arrival). In such exalted company it’s always best to nick at least one question.

“The best interview question?” she ponders, “Hmmm I'm trying to remember because a lot of them are so similar… OH!  This guy asked me 'What would you be doing if you weren't a singer?' and I was totally stumped.  I was like, 'What would I be doing?'  I have no idea! Something to do with medicine, now that I think about it, when I was a kid I said I used to want to be a singing nurse.  I don't even know what that is, but it's what I wanted to do.”

Melanie grew up in Toronto and is of West Indian Heritage. Even though she was born in Canada her parents brought her up in the Guyanese tradition & culture (asked who she’d support in a Cricket Test between Canada & the West Indies, Melanie’s response was immediate “West Indies! I gotta rep!”). Part of that culture was music, her Dad played guitar in a local band.

“Sawdust!” she exclaims. That was the bands name. “They used to cover old Soul, Reggae and Calypso songs at Weddings and Parties. But Sawdust (laughs) I was like 'Dad, really?!' and they had these funny tribal T-shirts.  It was so crazy.”

Reggae was Melanie Fiona’s first calling. Jamaican producer Supa Dups recorded her on a song called Somebody Come Get Me, under the name Syren. Shortly afterwards “Syren” recorded several demo’s with producer Mike City, including the excellent unreleased Carry U and another that she co-wrote called My First Love which ended up being recorded by Rihanna. The association helped open the door to a deal with Universal Motown. 
“People had started to call me Syren, back when the music was more Caribbean felt but then when I got my deal (with a major label) I was like, 'Okay, I just want to go back to being Melanie Fiona.'”

The new name brought a change in artistic direction. Melanie set about recording a very Soul influenced pop album including productions by Vada Nobles (Lauryn Hill), Andrea Martin (En Vogue) & Future Cut (Estelle). Monday Morning with its handclap countdown and Supreme’s You Can’t Hurry Love style groove suggests Melanie being signed to Motown may have been more than just a coincidence.
“It is such an honour. I love a lot of Motown records and I actually had the honour of meeting Berry Gordy in LA at an annual Grammy Dinner.” At a private screening for the awards show hosted by record industry big cheese and Universal Chairman Doug Morris, “And you know, Berry asked me, 'So you have an album.  What does it sound like?'  And I was like, 'I don't want to say Soul to you because you are the king!’ so it’s definitely quite an honour.  It feels good.  I feel like the music fits (the label)”
From the moment The Bridge starts you feel like you’re playing spot the sample. The familiar backdrop of Martha Reeves & the Vandellas Jimmy Mack is used as the basis for Please Don’t Go (Cry Baby). Does being signed to Motown give Melanie first dibs on Hitsville USA’s catalogue?
 “No, it all has to be approved. Whether it is your label or not, some artists, they're very particular and they're like, 'No!  I don't care who you are, you're not sampling anything that I do.' I fortunately have not had that problem.  Everything that we've got, every sample that we have gone for has been cleared, which is great.”

The Producer on Please Don’t Go & Associate Producer for the whole album was Andrea Martin, a Guyanese/American singer/songwriter/producer who’s had hits with En Vogue, Toni Braxton & Monica.
“It was this instant like harmonious union of angels singing and harps playing when we met. She really took me under her wing and I'm so blessed to have had her to work with me. Also she's a woman and I'm a woman and this album I think definitely speaks to women”
Martin submitted the new single, the killer Softones sampled ballad It Kills Me which features the lyric “and it kills me, to know how much I really love you , so much I want to ooooh hooo hooo with you hooo hooo”, she also wrote and produced the first track off the album Give It To Me Right
Is Andrea a bit saucy?
“You know what?  It was actually, absolutely expected because Andrea knows me.”
Melanie explains;

It Kills Me

“This was one of the first records I did with her, she played It Kills Me and I literally stood up and I said, 'Oh my God, I need this song in my life.  I've wanted to do a song like this my whole life.'  And I said to her, I said, 'Why?'  I said, 'Why is it still here?  Why?  Why is this record...' and she said, 'I haven't found an artist that can do it.'  We did that record and she was so happy … so happy.”

Give It To Me Right

“Now (Andrea & I) have been working together for months, she knows exactly who I am.  We're having this conversation about relationships and men and I'm like,
'Girl, he is this, he is that and da da da da da and please?!' 
And she said 'Don’t you know he's gonna break up with you” and I looked at her and I said, 'what?! Break up with me?' I said, 'He would be crazy to.'
She took that and then like a month later phoned and she was like, 'Girl, I've wrote this record for you bout that conversation we had. It's a play on words, but I mean in no way is the intention sex. It's a great model for anyone, man or woman, Give It To Me Right or don't give it to me at all.”

Another role model for Melanie has been Kanye West, who she toured with last year. Melanie’s a fan of his last album 808’s & Heartbreak
“I love it.  I love that you can do whatever you want.  You just have to believe and go for it.”
Would Melanie ever use Autotune? I see one of her eyebrows raise above the sunglasses.
“As an effect maybe on certain things, but personally I hate auto tune.  If I record and a producer has auto tune on, I'm like, 'Kill that, please.' It throws my whole ear off.  There are certain things about the rawness of a voice, even in error, even in being slightly sharp or flat, as long as it's not completely way off.  I think that there are certain things when emotion is in there that get killed and get lost in auto tune.”
Besides Melanie doesn’t need autotune, she can sing, she can dance and she’s got celebrity fans. As soon as she has a hit, she’ll be a genuine star. 

Originally submitted to Echoes Magazine April 2009  

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