MElanie remembers the day she performed in London well. It was 1983 and the concert she was scheduled to play had been canceled due to unsatisfactory ticket sales. So she was sitting with friends, drinking Pimm’s, when someone called her to tell her the fans had gathered outside the Royal Albert Hall. âI thought, I’m just going to grab my guitar and go over there and sing,â she told me over the phone from her home in Tennessee. And that’s what she did. The police arrived to get her going – and it wasn’t long before the headlines started spinning.
âIt wasn’t a press stunt, I was just doing what instinctively occurred to me,â said the 74-year-old, once lazily hailed as wife Bob Dylan. It’s a philosophy that has helped her defy her critics, as she tried to ignore the labels the company applied to her: alluring folk singer, flower child with an edge. âI had a guitar, I had long hair, so I must be a folk singer,â she jokes. Instead, his music is an alluring mix of earthy folk, dismal blues, and rhapsodic pop complemented by a soulful voice; both naive and scholarly, she sings with a gravelly grater that seems to lasso your body.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of her 1971 kaleidoscopic classic album, Gather Me. Born Melanie Safka, she grew up in Queens, New York, and her wandering journey as a musician began in Greenwich Village in the late 1960s. A few years later, she was helicoptered onto the stage at the Woodstock festival where she was, in her own words, “an industry buzz” without a clue. âIt was an incredibly scary day,â she says. âI just thought it was a singing weekend. I envisioned families with picnic blankets and arts and crafts. I had no idea! I walked into the lobby and there was Janis Joplin. 22 years old, MÃ©lanie had never seen a famous person before. “I was like, ‘I can’t do that. I don’t have any hit records, nobody knows who I am. I didn’t have any musicians with me, no roadie – I even brought my mother !
There is an endearing innocence in MÃ©lanie, even now, alongside a gentle acceptance of the many twists and turns of her career. But there’s also a shrewd perception that, despite her complexities, she was often misunderstood as an artist, regularly made to feel like “a piece of Woodstock fluff” in the press. It’s unclear how much she let this down.
Take his most recognizable song, Brand New Key – on first listen it sounds like a naive ditty about brand-new roller skates, but his scintillating demeanor belies a song about a determined loss of innocence. It rose to No. 1 on the US Singles Chart in December 1971, before becoming a novelty in the UK when The Combine Harvester by Wurzels parodied it in 1976, and came to define Gather Me. in a way Melanie didn’t always like. . âIt was the bane of my existence for a few years,â she admits. More in line with Gather Me as a whole, Brand New Key was originally composed as a blues song, she says – it was then sped up in the studio to attract a larger audience.
“I am not a trained musician and my husband [Peter Schekeryk] was the producer, he was mostly the person who communicated with the band, who were all guys, ârecalls Melanie. She had production ideas, she told me, but with little familiarity with the language of music, she found it difficult to articulate them. That’s not the case, however, with its Some Say (I Got Devil) counter-offer from the second face of Gather Me, a subversive response to the bubblegum pop hit everyone is familiar with. “It’s Morrissey’s favorite, he’s done a version of it recently,” says Melanie. I’m not surprised. âSome have tried to sell me / all kinds of things to save me / to suffer like a woman,â she sings with an intoxicating mixture of lust and weariness. Subversive lyrics that showcase the often dark and radical beauty of Gather Me.
âThere was a big gap between my reality and the reality of how I was viewed,â she says when I ask about the story of this song. âI was an introvert and all of a sudden I became a celebrity. I knew I wasn’t presented the way I am. Her non-compliance didn’t always make things easier for her, in an industry where “a girl was just a ‘chick singer’, you know?” She mentions a notable fan, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, and a comment he once made that she was airbrushed from history.
In 2007 Jarvis Cocker – another notable fan – introduced her on stage at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, his first UK concert in 30 years. In reviews, reporters have enthusiastically hoisted her into the pantheon of singer-songwriters of all genres – Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin – as if she had never occupied that upper layer before. It was surely frustrating. Has she ever wondered why?
âI could speculate,â she replies. âIt wasn’t the age of smiling women. It must have been a lot darker and I was way too cherub. Men can be cute. Randy Newman can sing Short People and that’s okay because he’s a guy, he has something to say. But a girl? How could it have any social significance? “
I ask Melanie what she hoped to accomplish as a 24-year-old songwriter by recording Gather Me at Allegro Sound Studio in New York City. âI want to be understood,â she said. Thinking back to those early days, she reflects, âI sort of wished I hadn’t had a body. His uncompromising appetite for independence also stood in the way. When she left Buddha Records and created her own label, Neighborhood Records, in 1971, “it was like a slap in the face for the industry” – which surprised her at the time, but as she will say more late, “there was a whole series of conditions [on] be a woman “. She flouted them anyway and has since released over 30 albums, most recently Ever Since You Never Heard of Me in 2010.
As for that flower child label? âI never even felt like a hippie, I didn’t like the term. On the contrary, I was the beat generation – the people of the village expressing themselves in so many ways, without being labeled. âIt’s kind of a relief when you’re no longer ‘the girl’, says MÃ©lanie. She’s even thinking of re-recording Brand New Key as the blues single she always imagined.” I really want to communicate who I am. always there and that I always do. 50 years later and I’m not quite decrepit. I think it was [baseball player] Satchel Paige who said: ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?’ “
This desire to be understood is stronger than ever – and her self-confidence is also intact. âIt’s pretty amazing all these years later that Gather Me could even be relevant; it’s amazing to think that I’ve recorded people’s lives. It really hits home. “