Disc and Music Echo
With Gilbert Becaud at the Olympia, Paris
Melanie Safka is known to her fans simply as Melanie. When we met, it was in one of London's top hotels. Somehow she just didn't belong. A girl who defies convention fairly consistently, I'd surmised that the interview would take place in more carefree surroundings perhaps a tent in the middle of an open field. But in a top London hotel it was.
Sipping peppermint tea heavily laced with honey, periodically nibbling nuts and raisins from a plastic big which she says she takes everywhere with her, Melanie confirmed she's a health food fiend and a strict vegetarian. "I used to eat meat but my mother's a strict vegetarian when she explained to me why she doesn't eat meat, I stopped too." Melanie can't remember her mother's explanation.
She's a big star now is Melanie. In the course of one year she's become internationally recognised. She says it's a "satisfying period in my career because people aren't saturated with my material yet. If it ever got to the point where people knew what I was going to do, then it would he terrible. I think I would stop singing."
While she may look like just another folk. singer with her floor-length caftan and regulation long, wispy brown hair hanging down around her shoulders, she certainly doesn't sound like any other. The French proclaim her the "greatest thing since Piaf" which isn't too surprising as she can sound very much akin to the late, great French songstress and in showbiz, comparisons are inevitable. But the significant point about Melanie's voice is that it's quite unique, while it can sound full of passion and maturity one moment, it can also sound childishly innocent the next. You couldn't call it a beautiful voice, but it's one which conveys extraordinary feeling. A voice people either love or hate.
"Music is the only thing I can really do," says Melanie, going on to explain that the songs she sings are nearly all based on feelings she's had or experiences she's been through. It's her way of' communicating "I find it very hard to express myself on say, things just by talking. If I really have strong feelings about something, I can say it better if I write a song.
"My songs are mostly depressing and full of self-pity. That's because I'm inspired to write either when I'm extremely happy or extremely sad -- and extremely happy doesn't happen so often"
Born in New York of a Russian-Ukrainian father and an Italian jazz-singer mother, Melanie doubtless inherited her musical instincts from her mother of whom she says, "She was a very pure singer; she would hold a note and not whine off like I do." Melanie's musical side flowered and became her sole interest while she was at school which caused her to be regarded rather as an outsider, especially as in addition, her mode of dress was a little different to the rest of her class.
This isolation had the effect of making Melanie more absorbed in her music and more determined than ever to be different in both dress and behaviour. "School was the time when things started getting bad for me. I didn't have a happy time. It was OK in the low grades. but after that it was pretty difficult. I didn't have an easy time with other people, I couldn't get on with them. I was very much alone and the other kids didn't seem to want to know me, so I spent the time I was by myself writing, playing, singing and falling in love with everybody."
Mama Mama, written when she was 15, conveys all the anguish of her school life. It also conveys something of her attitude and regard for her mother. "She's in all my songs. I haven't got a kind of mother complex. It just happens. It must seem like I'm very dependent on her and always asking her questions. Really I'm very independent unless there's a lot of people around me and I don't have to be."
The first signs of this independence made themselves clear when Melanie ran away from high school in New Jersey. "We had moved from New York to New Jersey, you see, and there it was even worse at school. People in the town were afraid of someone different someone who showed signs of individuality was considered a nut, Even the teachers thought I was strange. One terrible one on my first day said, 'You wear your hair like a witch'. They sent me to the school psychologist!"
"I decided I just wanted to get away as far as possible. I decided to go to Mexico. I had read books all about the place and the people, and I wanted to help the natives. I was going to take the things they needed like food and I was going to tend the sick. I was going to do the whole bit. But I didn't have the proper certificates; so they wouldn't let me in."
"Instead I went to Los Angeles thinking if I couldn't make it that time I'd get as near as I could and try again. When I got to LA I called up this friend of mine but nobody was home. I didn't know anyone else and didn't know what to do. I just wandered about the city and wandered into the airport where I was arrested and put into a girls detention centre for a week."
"'The incident was a nightmare, I didn't know what was happening to me. They put me by myself in a room with a toilet bowl in the middle and a glass thing in the door so that everybody could see in. For days I couldn't go. And they made me wash the make-up off my face. I was like a scared rabbit. It was horrible, After a week my father came to get me. I was wearing a white coat which looked like a straitjacket and my eyes were all red. My father cried when he saw me.
Melanie got into what she's now doing totally by accident. She never really had great aims to be a singer -- "I thought it would he nice but too difficult to get into"---but one day, in an attempt to audition for a part in Barbara Allen's Dark of' the Moon, went to the wrong office by mistake, was spotted with her guitar, asked to sing, and left with her first recording contract. The man who signed her up was Peter Schekeryk....now her producer and husband.
"We've been married for two years but even now I don't feel married," comments Melanie. "We're not really living a married life because we hardly ever see each other, but we both like it that way. I think I was very wise getting married to Peter. I couldn't have shared my music with someone outside of the business."
It's been said (by her management no less) that Melanie has no sex life, that "all of her giving and receiving is when she sits on that stool under the lights." Meaty stuff and it could well be true. Melanie's loath to talk about a family but when pressed says, "I suppose some day I'd like two kids", adding in the same breath, "but before that 1'm going to get myself 27 dogs. I love dogs and cats, I pick them up everywhere I go -and take them home to my mother. She's getting fed up, though, because she can't stand animals!"
"I don't think I'll ever retreat completely from music. I think. it would be a bad thing for my kids as well as myself. Anyway, I don't think, it's necessary for children to sec their mother ard father all the time. It should be something special."
She spends a great part of her time working out on the road and recording. She's young 23, although the impish grin that crosses her face when she's complimented and the sparkling brown eyes reduce her age by six or seven years and so many doors are open to her. Performing on stage is her lifeblood though she still gets attacks of "nervous tummy" before she does a live performance in front of an audience.
"I always have fears about going on, you never know what's going to happen. I get violently nervous and do breathing exercises, it's different in a studio. It's really comfortable. Everybody's smiling for me. On stage I don't know if they're smiling or not. But as soon as I have audiences listening, the music just flows."
She never gets weary from all the travelling involved with making so many personal appearances, and finds the experience invaluable. "Seeing new places and meeting people give me ideas for new songs. I find I write a lot more while I'm actually travelling than when I'm in one place for a long time. If didn't move around I don't think I could write at all." And she'll giggle while describing the American Customs' reaction to the bags of soil she takes home as souvenirs from various countries "It's dirt! it's just dirt!"
These days she's basically a city girl living in New York. "If you're aiming for peace of mind, then you don't want to go to the City. But if you want life, the city's the place," Arid she's written about the city in her songs, manly., at times when she's become disillusioned by the concrete and high buildings -- listen to 'Uptown and Down' and 'Citiest People'.
She says she likes to identify with the songs she sings if they're not written by herself. That's why she recorded the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday". She has a lot in common with the lady who "just can't be chained to a life where nothing's gained and nothing's lost . . ."
Most of Melanie's life, she's been regarded as some sort of curiosity-- by her school companions, teachers, and some of her professional critics. "I don't know why" she says wide-eyed "I think I'm very, very normal. I know what direction I'm going in. I can't tell you where, but I feel it. Sometimes I feel like it's hell I'm heading for, other days I feel on top of the world. But everyone goes through those changes. I've got friends and a husband like everyone else. I'm only different from a lot of people because I sing,"
'There the interview finished. I felt clutching peppermint teabags placed in my hand by Melanie, a girl who, on the sleeve of her first album, said, "If I had my dream, I would fill a hall and tell all the people to tear down the walls that keeps them from being a part of it all, cause they, gotta get close to it all and all accept and be part of it all."