Melanie is on a high.
It’s evident in the way the Canada-born Guyanese siren is busting in and out of song during her VIBE Vixen cover shoot, hitting notes seldom heard in Washington Heights’ cozy, antique APT 78. It’s fitting. There’s much to be celebrated these days. Following two Grammy wins–Best Traditional R&B performance and Best R&B Song for Cee-Lo collab “Fool For You”–the often underrated songbird has reached a new plateau in music, reinforcing the longevity of career artists.
Melanie’s ’09 debut The Bridge (inspired by a rocky relationship with an on-again, off-again ex) was the formal introduction of what would become her bluesy, soulful signature: melodic tales of heartbreak and fleeting love. Her songwriting is braided with sad truths and balanced by glimmers of fulfilling romance, something the broken-hearted girl believes exists but is not in a rush to find. “I’m on a Mel-cation,” she laughs, “I am, like, all about me right now.”
She has to be.
Sitting on the receiving end of this Vixen interviewing, the soulful soprano candidly discusses finding confidence, her lowest moments and why a specific purple heart is on her mind.–Niki McGloster
VIBE VIXEN: Tell me what should fans expect from The MF Life outside of the love and heartbreak.
MELANIE: Fans should expect and can expect a really, really strong, really well produced album. You know, I really really do think I worked with the best of the best personally. I think that every producer and artist I got featured on this album really brings something special to this album that I don’t think anyone else has on their album, and it’s a power, it’s a strength, it’s an energy; it’s a very strong body of work I believe. I believe that the songs people have heard and the things that have been released, when they get the album, they’ll be pleasantly surprised. That’s not necessarily the bread and butter of the album. There’s really great hidden gems on this album, and I just think that it’s a really strong album that gives appeal to both men and women, which I think is a tough thing to do. I’m a girl’s girl, but I also appreciate music that speaks to men. I listen to a lot of hip-hop ‘cause of my brother, so it just kinda comes out of me.
With your recent Grammy wins, do you feel more validated now, more solidified in your career?
Hell yeah, absolutely. I don’t put too much pressure or weight on myself for the win, for the nomination, but it’s a great feeling. It truly is an amazing feeling to know you have the respect of the Academy and your peers in this community of artist and industry. It’s a real boost of confidence for me because I don’t really let it get to my head. When I started The MF Life, I had a real low in my confidence level because I came off such a high on the first album, and it was such a new experience. I realized people were checking for me, they were looking for me, and I really had to boost my own confidence in writing and getting in the studio and getting creative because I almost felt like I couldn’t do it again. What if I’m not as good the second time as I was the first time? And to know I’ve achieved these kinds of things in such a short career is really a great thing, so now when I know people are checking for me, they’re gonna see [the Grammy awards] and that means something. It’s such a huge validation for me to say I’ve been a part of Grammy music history and to be on a collaboration with such a cool ass dude like Cee-Lo Green. It’s a great feeling for me, and it really does give me the inspiration to continue to really outdo myself.
After your first record, during that low period, what were your thoughts and doubts?
It got pretty low for me. I started to have a lot of emotional turmoil with my mental state of mind and my body ’cause I was exhausted. People don’t really understand what an artist really has to go through. It’s such an intense schedule; one day I’m in L.A., the next day I’m in Switzerland, the next day I’m in Italy and the next day I’m back in L.A. Mind you, I’m performing in that time in between, I’m meeting people, I’m talking and, you know, I’m on a different schedule. I came back off of the Alicia Keys tour, and I just hit the wall. Like, straight-up, I hit the wall. I crashed; I said to my team, ‘I’m no good to anyone right now. I need to recover,’ and it really affected my confidence level in my approach to my job, my mind when it came to everything around me. I started to victimize myself in a way and it’s because when your body is not healthy, it really does produce negative emotions and energy.
You were angry.
Oh, I was angry. I started to feel like I couldn’t trust anything around me. I started to feel like I was in the dark about a lot of things, and I really wasn’t. It was just my state of mind from working so hard. That’s the hardest I’ve ever gone to promote an album, to be on tour, to try to manage a personal/professional life. It was insane to have people know me and to demand some sort of attention from or require attention from me. It was something I had to build a muscle to, and I had to take a step back. I really changed my entire diet. I went to see doctors, and I really just said that I need to get control of my life again because I really feel like I’m losing control of myself and I did. And I started to get back to the things that balanced me out again. That’s really where the concept of The MF Life came [from], the balance of life.
When was this, when you started to recuperate from all the craziness?
It was really a couple months after. Truthfully, I just needed a time to just not do anything, sleep and exercise and get my dietary regimen back in the right places. It was a slow creep back into the process ’cause I had already started doing songs before the Alicia Keys tour overseas. When I came back from Europe, it was when I had lost weight, I was skinny, it was so weird.
All that pressure can break a person, but it is nice to see that you did recover from that dark place.
Well I’ll tell you this, it’s not everybody has a team like I have a team, a label and a management team that care and respect me as a person, not as a product because some teams would have been like, Suck it up. Then, you end up [on] drugs and try to commit suicide and it’s not a good thing. People forget that artists are not products; we are people first, so there’s just a certain expectation that you see with artists now that are just like go, go, go all the time. That’s not realistic. There’s turmoil going on behind those scenes ’cause you just can’t. As a human, you really have to take the time. Beyoncé’s a perfect testament to it when she was like, I took the time off to figure out how to be a wife and to cook and to clean. Whether it’s two months or two years, at some point, every person, every artist is gonna take that moment and be like, ‘Yo, I need to slow it down to figure out who I am outside of this.’
And I’m glad that you mentioned that. With all the deaths, recently Whitney Houston, you have to look at fame and really dissect it. How much pressure are we putting on these people, you know? On a lighter note, you mentioned that new acts have it a little bit easier than when you came into the game. Elaborate on that.
It’s crazy. I think that nothing happens before its time and everything happens right on time. Personally, when I did my record deal, it was 2008, and it was that weird place. The internet was taking on this huge presence, and it was a very weird place where you almost felt like you couldn’t win, but we did. We had to work so hard. My team and I worked so, so much harder than artists now. [They are] like, ‘Hey, I’m a superstar. I’m gonna make a YouTube video, and it’s gonna get eight gazillion views, and I’m gonna be famous, and I’m gonna end up on every TV show!’ Meanwhile, I’m busting my ass just to get spoken about on radio and television. I appreciate the process I went through to be honest, and I actually feel bad for the people who don’t have to go through that process because they get hit with a harder blow when it doesn’t work. I think that they create the one-hit wonder phenomenon rather than the career artist.
That 15 minutes…
Get your 15 minutes. I’ll get some Grammys. I’ll be working on those in the meantime.
What’s interesting is that while you’ve been collecting Grammys, your heart has been breaking. Will your heart ever fully heal?
You know, my heart has broken and healed and mended for the last 10 years of my life. I feel like there’s nothing that heals a broken heart except for time really. And your heart breaks all the time. People tend to only associate hearts breaking with someone but things happen all the time. Disappointment can break your heart all the time–disappointment in yourself, your friends or family and like things around you all the time. I definitely think there’s a point when it shifts your energy, and for me, I just know that even when I’m in love, I still write about heartbreak and that’s an emotion that I draw on and I know people need to hear about that. I think that there’s strength in owning that [hurt] and sharing that and saying like, Yeah this is who I am and this is where I’m at. And I think that why people love the music. I will always do my best to keep that truth in my music, whether it’s the happy things people are going through, the sad things people need to hear about, the sexy things people need to hear about. There’s a song called “Break Down These Walls.” The song is about being a strong partner for your partner and helping them to break down their walls of insecurity because you know love shouldn’t be that way. And there’s another song, “Bones,” which is super, super sexy. I’m so obsessed with you, I wanna be mixed up in you, I wanna have your bones; It’s almost really dark and twisted, but it’s sexy as hell because that’s love and that’s the intensity! It’s important that I feel that my audience gets a good balance of both; however, they always tend to want those heartbreak songs.
Tell me the story of your first heartbreak.
The first cut is the deepest. I had a boyfriend when I was 16; he was a jerk, but I loved him. It was when I was recording the first album, and it was right after I got off the Kanye West [Glow In The Dark] tour in 2008. I was absolutely devastated because that was like the first crazy-stupid love I’ve ever been in in my quote-unquote adult life. I actually made the decision to end it because I decided that I had gone back and forth enough. I had decided I was not going to allow this person to really break my heart, pick it back up, treat it like shit, pick it back up and just do this rollercoaster with me. That really took me outside of the character of my true self and who I wanted to be as a woman and what type of love I wanted to experience. I had to go through it; I had to go through the lying and the cheating and everything really. I figured out all those things that I really didn’t want to see after [the breakup] ’cause if I was in it while it happened, I would’ve been like, Peace! But I was so blinded by it that when it hit me, my heart was devastated. Right after I had gotten off the Kanye West tour, when I had experienced and achieved something so grand in my life, I took a look at my life and said, I’m trying to go up and this is the one thing that’s weighing me down. And I cut it. I cut it off clean. I mean like, Do not talk about me, don’t ever call me again, we have nothing to discuss, you are not the person for me and we don’t need to be friends. That hurt because this was five years of my life. I was young. But I experienced a lot, [and] I grew a lot from that relationship. When I got off the tour actually, I tattooed this purple heart on my left wrist and that is my center of strength to remind myself that I’m always stronger than I think. Every time there was a moment where I got emotional and I wanted to call him, I’d look at this tattoo and give myself ten seconds. I’d count to ten, take a deep breath and say, Remember why you did this, remember how you got here and remember what your focus is. Sure enough it stopped me every time from calling him back.
Wow, and you haven’t talked to him since?
No. We speak now like occasionally. I promise you I didn’t speak to him or see him for three years after we broke up.
As far as your current heartbreak, are you in a place where you’re swearing off men for awhile?
I’m on a Melcation [Laughs]. I am like all about me right now. What am I going to do with my life, and what are the things that are gonna make me happy and fulfilled? There are some guys that can be around that, and be like, ‘Yo, I totally love you and I support you’ and then there are other guys who are like, ‘Ugh, you want too much! You’re too independent.’ And it’s like no, no, no, that’s definitely not it. It’s just the right guy who’s gonna fit perfectly into what it is that I’m doing; it’s just a balance. But no, I’m not swearing off men. I just don’t want men around for the sake of having men around. Too often, we make that mistake of keeping men around for the comfort, you know, just that dependency. I think is where the problem lies. And when you get away from that and just really be like, I’m cool, you can get a man in your life on a random Thursday or a random Saturday and it just adds something to your week rather than being dependent on it.
Now, fast forward a little bit to fashion. What’s the story on the rings you always wear?
I actually acquired all three of the rings I was wearing – one as a birthday gift, one of them was my grandmother’s ring and the other one was my mom’s. I just love them, and they’re dainty and they’re small and they all just kinda fit my style as to where I’m at right now. But for sentimental value, they are my everything; they’re my love, they’re my legacy and they’re my family. When I was on the Alicia Keys tour in 2010, I was in Ireland and my grandmother actually passed away. It was a hard blow for me to take because I was very close to my grandmother, very close to my family, and I couldn’t get [home]. There were no flights that would get me out and get me back in time to do the next show, and I had to miss my grandmother’s funeral. I had to miss being with my family, just had to be grieving on the road and it was really difficult. You know, my grandmother was a very simple woman. She was all about her family, her children and her grandchildren, so when I came back, I had missed everything but my aunt gave [this ring] to me, and I was really moved by it.
It really is your walking story. It’s your heritage with you all the time.
And your hands are such a huge part of who you are.
When do you feel you’re sexiest?
Are we talking inside or outside? [Laughs]
[Laughs] Either one.
I would say I feel sexiest when I’m inside of my house. My hair is down, I have no makeup on, I’m listening to music, I’m burning incense and I’m in my place. It’s just me here, I’m just listening to my music and… I’m just here. Now if there’s someone else with me, then I might feel a little sexier [laughs]!
Now how long did it take you to feel that sexy inside your own skin?
I think I’m still finding it. I think, as women, we continue to evolve and find it. It even becomes as materialistic as you finding the perfect pair of shoes and just putting them on. I think it’s always a process, and I think you have to be able to find the sexy everywhere. You really have to find the sexy when you feel the ugliest, so I feel like it’s a constant evolution. It surely did not happen until I went through the process of getting my heart broken and rebuilding and getting out there and really developing myself into who I am right now. All the things that shape that.
Today, in this very moment, where are you? Physically, emotionally, mentally… where is Melanie Fiona?
I am in a place of excitement and optimism and really being an open vessel to experience everything that life is throwing at me – good, bad, happy, sad, everything. I tattooed this thing on my hand called and it says “Live On Purpose,” and I’m really doing my best to live on that. Do everything with purpose, make decisions, own them, own who I am and be proud of that. I just feel like I’m getting stronger everyday. I’m just ready for whatever life is gonna throw at me, just bring it on.
Photography: Briana E. Heard
Styling: Tiffany Hasbourne and Sheenen Zee
Hair and Makeup: Mann Nance (Enjoy Professional Hair Care and Make-Up Forever)