Today sees Melanie Fiona finally serve up her long-awaited sophomore set ‘The MF Life’.
That Grape Juice caught up with the vocal powerhouse this week to talk about the release, feeing underrated, her thoughts on Whitney Houston’s passing, album sales, being a woman in today’s music industry, and much more!
As ever, we ask the questions you really want answers to. And answer them Ms. Fiona does.
That Grape Juice: Hailed as one of the most impressive voices to hit the music scene in the last few years, we’ve seen your name atop many R&B tallies. When did you first know that you wanted to sing?
Melanie Fiona: I knew I first wanted to sing from the age of three. The first song I ever sung was ‘The Greatest Love of All’ by Whitney Houston. My Dad was actually playing it on the guitar and I sang along with the guitar, which is how my parents knew that I could sing. From a very young age I had these little school grade books and I would write that I wanted to become a singing nurse. I think it was the connection between music and making people feel better…I don’t know what a four year old is talking about (laughs). But at four I said I wanted to become a singing nurse. I just knew that I wanted to become a singer my whole life.
I think I recognized what I was going to pursue in high school when I was about 16. You know, most teenagers go through the stage of ‘what is the thing that makes me, me… what is the thing that makes me different from everyone else… what is my passion at this point’. I was about 16 or 17 when I just took it seriously and started sharing that with other people.
Awesome. And that’s led you here to ‘The MF Life’. Hitting stores March 20th, the album has had a bumpy ride. Pushbacks and most recently a push up to March. Tell us about that process, the delays, and how you knew that march 20th was the perfect time to release the album.
There are a lot of factors that go into making an album that people sometimes aren’t aware of. First of all, I was on a different record label. I was on Universal Motown and now I’m on Universal Republic. When you shift there’s a lot of things that have to get paid attention to in detail. There were a lot of things that came up that slowed up the process. It was frustrating at times but it was better than some artists who didn’t make the cut, or got pushed off, or never got an album release date. I just knew I had to wait until the business side of things settled. Once my whole new team from the label got together on the same page then it was full steam ahead.
Then with the Grammy win they bumped it up from May to March. I’ve had this album done since October of last year. I never stopped working on it. I think the extra time allowed for how great it became with getting the extra features and the last minute songs. Had this album come out last year I think it would have been way too premature and it wouldn’t have been the album that you’re going to hear on Tuesday. I believe that everything happens for a reason and everything happens in perfect time. You know, March 20th is the first day of Spring, seems like the perfect time!
Honestly speaking, how important are sales this go round?
I don’t get caught up in the numbers game. I mean, sales are important, but I think everyone else cares about sales more than most artists do. For me, it’s about the awareness of the music, it’s about how the music is affecting people, and it’s about how many new people can be affected by this music. Last year, when I think back to it, I didn’t know how my album was doing at all. I did not keep track of how many units were sold, sent out, ordered, pre-ordered, whatever. I did not get involved in that, and then eventually I just got the news, “Hey, you just sold 500,000 copies” and I was like “Oh, that’s excellent!”
I feel the same way this time around; at least I know those 500,000 people who bought the album the first time around know who I am and maybe they told a friend. If it amounts to greater album sales that would be great, but I really just want to have a solid fan base. I want to go out and do a show and connect. I want to perform and give people an experience so that I have a good following of people that want to come out and see me do that, because that’s what I love to do the most. But don’t get me wrong, it’d be nice to be like quadruple gazillion times platinum (laughs).
The album will follow two Grammy wins with Cee-Lo Green for ‘Fool For You’. As an artist some consider underrated and given your journey, did you feel it vindication of sorts?
Not really; I don’t really feel like I’ve been wronged, to be vindicated. It was just a real good confidence boost and it just made me feel like I was doing something right, and the music that I’m making and what I have to offer to the industry is right. And there’s people out there, especially in my industry, of a caliber that can make a difference, who respect that and decided to honor me and Cee Lo with that.
Even Cee Lo Green asking me to be a part of the record, those types of things are the fuel that influences me to just keep pushing, and keep going, and want to set a higher bar for myself next time around, and to make a positive difference successfully in the music industry. It’s a big boost of confidence going into this album. I feel like, “yea, okay cool, people think I’m good. Alright, I’ll keep going until they think I’m great, maybe the best, who knows.”
It’s really about the respect for me. Having the respect of people in the music industry, having the respect of my fans, and the people who respect good music. That’s really where my ego lies- to have the respect more so than the fame or the popularity.
We’ve seen you work with Cee Lo and John Legend. Do you have any dream collaborations? Can you tell us a little about your collaborations on ‘The MF Life’?
I would love to collaborate with Alicia Keys. We went on tour together and, not just because we went on tour, but I appreciate her artistry, her energy as a person, the type of music she makes. I just think that she would be really cool. You haven’t seen two women on a track together. That would be really, really cool.
I would love to do something with Stevie Wonder, to be honest. If there’s anything to learn from Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston it’s that our greats don’t last forever, and Stevie Wonder is still a living legend. I would love to be able to collaborate with him. We actually have spoken about it, we just haven’t gotten around to doing it, but I’d love to make that happen.
On the first album I didn’t have any collaborations. This album I wanted to have people that I respect as artists bring their best energy to the song that I thought fit them. J. Cole and I, we featured together on ‘Beautiful Bliss’ for Wale, and we always talked about doing something. We’re both Roc Nation affiliated, the beat was made by No I.D., and the song’s called ‘This Time’. It’s just a perfect fit. It’s young and it’s hip-hop driven, and my personality and character for that, and for him, it’s just a perfect collaboration.
B.o.B. jumped on ‘Change the Record’, which is very hip-hop/rock driven. I thought he was the perfect person. I am a huge fan of B.o.B.’s and I’ve been wanting to do something with him for a while so I’m very thankful that he jumped on that record especially. It’s got great international appeal.
Nas, Nas might be my joker, almost like my ace in the hole there. Salaam Remi produced that track and I wrote the song with Priscilla Renea, she’s super talented. I was originally rapping on the song, which is hilarious, just as a dummy rap. I still do it at my shows, but he was actually one of the last features to jump on the album. I was so flattered that he jumped on it, and he just added such a conscious reality to ‘Running’. And of course, like I said, Salaam Remi produced it, so they have a lot of great professional history together.
And then John Legend! Right after John and I did ‘Wake Up’ for his project we got in to write together and we did ‘L.O.V.E.’. It was definitely in the continuation of the socially conscious ‘Wake Up’ that we did for his album. It was very important for me to have that message on the album of social awareness, and social laws, and being responsible for one another through the chains of love. That was a really important lesson for me, and people love it. John is such an amazing artist.
Drake actually wrote and produced a song on the album (‘I Been That Girl’). For us to collaborate in that way, and not in the typical singer-rapper feature, it was a really cool way for us to collaborate. I’m glad we got to do this together.
You worked with a handful of seasoned and talented producers on ‘The MF Life’ from Jack Splash to Salaam Remi. What was it like working with these different producers?
Well, both of the producers that you named are producers I have admired for years and have produced some of my favorite music or some of my favorite artists. I identified with them already, and then I just needed to get in there and see what I could create with them. It’s all about a vibe for me. It’s about a vibe and a story.
I can honestly say that Jack Splash is my favorite producer I ever worked with. He brings the best out of me, he’s a true artist, and he’s an amazing musician. We create so well together that I’m so proud of the music that we did together. It’s really just all about having the strongest songs to make a very strong body of work. I didn’t want it to be limited to just saying ‘I won’t do that type of record.’ Who I am is a stretch for me. I felt the passion of the songs he created for me, I felt how they could fit into the story of ‘The MF Life’. He helped me grow as an artist as well.
It’s always about success for the album. I’ve never wanted anyone to ever be able to put their finger on the type of music Melanie Fiona does. I just want it to be classified as good, whatever it is. Like I said, because of my background, I always use a lot of different genres in my music. It’s about the body of the work, the album, and being as diverse as you think is possible.
Definitely some big names there. Makes us wonder, who are some of your favorites? Who would we be surprised to find on Melanie’s iPod?
I love Adele! Of course, everyone loves Adele. I absolutely love Adele. I really love Miguel. Miguel is growing to me as an artist and he’s become one of my favorites. I just love the music that he makes.
Who would you be surprised to find? I love Radiohead. I listen to a lot of Radiohead. They’re kind of my go-to music when I need to just kind of remove myself from the world and feel still. I love listening to Radiohead. I love Magnetic Man. I just love good music; I don’t care where it comes from, it can be all genres. I’m definitely an emotional music listener. Of course I have my favorite artists- Lauryn Hill, Sam Cooke, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Brandy, India.Arie, Alicia Keys, Musiq Soulchild, P!nk… I love a lot of different music. But I think most people would be shocked to find out I love Radiohead.
Ok, taking a step back. We know you were celebrating your two Grammy wins, but the night had an undoubted somber tone with news of the passing of Whitney Houston. Where were you when you found out?
I was in L.A. doing Grammy weekend festivities, and I got the news and I was devastated. I felt like I had lost someone that I had known my whole life, even though I never physically knew her. She’s definitely someone who meant a lot to me. When I woke up the morning of the Grammys I had a whole new respect and feeling and emotion that was really balanced out between sadness and overly excitement…it was tough.
I thanked her in my speech because if I could single handedly attribute the reason why I fell in love with singing, it would be Whitney Houston. She is, for me, the voice of choice, the greatest female voice of all time. It was very difficult, and to also know that I would never be able to meet her. That was a dream of mine, and to know that that will never happen is really hard. And just to know what she went through as an artist and her family, my heart just went out to them. The world suffered a great loss that day. I don’t think many people recognized how much Whitney had an affect on us until she was gone.
What do you think her legacy will be?
I think her legacy is going to be one of the greatest voices of all time. I mean, that tone, that smile, that beauty…I think her legacy is going to be rooted in that voice, there’s just no other voice like it. For me, it makes me feel a way that no other voice makes me feel. I definitely think that she’ll be remembered as ‘the voice’.
Definitely. Well on a lighter note, tell us about The MF Life. ‘The Bridge’ is certainly a tough act to follow. What makes ‘Life’ different than its acclaimed predecessor?
‘The Bridge’ was definitely a total tribute and homage to the influences that inspired me- retro soul, Sam Cooke, Patsy Cline. There was a lot of old rock and soul samples on there; I wanted to pay tribute and respect.
In this album, it’s raw; it’s Melanie Fiona; it’s aggressive; it’s current yet classic all at the same time. It’s big sounds and it goes deep through the highs and lows of love and all the different stages of love. From having a crush, to infatuation, to obsession, to heartbreak, to hopelessly in love, to empowerment, to strength. It goes way deeper than ‘The Bridge’ did. And I went deeper; I’ve gone deeper in my life. I’ve traveled the world, I’ve experienced so much, and I needed to share that. I needed people to feel the world and the intensity.
As an artist who has stayed true to R&B when so many have not, have you ever felt any pressure to cross over – given that the business side of the industry is very real. i.e. R&B isn’t the commercial force it once was.
My aim has always been to be an international artist and thankfully I’ve been able to do that. It’s a real blessing; some artists don’t get that opportunity or have the music that can do that. I still feel that my music has a lot of cross over ability. I don’t classify my music solely as R&B. And people say ‘soul music’…I don’t classify soul in relativity to R&B. I think that soul can be in Rock, it can be Hip-Hop, it can be Pop, Reggae, Rap, Country, and that’s how I feel about my music. I definitely think songs like ‘Wrong Side Of A Love Song’, ‘Change The Record’, ‘Watch Me Work’, and ‘Can’t Say I Never Loved You’ on this album are definite crossover songs.
It’s just tough sometimes because there are so many politics that go into why an artist breaks out or crosses over. I come from a very diverse background of music, I come from a diverse background of multiculturalism, and I never put myself into a box. So I don’t take lightly when people try and put me into a box either.
Do you think it’s a fair assessment that the industry tends to favour barely-there vocalists, colourful wigs, and nursery rhyme hooks over gifted vocalists and powerful lyrics?
I think that it’s an easy thing to do. It’s easy for people to be familiar with nursery rhymes, and it’s easy for people to have their attention held by colourful wigs. All those things are easy. Unfortunately, the world we live in right now, people’s attention spans are super, super short. They’re almost impressed by anything we say because they just want to be entertained.
It is kind of sad. I feel like I’m more in the old school mentality of making music that lasts a lifetime. It’s not a race, it’s a marathon for me and I’m in the race right now with sprinters. I just keep my pace, and I do what I gotta do, and we’ll see who’s around in 50 years and who’s not.
Certainly. Not only is the traditional solo R&B artist scarce, but also vocal groups in general. Why do you think that is?
You know I really couldn’t tell you what I think the theory on that is. There was a big influx of 90s R&B groups, groups in general in the 90s, so I think there’s a negative stigma attached to it for some reason. People are so afraid to do it, but I think it’s about the music. I actually think if a group came out right now they’d probably be really big if they were making good music.
People just get scared. And then truthfully, it’s a lot of personalities, which rarely lasts forever. It’s usually a short-term business. It just comes with a lot of risk maybe. Maybe people are over the responsibility of being responsible for each other.
As a female in the industry, what would you say are the most rewarding and most difficult parts of that?
I think the most rewarding is being a woman in the world in a man’s industry and generating success. Whether people view it as accolades, monetary, popularity, whatever it is. Just being recognized as a successful woman in music and in the business is definitely a perk. Being a woman that’s making a difference in the world, effecting people, and making the soundtracks to our lives is excellent.
Being able to be myself as a woman really is big. People talk about how there are too many women in this industry who don’t feel like they can be themselves. I think when it comes to making music that it has to fit a certain mold where it has to match up or compare to a certain artist who’s already out there.
I think there’s too much competition in the music industry between egos. People are always like ‘oh, so and so got with so and so’ and it’s like if everyone just paid attention to having their own identity then it wouldn’t be a problem. We get compared and it causes drama, we get objectified at women. We get overlooked for what we actually have to offer as women, as a sex, as a species versus what we have to offer as a product.
I’ve experienced people telling me that I’m too pretty to be singing the songs that I sing, or that I sing too loud, or that because of the way I look I should be singing different types of music, or even that I should dress a certain way, like ‘so and so’. Dudes get away with it so easy; they just put on a white t-shirt and jeans and go out and look like every other rapper out there and nobody cares.
There are a lot of pressures associated with women. We take a hit on a personal level, emotionally, self-esteem, insecurities that we as people all have. It’s tough being a woman in the world in general, much less a woman in the spotlight. I try to be an example of positivity and strength. I think there’s a different type of girl that every little girl, grown women, or girls my age can identify with being that will make them feel better about themselves and then they feel stronger in their own lives.
Switching gears a bit, WE caught you on ‘Black Girls Rock & Soul Tour’ with Estelle a few months ago. Any new plans to tour? UK?
I’m actually going to be coming overseas in April. I’ve got to do some stuff in Europe and Switzerland, and some other territories. So hopefully I will make a trip over to the UK and see you guys. I love coming to the UK.
I’ve got heavy promo in all the major cities over in the States. From New York, to LA, Philly, DC, Chicago Atlanta, New Orleans, I hope I didn’t leave any out. I’m going to show people what ‘The MF Life’ is about. Hopefully once people will hear the music there will be a greater demand for me in the city and I’ll put a legit tour together with a headline or a co-headline. I just want to get out on the road and share the music. That will probably all unfold within the next month to two months.
Where else can we catch you?
You can catch me everywhere! I’m going to be on Jimmy Fallon, Jay Leno, Live with Kelly. You can catch me on Twitter (@melaniefiona). You can catch me on my blog (liveyourmflife.tumblr.com) and the website (melaniefiona.com). I’m just out there living the ‘MF Life’ so keep your eyes open.
And why should we buy ‘The MF Life’?
It’s going to be the most ‘MF-ing’ amazing album you’re going to hear this year, I promise! It’s strong, it’s powerful, it’s fun, it’s musical, it’s classic. It’s a body of work that you can press play for minute one and let it run. I feel like everybody deserves a chance to live their ‘MF Life’, and I hope they can live it through this.
And finally, how does Melanie Fiona want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as a great talent, as a great woman, and hopefully as a role model for young girls coming up in the world in general. And the music, just to inspire people to be a little more comfortable with who they are and know that they’re not alone. To know that I made a difference in the world, that I changed people’s lives for the better. If my music is something that people will go to when they need to feel like there’s a friend in them, for a very long time if it’s something that shared between generations and friends, and that when they think of me they just think ‘she was a pretty cool girl, and she did pretty cool things while she was here.’
Interview & Transcript: J.Wexler
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