Melanie Taylor Talks New Album, Hustling & Michael Jackson
If Michael Jackson and Alanis Morissette had a love child, you would get Melanie Taylor. On her most recent single, the sultry TasteTaste, there is an R&B slink (with plenty of rock overtones and a sizzling guitar solo) which quenches pop's thirst for richer and more intriguing work. Taylor's energy on record is electric, magnetized by Jackson hits like Thriller and Billie Jean -- and then when you hear her attack a lyric -- similar to when Morissette rips into You Oughtta Know -- you get the sense she has a more commanding presence than most. Having grown up just outside of San Diego, she lived "a pretty quintessential southern California upbringing" on the beach, as her mom and stepdad launched a fairly lucrative business at the turn of the century. But previously to that, she was raised (primarily) by a single mother who taught her what it meant to be an independent woman and never give up on anything you believe in. "At first, yes, [it was economically difficult], before they started their company. I was really little to not really remember as much. But we were staying with friends when I was little. [My mom] put herself through grad school. I would sleep in the same bed as her. She really has that all-American story of fighting from the bottom and making her way," Taylor shares withPopdust over a phone call recently.
And it is there where Taylor's story really begins. She then reflects on the lessons her mother instilled in her at such a young age. "Dedication [was a big thing]. Also, the value of follow through and consistency," she says. "She always hammered into me 'follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.' Sometimes you have to be a pest, in a sense. But it's usually the people who hustle and stay in it the longest that end up getting it done. Then, she was always so supportive of my dream of wanting to do this. It was a little bit about being gullible enough to believe in your own success -- letting yourself dream."
Speaking of the hustle, since moving to Los Angeles, Taylor has done nothing but hustle -- to take her aspirations of superstardom to the next, most logical level. She recounts her experience of living on the west coast and the hardest things she's faced in building a music career. "In LA, it can be hard with shows. Everyone is out there, probably similar to New York. Everyone is trying to be a musician or an actor. There are a million shows on any given night. Silverlake is an area in LA where it is better to get more crowds going. It was hard to find venues that fit me when I had my first album and my style," she says. "My sound is a little more edgy now, and I can ride more of the rock style. I perform more with a live band. It's been easier to get people's attention. It's the cool thing to do in LA."
But, she notes, she's learned the hard way that making music is only a small piece of the puzzle. "Attention, in general, as an independent artist, you really have to work on your social media numbers. You really have to do a lot of things that are unnatural, in terms of -- it's not just creating music all the time. It's very business oriented," she concedes. "The whole cliche of 'who you know' that is so important. You can't do it by yourself. Even with songwriting, I definitely hustled to even find some really good opportunities."
One experience sticks out in her mind as "probably the most extreme case of stalking-slash-hustling I've ever had to do" at an LA club. "A producer/writer who goes by Soundz, who worked a lot on the last Justin Bieber album [2013's Journals], does a lot of different writing projects and placements. I knew that he was going to be performing at this club in LA, and I also happened to know a few of the promoters and the DJ at the club. They actually invited me and told me he was going to be performing," she says. "Funnily enough, with a different writing team, I had heard that he had heard one of the tracks we did and really liked it. So, I knew he kind of knew of me as a writer. But still, I went to the show and waited till 3 am to talk to him. He kept being delayed. It was literally such a cold call, like 'hey, do you remember this song I did, it's called 'Fire.'' He was like 'oh, yea, yea, I think I have heard that song.' It was getting so late, so I was like 'it's really great to meet you.' He was like 'take my number.' His assistant then set up a meeting for us. He ended up really liking my songs. On the spot, I ended up writing a song for him then and there. He needed it for something. You are always proving yourself. Then, it develops into a lot more opportunities. With stuff like that, you just have to do it."
Taylor then discusses more of her childhood, her 2012 studio album All About Today, favorite new songs and a cool Michael Jackson connection. Dig into our exclusive Q&A below:
What was your upbringing in San Diego like?
"I was predominantly raised by a single mom. She and I are still and always really close. Especially when I was really young, we were moving around a lot. I lived all over San Diego. Eventually, I grew up in Carlsbad, where she met my stepdad. They started a company together. He was an engineer, so he invented this filter for when DLS and internet was coming out. It [allowed] you to talk on the phone and be on the internet at the same time. It was really successful. My mom was into the human resources side of it. It was really cool growing up watching that because I feel like I've learned a lot about sticking to something that you really believe in and loving. Obviously, it was a huge risk, and it paid off for them. After that, I had a great life on the beach. I grew up in musical theatre and show choir. I was an only child, and my stepdad had kids, but they were a little bit older. Especially before, when my mom wasn't at home as much, I would have to spend after-school hours at the day camps. They did have theatre programs. Or I was in a one-month on, one-month off kind of school. We had this really cool program where the month off, you would put together a whole show. Then, at the end of the month, you would perform it for all the parents. That was how I first got into theatre when I was eight years old. I fell in love with it. I was definitely a glee student.
Later, I decided I wanted to go to LA. At first, I thought acting would be more of what I would do -- maybe because I didn't know as much about the music industry. I didn't have family or anyone who could show me the ropes. But I found my into it through just meeting really good people. It led to more and more things, and I thought 'oh, music is what I really want.' I can do all the things I want to do -- like acting and dancing and filter that into the music career."
You previously released an album in 2012 called All About Today. How would you reflect on that record?
"That was my first stab at songwriting, as well as being an artist -- it was not the first thing, but that's when I learned the most about it. I got to work with this great producer named Christian Davis, who was nominated for a Grammy and writes for everyone. It was more my learning curve album. I don't know if I necessarily knew what I wanted to be yet, in terms of branding. I left them take more of the lead on what/who they saw me as and what my sound would be. Without that, I wouldn't have known what I didn't want to do. In the new album, it's a lot more of my style and voice."
Do you have specific influences you thought about when creating this album?
"Yes. Originally, when I was working with this producer, he asked me who I listened to growing up and love. I named a few names, but then said 'you know what, I loved Alanis Morissette not only because of her ferociousness but her raw honesty.' I also told him, 'my voice and style is very soulful and more urban.' He was saying with Alanis was what she actually did back in the '90s was use more urban drum loop and beats and put raw rock guitar over it. I said 'that's exactly what I want to do, kind of have a mix of that.' One of my songs, 'Star Crossed Lover,' is very reminiscent of 'Dirty Diana' by Michael Jackson. That's probably my favorite MJ song. He is also why I went into this. I used to be obsessed with watching his music videos and dance on chairs and act like he was there with me."
Do Michael Jackson and Alanis Morissette also influence your performance style?
"Absolutely, more so Michael than Alanis. I've learned, as much as I love freestyling and feeling the music, I feel your moves and choreography should be [tight]. When you see an artist live and it looks like they know exactly what they are doing with their mic and movements, it just changes the vibe so much. I try to have as much of my set choreographed. Even though he's a multi-talented dancer, it seemed like Michael had everything choreographed. He probably did. Alanis felt it more on some songs; you can do that once in awhile."
Who did you work with on the album?
"The main producer who did about half of the album goes by Radio; his name is Troy Radio Johnson. His father and uncle were in a '70s funk band called The Brothers Johnson, and his uncle Lewis Johnson did all the bass on 'Thriller' and came up with the 'Billie Jean' line. He was really legendary in that world. So, he grew up with Quincy Jones (knowing him), and his family knew Michael. For me, it was a dream come true to get to work with somebody who had a first-hand encounter. Also, what most people don't know, a lot of the music behind 'Thriller' was an ode to his family (The Brothers Johnson). Quincy Jones was producing their album, and then he signed to Columbia, I think. They told him he couldn't work on any other artist's album, but it was Michael Jackson. So, it was like 'I'm just going to do this one thing.' He brought along the Brothers Johnson to work on Michael's album. He kind of -- not stole -- borrowed a lot of their sound and put it into Michael's music. Luckily, I got to have a lot of that style in my music. One of the guitars we used was one of his father's vintage electric guitars and has a really specific sound. I feel so blessed to be able to use that. The way he plays bass is in a lot of my album. It was cool. It's a little funky, which is what I also wanted to bring into the album.
Drew Lane has a track on my album. A writing team named Automatic are on it. I really reached out to a lot of different people."
How many songwriters did you work with, and how many credits do you have on the record?
"I co-wrote every single song. For my stuff, just because I am a writer, I might as well write my own stuff. I wouldn't be opposed to taking a song I didn't write onto the album, but I have a very specific vision. There are weeks I write four or five songs a week just for different placement opportunities or for other artists. I have maybe three or four main songwriting teams I write with, usually. In LA, there's an abundance of songwriters, so I'm always meeting new people."
Does the album have an overall theme?
"When I was doing 'The Vents' [magazine] interview and reflecting on the new album, I realized that it does have a theme of where I was with an ex I was dating at the time and then it kind of goes through falling in love with the boyfriend I'm with now. Then, it goes into the good part of that now -- hopefully, that won't turn. [laughs] I tend to write what is present to me. We met when I was creating this new album, so it became beautifully woven into the music. That's why I love music -- it's sort of a little snapshot of where you were."
I hear you are planning on several music videos for this project?
"Yes! I have two out right now, 'Money' and 'Inta My Heart.' I'm planning one for 'Taste' right now, and then, I have one that's already completely done for the original version of 'Inta My Heart.' There was a more funk version of it and then the remix, with Unanimo. I have already two more definitely shot, so there total already. So, I'll probably make two or three more."
What are some of your other favorite tracks on the album?
"I love this song called 'Just Ain't Right.' It is definitely a very real song; it's based on my ex relationship. I actually was crying through the songwriting process of it. It was resonant of what was true for me. I feel like every time people, especially songwriters, hear it, I get positive feedback on it. I'm really proud of it. As a songwriter, you want to succinctly express your thoughts in the shortest amount of words. I feel I was really able to to do -- express everything I wanted in the song.
'Dizzy' is another one of my favorites, just because it feels really good. Then, there's another song called 'Vices' that I like for the message behind it. The music video is gonna be really cool for it, too."
What is so great about 'Taste' is it has a guitar solo, which doesn't happen often in pop music these days. Why did you include it?
"That was all the producer, my friend SR. He put that in. At the time, it was on or around when Prince died. Prince was a huge influence on him, and he might have added that in after Prince died. That was a little bit of an ode to Prince. It also just fit really well with what we did. I heard it and went 'what?!? This is amazing, I love it!' Another thing, the best live shows -- and one thing I've noticed about shows I go to and love -- are the ones that make it a full experience with the band and singer and the audience. Especially in pop, I feel like you don't hear band breaks enough. In live shows, it's really important to include the band and create a moment for them to go nuts."
You have another new song called I Want That Smoke from the film Ripped.
"That song will not be on the album. I don't think. I have to figure out how it's going to work. The film is a fun, stoner comedy with Russell Peters and Faizon Love. They needed something that was very Entourage style. Reggae has also been a huge influence on me, too. So, that's sometimes in some of my songs. In that song, especially, we got to go full reggae."
What is your bucket list in terms of artists for which you'd love to open?
"Katy Perry would be a great one. Her shows are so fun. She's from California, so we'd vibe really well. She seems like she has a similar personality when it comes to theatrics. But I love Tove Lo. She's amazing. I also really respect Demi Lovato because of her stance on female empowerment. Then, Beyonce, of course."
Taylor is expected to release her yet-untitled new studio album very, very soon. "[It'll come out] probably by the end of July or early August," she teases. "It'll definitely be within the next two and a half months. Also, a lot of the songs have a summer-y so-Cal feel."
With a slew of music videos planned, in many ways, the new LP will be a visual album. "I like to think of it that way. People relate to you more when they can see you and your vision for the song. I went to LA, initially, for acting, so it's my outlet to act more, as well," she concludes.
Looking ahead to the rest of the year, Taylor sets the bar high. "I want to be able to set up a tour. Everyone wants to open for someone, right? That's the goal and dream. That's definitely on my list. However, there are a lot of good opportunities in southern California for bands and artists, especially in San Diego. It is not as difficult as LA to get people to come out and listen to live music. I've had good success in the past. I'll probably set up a southern California tour and then hopefully have that lead to an opening."