Q&A: Melanie Reflects on Changing Music Scenes, Aging, and Being a Singer-Songwriter

Melanie has been writing and performing music continuously for over forty years. She's most well known for her performances at Woodstock, the iconic 1970 Isle of Wight festival, and her songs "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," "What Have They Done to My Song Ma," and "Brand New Key."

Her distinctly rough, very organic voice represents the cry of a generation. After more than thirty albums, she shows no sign of slowing down, with a new record called, Ever Since You've Never Heard of Me set to be released in the near future.

Melanie talks with Up On The Sun  about her experiences in the music world, how they've changed, and what it's like for women singer-songwriters forty years later.

On being a female singer-songwriter:

"There wasn't a name "singer-songwriter." You didn't have that title. In fact, most people didn't even know I wrote those songs. But occasionally, if they wanted to include me in anything to do with writing, they would say I was a female Bob Dylan. I always wondered if they called Dylan a male Melanie.

It was a very strange time for women too, because...they played one woman an hour on pop radio. That was the limit. Now, there are too many singer-songwriters. I have a joke that I think is hysterical, but some people could take it wrong. What's the difference between a singer-songwriter and a puppy? Eventually the puppy stops whining.

There's this kind of singer-songwriter thing that just emerged. And everybody is a singer-songwriter. There's no outlet for just poets. And I think there are people that want to express themselves, and they [use] singing-songwriting. But they're not really singing. And they're not really songwriting. They're sort of somewhere in there, but not. It's a breeding ground for mediocrity."

On fame and aging:

"If there is a power that be that's watching what artists are doing, I got away with obscurity. You know, a lot of others -- John Lennon, and Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix -- they were popping off like flies. Everybody was drugs, drugs, drugs of course, except for John Lennon. But that was just a nut, that happened to be working for you-know-who. And it was getting very weird. I could not get a record deal, unless I was willing to put my guitar down, sing Barry Manilow songs, and go to Las Vegas. And go from the '60s flower child to the '80s woman. That was a very dark time for music."

On playing the Isle of Wight festival forty years later:

"Because it was me, forty years later, to a lot of people that just went down as, "Oh, how nostalgic. Oh -- there she is 40 years later. I didn't even know she was still singing." But then there were kids who had never heard of me.

There were [other] marked differences, also. After [I played,] Pink got shot out of a cannon. There were ferris wheels in the crowd. It was like a theme park for a few days. And a lot of kids came with colored hair. And they were all in their, "this is what hippies wear" [outfits.] You know -- it was all kitsch. It was fine. I'm not saying it's a bad thing. It was just nothing whatsoever to do with the original. The motivation for people going to those festivals 40 years ago was, I think, a show of kindred spirit. To demonstrate the power of us. That we can change the world. And this was much more of a, "Let's make money off these people." Selling things. And then the tickets are always so phenomenally expensive and crazy. I mean, Woodstock tickets were $8. Of course there's inflation and everything else. But now, it's prohibitive."

On finding a continuously renewed intensity in songwriting, after doing it for decades:

"I think it comes from...your reasons for doing what you do. I think if you do music because you want to be famous for being famous, that going to project, "I want to be interesting. I want people to think I'm really cool. I want people to think I really mean this, so I'm going to make this noise with my voice." But the reality is, it comes from a really deep part of you, and it always has. My approach to music has always been immaculate."

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Sarah Ventre