Songwriter Interviews

Melanie

by Jeff Suwak

Share this post

On her spiritual awakening at Woodstock, "Brand New Key," and why songwriting is an art, not a craft.



Melanie was all set to play The Triple Door in Seattle when COVID-19 derailed her plans. Luckily, the show wasn't the only thing she had in the pipe. She's got a new album coming out on June 20, 2020 (Record Store Day). Its title, Melanie Live at Drury Lane 1974, describes the material. In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown or quarantine or whatever you choose to call it, Melanie took the time to discuss the coming release of the new album, as well as some stories from a long career in the music business.

Melanie, mononymed long before it was trendy (full name: Melanie Safka), is best known for the hit "Brand New Key," which was the #1 song in America for three weeks in December 1971. In 1989, she won an Emmy for writing the lyrics to "The First Time I Loved Forever," the theme song from the TV hit Beauty and the Beast. She's been active basically nonstop ever since her 1968 debut album, Born to Be.

In 1969, Melanie made a mark when she performed at Woodstock, earning a place among the top singer-songwriters of the era. Her song about the experience, "Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)," was a hit the next year and followed by "Brand New Key," which was released on the independent label Neighborhood Records she and her husband, Peter Schekeryk, started.

With all that momentum behind her, she stepped out on the stage on the Theatre Royal, Drury England, in 1974 and played with members of the Incredible String Band, who were also riding high at that time. As years passed, Melanie came to forget most of the details of that show and forgot about the tapes completely. Packed in a box, they moved around from house to house, spending time in her mother's garage and then ending up in a barn, where they were rediscovered last year. From there, they became part of a group project among music-industry folks who helped salvage the music and get it ready for distribution, nearly 50 years after it was recorded.
Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): Let's start with the live performance that's recorded on your new album. How did it feel to hear yourself performing at that show again?

Melanie: You know, I hardly had a memory of the concert. I wasn't sure whether it was Albert Hall or the Royal. I didn't know if the keyboard player had been there, and he was. I was doing so many shows that the importance of one venue compared to another wasn't really on my mind.

I only knew there was a show. I had to do a show. I would go out with the same common denominator: lot of people out there!

So a lot of people ask me, "You remember when you played such and such place in Chicago?" And I say, "Hm, let me see."

Songfacts: Right, because for the fans it was a unique and individual experience. "That one time they saw Melanie." For you, it's just one of many.

Melanie: Right. I know where they're coming from. But people will think there's something wrong with me because I don't remember if it's the Royal Albert or Drury Lane. They think I would know the difference between them. But I think they [the shows] came pretty close together.

I remember, more than anything, the Incredible String Band. They were my favorite group.

Songfacts: Was that the first time you performed with the Incredible String Band?

Melanie: Actually, they were in the studio with me. My record label, Neighborhood Records, we signed them. This was my dream group. We signed them as the Incredible String Band. During recording, they had some kind of "out," and they were no longer the Incredible String Band.

I loved the Incredible String Band. They had this incredible sense of whimsy. Mike [Herron] and Robin [Williamson] were very different from each other. I think it was that magic combination, like Lennon and McCartney. John Lennon came from pure "let's do that." Paul McCartney came from a much more standard musical background - that was a magic combination of his commercial dancehall music done really well, whereas Lennon was eclectic and pure creativity.

Songfacts: And you see the same sort of thing in the Incredible String Band.

Melanie: Yeah. They have this opposite thing. Robin was all into discovery and playing all kinds of musical instruments. He had this great, exploratory spirit.

Songfacts: So, when you heard the recordings that are on your newest album, was it like something brand new to you? Since it had been so long since you heard them, I mean.

Melanie: Yes. I didn't remember singing "Desert Song." I totally forgot it. When I heard it, I went "wow!"

The story of the tapes themselves is kind of amazing because we moved a lot. Peter and I. We also had several residences going at one time, so at one point the tapes were in my mother's garage, and then then they were moved.

I guess when my mother passed away they were moved to my sister's barn and that's where they were, with no thought to preserve them. They were just being kept for sentimental reasons. We didn't know what we would ever do with them, because people had pretty much lost interest in analog tape altogether.

So, now, with analog a new thing again, I thought, "Oh, my God, I have 600 reels of recorded stuff."

Songfacts: So what was it that inspired you to dig those particular tapes out again?

Melanie: There was a new resurgence in vinyl interest. I haven't had a vinyl release in 30 years. We were talking about releasing it and I said, "Well, I actually do have a bunch of tapes in my attic." My husband was a producer, and he was in the studio all the time [Schekeryk died in 2010]. I mean, as soon as I would write a song, he would want me to record it. And now my take on it is that some of these songs got recorded before they were fully developed, because I think you really have to perform songs long before they breathe.

That's how I feel, because over the years, I've been singing some songs I wrote 50 years ago, and I breathe life into them every day, and sometimes I hear how it was recorded and I think, "God, I want to record that one again."

You know, you sing a line to the audience and you don't really know how it's going to shift when it's the first time you've ever done it. When you can sing it a few times, you sort of sense at what point they're going to get it.

Songfacts: So as you perform on stage, you're that sensitive to the audience's emotional responses?

Melanie: Yeah, well my husband didn't have that consideration. I'd play a song and he'd say, "That's a hit."

Like, I'm sure if "Brand New Key" had lived its life before my husband recorded it, it would have come out as a blues, swampy thing and nobody would have ever heard it. That would have been that. But he'd say, "Melanie, that's a hit." I'd say, "No, it can't be."

Songfacts: So you thought that way with "Brand New Key"?

Melanie: For sure. I was sure I was doomed to be cute for the rest of my life once I had this come out. I was a young girl, very pretty, even though I didn't know it at the time.

Songfacts: You didn't know you were pretty?

Melanie in the '70s
Melanie: I didn't know that. I didn't think I was slightly attractive. I didn't fit the mold of what was in fashion magazines and stuff, but now I look at myself and think I was crazy.

Songfacts: After the Drury Lane show was recorded on the album, did you ever return there?

Melanie: I'm not sure.

Songfacts: How about your Woodstock performance?

Melanie: Oh yes, I do remember that. I was probably the only person there who wasn't stoned. Maybe Joan Baez. I don't think she was stoned, either. But, you know, women had to be careful then.

Songfacts: But all this time later you still remember Woodstock clearly?

Melanie: Yes. Well, sometimes I wonder. When you remember things, what are you remembering? Is it from how you felt? Is it from real memory?

I have a line from a musical I was working on: "My life. My life. The story of my life is much too long and complicated and most of it untrue."

You start telling your story, and it becomes a story. I see the pictures I'm seeing, but I really cannot swear. You know, that is exactly as I remember it, because memory is a very funny thing. It's so colored by your emotion.

I was so terrified at Woodstock. I do know that. And I spent an entire day on a field in a tent. I guess I was positioned as a folk singer, and I wasn't in the upper-echelon tent.

Me and Tim Hardin and some other folky folk were in little tents, while the famous-famous people, like Janis Joplin and Sly Stone, had these upper-echelon tents with amenities. But we had a little tent with a dirt floor and a box, and that was it.

I do have one vivid memory. I had never met Joan Baez. To me, she was like, Saint Joan. She was the first woman I'd ever seen with a guitar. The guitar was a man's instrument. It was a guy thing. In fact, all music was a man's world. But Joan was in the upper-echelon tents, right next to me, and I had developed this really deep bronchial cough - a nervous cough I've had my entire life. It's probably the reason why my voice is so gravelly. But I coughed and coughed. It was coming from a deep, deep fear place.

I thought, How can I do this? I'm one person. I didn't have a band. I didn't have a person with me. I was completely by myself. The helicopter had dropped me off in the field, and I went to my tent where I was told to go. I didn't even have an artist's tag.

Joan heard me coughing. She sent over her, I guess it was an assistant or something, a hippie-type girl with a little flowered thing on her head. She came over to my tent and said, "Hello. Joan thought you might like this." And it was a pot of tea with lemon and honey.

You can imagine? That was the highlight. I said, "Wow, that's it."

Songfacts: So Joan Baez truly was the kind, humble person she also projected herself as.

Melanie: Yep. A genuine, caring person.

And then there was the performance itself, which didn't happen until the end. Every once in a while, someone would come up and say, "You're next," and then it would be, "Never mind."

Every time somebody said, "You're next," I wanted to throw up. In fact, I did. Several times that day, I did. It was unimaginable. All I had was three chords. As far as guitar playing, I wasn't really a guitar player. I was more of a percussionist on a guitar.

I thought people were going to kill me. I thought they'd throw things at me. I had never sung in front of more than maybe 500 people before, so this idea was becoming more and more terrifying as the minutes passed.

It had already gotten dark, and then it started to rain, and I thought maybe all the people would just go home, and I won't have to do this, and life will go on as it was before. Maybe I'll be an archaeologist. I was really not thinking of myself as being suited for a celebrity of any kind. I really did want to be in the Peace Corps, but that was turned down.

So by that time, I was really thinking that God had answered. I can go home and everything'll be as it was. And then right in the middle of that thought, someone came in and said, "You're on next." And that was because the Incredible String Band, as irony would have it - this was before I ever met them - they were a huge group at that moment and refused to go on because of the rain. They were afraid of the electricity, which was very real.

But I didn't know much about electricity. I just said OK and walked up towards the drawbridge. It was like a rope bridge we walked across.

I actually left my body. I was not in my body when I got on that stage. Again, I wasn't stoned or altered in any way, except total terror.

Songfacts: Have you ever felt like that since Woodstock, while you're performing?

Melanie: No. I've had experiences where I wasn't quite in my body, but never during a performance. I sense that when I got out there, I watched myself sit down, and it wasn't until I sang the first note that I was back. It was almost like an explosion. And I believe all 500,000 people got to witness this without knowing what had happened.

Songfacts: You mean you exploding back into your body?

Melanie: Yeah.

Songfacts: Do you think maybe that's part of why that performance had such an impact?

Melanie: I think so. I really do. I mean, it was a spiritual awakening. It was the first time I had ever thought of the body as one thing and the spirit as something else. And it was real.

Songfacts: What a time to have that. Right there at Woodstock.

Melanie: I know! I didn't tell that story very much because people would think I was crazy or on LSD. In fact, I probably wouldn't have had that experience at all if I'd been on that drug.

Songfacts: So that is one performance you still remember clearly.

Melanie: Yeah. That, you don't forget. That's like the day before yesterday.

Songfacts: You wrote "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" based on that experience, correct?

Melanie: Yes. As I was leaving Woodstock I had the anthemic part in my head.

They were doing "Lie-ins," a peaceful way of demonstrating, instead of marching and pushing people and shoving and getting hit with a baseball bat.

You know, I always thought of myself in that posture. I thought of myself as being on the pro side, rather than the anti side. When you position yourself "against," you're not really going to get anywhere. People like to be right, so if you're presenting yourself against something they think is right, you're not really going to get anywhere. If you're presenting something that is the opposite of what they think is right, then they're going to respond with anger or violence or some sort of unkind thing. And I just don't do this.

I think the best way to help people alleviate the pain and frustration is to live a good example and do as much as you can creatively if that's what you do. And if you do that, then hopefully that will translate into something better than, rather than through hate.

You know, I think they did a great job capturing that period in Forrest Gump. There's the hippie girl who believed in all the ideals and people and humanity. And then there were the angry political types. I was always suspicious of people who didn't have a good sense of humor. I think humor and art are the first to go once people become fanatics.

On Drury Lane 1974, Melanie covers the Woody Guthrie song "Pretty Boy Floyd," about an outlaw with a Robin Hood bent. It's one of Guthrie's more incisive lyrics:

As through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men
Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen
Songfacts: On the new album, you do "Pretty Boy Floyd." That's on your Carnegie Hall album, too. Was there a particular reason you liked to cover that one?

Melanie: I love that song. I mean, that one line about how some are going to rob you with a six gun and some will do it with a fountain pen, making you rather be held up with a gun so you know where it's at. The fountain pen is the secretive, dark place where the most evil is done.

Which brings me to human rights. If we would only follow the guidelines of the Declaration of Human Rights, there wouldn't be any more mistreatment of people. You know, Article 27, that's an important aspect to live by. It touches my heart, anything to do with people who should be doing well and they're not because of being needled out of things.

The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. Article 27 of the Declaration states:

1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Melanie's new label, Article 27 Records, "is concerned with the fundamental human right to participate in all forms of music freely and without harmful exploitation."
Songfacts: You mean, taking profit from creative output?

Melanie: Right. Profiting off of someone else's creative work. I happen to have earned a lot of money, I just don't happen to have seen any of that.

My songs have been used in countless films and ads, and people have recorded them. Just recently, Morrissey did "Some Say (I Got Devil)."

Songfact: Everybody's the poorer for it. If artists can't make a viable living with their art, then we'll have a lesser quality of art.

Melanie: Well, if you listen to mainstream radio today, it's all really come down to one note and a few pedal points. You know, it has nothing to do with age. People will say, "Well, you had your music and now they have their music," but that's bullshit. It's just really bad. No lyrics and no melody.

Composition and melody are the highest form of art, because you can't touch it. It's a total frequency. It surrounds you. Yes, lyric is very important, but it's not up there in the aesthetic as melody is. And when that diminishes, I just think it's pretty scary what people are being force fed.

In the '80s, when everyone started doing production-based music and it got hard to tell who was singing, identity was getting lost. I thought that was the end. I thought there was very little out there that's going to do anything for anybody.

Songfacts: So you consider the '80s the low-water mark of music?

Melanie: Well, then I did, but now I listen to the '80s and it's Mozart. Everything was visual then, the flock of hairdos. I'm not saying that visual arts aren't important, but it just shouldn't devalue music.

Songfacts: Coming back to "Pretty Boy Floyd," was Woody Guthrie an inspirational musician to you?

Melanie: The Guthrie family was very happy and enthusiastic about my doing that on Drury Lane. Woody Guthrie was the real deal. In that early era, I think his brand of politics was important. There was an abuse of people, and he aligned himself with people. I believe that Woody and I could have been really good friends, and we could have laughed and joked.

Songfacts: In "Someday I'll Be A Farmer," you sing, "I built and climbed a mountain, but it wasn't there." What was the mountain you were talking about?

Melanie: I guess fame and fortune. Here I was working and working and working, and it was nothing. It was absolutely nothing. And it's just incredible when you're the biggest thing since sliced bread and all these people are around you, and then when you don't have a hit, they're gone. They're off to the next big thing.

At one point, it was really bothering me that people like being your friend when you're the hottest thing, and then you wouldn't hear from them until you got another hit. I thought, if you're looking for love, the music business might not be the place.

Songfacts: But ironically, that is where you found love.

Melanie: Yes, you're right. He [Peter Schekeryk] was the producer. He was the agent. He was the manager. And he was my staunch supporter. You know, after he started producing my records, he had one client, and that was me. And that might have been his biggest mistake.

I'm more of an instinctive person. If I didn't like somebody, I would tell them. But it was amazing, for as smart as he was, he would trust people that I instinctively did not trust.

Songfacts: How has songwriting changed over the course of your career?

Melanie: You know, songwriting wasn't a formula. It was before people had the term "the craft of songwriting." The "craft" of songwriting. Really? Oh please. I wrote "Brand New Key" in about five minutes. There was no craft. It's called "art." Not craft. Craft is learning how to make pottery on a wheel. Songwriting isn't a craft, it's an art. It has nothing to do with how much time it takes.

I have a very funny story. I'll do the short version.

I was hired to do the lyrics for Beauty And The Beast, the TV show. The arranger was someone I had given his first arranging job to, but now he is out in Hollywood and he wasn't that thrilled with me getting the job. And here I was writing the lyrics for this major hit TV show. When I first heard the melody, the lyric just came to me instantly. It was just there. It was: "The first time I loved forever."

"That's perfect," I thought.

So, I wrote the song down on a yellow legal pad and handed it in. I expected the producer to say it was beautiful, but he got back to me and said, "Melanie, we need to hear more his point of view."

I was thinking, "What? What is he talking about?"

So, I thought about it a bit and came up with a verse that was his point of view, but it didn't feel right. It felt manipulative. But, I handed it in, and he handed it back and said it needed more work.

I think right off they were upset that I came up with the lyric so fast. So, as this went on, I had the whole yellow legal pad filled with different lyrics, and now I'm going crazy like I'm being tortured. Everybody had a different idea of what it's supposed to say. By the end of it, I looked at my first lyric and said, "Damn it, this is really good, and I'm going to hand it in." So I did.

The producer called me the next day and said, "That's it, Melanie! You see, all that hard work paid off." I won an Emmy for that.

I think the world of people that don't do any creative work like to see the artist take a lot of time and articulate things about it so they know they worked for the money. If anybody wanted anything ever after that, I would make sure I took a good week and a half before I gave them anything.

Songfacts: So the final version of that song that you won the Emmy for was the original version you scribbled down in five minutes?

Melanie: Yep. Nothing changed.

Songfacts: The virus situation interrupted your tour. Do you have any intention of picking it back up once the virus stuff clears?

Melanie: Oh, sure.

Songfacts: When the new album is released, the plan is for it to be on vinyl, right?

Melanie: It's going to be my first vinyl release in 30 years. Totally uncovered from the barn. Cleaned and restored. It was a major undertaking because these tapes were not cared for in the way that some other people's tapes were. But I'm really glad they weren't at Universal.

Songfacts: You mean in that big fire?

Melanie: Yeah, they could have been there because at one point I think Universal had something to do with the acquisition of one of the labels that acquired me or something. So it was fortunate they were in my mother's garage, even though it wasn't temperature controlled.

Songfacts: Well, terrific that your masters didn't get burned up.

Melanie: Yeah, it is. But you know, there's all this legal mumbo jumbo. "Yes, you technically you have them, but in legalese you don't."

Songfacts: That's got to be frustrating.

Melanie: When my husband first passed away, I felt completely like a victim, like my whole life was being consumed by this terrible feeling of being violated. And so I get talking to lawyers and talking to people in legal places and advice. And I thought, you know, I wrote those songs and I'm still writing. I'm not going to make my life about being a victim.

At some point I'll get a big deal lawyer and it'll all be made right or people will come to their senses and maybe there'll be more done to protect artists and creators. But until then, I keep writing and singing. And again, it's just the way I make a living. I'm singing in front of people. Getting there is a bitch. But once I'm onstage, it's very nice.

April 20, 2020. More at melaniesafka.com.

Further reading:
The Forgotten History of Woodstock, NY
Classic interview with John Prine
Interview with Toni Wine

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 1

  • Ronald Dittrich from Scotland Bringing back the good times
see more comments

Which Restaurants Are Most Mentioned In Song Lyrics?Song Writing

Katy Perry mentions McDonald's, Beyoncé calls out Red Lobster, and Supertramp shouts out Taco Bell - we found the 10 restaurants most often mentioned in songs.

Michael Glabicki of Rusted RootSongwriter Interviews

Michael tells the story of "Send Me On My Way," and explains why some of the words in the song don't have a literal meaning.

Jimmy WebbSongwriter Interviews

Webb talks about his classic songs "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman" and "MacArthur Park."

Kristian Bush of SugarlandSongwriter Interviews

Kristian talks songwriting technique, like how the chorus should redefine the story, and how to write a song backwards.

Mike CampbellSongwriter Interviews

Mike is lead guitarist with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and co-writer of classic songs like "Boys Of Summer," "Refugee" and "The Heart Of The Matter."

Joe ElySongwriter Interviews

The renown Texas songwriter has been at it for 40 years, with tales to tell about The Flatlanders and The Clash - that's Joe's Tex-Mex on "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"