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18 April 2013

Miss Understood: An In-Depth Interview with Susannah Melvoin




  





  Music has always been a family affair for Susannah Melvoin.
  The singer/songwriter comes from a musical dynasty: Her late father Michael Melvoin was a jazz musician, arranger and composer who worked with artists such as Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, The Beach Boys and The Jackson 5, to name a few; her twin sister Wendy Melvoin, was a guitar player for Prince and The Revolution and later formed the duo Wendy & Lisa, with Lisa Coleman, who played keyboards for Prince, and her late brother Jonathan Melvoin, also an accomplished musician, worked with Prince, Wendy & Lisa and The Smashing Pumpkins.
  She is best known as the co-lead singer of fDeluxe (formerly known as The Family) who released their first self-titled album in 1985. The record featured the hit “The Screams of Passion” and introduced the song "Nothing Compares 2 U," which was famously covered by Sinead O'Connor in 1990. The band was made up of artists working in Prince's camp at the time: Melvoin, “St." Paul Peterson, Jellybean Johnson, Jerome Benton (who were all members of The Time) and Eric Leeds. The album, which is currently out of print, is a much sought after collector's item and it is considered by many Prince fans to be one of the artist's most ambitious associated artist projects.
  The band broke up about a year later and a planned second album never materialized. However, after two brief reunions, one for a charity show hosted by Sheila E. and a second at a post-Grammy party hosted by ?uestlove of The Roots, they officially reunited in 2011. The group released its second album, “Gaslight," and have been performing around the world, including a performance at the famed Carnegie Hall in February, according to the group's Facebook page.
  Melvoin has also appeared on dozens of songs recorded by Prince and associated artists, including “Rock Hard in a Funky Place,” “It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” and “Anotherloverholenyohead,” among many others. She has also inspired other songs written by Prince.
    Furthermore, she has worked with countless other artists including Seal, Madonna, Eric Clapton, Quincy Jones and Doyle Bramhall II, whom she later married.
    Dyes Got the Answers 2 Ur ?s recently conducted an interview with Melvoin where she discussed fDeluxe, how she started working for Prince and designing  covers for the unreleased Dream Factory album:

  Growing up in a musical family, it's hard to say that I know anything else, because, I never went to college. I was incredibly fortunate to live in a house where music was on or being played all day. I was amazed when I would go to (other) people's homes or I would be in their cars and nobody was listening to music... It was just completely anathema to how I was brought up...
  Looking back, there are musical periods that have complete meaning to me, (because) they were scoring what was going on in my young life. So, music had a huge impact on me. 
    In the 1800s, a cobbler might raise his son to also be a cobbler, because, that's what he knows. (Music) is what I know and I'm fortunate enough to love it as much as I do. I'm blessed in that way, but, I'm kind of cursed at the same time, if I ever have to get a job.

   
Being a twin is the best joy. (Wendy) is my best friend in the whole world and my climbing ivy. I've always felt that I had the best friend  (and) the best sister. Any kind of relationship you could fantasize about being perfect... that's what being a twin is like for me. Even the bumps and the bruises within our life together have always been sorted out. But, they are sorted out in the way that you would hope they would be... All has been worked out and everything has been resolved. It's on to the next: no grudges, no competition, no throwing things at each other's faces... I'm really lucky.
  I still have her as my best friend, sister, wife, mother --any role that we need each other to be in... If you're the kind of twins that my sister and I are—so, so close—it's very much like a mother and her newborn. It's so symbiotic and so emphatic. That's good news if you're a mom and a baby. But, obviously there comes a time in life, and it has in certain relationships, where people thought that we were too close. They thought there was no room for them, when we really never felt that way.
  We felt we had the capacity to have really full relationships, because, we learned with each other. But, it's not really easy for others to see it that way. Wendy and I... speak freely and sometimes we can speak too freely with others. That's not always how it should be. But, being a twin has always been a joyous thing for me. I'm the luckiest person in the world. It has its absolute joys and then it has its crosses to bear.
  She's the coolest person in the world. I  think that she's amazing in every way. I've never been jealous of her (and) she's never been jealous of me. I've always championed her and I know she feels the same way about me. That's kind of unusual for a lot of relationships...So, it's great being a twin. I wouldn't want it any other way.

  I've always wanted...that's a loaded question. I think the first thing that comes up is that I've always wanted love in my life -- deep, meaningful love. I suppose that has its own layers in it. It's the umbrella in which everything underneath it exists.

  Singing makes me feel incredibly insecure and powerful, all at the same time. You let it all out and sometimes you get to the moment when you become fully aware that you actually sang and you say, “Oh my god, did anyone see me or hear me do that?”
  I love it and I'm really petrified of it, all at the same time. But, I love it. I know no other.

  When I write songs, I'm at my most self critical. Songwriting is not easy for me, because, I have to know exactly how to say something... So, for instance, a lyric could be as simple as “baby, I love you,” but, I've probably thought about that “baby, I love you” in such a way that it had to be sung right. It had to be right for how it was going to move itself into the next line, for how it would make me envision things and how it would become fully realized.
  I have to be incredibly focused (and) by myself for a long while before I put it on paper. Then, once I've started to put it on paper, I realize I've actually done this really sort of internal experience with it and then written it (to where) it becomes more pragmatic. Then, I put the puzzle together.
  It could be incredibly simple to the listener and maybe that's exactly how I meant it to be. But, there's depth to the meaning, because, of how I set it up and how I resolved it.

  People often ask me what was Prince like or how it feels to be a twin.

  When I auditioned for Quincy Jones, I didn't audition in front of him. I sent him a tape of an Aretha Franklin track (“Until You Come Back to Me”) that I had recorded with a friend of mine in his studio. I was just 19, maybe not even 19 yet, and I got the call. (Jones) called my father, who told me “You got the gig!” and I was like “What?!” There were only six of us who made it out of a 1,000 people who auditioned and I was the only white girl. I never felt more proud in my entire life. I was like “Yes, yes, yes! I am a sister!”
  (Jones) had known my father for years...They knew each other in the early 1950s and then they started playing together in the 1960s and 1970s in Los Angeles. They had always been close.
  There was a vocal contractor that worked with (Jones) who was at my father's house and that's how I found out about it.  I had just graduated from high school and I was visiting my dad. He said, “Oh by the way, Tom is actually looking for vocalists for this a cappella group that (Jones) is putting together. I think you should try out for it.” I said okay and that's how that happened. It came from my father getting the call and also Tom being there talking on behalf of (Jones). It was kind of like a family thing...



  I started working for Prince when I was 19. He had been spending a lot of time at my house, because, Wendy, Lisa and I were roommates. After high school, we always lived together. Lisa had gotten the gig with Prince and, when he would come into town, he would stay with us.
  I was really young, right out of high school, and I was working for David Geffen as the receptionist at (Geffen Records). I had just done the audition for (Jones) and Wendy wanted to play Prince my demo of the Aretha Franklin track. All I could say was “Please don't play it for him. Oh my God!”
  I went into my bedroom. It was 500 square feet, so, the bedroom wasn't very far from the kitchen. They were all sitting at the kitchen table listening to my track. Then the next thing I knew, Prince said “Why don't you come work with us? You should be with our group of people and you know this is where you belong.” I said " You know you're absolutely right.”
  So, Prince and I had a long conversation at that point and I said, “You know I'm working with (Jones) right now. It was hard to get this this gig.”
  The next thing I knew, I'm calling (Jones) in the middle of the night. I said, “I just can't sleep, I don't know what to do. I was offered a gig working with Prince. I kind of want to do it, my sister's there, my best friend who I grew up with (is there)...”
  Long story short, he said, “How could you not want to do that? Go, baby. If you can't sleep at night and that's where you need to be, you need to be there. Don't think twice about it.” So, I got his graces.
  From then on, I started working (for Prince), singing backup and being called in to sing on this or that track. I was singing on a couple tracks for the Apollonia 6 record when they were filming “Purple Rain.” 

  Susannah Melvoin on Prince songs that she inspired: The infamous “Wally,” which no one heard because he destroyed the tape. There's a huge story behind that. “Strange Relationship;” “Nothing Compares 2 U;” In a Large Room with No Light;” “If I was Your Girlfriend.” God, you know there's more and I can't remember...

  My band mates are my big brothers. We couldn't be more different. We are such different personalities and it all goes perfectly together. It's a crazy gumbo.
   I'm like their punk-rock girlfriend. I make such trouble. I'm literally like the girl where they say “Where's Susannah? Where is she? What's she doing?”
  I say “I'm here, I'm not doing anything.” I always think I'm like the innocent one and they say, “You're a pain in the ass” and I say, “I am not!”
  I love them, though. But, they don't carry my luggage very often and I hate them for that. They leave it up to me to pack the van.

  “The Screams of Passion” music video is hard for me to remember... I was so young and I was inexperienced with that kind of thing. We had been in rehearsals for such a long time to go on the road. We were rehearsing for a year before we went and did our first gig.
  Doing the music video was just part of the rehearsal thing, (because), we were in work mode. I saw it only as a job, but, not a job where I said, “Oh, this is a pain in the ass to do and I wish I was home by 5 p.m.” No. It was all part of what we were working on at the time. It was sort of a package deal in terms of how I felt about it. It was just part of the plan.
  I remember not having any expectations. Prince let us do a lot, too. There's a lot of people who think, that we, as The Family, didn't have any influence. But, that's not the case. He was there for part of the video, but, he wasn't really there (all the time). He wasn't the little guy dictator in the background saying “No, they can't do this or this is how it should be.” It wasn't like that. We had done pre-production for such a long time. We had fun, but, I wouldn't say that we were in heaven about it. It just wasn't like that. My memory of it was just working really hard. That's what I remember about it.

  fDeluxe's look was inspired by film noir. It was inspired by mid-to- late 1940s noir films with smoking jackets, fast dialogue and black-and-white glamour.
  It was Prince's concept to put us together. The reason (the band) was (previously) called The Family was, because, we had all been working within the Prince organization: I was the staff singer; (Peterson) was the keyboard player for The Time; (Johnson) was the drummer for The Time and (Leeds) was a horn player for Prince.
  When the Time disbanded, we all felt bad, because, they were a bad-ass band. But, everybody wanted to play and Prince wanted to hear people play. He was also in a place where he was fertile with music. He said, “We're like a big family here... I'm going to get (Peterson), because, people don't realize what a bad-ass singer he is. You guys will be the lead singers in the band. We're gonna do this, we're gonna play together. How about that?”
  He wanted to sell records and he believed this band was going to be the way to do it. We were the first band that he put together and produced with the idea that "this is going to do something." It wasn't a fly-by-night project. It had weight to him and to us.

  The 1985 First Avenue Concert...we had the best time. It was great. I mean I look at it now--because, I have looked at it-- and I said “Oh my god!” It's amazing what young kids we were and we just kind of went for it. We were like crazy puppies on stage. It was a lot of fun and the house was sold out. We worked really frickin' hard for that show to get out there and do that... It's great seeing it. I laugh a lot when I watch it. I can't even believe that's me! My favorite moment was singing “Nothing Compares 2 U.” It was just a great moment to sing with (Peterson). It still is for us when we sing it.



  It all changed for fDeluxe when (Peterson) decided he wanted to have a solo career. It was understandable, because, none of us got paid enough money and he had a family. He needed to support his family and it was kind of difficult.
  As “hired guns” we got paid weekly. We got paychecks and it wasn't a lot of money. No joke. I mean, it's embarrassing. But, when we were that young, it was for the love of the music. I didn't have a family, so, I wasn't worried about the kids, the mortgage or anything like that. I was along for the ride. But, it was a really long time before anyone – and it wasn't with the Prince organization-- made money.


  Susannah Melvoin on designing the Dream Factory album cover: Prince and I used to draw together. He was actually a really great artist. I was really into it, too. I would always have a pad and I was always drawing. I've been drawing since I was a kid. We would sit down and we would draw together. One particular night he couldn't come up with an album cover (for Dream Factory). I came up with a couple of different ones.  One of them was actually a dramatized version of myself, opening up a door into this dream world, with images that were based on some of the songs. I remember that there was a lot of white space, because, I couldn't fill up the background with color... Everything was kind of drawn onto white paper. But, the doors were very ornate and I'm opening the door into the Dream Factory.  The second album cover didn't have me on it. It just had the name Dream Factory, with some things hanging off the words.  I used to do murals in the house where Prince lived, incredible, crazy murals that he would ask me to paint. We were always into doing stuff like that.

  Humor... Oh my god, if there is no humor, I'd rather stick a hot poker in my eye and pass away. I have no reason to do anything if I'm not laughing. That's where I'm not joking. I have to laugh and I have to continue to laugh. If the laughter stops, I'm done. If the laughing stops, that means the fat lady sang and we're done. That's the beauty of being in my band with these guys, they're the funniest people you have ever met. 

  I'm always surprised by racism, bigotry and war mongering.

  My musical influences, this is a hard one. I had so many life experiences with different artists. When I was a really little girl, the biggest influences-- where I would put on the records  and try to sing that way—were Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell. That was always a given for me. That was really, really early on. Those were the records that I had in the house, because, of my parents.
  I would say after I turned 8 years old, I started getting into other listening experiences. But, the Aretha Franklin and Joni Mitchell records were the ones I sang to, that the words meant something to me. Every single Joni Mitchell record that I had was like my growing up as a kid. She said the words I wanted to say. But, the music moved me with Stevie Wonder and all of his early records. Those albums had huge impacts on me, in shaping who I am; not the just the music that I love, but, how I think.

  A common misconception about me... Well, I've never really heard this from people, but, what I'm going to guess is how short I am. People always think I'm incredibly tall, because, I have long arms and long legs. So, when they meet me they say “Oh, you're just a peanut!”
  People who come out to the shows and meet me, they're always surprised that I talk to anybody, that I am absolutely open to talking to them and that I have an open heart. Human beings are human beings. I am no better of a species...
  I just happen to do this and I'm glad they're all there to have fun with me. That really surprises people. I'm surprised by that myself. How else would I be? Why would I ostracize anybody that's having a good time with me?
  If you've been through a lot of heartache in your life and you are not one of the so-called privileged, you know what you have and you are grateful. You become really in touch with things that can be gone in two seconds. Those are the people you can actually have conversations with, because, they don't have time to waste time. To be anything other than real is just a waste of time.
  Say what you mean, but, don't say it mean. I have no fear of talking to people. If you don't like me, fine, I don't even have a grudge about that. It just is what it is.

  Wendy, Lisa and I are family forever. They happen to be really, really funny. That's why I stick around (laughs).

  John Cusack is very funny and smart.

  Susannah Melvoin on playing the lead role in “Under the Cherry Moon”: We were on our way to Paris to hunker down and study the script and get that all sorted out. Some other things went down and the next we were doing was me not being in the lead of the film. Which I'm grateful for. It was a blessing in disguise.



  Under the Cherry Moon... The record (Parade) is fantastic. It was a very, very loaded time. There was lots of stuff going on, but, the record was amazing. The “Girls and Boys” music video was shot in Nice on the set of the film. It was actually fantastic. I remember it being really grand. There we were in Nice and it was so beautiful there. It was just kind of a magical time. I felt like a princess. I think all us girls did, because of the hair and makeup. We were like “Oh my God, this is fantastic! Do me!” It was really fun.

  I want my fans to know that sadness... is like the clouds. They come in different shapes and different colors, but, they pass, and somewhere along the line the light comes out. Then the clouds come again. You should just breathe deep...and vote!

  “Miss Understood” was not put on the (first) album, because, I didn't want it to be. I wanted it for the second record and I wanted to re-cut it. There wasn't time to re-cut it before it was going to mastering and I said “Prince, you can't put this on, I'm not happy with it. Let's wait until the second record.” Then we both decided to just do that.
  But, that never happened. It's just floating around out there in the ether, totally not the way I wanted it, but, whatever... It was just way too insincere. I didn't believe myself at all, how would anyone else believe me? It just wasn't something I was comfortable with. At the time, I sang it so many different times to give it something and I was sort of given direction on that song by Prince. I was just not feeling it.
  But, at the end of the day, once I was done, I said, “Can I just do this again on the next record? Can I just re-cut it? There's some other ideas that I've come up with so I can get these words out.” Prince was nice about it. He was just said “Of course, let's wait for the second one. Let's just put (the album) out as is and we'll redo it the next time." I said “Great!”
  There were two tracks that had been done that were going to be put on the second record. But, that was all put in the vault, because, (Peterson) left. But, we definitely had the plan of doing it. (Peterson's) unreleased track had something to do with a tiger or a jaguar, or something like that. I can't remember. You would have to ask him. It had to do with some animal.

  fDeluxe is a bad ass band. Come see us live.



  I wish I could pay my mortgage.

  The music business... there is no music business. It's just the “ic” business. It's the I-C of the business...there's no muse, it's just the “ic.”
  If there is a music business, whatever business it is, has nothing to do with music. It has nothing to do with artists, it has nothing remotely to do with anything I, or my artist friends, do for a living...
  You certainly can't even sell music anymore. It's not about even selling music or making music, because, there is no money in making music. There's only money in selling...a part of your brand that has nothing to do with the music. That's a whole new world for artists now. But, that's the world that I live in and I'm not even talking about the ones that have no history. Those people have it even harder.
  Luckily, I've had a history (and) I'm heavily involved in the social media aspect of it. I'm heavily involved with my fans. I'm very involved in structuring how (my music) is heard. This is all pioneer stuff. Nobody out there has a clue on how it's going to work. There are some models, which people are going by, but, even those aren't a guarantee. It's just like work your ass off and something may stick. Maybe.
  But, hopefully, we can get out there and play... If you're lucky enough you have an agent who says “Yeah, we're going to put you out. Even if you have to play shit clubs, we're going to still put you out.” That's better than literally being told “There's no room for you out there in the touring world and you're going to have to figure it out for yourself” or “You're going to have to pay to play," which is even harder.
  So, in the music business, there is no muse. The muse is the thing that I was referring to, the inspiration. That's what a muse does. It's something or someone that inspires me to write a particular record... There's no muse in the music business anymore...

  I've worked with amazing people...my dream artists. I've worked with everybody I've ever wanted to and I feel blessed: Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, Bilal, my sister and Lisa, the musicians in fDeluxe, Oliver Leiber, Chaka Khan...

  Clare Fisher, talk about a muse. He was my inspiration for getting the strings on the (first) record. Clare had done work with my father —my father being the arranger and Clare being the string arranger. So, I had that “in,” although, that was not how I was thinking about it at the time.
  Prince and I were listening to a bunch of Rufus records back in the day-- and this was before we thought about doing strings on the first record. We were talking about how brilliant the strings were on those albums. I had also been listening to a lot of Claus Ogerman and Bill Evans. There's one record they did called Symbiosis and it's just one of the most beautifully arranged records. Ogerman's string arrangement, and Evans playing the piano over it, is some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard.
  The only thing that's ever came close to feeling as perfectly arranged in terms of the strings was on the Ruficized record. I just said, “Prince, why don't we get Clare to do the strings on our record?” He said,  “Yeah.” I said, “My dad knows him.” I called my dad and said “Pop, you gotta call Clare and see if he's up for it.” He was.
  We sent him the 24 track. He got back to us right away and said “Absolutely.” Within a month we had all the lead sheets and we had the entire score for the record. We went in and cut it and I couldn't have been happier.
  Cut to this record (Gaslight) and Clare's son, Brent Fischer, who managed him. (Clare Fischer passed away two years ago). Brent would do all of his father's transposing, writing, and he would do all the lead sheets for his dad. Then he started to actually compose. So, I had gotten in touch with him.
  (Peterson) and I were in my garage where we recorded my record on Pro Tools. We called Brent and said, “You know your dad did the first record...Would you be up for listening to this one and see what you think?” He said, “I absolutely will.” But, we couldn't afford it, no matter how we tried to budget it, we just couldn't afford it.
  To make a long story short...(Peterson) went in on some of my sister's and Lisa's string programs and with my chirpy little ears, I was that gal who said, “This is beautiful, but, we have to have to make it more heartbreaking...” Brent actually heard it later and said “My dad would be so proud. I couldn't have done better.”
  I was in heaven about that. (Peterson) is really smart.  I just want you to know he's a total savant. He's a dork, too. That makes him even more of a savant. He's got all those fun qualities.

  I wasn't always...blonde?

  Will I ever make a living being a musician?

  The Revolution...best band Prince ever had.

  I've learned that feelings aren't facts...and that took me a look time.

  The response to the fDeluxe reunion was a total surprise and a shot in the arm.

  The Carnegie Hall concert was the best night of my life. Playing Carnegie Hall with my most beloved sister, all those other artists and my band...It was all good. It's too bad Prince took all the footage off (the Internet). You can't find footage of that anywhere anymore, but, It was on there for a while.


  
  Recording “Gaslight” was liberating. A lot people had never heard me sing like that...It was really satisfying to put my song on there...and show that I could throw myself into a track like that. It was liberating and absolutely fantastic. I had written that song years ago.

  Looking back...I don't do much of that anymore. But, if I do look back at all, I'm just glad I'm not there anymore. I'm glad I'm where I'm at. Life goes on. I've got the best two babies in the world.

  The future is always uncertain.


  Check out fDeluxe online at fdeluxe.com.


  Stay beautiful, Kristi

--

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8 comments:

  1. great piece! most in-depth interview susannah's ever done, right?

    i'm listening to "symbiosis" now

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    Replies
    1. "i'm listening to 'symbiosis' now"

      +1. Beautiful record.

      And another great interview!

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  2. Thank you for this. Glad to hear her voice!!

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  3. Short with long arms & legs sounds like me http://twitter.com/wahwahpedal

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  4. Yes this was all good,but, my question still remains: why, Sussanah, did you not marry Prince?

    ReplyDelete