Melanie's voice is soft and raspy at the same time. If you didn't know who you were talking to, you'd have no idea that she played alongside legends at Woodstock and toured around the world. She's immediately kind and humble in her expressions. "I sense that something has got to give, I sense that people are becoming more aware…I'm just very hopeful for humanity," she says. It carries through her stories no matter if she's talking about the music industry, touring, songwriting, or about her beloved, late husband, Peter.
The New York singer–born Melanie Anne Safka–became famous for her songs "Brand New Key," and "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma." She performed for over 500,000 concertgoers at Woodstock in her early 20s. But well after the 60s faded, she continued to write and tour, and would you believe, with the rising of hipsters, she's gained a whole new following.
Melanie will wrap up her tour with Romancing the West, an on-stage documentary about Western music, very shortly, and while the show is running in Orange County she was lovely enough to speak with the Weekly. We're not worthy!
OC Weekly How would you describe Romancing the West?
Melanie (Laughs) That's an interesting question. I would have to say it's been evolving and changing as we go along. I think it's still in its preview stage…it's a real eclectic mix of things. I mean I started out singing a completely different assortment of songs than I sing now. I'm doing "Brand New Key" and a new song, "Angel Watching." I think I sort of represent the Pagan aspect of spirituality in the show. I mean it's a documentary and there are musical styles that go along with visual representations on a screen. I've never heard of anything like it before and that's what got me interested. I just gave it a leap of faith.
How is touring with Romancing the West different than touring as a band?
Oh my God, it's entirely different! I don't have any kind of set; I'm just out on the stage here and there. I normally perform a 90-minute set. Once this tour is over I'm going back to New York and will play all of the favorites and then a bunch of songs, totally new songs off my album, Ever Since You Never Heard of Me.
Do you like that title?
I do like that title! Where did that come from?
I think it came from the pockets I'm in. In some places I'm Queen Melanie, and then in other places no one knows who I am. So, it's addressing that. I'm gonna be putting it out pretty soon. Right now, I just finished a musical that I wrote called "Melanie and The Record Man." My husband passed away two years ago and he was my producer from the very first record. We got married, 45 years together, three children. So, you know, we're dealing with that. And to get myself through the grieving, I just started writing our life together and I just realized how crazy our life was. Totally insane. I met him when I was 18, we had hits, and we went through the historic phases of the Vietnam War, protests and pro-peace demonstrations. I've always found myself more pro-peace than anti-war…So, I wrote this musical with all of that in mind.
You seem to experiment with more outlets than a lot of other musicians. Where do you think you got this from?
I think when I started out I was so young and all I wanted was to be authentic. That's what I thought the 60s were about, being your authentic self. I didn't want someone writing for me – that's why Peter ended up being my manager. I was really quiet when I first started out, just vulnerable. That's probably why I still have a following of any kind. They know that it honors musical expression.
What kind of kid were you growing up?
A natural introvert. I've always been that way to the point where I was painfully shy. I learned how to deal with the world, and you have to be with people especially when you're a performer. But my husband was the ultimate extrovert. We were complete opposites. He was the dynamic one, and people would always guess that he was the famous person. (Laughs) But as a kid, I was the oddball…I felt I was taken wrong most of the time, and I just wanted to disappear.
Wow, that sounds like the opposite of someone who could go play Woodstock.
Isn't it crazy?! I know. But when I'm up there I'm really in my own little universe.
What was it actually like to play Woodstock?
Well, I was terrified, of course. I didn't know that it was gonna be what it was–nobody did! When I talked to the people that organized it, months before it happened, I just thought, "Oh that sounds great, arts and crafts"…I pictured people with their families, picnicking…a pastoral day on the farm, sort of. I had never performed for more than 500 people in my whole life. When we were driving up we were hitting some traffic and we thought there was an accident ahead. I finally found a phone and called the only person I knew and they said "No, No! Don't drive that way." And I started to get this panicked feeling that the traffic had something to do with what I was about to encounter. So, I get to the hotel they told us to go to and we're just surrounded by people and cameras and mics. My mom and I were just thinking, "Oh my God, oh my God."
And somebody comes up to me and says "Melanie, get in the helicopter." And I'm thinking, "Helicopter!?" The roads were completely jammed and that's the only way we could get in. I was flown over this field of I didn't know what, and it was people! I thought, "that can't be people, it's too much, it's way too much." I'm about to throw up. And somebody brought me to this tent with a dirt floor and a box. Now, I'm all by myself and I don't know famous people and I started to cough, this really deep, demon-sounding cough. So someone heard my coughing from the upper echelon tent and sent their assistant with a pot of tea for me, and it was Joan Baez! My hero!
Crazy! What was it like having a romantic relationship with Peter and being in a business together at the same time?
We had ups and downs, for sure. I mean we constantly disagreed. But he was the most dynamic and charismatic person. He'd always wake up earlier than me and would come into the room and yell "Guess what! Great news!" He just started off the day with that. Even if he didn't have any news, he was always positive like that. The endless possibilities were just dancing above his head, and it was quite a life.
I'm just trying to go out and create things. Thank God my son is with me and we're working through it together. He was the person who was the cement, and now we're just here, kind of flying around.
This gives me the same feeling that I've always had when I thought of you. You seem like you've always been an old soul and just a very intuitive women. I'm wondering what advice you would give to young women.
I think even though women have come a long way as far as rights, it's still really a world controlled by men. I feel like women shouldn't worry about it so much, they can out-create it. There's so much cynicism and I think women are trying so hard to be equal that feminism is getting diminished, but it's very important to have feminism in this world. Especially in music today, there's so much sexuality that's degrading to women. I feel bad for the young girls who are looking at this and seeing it as the criteria. It's a very degraded and diminished femininity. Women need to find a way to create themselves.
What advice would you give to young musicians?
I just think don't watch television. Don't listen to mainstream anything. We're being bombarded with behavioral modifications that are so sophisticated and scientifically worked out that we don't even know it. Even if you go into a store, you're being manipulated. I think everyone should study music appreciation and get back to what a song is, or go forward into what a song is. Learn how to write a melody! Music was originally for healing, and a majority of the population is not being healed.
Thank you so much for talking Melanie, I really appreciate it.
Oh, of course. I better get dressed!
You can see Melanie in Romancing the West this Saturday and Sunday. For ticket information go to www.romancingthewest.org