Jazz and Haitian folk music may be sonic pillars for artist Melanie Charles, but her approach as an eclectic beat-maker breathes new direction into a career originally destined for traditional jazz. The born-and-bred Brooklynite is a one-woman wonder show: Her live setup fits on a single table, consisting of a Roland SP-404 beat machine, vocal processor and a flute. Throughout her performance, she arranges every facet of her jazz-infused electronic soul by stacking melodies and vocals over drums and samples, and taking those sounds to new heights with distortion and effects masterfully applied. Melanie’s music is wholly modern yet deeply rooted in theory and tradition that stems from spending nearly a lifetime immersed in a world of musical prestige.
Melanie’s resume runs deep. She attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, in Manhattan, completing a flute major while touring on and off with the the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. She continued her schooling at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and went on to work with renowned musicians like Laura Izibor, Gregory Porter and Nicola Conte. Throughout her career, Melanie has floated between creating music based on her schooling and what she, as a proud Haitian millennial from Bushwick, has sought to create for herself.
We recently caught Melanie on her California tour, which included stops at San Francisco’s SoFar Sounds, Oakland’s Smartbomb, and Los Angeles’ Space15Twenty. Melanie’s live performance is like no other. She careful layers delicate synths over boom-bap drums and occasionally includes a sample, which she highlights with a touch of her flautist prowess. Her voice further sweetens the deal, supported by distortions and reverb that add a left-field element to keep you enthralled. Melanie’s brand of electro-R&B is, for the meantime, exclusive to her live performances; however, she promises to release new music later this spring. In the meantime, get to know the sultry songstress a bit more with our in-depth Q&A below and be sure to catch her live in a city near you.
You wear a lot of musical hats – vocalist, flautist, songwriter, producer, and arranger. Which hat is your favorite to wear?
I guess singing is what I’m most comfortable with and at ease. I also play the flute, which is what I started with in junior high. I studied traditionally and was in an orchestra where I played flute and piccolo. I thought I was going to be mainly a flautist, but then I always sang. Eventually singing took over and the flute became secondary. Since I studied classical music, it’s always an adventure whenever I have to improvise on the flute. There’s always this question of “what’s going to come out of this extension of me?” I sing jazz too and even though the music I make now is more electronic soul with some jazz underneath, I feel like my voice is naturally from that jazz era. I think that’s just the world I live in.
I’d imagine singing is more natural too.
Definitely. The beautiful thing about improvising in jazz is that you can go anywhere and make art with anybody. You can go with the flow no matter where you are. Last week I sang at this jazz spot in San Francisco called the Black Cat. At a certain point, the mic went out so no one could hear me, but then I told the band to come down and let it just be me and the bass. It was mad quiet and everyone started listening and it was an incredible moment. I’m about that jazz life, where you have to go with flow.
When you’re writing music, what comes first? The lyrics, the track, melody?
It’s all those things, but it really is a case-by-case situation. I have a song called “How Glad I Am”, which is originally by jazz singer Nancy Wilson, who’s also done R&B/soul. I wanted to do a remix of it for a long time and was trying it out with different bands, but it never really worked out. Then one day I was making a beat out of this sample and I realized “How Glad I Am” would go perfect over it. Sometimes it can be a sample or the music that inspires the song; whether I’m taking a jazz song and layering it on top, or writing from raw. Sometimes it’s the track, but sometimes I may have a lyric. I wrote a poem the other day and felt I needed a melody to go with it, so I started making beats and it sort of happened.
And with your rich musical background, inspiration can come from anywhere.
Right. I wrote the song “Pat Your Afro” while walking down Union Square in New York. All I needed was a melody, so I hit up my friend Alvin who is a dope pianist and we found the chords together. That’s the thing with being an artist, you always have to be open to receive inspiration and make sure you’re in a space where, if inspiration comes, you’ll know what to do with it.
You started formal music training at a young age and worked with renowned artists while you were still studying in school. When did music first enter your life?
My mom – I call her “Mama-ger” – always pushed me to make music. Before she even had me she knew she wanted her daughter to be a singer and musician and made sure that it happened. I started singing in church. My mom asked the organ player at our church to give me voice lessons, but he said “five years old is a little young, I’ll give your daughter piano lessons instead”. So I started playing piano, and then a couple years later, I started doing vocals. My mom put me in Brooklyn Youth Chorus, this classical chorus in Brooklyn Heights (fancy stuff) where we eventually went on tour. My mom has kind of been like Joe Jackson throughout my life, but in a good way! Then after junior high school, I went to LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, another prestigious art school in New York City–anyone that was talented and growing up in New York went there.
Music has always been important to me, and I always knew that it was what I was meant to do. It has always been something important to me and my family: My younger brother plays alto-sax and he’s incredible, my dad used to play organ, etc. Musical excellence has always been important to us in our family.
Success was expected.
It was definitely expected, which is funny because if I do a great performance, I’ll ask her, “ma, are you proud of me?”, and she’ll say, “yeah, but of course, it was a great performance!” It’s that Haitian tough love — excellence is expected. We’ve been through so much — we fought to be one of the first free black nations. We’re fighters, so there isn’t anything else but to be the best.
Did your strict Haitian background clash with growing up in Brooklyn?
It’s interesting – you know how as a kid you say things you don’t really know about? I remember talking with my friends about blackness and my friends saying I was black, but I would tell them “I’m not black, I’m Haitian.” As a young kid, maybe the syntax of that wasn’t correct – Black, Haitian, African – it’s all one. But at that young age, I was maybe searching to distinguish myself and represent my Haitian culture. I grew up in Bushwick and went to school in Williamsburg where there were no other Haitian kids around. The need and want to celebrate my identity and culture has always been really strong. As I grew up and got older, I started learning about Voodoo and roots music. Being Haitian has added more depth to me. The journey to learning that part of myself has been great.
Having a sense of pride is important and incredibly relevant these days, considering the past election, the Women’s March, etc.
I feel so excited to be making this music at this time, to be surrounded by so many artists and just celebrating what it means to be a Haitian, a woman, a creator, and a leader. Now more than ever it is really important.
Your musical background is rooted in classical traditions. When did you start to veer toward a more electronic sound and approach?
In New York, everyone is great, everyone is talented, but especially being from New York, it can be hard to stand out. I went on tour to find my audience and to find the people that could connect with me. I learned some guitar and brought it on the road with me, which worked out for a little while, but I wanted more body, more sound.
I ran into these (Oakland) Smartbomb guys, had met Jamie Whalen of Hot Record Societe (who goes by Mejiwahn), and another guy Dil Withers, all who were working with these SP’s (beat machines). I loved the sound because it was infused with what I started out with – jazz. Jazz sampling is huge in beat culture and gives you the freedom to either create your own original melodies or put other covers on top of them. It opened up this whole new world for me and that’s how I started getting into the electronic sound.
When I was touring, trying to find a band was too expensive and/or people didn’t have enough time to learn the music. By making electronic music using the sampler, I become my own band. My electronic growth has been out of survival. I’m so grateful that life led me to this because I didn’t imagine I’d be making this type of music at all. I’m excited to be a part of this community.
When you study music formally, eventually you want to break those rules.
That’s true. I went to jazz conservatory where I studied Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, all of those guys. I studied blues, what rhythm changes are, what substitutions are, that was my life. I spent four years in jazz school and it took me another four years to release that shit. Fuck all those jazz rules! But it’s been part of my journey into this electronic world and being more connected with the materials that my generation uses. How am I going to communicate with my people if I’m stuck in the jazz era? I’ll always respect and honor it because those are my roots, but how do I turn that into 2017 and so on?
You’re essentially erasing a genre, which I see a lot of artists doing in some way or another.
I just started accepting the fact that I’m all those things in one. For a while, I only considered myself a jazz artist, then I was soul, then I was this and then that. But it’s like, you’re all of that and it’s okay. I literally just started acknowledging this reality and since then making my music has been more fulfilling. I’ve been more honest, more real and people feel it so much more.
Who do you have on repeat right now?
I’m an old school girl, so I’ve been listening to Pharoah Sanders’ “The Creator has a Master Plan” – it’s a 30-minute song that I listen to almost every day. When I’m feeling stressed out, and I feel stressed out at least once a day, I just listen to that and it gives me the answer. I love SZA, Erykah Badu, I revisit them all the time. I tend to mix the old with the new. I’ll have Slum Village on repeat, then I’ll throw on Childish Gambino. I want to collaborate with Childish one day.
What’s in store for 2017?
After I wrap the California tour, I’m going back to the east coast and I’m doing a few things in Philadelphia and New York. Then I’m going on the road again with Lady Moon & The Eclipse. She’s a wonderful singer with a wonderful community and band, she’s almost like Fela Kuti meets Diana Ross meets Young Paris. We’re going to New Orleans, Atlanta, and ending back in New York. I’m also trying to wrap up this new music. We’re recording all the new stuff I’ve been performing and putting in on wax around March or April.