Nine Songs: Melanie C
Like most people in the country, Melanie C is currently juggling work and home life under lockdown: cooking, cleaning and homeschooling, but she’s also got another job on her to-do list, which is putting the finishing touches on a new album, her eighth as a solo artist.
“First it was a bit of a novelty, but at this point I’m just like, ‘Fuck this shit!” she cackles, with an enthusiasm and warmth that characterises our conversation. Even when complaining about our current situation, her gossipy friendliness - and her enthusiastic swearing - makes talking to the former Spice Girl the perfect tonic for the quarantine blues.
For her upcoming album, Melanie is trying out a new electronic sound, very much rooted in current pop trends. “There’s so many dance, house, and even rave influences in chart music at the moment, which I’m loving,” she says. “I wanted to make a really fun record, but I wanted it to have heart. I was looking at artists like Robyn and Mark Ronson, the artists that do that kind of sad dance music so well.”
She tells me she’s working with a mostly new team of writers and producers, and her first single, the melancholy disco-influenced “Who I Am”, has been remixed by Joe Goddard from Hot Chip, a long-time favourite of Melanie’s whose sound is a clear influence on the new album’s aesthetic. The promotional schedule, with a new single "Blame It On Me" released last week, has been “full on”, but there are certain perks to our current situation; her first performance of “Who I Am” was on James Corden’s The Late Late Show in the USA, live-streamed from her London home.
“Although I’m a pop artist,” she says, “I’m such a fan of so many different genres that throughout my career I’ve been able to dabble in influences.” Her expansive musical appetite began as a child, when Melanie’s home was a reflection of her musical heritage. “My Mum’s a singer and my Step-Dad’s a bass player. There was always music in the house, whether they were playing vinyl or rehearsing,” she explains. “For me it was actually a bit of a pain, because I’d be going to bed and there’d be a load of dudes downstairs rehearsing and keeping me awake!”
Melanie’s London home isn’t quite as bustling an environment, but is similarly music centred. Although growing up with a Spice Girl for a Mum is a very singular experience, there are similarities between Melanie’s childhood and that of Scarlett, her young daughter. “We don’t often rehearse here, but sometimes if we’ve got a little acoustic thing coming up, we get people round. I remember my daughter jumping around with her Peppa Pig guitar and joining in.”
Melanie alludes to her daughter a lot, painting a humorous picture of a sassy 11-year old who is at the age where she is distinctly unbothered by anything her mother does. “Now she can’t be arsed, she wants to be upstairs listening to Billie Eilish”.
Still, she acknowledges that she's glad to be carrying on the familial musical tradition. “It was nice for her to have a similar experience to me in some ways. I didn’t realise until I got older what a great environment that was to grow up in.” The eclectic taste nurtured in this environment defines her almost 25-year career, as well as her choices for her Nine Songs, which span soul, trip-hop, rave, R&B and more.
“I was on Desert Island Discs recently and I see this as an expansion of that. I made a playlist of the songs and thought, ‘Fuck! These are all amazing!”
“When I get asked what my favourite records are, I always look back chronologically to my first memories of music. My Mum had a great vinyl collection, and the one album that stands out from that time is Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. I spent the most time playing it and looking through the sleeve notes, and I will always look back on it as my favourite album from childhood.
“Sir Duke'' is a celebration of music - it’s about Duke Ellington, and Stevie also sings about Ella Fitzgerald in it. The sound of this song was my introduction to this style of music. For some of my songs I’ve been lucky enough to work with a brass section. I’ve performed with Jools Holland, and it’s such a privilege to have that bright and uplifting sound of brass on stage.
“I saw Stevie at British Summertime a few years ago, when he played Songs in the Key of Life in its entirety, which was amazing. It is still a go-to if I’m feeling a bit shit.”
“The storytelling of this song is so intriguing and powerful. With so many pop songs, you’re not taken on a journey as much as you are in “Eleanor Rigby”. It’s melancholy, and I’m drawn to a lot of my favourite music in moments of sadness.
“This song is one that you can really listen to and have a bit of a blub. It’s on my favourite Beatles album, Revolver, too. I grew up just outside Liverpool and it’s kind of a rite of passage, you’ve got to grow up listening to The Beatles.
“I was always drawn to this song. The way it sounds, and the wonderful George Martin production of course, but also because it’s just a vocal and a string quartet, it’s so unusual. I danced as a kid, so as well as listening to pop and rock, I listened to a lot of classical. Hearing that mesh of The Beatles and classical music really appealed to me.
“In the ‘80s, Paul McCartney did this funny little film, Give My Regards to Broad Street, and on the soundtrack there’s a version of “Eleanor Rigby” with a huge instrumental playout at the end, which I loved. And I did a ribbon floor routine to that piece of music! So it reminds me of my school gymnasium too.”
“This song takes me back to a bit of teenage angst in my bedroom. One Christmas, my Dad got me a little red Toshiba tape-to-tape player and it was my pride and joy. I remember I had it on my windowsill; that’s where I would play my tapes, and Revenge by Eurythmics was on it non-stop.
“I think the band had more powerful songs than “The Miracle of Love”, that had more of a message, or that were more provocative, but this one is such a beautiful expression of the great things about love, when so many songs are about heartbreak and the negative aspects of love and how much it hurts.
“In the ‘80s I was listening to loads of Madonna and I liked a bit of The Human League. I think I was drawn to Eurythmics because of Annie Lennox; she was so iconic and so different, and such an amazing vocalist. I loved the androgynous aspect of her look too. She’s such an inspirational woman, both as an artist and as a philanthropist.
“When the Spice Girls originally signed with our manager Simon Fuller, he was also managing Annie. I’d grown up listening to her and was a massive fan, so to be in the same stable as her, being looked after by the same management team, was incredible. I remember it being one of those situations where I thought, ‘Oh God, I remember being sat in my bedroom as a teenager crying to your music!’”
“I discovered rave on my first holiday without my parents. I was 17, in the Costa Brava in Spain in the early ‘90s. Rave culture was really exploding at that time, so when I got back to the UK, I just had to go out raving and I fell in love with the Prodigy. They are the act that brought rave culture to a commercial stage, and for me they epitomised that whole era.
“Charly” was probably the first rave tune to be in the charts, but “Your Love”, which was on the same EP has always been my favourite, I just love that piano break in it. It’s just that tune isn’t it? When you’re having a night out and then the DJ drops it and it’s the one - the one you’re waiting for, and you just go off. I associate it with so many memories.
“It has been really fun DJing in the past few years. I play a lot of pop and house stuff, and remixes with disco influences, but I always have to end the set with a bit of hardcore. There’s so many great tunes in that vein coming out now too, I’m loving the Calvin Harris project Love Regenerator.”
“TLC really came to my attention in the early days rehearsing with the girls, before we’d signed to management or a label. They were probably the girl band we looked up to more than any other, because they had that individuality, they all had their own thing going on, and they were so fucking cool.
"Waterfalls” is such an incredible tune, the storytelling is amazing, and it’s a really interesting lyric. I remember being with the girls in some cafeteria somewhere at that time, “Waterfalls” came on MTV and we stopped everything we were doing and watched it. We all loved them.
“I feel so lucky to have worked with Lisa [“Left Eye” Lopes] on “Never Be The Same Again”. She was always my favourite, because she was so quirky and cute and I loved her rapping style. I was in LA, working on my first album Northern Star and I always wanted it to be an eclectic album, but I never thought there would be rapping on it - I didn’t think I could pull it off. But when it came to writing the middle eight of this song, I could just hear Lisa rapping on it.
“My co-writer Rhett Lawrence knew the girls and gave her a call - then the next thing I know she’s on the record. I think any pop artist who comes out of a hugely successful band has their pick of who they want to work with, so it was an incredible opportunity and she did an incredible rap. We did some promo and shot the video together, and it was my first UK number one. It was one of those ‘pinch yourself’ moments, a very special experience.
“The other day Scarlett was listening to some ‘guilty pleasures’ playlists on Spotify, and “Waterfalls” came on. I said, 'Do you know one of TLC is on one of my songs?!' When I play live I do “Never be the Same Again” but I don’t do the rap, so she said, 'There’s a rap in “Never be the Same Again?!' So I had to sit her down and make her watch the video with me!”
“I fucking love this song! This just takes me back to being young, having no responsibilities, and going out on a bank holiday to get smashed to bits.
“It’s quite punky and rebellious, and there’s that part of me that enjoys going a bit mental sometimes. I’m a little bit of a nutter, there’s times in life where you just have to jump up and down and lose your shit, and this is one of them.
“I’m a massive Blur fan and I’ve seen them so many times. I love all of their albums but Parklife is amazing, and it came out when the Spice Girls had just got together. I’ve got so many funny Blur stories. They did this big gig at Mile End stadium, and it was before we had released anything, but we must have been signed because we got some free tickets. So me, Geri and Melanie B went, even though they aren’t into this kind of music at all.
“It was an incredible feeling, being in the mosh pit, then coming out because we needed air and feeling like the crowd of people was never going to stop. That was my first experience seeing them live. Then in 1997, me and Geri jumped onstage with them at the Astoria, but we got scooped up by the security guards. Afterwards Damon said if he knew it was us two, he would have let us stay on.
“We got in trouble for doing it but we’re Spice Girls, we have to be naughty sometimes!”
“She has changed so much, and I love all her early stuff, but Ray of Light is my favourite Madonna album.
“It’s an incredible collection of songs and so beautifully produced by William Orbit. When she brought out “Ray of Light” as a single, that electronic sound really spoke to me musically, I think because I went through that phase of going out raving and getting really into house music. It’s so atmospheric and lush.
“Madonna was always the artist that I looked up to when I was growing up. She made me realise what I wanted to do, because she embodied it. We’re so different as artists, and in how we express ourselves: she’s very sexual and I’ve never been comfortable with that, I’ve always been a bit more prudish. But from the music to the theatrical aspect of her work, to her physique and strength, there was so much about her that made me think, ‘That’s what I want to be.’
“Ray of Light ended up being a massive influence on Northern Star and I actually worked with a lot of the same writers. I had an opportunity to work with William Orbit too, for the first song “Go!”. It was just a fucking honour to be in the same room as that dude.”
“This is from a beautiful album called Simple Things, which is a bit of a holiday record for me. The whole album is a masterpiece I think, but this tune is the standout, it’s such a beautiful song, and the whole soundscape is so dreamy.
“It’s also where I first discovered Sia, who sings and writes on the track. She’s such an amazing artist to discover and it’s been incredible watching this meteoric rise she’s had later in her career. When young people tell me they love her, I always ask if they have heard her early stuff, because she’s always produced amazing music.
“She’s really prolific and distinctive, and if she’s written for another artist you can hear it a mile off. She’s probably about the same age as me, and so it’s also empowering that her music speaks for itself, because she’s so enigmatic. No-one is able to judge or say she’s too old. She’s one of my favourite songwriters."
“I picked this song because it’s how I discovered Fiona Apple. The Spice Girls spent a lot of time in the US in the late ‘90s, and we always had MTV and VH1 on, when music videos used to be on the TV.
“I remember seeing the video for “Fast As You Can” and being so intrigued by her. This song shows that she’s obviously such an incredible musician, even with all the rhythmic changes, and I fell in love with it. I then went deep into this mission to find out everything I could about her and everything she’s ever done, and I was listening to her non-stop in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.
"We consume music so differently now, but for me she’s still an artist where you have to listen to the album in full. She takes you on such a journey and she’s so raw. Obviously, she’s had some difficult times in her life, and gone through some traumatic things, but that’s so there, not just lyrically, but in the noises she makes. She’s almost animalistic, and she’s surrounded by the most fucking accomplished musicality. There’s no pretence with her, she gives no fucks and expresses emotion from deep within her soul.
“I’ve listened to her new album Fetch the Bolt Cutters once and I don’t know whether it’s because of where we’re at with the lockdown, but it was all a bit much, and I felt a little bit traumatised. I need to go back to it when I’ve got a little bit more freedom.”