Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
20201116 OFM Melissa Thompson shelves 024 Patricia Niven
Nine Songs
Melissa Thompson

Ahead of her appearance at this year's Black Deer Festival where she’ll be hosting a live fire masterclass, award-winning food writer and chef Melissa Thompson talks Jen Long through the songs that mean the most to her.

Melissa Thompson is getting excited for the weekend. Having published her debut cookbook Motherland last autumn, she loves the experience of sharing her recipes with those ready to learn.

“There are some festivals that I really like, like Black Deer, that’s why I’m excited,” she grins from her home in South London. “Especially when it’s live fire, everyone’s a bit of a geek there and they want to know about all of the stuff. People want to know what you’re marinating things in. I’ve been to Jamaica before and then at a festival, made a hot sauce out of scotch bonnet that I brought back using pimento from Jamaica and people care about that sort of stuff there.”

Born and raised in Weymouth to a Jamaican father and Maltese mother, both food and music played important roles in Thompson’s upbringing. Her dad was in the navy and as teenagers she and her elder brother attended the Royal Hospital School in Suffolk, a boarding school for the children of seafarers.

At boarding school, Thompson began to develop her own musical tastes. “There are some songs that are so nostalgic to me like, Chaka Demus & Pliers, one of their big tunes. It reminds me of summer,” she smiles. “It’s that weird kind of nostalgia, where music takes you back to a place and a time. We listened to a lot of Alanis Morissette there was the whole Blur/Oasis thing. I was team Blur, but only because my best mate who also used to annoy me, she was very much Oasis.”

Thompson studied journalism at City University in London. After graduating she moved home and wrote features for The Dorset Echo until the bright lights finally lured her back to London where she worked a run of jobs in journalism before settling at The Mirror.

However, Thompson never felt fully fulfilled in her work and in 2014 she took a Guardian Masterclass on how to start your own supper club. Her sister-in-law Aya had taught her how to make Karaage chicken and she’d become obsessed, cooking for all her friends. Hosting felt like the logical next step. Alongside Japanese comfort food, she adopted other culinary strands that interested her. “I ended up having stuff like Smoked miso brisket and different things that utilised the Japanese influence but with other methods of cooking I was interested in,” she explains.

She cleared the front room of her South London flat, and after accepting a spare table from a local councillor, the club was open. “It worked because my partner Kate would come in from work and help me. I’d take off the Friday from work to prep, my mate would do Front of House and it was just a really nice, convivial atmosphere,” she says. “The kitchen was open and we’d have a screen so people couldn’t see what we were doing, so I could silently panic behind there. We always had fires. I’d have paper that was soaked in oil and would get too close to the flame, but no one ever knew.”

A year later, Thompson was made redundant from The Mirror and as word spread about her cooking, she was finally able to accept the invitations to host pop ups she’d previously had to decline. After falling pregnant she needed a gearshift and stepped back from the kitchen to focus on her writing.

In the wake of the 2020 pandemic and Black Lives Matter, as she was using her social platforms to champion other colleagues, BBC Food reached out to her. “As soon as you get bylines and you get to know people it kind of snowballs,” she says. “As soon as you’re trusted by one publication, other publications give you more of a chance.”

Now a BBC Good Food columnist, she’s written for the likes of The Guardian, Vittles and Waitrose Magazine. Last September she published her debut cookbook Motherland, a celebration of Jamaican cuisine. “It’s a bit weird writing a book,” she says. “If you write a piece that means a lot to you and you release it into the world, that’s nerve-racking enough. I find it quite exhausting, the adrenaline build-up, so writing a book was like that but massively magnified. I was just happy that I got to do it and write that book that I really wanted to see out there.”

Some of Thompson’s Nine Songs choices are inspired by food and cooking, others are inspired by moments in her life and the people she loves. All her choices come with a little bit of fire.

“Liquidator” by Harry J All-Stars

I think it’s a really summery, nice bit of music. It’s on one of the Trojan collections, so when I would be prepping for my supper club back in the day, because I’d have one or two days I’d take off to prep, I would have music on in the background.

I’d sometimes listen to a bit of Radio 6, but it gets a bit too radio 6 after a while, so I’d need to break it up and listen to something else. I’d have this playing a lot and then I’d also have it playing during the supper club, but I think everyone else got annoyed with me because it was always on.

It makes me happy whenever I hear it and it makes me think of summer. It saw me through those moments, especially when you’re prepping for something that you’re quite nervous about, it’s nice to have some good music on. It makes you feel like there’s someone else in the room with you. It feels quite precious to me.

“My Hero” by Foo Fighters

I used to go to a lot of festivals when I was younger. I think Reading was the first one I went to, and I went to Glastonbury a few times. Foo Fighters were playing at one of them, I can’t remember which one, they all kind of blur into one. I remember my friend Becky was into Foo Fighters, but I didn’t really know that much about them and I don’t think I was that bothered at the time.

Then in 2017, they played Glastonbury. I was pregnant, I’d gone to my brother’s house and their eldest daughter who’s seven now, so she would have been about two or three, we were in their front room watching it. I’d never watched a festival on telly, and I never previously saw the point.

Then Foo Fighters came on and it must have been some connection to that time I’d heard them before. Sometimes you can’t be bothered about a band and then you go to see them live and you’re like, ‘Oh, now I get it.’ There are some bands that are made to be listened to live.

We were watching Glastonbury and I’ve got this video of my little niece really dancing to the Foo Fighters and “My Hero”. I completely heard it anew and I was completely smitten. That really turned me on to the Foo Fighters. If I’m driving around, I like to have it playing, but I’ve also got my playlist which I keep adding songs to for whenever I’m prepping food. I’m freelance, so I listen to a lot of music in the background. It’s everything, the drums, the lyrics, all of it. I think it’s a really great, great song.

BEST FIT: I feel like it also has this aspect of melancholy now, as it was used on so many montages when Taylor Hawkins died.

It is a hopeful song, but I think it’s always had a slight element of melancholy to it for me and I don’t know why. I don’t really like hero worship, because I think it builds people up too much. You basically idolise one part of someone, and I think that’s the problem for me with any kind of talk of heroes because you end up only appreciating one half of them, especially in this age of social media.

It neglects what people might be suffering in private. For me, that song makes me think of a dad and a son. I think it’s quite a rousing song, but also there’s a slight edge of melancholy there.

“Drop the Pilot” by Joan Armatrading

When I was at The Dorset Echo, my editor was like, ‘Joan Armatrading’s playing in Poole, you should go and interview her’. And I was like, ‘Who’s she?’ I didn’t know. I never did interview her, and I’m gutted about that. Then I went into quite a Joan-hole, and her music is beautiful. Her singing, the lyrics and her voice are so enrapturing and she’s a black, queer woman.

What’s really nice about her is I like how she’s talking about love, almost in a similar way to Tracy Chapman. They talk about love in non-gendered terms. It’s quite nice, because a lot of men who we then find out are gay talk about heterosexual love. The object of their desires being a woman, and I’m sure they have to do that.

So using non-gendered terms is nice and I think she’s an amazing lyricist. I still haven’t seen her live and every year I’m like, ‘I need to try and catch her somewhere.’ I’d love to go and see her live.

“Ready or Not” by Fugees

I’m never completely wedded to an artist, but The Score was one of the first albums that I would listen to from beginning to end and I thought it was an absolute masterpiece. “Ready or Not”, it’s just so good.

Lauryn Hill has spoken about the pressure of people asking about her second album, like ‘When’s it coming out?’ and all this pressure, and she was like, ‘Why does it have to be like that? I’ve created this thing that means a lot to me.’ There’s so much to take from that in where we are now, constantly having to churn stuff out.

The music is timeless, and her message is timeless. She created this masterpiece and as a legacy I think that’s extraordinary. In the car, I’ll just listen to it as I’m going along or I’ll have my headphones in as I’m wandering, and I could be in the worst place on earth, but in my head I’m just loving it.

My parents were always into RnB and soul, my dad was into his reggae and with my brother, music’s always been his expression. He’d always take the piss out of me for my music. I was into Arrested Development as well, that was one of the first albums I bought, but Fugees, it was quite a cool album and I genuinely liked it. I never would pretend to like music, even though I’d get the piss taken out of me for my musical taste, but that felt like an album I genuinely liked and it’s like a cool album to like, rather than it being Steps or something.

BEST FIT: The irony is, that song uses an Enya sample, which was like, the least cool thing.

Why’ve you gotta ruin that for me?!

“Sweet and Dandy” by Toots and the Maytals

My Dad had The Harder They Come soundtrack and sometimes I’d go and listen to it myself because it had “Many Rivers to Cross” [by Jimmy Cliff], some quite sad songs on there. You also have this song on it and it’s really cheery, it’s quite funny, and it really made my older brother laugh. He loved that song so much and I’m sure he still does. I’d always remember his laughter.

It’s just this chaotic family scene of overly emotional family members, and I guess in a way I felt it reflected my family a little bit, because my mum gets really emotional, my mum cries all the time. My dad gets really uncomfortable if anyone cries in front of him. He’s a typical Jamaican, whereas my mum’s Maltese/Mediterranean, so she cries at anything.

In the song it’s like, ‘Come on, sort your life out, why you getting upset? Don’t be ridiculous,’ and I think it’s a really funny song, but there’s a lot of heart in it as well. It really makes me smile and it’s a good one to have a little boogie to.

There are so many Toots & The Maytals songs that I like, really iconic songs, but that one means a lot to me because I can see my brother laughing at it, thinking it’s hilarious. It’s really nice when music has that effect on you. I also think it’s because I didn’t get what he was laughing at for a long time, I just used to enjoy the fact he was so humoured by it. It’s nice to see that reaction on someone.

“Twisted (Everyday Hurts) by Skunk Anansie

With Skunk Anansie, I was in my early twenties and that was my soundtrack to uni and partying and getting ready. Fugees would have been there as well and also The Streets.

I had my little collection of CDs that I’d be playing and with Skunk Anansie, even though a lot of reggae has political overtones or undertones, I felt like here was Skin and she didn’t seem to give a shit. I loved how she seemed to navigate the world as this truly iconic, unique individual.

I’d never seen anyone like her. I guess a bit like Grace Jones, but she was just powerful. Making a reference to your periods in a song, right? Who does that? No one does that. Up until then it’s a thing to be ashamed of, you know? Scooting your Tampax into your sleeve on the way to the toilet at work, because let’s not make anyone feel awkward while we’re there feeling like our uterus is being pulled out.

It’s her voice and the power in it, she just seemed really, really cool and she still is. What an icon.

BEST FIT: When you think of Britpop culture, it was super white and super male, so to have someone like Skin in there, she was formidable and iconic, but she was also completely different. Some people hated her, some people loved her, she really did have that effect.

She’s going to be a really divisive character, because she’s unapologetically herself and I think especially in my early-twenties, having come from a really white area and school and to have this person. She didn’t feel relatable, she didn’t need to be relatable.

She was just doing what she was born to do and that felt really good, it was really inspiring. Stoosh was a really great album. I think she was just magical.

“Bang Bang” by Joe Cuba Sextet

There’s a bit of food in there, “Cornbread, hog maw and chitterling!” I don’t even know where I first heard it, but it’s what I play at BBQs and I really like the brief food reference in it and the whole finger-clicking, it gets you moving and gets people moving.

I like any song that features lines or references to food that are said in a celebratory way. It reminds me of a kid being really excited by their favourite dinner, and you don’t really hear chitterlings being spoken about.

BEST FIT: I mean, that went over my head. I don’t know what chitterlings are.

Chitterlings, basically it's the small intestines of the pig and it’s part of black, American South, culinary repertoire. It’s quite a divisive thing, in the same way tripe might be. I think hog maw is stomach, and stomach is tripe. So chitterlings, and especially the smell of them being cooked, can be quite divisive. Some people might think about them really affectionately.

It’s part of a cuisine that’s bound in poverty and resourcefulness, using all the animal, but I like the way they keep repeating it. The fact that’s the chorus I think is really cool.

BEST FIT: I looked him up and he’s of Puerto Rican descent and from Harlem, so it’s not like being from Georgia.

Well this is it! The whole vibe of the song isn’t typically Southern and yet the lyrics, I find it really interesting there’s this reference of cornbread, hog maw, chitterling. It’s quite weird but it all comes together as a song, and I really like that tune. It’s a song that makes you want to get a crowd together and cook and enjoy food and break bread together. I think it’s lovely.

“Love and Happiness” by Al Green

My mum used to fancy Al Green, and I’m sure she still does. Al Green is probably my mum’s favourite singer, I think she would say, and I’ve always liked Al Green. Al Green always makes me think of my mum, and my dad to a lesser extent, but it’s my mum who’s a massive fangirl.

I’ve got a couple of friends, Patsy and Melek. Patsy’s a photographer who shot Motherland and Melek is my other friend in food. I’ve probably known Patsy for two years and Melek for about a year and a half and we’ve become really good friends, which is always nice when you’re a bit older. When you’re young you make friends so easily, and you don’t have as many pressures on your time, and you can just go out all the time. As you get older, it’s harder to fall into that kind of rhythm with someone, where you just get on really well.

We went to Melek’s house, and I don’t even think she played the song there, but she sent a video of Patsy and me and we were just talking, and she put “Love and Happiness” over the top of it. It reinvigorated my love for the song because it makes me think of really special friends. It makes me think of people I love in my life.

His voice is so beautiful. What a talent. There must be so many talented musicians you don’t get to hear, so I’m always really thankful for those people whose songs bring so much joy that they got to have that platform. We get to partake in their incredible talent and that’s so enriching. I get that with Al Green. You listen to it and it’s just like honey, it’s so nice, it just glides into the ear and sends tingles down the spine.

“In Your Dreams” by Dark Dark Dark

I’ve only become aware of them in the last two years. Kate and I were watching this drama and it was the soundtrack and it really got into my ear. I’d never heard of them before and then I went to go and find out what the song was and started listening to them.

She’s got a really enchanting voice and it’s a really beautiful song. You know when some people are doing something and you can’t really imagine them doing anything else? I get that with her – ‘of course you’re a musician.’ The song is the showcase for her voice, unlike any others. It’s really beautiful and it makes me think of Kate.

BEST FIT: I feel like when you watch a drama series, the theme tune becomes part of that TV show. I can’t listen to like, Choir of Young Believers without thinking about The Bridge now. It’s interesting you can bring another context to something like that.

The drama was fine, but I really like that song and watching videos of them playing it live, she seems quite cool. It was quite easy for me to disassociate from it. Kate and I talk about this a lot, if we watch a boxset and typically binge it.

I remember years ago we watched Sugar Rush and the theme tune to that really stuck in my head, or The L Word! If we heard those songs again we’d be like, ‘Oh god, why do we know this?’ You wouldn’t even necessarily know where you know it from.

But when I’m listening to Dark Dark Dark, it’s just a really good song to sing to. I have to turn the music up really loud, because I’ve got a terrible voice. I need to drown my voice out and I always make myself think that I can sing it quite nicely. I really can’t.

Melissa Thompson's live fire masterclass takes place at Black Deer Festival, which runs from 16-18 June.

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