The Brooklyn-via-Boise singer-songwriter and long-time choir singer flips the script on “Self Be True.”
Melody English is busy. She’s busy gearing up to release her debut album, Melody, next week. She’s busy writing and producing music for a separate pop project, called Test Subjects. She’s busy directing the Brooklyn Metro Chamber Orchestra. And she’s busy sketching out her next album, which she hopes will feature members of said orchestra.
The video—directed and edited by Richie Talboy, and premiering on AdHoc today—depicts a group of dancers rehearsing on stage as Melody directs them, in the manner of a conductor leading a musical ensemble. It’s a gorgeous black-and-white complement to Melody’s silken vocals, which glide effortlessly yet mournfully through the song’s delicate six-minute arrangement.
“One of my good friends, Sharleen Chidiac, is a choreographer,” explains Melody. “I’d seen her do performances at [shuttered Brooklyn DIY venue] The Glove and I was like, ‘I have to get her on camera.’ So she did the choreography, and she’s the final girl at the end that’s alone dancing.” (The other dancers in the video are Autumn Harms, Arzu Salman, and Manatsu Tanaka.)
We caught up with Melody about her move from Boise to Brooklyn, her new album, and how her background in opera and classical performance informs her approach to songwriting. Check out the “Self Be True” video and read the full interview below.
Melody is out February 14 via House of Feelings.
I wanted to start by asking you about moving from Boise to Brooklyn a few years ago.
I was living in Boise, and I was trying to decide [between] moving to California or New York, because my brother in California was always raving about the weather and everything. I had just finished opera school in Idaho, and I was starting to do a young artists program there, but I was bored. I was teaching voice lessons, I was doing this operatic program, but I was not feeling inspired. And so [me and] my random cousin [musician Dan English, whom I’d] never met before, talked about moving somewhere together. I was like, “Hey wanna move to New York?” and he was like, “Yeah I’m actually looking for a place.”
I took the train from Idaho to New York. I’m really glad I did, because I was processing leaving this small town and going to this other place. But mostly, I was excited to be left alone. I got off the train at Penn Station [with] like four suitcases and came up from the elevator onto the street, and I was like, “Oh my god. This is cool.”
I think I was still messed up, because I had gotten hit by a car [in Idaho]. I did a lot of weird things right after getting hit by the car: I broke up with my boyfriend of three years and quit teaching and quit managing this music school. Looking back, I had a whole community in this small town and people were freaked out by what I did. People felt like I was abandoning my life there.
How would you say the places you’ve lived have shaped the music you’re making now?
I lived all over when I was younger. I think I lived in 20 places before I was 16. I was listening to lots of psychedelic stuff in Idaho. There was a lot of rock music. I just felt like my brain was going to calcify because I don’t really identify with… I don’t know—it was three bands in a small town.
I was in a project called Godly Hemlines then, which is an anagram of my name. It was really bizarre. Because I’m a vocalist, not an instrumentalist, the music was informed by [the band,] so they were arranging parts in a way that I just didn’t want. So I left to come here and get more control. I had read about producers who didn’t play the music but told people what to do—a master delegator. Right when I moved here, I made these songs. That was in the fall of 2016. I wouldn’t write that now, but I’m so glad I did then.
How is New York different? I have my own studio now, where I’m working on a different project called Test Subjects, and it’s a pop project. I have a lot of synthesizers to play around on and I just know how to do everything better. I’m trying to figure out what I want to do next.
I think I’m going to take [my songs] further on my own next time. I’ll probably get the songs almost all the way done before I bring anyone in, but my influences haven’t really changed much [over time.] So many people here are going at it like, “Okay, we have the image, we have the video, now what does the music sound like?” I’m really trying to just stay naive. But I also want to work on my voice and write better for the voice and for the live music.
The first music that I made [under my own name]—all that stuff was really sad cause I was kind of defrosting or processing a lot of my life. I was finally away from everyone.
This is the work on Melody that you’re talking about right now?
Yes, Melody. I was really sad. All of these songs have a moodiness to [them] that will probably never go away. I have one or two songs that aren’t sad, and people love those ones. I’m like, “Oh damn, maybe I should make some happier music…”
Could you talk a little bit about “Self Be True”? What’s the song about?
I remember thinking I should try to write a ballad, and it turns out ballads are so hard to write, and a precise ballad is hard to write. With “Self Be True” the melody came to me and the words came to me instantly, so I sat down at the computer and was just trying to experiment—since I don’t play any instruments—with writing the song through voice. So I sat down and put the mic in my hand and just sang the song. I think we [ultimately] changed like three words. I was trying to be dramatic in a way that had some humor—but now, listening to it, it doesn’t really sound like there’s humor. It’s so exposed. [The song is] talking about people that you love not being around. I remember the energy so much.
Can you say a little bit about the music video?
One of my good friends, Sharleen Chidiac, is a choreographer. I’d seen her do performances at The Glove, and I was like, “I have to get her on camera.” So she did the choreography, and she’s the final girl at the end that’s alone dancing. I’m a director of an orchestra in Brooklyn, and conductors are known to be… well, there’s a certain type of person that becomes a conductor. I wanted to be a conductor [in the music video]. The video is based off of this other video [of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s “Achterland,” made in 1990] that we really love. It was very ambitious, very intense–I put together a whole crew.
I want to say one more thing about the video. I’ve always been the soprano singing with the orchestra—I’ve always been under the rule of the conductor, so the conductor symbolized control. [The video allowed for] a role reversal, because usually I’m the one being conducted. That was a weird feeling—to play the conductor. I always wanted to make fun of one—I’m not even in [the video] that much—and once again, the humor doesn’t actually come through, but we were all laughing.
Do you see any links between orchestra, opera, and the music you’ve put together on Melody?
From when I was little, I was in choruses. My mom didn’t make me do that or push me to do that—she wasn’t a stage mom or anything. I was obsessed with opera, so I would take myself to see orchestra concerts and opera and have her drop me off and pick me up. From the age of six to a few years ago, I was in choir, and I think choir has influenced me because I can think about part writing in terms of voicing and voices. I think my strengths with arranging is from choir.
But orchestra and opera have both influenced me. On one song, I have my cousin sing like a choir boy, ‘cause I’ve always wanted to make a choral piece for a choir boy. I just made my cousin Dan sing really high like a choir boy, so that satisfied me for now.
And because I manage an orchestra, I’m going to use a lot of the players on the next album. I just want to figure out which instruments can be replaced. They’re phenomenal musicians. It’s a little daunting, but it will be really fun. I mean, who else has an orchestra at their fingertips as a resource?