Career longevity as a musician is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. No one knows this better than Melanie C.
From major label upstart to indie label veteran, from sequential number ones to obscure, territory exclusive cult classics, Melanie C has seen it all and done it all. But more importantly, she's far from finished. Her seventh solo album, Version of Me (2016), continues to make its sonic story known to the public via its gorgeous string of singles. The most recent? The electro-R&B stunner "Room For Love." The single was still buzzing critically as October wrapped and November dawned. And it is November that marks the commemoration of anniversaries for the original releases of all three of the landmark albums she recorded with the Spice Girls – Spice is 21, Spiceworld is 20, and Forever is 17.
How does she feel about all of this? This intersection of the past and present? It was one of many topics that came up in our recent, nearly hour-long conversation.
Melanie C, who was nothing short of humorous, warm and candid, opened up about the creative processes behind her fantastic musical output (classic and contemporary), her unique relationship with her fans, the ever-changing climate of the recording industry, and, of course, her enduring Spice sisterhood for this special Albumism interview. Admittedly, it's not every day that you get to chat with your musical hero, so I’ll always be grateful to her for the experience.
Quentin Harrison: Spiceworld was an incredible leap forward musically from Spice. Can you talk about what inspired that creative shift?
Melanie C: The first album established us really quickly, and so, our lives changed quite dramatically. I think we’d kind of been caught up in such a crazy time. We didn’t realize, then, how we had become the voice of young women and gained a huge LGBTQ following, our army had grown. Now, we had even more back-up than with just the five of us, which was pretty incredible anyway. We traveled a lot, we were making a movie and all of that really opened and broadened our horizons.
So, I think that those experiences went toward us being brave stylistically. I think we had a newfound confidence. The first album was like we were all very ambitious and hungry to do well, but we didn’t really know our capabilities. And then, when it came around to the second album, we kind of went into the studio with a different attitude and that does shine through in the writing on that album.
QH: How do you feel Spiceworld has aged in the 20 years since its original release?
MC: There’s something about the Spice Girls music that is almost timeless in some respects, isn’t it? It’s beautifully produced pop, it feels good and sounds good whenever I hear something (from it).
QH: Across all three Spice Girls albums, R&B has been a recurring musical ingredient. Can you talk about its presence in Spiceworld?
MC: All the genres that we were inspired by were really eclectic. A lot of us did have a broad range of musical tastes. Melanie, Emma and Victoria were big fans of R&B and more urban music. I was the one into my Britpop, at the time, and always had a love of rock music. And then Geri, of course, she was a huge George Michael fan. We shared a love of Wham! and real, great British pop music from the 80s. But, she loved Shirley Bassey as well, so she kind of came from very a different angle! So even though we all had eclectic tastes, the range of the five of us together made that even bigger.
I’m from just outside Liverpool, so my musical education ranged from The Beatles to Stevie Wonder, that was my mum’s record collection. She is such a huge fan of Tamla Motown as well as the rock stuff, like (Led) Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the singer-songwriter stuff like Neil Young and Carole King.
You know, sometimes, in history, music’s been quite tribal? You stuck with one style of music and that was your tribe, that was the way you expressed yourself. But, for me, I’ve always been really open as a songwriter and performer, that’s been good for me.
I find that different emotions lend themselves better to different styles of music. Being a pop artist, it’s so lovely, you can just borrow from different styles. So, with a song like “Goin’ Down” (from Northern Star) that was the angry, young woman in me (that) wanted to scream and shout and wanted big, dirty guitars! Then, there are other times I’ve been feeling quite, I suppose, introspective and emotional, so the song may lend itself to something a bit more atmospheric, electronic, or acoustic. It has been important to have all those opportunities there to use as an artist and performer.
QH: Elaborating on the previous question, R&B has also factored into your own work, specifically on your debut Northern Star and your most recent effort, Version of Me. Can you describe the difference in the R&B used on these two albums?
MC: As a vocalist and a writer, it feels very natural to me, very expressive, to have those soulful melodies, rhythms and sounds. But, R&B has evolved a lot in its approach, melodically and rhythmically, then how it would have been done in the ‘90s. So, I think that my collaboration with Sons of Sonix was instrumental in that difference (between Northern Star and Version of Me). I’m sure you’re well aware of the grime scene here in the U.K., which is just huge here at the moment and Sons of Sonix have been involved there. It’s a British interpretation of an urban, R&B sound. It was an unusual collaboration for me, but also an interesting meeting of minds. They had been fans of the Spice Girls as kids, even now that they’re these cool guys working in grime music. [laughs]
When I started working on this album, Version of Me, I wanted it to be a bit more courageous. I wanted to explore, I wanted it to be more electronic and the production to be interesting.
QH: “Room For Love” is your newest offering from Version of Me. What makes that song special for you and makes you want it to speak for your record in the public’s eye?
MC: This particular song, I didn’t expect it to ever be a single. But there was so much love for this song from the fans as I’ve been traveling around and performing the album this year, it kind of felt like we had to do it. As a thank you for all the support over the year.
This song is special to me, as it has quite a personal lyric. It was inspired by me reaching a point in my life where I have so much stuff, whether it be materialistic or responsibilities, our lives are just so full! But I was without love. I just got to the point where I had to make room, I’ve had to find some space (for love). To love and to be loved are the most important things for a human being to experience. That is where the inspiration came from for the lyric. And I just love it melodically. It was my first session with Sons of Sonix and it just felt like a magical couple of days in the studio where that song came from.
QH: Let's talk about the collage theme for the partnering music video to “Room For Love,” how did that come about?
MC: Again, I wasn’t really thinking of a fourth single on the album. But I had a trip to Brazil earlier this year and it was phenomenal. I hadn’t been there in about, maybe, 19 years, the fans were just incredible! We had such a great time, it was lovely, it felt like the ‘90s again! [laughs] And this song kept coming up and they kept shouting out for us to do it. So, we (the band) said let’s just do it! I had two musicians with me and we hadn’t rehearsed, but we knew the song, so I just played it with my percussionist and keyboard player. It was a really off the cuff moment!
You know, the feeling had been with this year and reaching out and getting to territories I hadn’t been to for a long time, like Brazil, like Mexico. Unfortunately, I haven’t made it to the U.S., yet. But the love was palpable, it was there and really being shown. It just felt like a nice idea to give back to the fans and get them involved (in the video). And the footage, as you can see from the video, is so brilliant. It was just so great to put it all together and I’m so happy with how it turned out. It was so collaborative.
QH: Among the features from fans and your musical contemporaries Natalie Imbruglia and KT Tunstall, you had a few Spice Girls drop in for a cameo for the “Room For Love” video. Can you talk about that enduring bond with your fellow Spice Girls?
MC: Emma, Geri and Victoria all sent me some little clips to put into the video. That was lovely to have them in there and it really meant a lot to me. And we do! We have this bond which will never be broken. I’m not going to say that it’s a big fairytale existence, because it is not. Sometimes it’s tough, we have our ups and downs, we have our disagreements. But, at the end of the day, there’s nobody else on this planet that knows what we went through, you know? It was a unique experience that the five of us shared, and I don’t think that we will ever be away or out of touch for too long.
QH: You have a trio of albums, Reason (2003), This Time (2007) and Stages (2012) that are some of your most beautiful, in regard to their nuance and sense of melody, but they rarely get their due critically. Why do you think that is?
MC: It’s difficult to know the reasons why some things resonate with people and some things don’t. There are so many factors involved. I’ve had such a wonderful career and I’ve been so fortunate, but it’s really hard work. [laughs] You know, the ups and downs of the industry, it’s evolving. I think sometimes if I’m feeling more confident about things, they tend to do a little bit better. Not to say that I think those albums aren’t “better,” just at the time, it’s a personal thing. You know, whether my self-esteem is a little bit more robust than at other times in my career. I don’t know what the answer is, because I can really only see it from my point of view on this one.
QH: Have you given any thought to what’s next with your eighth album?
MC: Yes! I have, I have, I'm working on it right now! I'm just about to leave for Europe, I'm doing a big tour, it's called Night of the Proms. I've been invited along as a guest vocalist. There's a 60-piece orchestra and band on stage, it's a big arena tour, so that keeps me busy until Christmas. And then, in the New Year, when I get back, I start work on the new record. I'm very excited about it, I'm hoping to get the music out in the new year.
It seems like the old way of doing things, where you take off for a couple of years to make a record? It feels like those days are gone. I've enjoyed performing so much this year, I just want to keep going. So, next year's going to be dedicated to new music, lots of live shows and really trying to get back out to the territories I haven't been to for a long time. The world feels so accessible now, I love traveling and meeting my fans all over the world, so that's the plan!
QH: You're very involved in a variety of charities. What has been a recent favorite project for you in that regard?
MC: Oh gosh, good question! Literally, the hardest thing with any charity is just having enough time to give everyone what they need and deserve. What I have done this year? I've been talking quite a lot about mental health of late, so really championing people talking about it and not feeling alone. I've had my own personal experiences with that. As a nation, here in Britain, we are more open about it, but there's still a bit of stigma attached, I'm sure it's the same in America.
Other things...we had a terrible disaster happen here in London, in fact, really close to where I live. There was a big fire, I don't know if you've heard about the Grenfell Tower fire? It's kind of been all hands on deck with that, for the community. It's so devastating, what they've been through and the children, what they've witnessed. And I was lucky enough to be invited to Vienna to perform at a big charity gala and to get me over there, they basically donated money to the charity of my choice. So it was lovely to get a sum of money to go toward that ongoing support for Grenfell. It's important to have that continuation of care for people.
QH: You've amassed an amazing body of B-sides across your seven studio albums. Are there any plans to collect them in one space, physically or digitally?
MC: I think, again, talking about how the industry has changed and how we consume music now, has opened up new opportunities (for me). I'm actually starting to work with a new team of people, management wise, musically and creatively, in the New Year. We are really opening up and I'm thinking about all of these new opportunities out there. I've never done a “greatest hits.” I'd love to do an acoustic record. It feels like now, in music, that the world's your oyster, you know? We used to be on this treadmill when you were signed to a major label and it just feels like we are now, as artists, that we're so much freer than we've ever been. I'd love to get some feedback from fans to see what they like and talk about these possibilities!
QH: In the spirit of Albumism, what are your five favorite albums of all time?
MC: Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, The Beatles' Revolver, Madonna's Ray of Light, Fiona Apple's Tidal, Oasis' Definitely Maybe.