Melissa James

“I fell in love with Joni Mitchell and her song-writing, I just loved her! So it was a combination of listening to that and then I started getting into other stuff around that that got me more into music. I’d go to the open mike night at Park Village Bar on campus and start singing the odd song there. ‘Black Coffee’ was my signature tune, it was the one I sang really well and which everybody connected to.” Melissa James

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Singer/song-writer Melissa James could be what is termed a slow burner within the fast flowing, quick turnover, and disposable nature of the modern-day music industry. However Ms James has been carefully and consciously contriving to construct her career the old school way, via hard graft, motorway mileage and persistence. Over recent years Melissa has been honing her craft and building a pure, strong and loyal musical following. The best way to describe her sound is that she sounds like, “Melissa James.” Anyone who has been fortunate enough to witness one of her live performances over the past few years would attest to that. That is the highest praise one can give this UK songbird.

Having released her debut album, ‘Day Dawns’ to critical and public acclaim in 2012 followed later by the release of her uplifting single, ‘Don’t You Keep Yourself down,’ Melissa is now embarking on a series of live performances, set invitingly within a selection of Church venues in and around London the South-East. Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards sat down with Ms James prior to one of these stripped down acoustic un-plugged performances in Fulham, London to enquire first-hand the as to the thought process behind these shoes and delve deeper into Melissa James the person, lyricist and singer whilst unearthing her aspirations for her flourishing career in music.

The Dood: Where did it all begin to for you musically, was it in the Church, combined with Blues, Soul, Reggae, Soca and Country and Pop music like most children of West Indian heritage growing up in the UK?

Melissa James: It’s hard to say, because I grew up of course with as you mentioned parents of West Indian heritage. My dad loved music, he loved, loved music and had a really nice booming singing voice; not that he sang professionally. He sang merely just around the house and in the Church and he whistled really well. He played a bit of harmonica as well. But he only liked two choices of music really, well three maybe, Reggae, Soca/Calypso and Country and Western.

The Dood: The obligatory Jim Reeves I suppose?

Melissa James: Jim Reeves, yeah!

David James (photographer): Where are your parents from, what’s your heritage?

Melissa James: St Kitts. So that’s it, he loved music, but only if it was Soca, Calypso, Reggae or Country! (Laughs) Jazz and all the other styles never really featured. I mean I loved Soca and Calypso and Reggae, because that’s what I heard a lot of the time, he was always playing music and records in the house; we had loads of records. But I love watching musical films, I watched lots of musicals. I love ‘Singing In The Rain.’

The Dood: Classic Gene Kelly?

Melissa James: Yeah! I loved the film with ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ and Judy Garland – What was that film? ‘Wizards of Oz!’ And I loved a lot of Bob Hope movies and lots of Fred Astaire films – I loved musicals! And I loved watching the dancing; I was all singing and dancing. And I’d get my hair brush and stand in front of the mirror and pretend I was singing. I did all that. I was always singing, but I always knew from quite an early age that it’s all well and good to like singing, but you’ve got to think of a proper career – that was the message.

The Dood: You grew up in a household of mostly females, being the third of four daughters. Did this mean your parents/father were more lenient on you, or did they remain strict disciplinarians?

Melissa James: They were strict, they were always strict yeah, with us all, so I knew that I had to have a proper career. But watching those films were my influence, and then I got a bit into Wham and some of the eighties stuff, Madonna and all of that.

The Dood: When did you have the epiphany with regards to music becoming your career path, was it whilst at university studying Media Studies or during your residency in Paris?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Melissa James: I went to university and I studied Media Studies with a plan to become a writer, work in television – that was the field; which suited my parents, because they understood the ‘BBC’ and that would be nice, ‘a nice institution.’ So that would have suited them really well, and I did that actually for a while. But what I didn’t plan is that I ended up hanging around with lots of media and music students; there were lots of students who were studying Media Studies but combined with Music, so they had a view to work in television, composing for example. So they sort of fed my musical passion. A friend of mine introduced me to Billie Holiday. I can almost remember the day she gave me this tape of Billie holiday songs, Ella Fitzgerald, you know artists that I’d never really heard of before.

And then I discovered Joni Mitchell just being in a record shop, the days when you could go in and stand at the listening posts, and I remember ‘Hits’ – the album. ‘Hits’ was an album of her biggest hits. And I got this album and I was like, “Ahhh! This is a great record! “I fell in love with Joni Mitchell and her song-writing, I just loved her! So it was a combination of listening to that and then I started getting into a other stuff around that that got me more into music. I’d go to the open mike night at Park Village Bar on campus and start singing the odd songs there. ‘Black Coffee’ was my signature tune, it was the one I sang really well and which everybody connected to.

The Dood: Where had you first heard that tune?

Melissa James: Actually, strangely, years before that when I was in school, a friend of mine was taking her GCSE piano exam and she needed somebody to accompany her and ‘Black Coffee’ was the song she asked me to sing. I didn’t really know Jazz or anything at that point, but years later I then discovered of course all these other people who had sung it, Sarah Vaughan; and then it became kind of my signature tune. So yeah, that led me to really get involved in that side, but I was still pursuing media, I was still thinking of a proper job. When I left university I went to work for a magazine (Laughs) but I didn’t like it!

The Dood: Was it that you could feel your inner self rebelling?

Melissa James: Well actually, it was the editor who difficult for me; I loved everyone else who I worked with, but the editor was really difficult. I wasn’t really doing, I wasn’t writing and I wasn’t into country homes and I didn’t know anything about country homes or interiors, so I was in totally the wrong place. So I did that for a while, then I left there and did a few other media jobs. Eventually I did go to the BBC and had a fantastic time working with a great guy on what we now know as BBC Three, and learnt a lot from him and working in that environment.

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

The Dood: So you were learning about the industry as a whole?

Melissa James: Absolutely! This benefits me hugely. By then my partner and I went travelling, we took some time out, we went travelling to Australia. It was the year of the plane crash in 2001.

The Dood: 7/11

Melissa James: Exactly! So we were supposed to go to New York, and we ended up not going because of that and just went straight on to Hawaii. I did a bit of singing in a few places but not really very much. At the end of that trip my partner got offered a job in Paris; so that’s when we went to Paris. I didn’t really know what else to do, so music kind of took hold and I started learning a bit of guitar; I never really got better at it but I started learning none the less. I started doing gigs with my guitar teacher, James Wilson, who is great, and with bass player Marten Ingle.

The Dood: Having imbibed the Paris club scene, learning guitar along the way you returned to the London pub and club circuit further honing your performance in the live arena as well as road testing material for your eclectic debut album. Would that be fair to say?

Melissa James: I had done a lot of groundwork in Paris, and in fact before I went to Paris I had been playing with a guitarist I’d met and really doing odd gigs here and there, and when I came to London we continued that. There was a great place that we used to play out in Battersea called, ‘Le Quecumbar’. We used to play there quite regularly and then we’d do another gig here and there, and some private gigs. After a while I got itchy and I thought as much as I Iove singing all these great songs, actually I think I’m going to have a go at writing. And so I did, I started writing having met Ross Lorraine, who is the man I co-write with, and he lives really close to me and we ended up just starting on that journey.

The Dood: Was this writing for writing sake, or was it in the back of your mind to start putting some compositions down for your album?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Melissa James: Well, the album wasn’t first in my mind no; I think I kind of loosely knew that I wanted to record something, but I didn’t know that I was going to do it on the scale that I did, and that I’d end up with the result that I had. And that I’d end up working with all those people that I’d worked with. I didn’t really plan all of that, it was just a case of I was going to make a record, I’m gonna put some tunes down. But once you get started, you sort of get going, and I thought the songs that we were writing were great. So if you believe in the songs then you want to show them, you want them to shine to the best they can. It’s all kind of happened, not by accident, because I guess I knew that’s what I wanted, and I don’t do much by accident, I think about things and how I want to do them.

The Dood: You like things structured in that sense?

Melissa James: Well not structured, but obviously you have to be prepared things might change, but I know what I want. So I knew that there was an aim there, it’s just that I didn’t imagine the album being what it was in the end. But as we got recording and the producer was amazing to work with, and the songs were just sounding great!

The Dood: You’ve also built up such a strong grassroots fan base which is swelling with each live performance you do. Are you aware of that?

Melissa James: Yeah!

The Dood: The word eclectic comes to mind with regards to your debut album ‘Day Dawns’ which continues to receive critical and public praise, because each track has its own distinct musical flavour, reflecting your various musical and vocal influences. Do you concur?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Melissa James: Yeah totally! It’s just a mishmash of everything. When I start writing, I kind of don’t really know where it’s going to go, it’s just whatever might come out…It is hard to categorise it, I mean no artist really likes to be categorised. But it is hard to categorise it – a lot of people say to me, “So what is your music!” (Laughs) I can only sound like Melissa James right? There’s no point in trying to sound like anybody else.

The Dood: I would describe the album as a slow burner or akin to a layer cake; different musical nuances and subtleties are revealed after every listen. Would you agree?

Melissa James: Yeah! It’s not a pop record, there’s no hook. Different songs grab you at different times.

The Dood: People interpret songs differently depending on where they are in their lives, and you capture that exquisitely on tracks like ‘Sing’, ‘I Need You Here,’ ‘You Make Me Feel Good,’ ‘Precious Time, ‘I Miss You’, with its muted trumpet and the positivity of the current single ‘Don’t You Keep Yourself Down.’ It seems like you poured your heart and soul into this album?

Melissa James: I did, I did, I put a lot into it! The album is what it is, all I did is just write the songs with Ross (Lorraine), and what came out is what came out, but it was everything that I believed.

The Dood: The instrumentation, percussion and production have a crispness and freshness to it. Where was the album recorded?

Melissa James: Oh, ‘The Cowshed,’ and Joe Leech is amazing! It’s in Bounds Green. And he’s amazing as a producer, he really is! He’s a very good engineer, and he produced it. He knows what he’s doing and he knew the right musicians to call. Obviously I had suggested there were some people I wanted to work with, who I said we should have on this record, but mostly they were Joe’s suggestions. Joe said, “These guitarist are great, these bass players are great!”

The Dood: The blues, jazz, soul, gospel, folk, country inflections or evident throughout the project with even what sounds like a steel guitar evident in some of the tracks also. You’ve obviously surrounded yourself with some very consummate musicians?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Melissa James: Yeah, they all knew what they were doing and they play different styles. One of the guitarists is great as a sort of Rootsy/Country guitarist, but if you want to play a Jazz tune, he’ll do that to; and he’s great with Blues. Tony Kofi is fantastic as a Jazz sax guy, and he just nailed it on ‘Do You Remember When,’ it’s just beautiful! Damon, as you mentioned played a really lovely trumpet on ‘I Miss You.’ And the drummer Mark! I was so lucky, they were amazing, they were all amazing! It wouldn’t have sounded as great as it did, no matter what your songs are like, unless you’ve got good musicians.

The Dood: You can sense a connectivity and oneness on the recording. You vibed off each other well?

Melissa James: It was really warm and lovely. It was the best time!

The Dood: Which song on the album resonate the most with you?

Melissa James: ‘Long Road Travelled.’ And that’s because the song is about having gone through a journey. It was probably one of the songs that i wrote closest to the point when I started recording, or thinking about recording the album; and it was at a point where I was like, “Goodness! I can’t believe I’m actually at this point where I really am about to record!” It felt like it has really been a long time getting to that point – and it had, most of my life really! And ‘Long Road Travelled’ still resonates now because I still feel like i’m very much on a journey; each day is another section of the journey. And it’s great! I love it!

The Dood: Well it is basically a reflection of your musings, observations, feelings and life experiences. Would you agree with that?

Melissa James: Yes, totally!

The Dood: Do you prefer the recording studio for singing in the live arena, or do both have their merits?

Melissa James: Live for sure! Both have their merits, definitely, but live is about feeding off both the musicians you’re working with, but also feeding off the audience, and what you’re getting back from them. I love performing live! That’s essentially what it’s about for me, it’s about communicating with those people that you’re performing for. I love vibing off the musicians, and the more great musicians you have on stage with you, it’s amazing, I love that! But, there’s something that you get from performing live that you can only try to create in the studio, and if you get it, it’s great! But I want that to be in front of an audience as well. In fact, I think Frank Sinatra used to invite audience members into the recording studio. I think that is so great – I do! (Chuckles) In my mind i’m sort of thinking, “How can I do a project where I record in front of an audience?” And it’s not unusual; there are people that do it. Obviously you can do a gig and record that, which is essentially the same thing.

The Dood: How did you come up with the concept of performing in a Church environment?

Melissa James: I don’t know. Earlier this year, in January, I just suddenly woke up and thought, “I want to perform in churches!” It was as simple as that. I do everything on gut instinct and sometimes it works. So that’s what I work on, and it just felt good… So I thought, “Okay, I’ll do that!” (Laughs freely)

The Dood: I believe you have performed one Church gig so far as well as an appearance in Pizza Jazz Bar in London. How will those two contrasting dates for you?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Melissa James: Amazing in their own ways; obviously very different. Pizza Express was with band. The Church concert at St Augustine’s at Thorpe Bay in Southend was just guitar and me, just Tom Gamble and me; but really warm and special and lovely acoustically. The Church concerts are communicating concerts; that’s what I like to see them as, especially the ones outside of London, where there’s not much going on there. It was everything that I wanted, people who live nearby, who don’t travel to big towns to go and see gigs and thought, “I saw the poster in the shop window and I thought I’m going to come.” And they did; so it had people who were connected to the Church and people were connected to the area. It just felt really lovely.

The Dood: What future plans do you have regarding new recordings and performances?

Melissa James: I definitely want to record, so I’m starting to think about that. Ross (Lorraine) and I have got a wealth songs and I’m really excited about getting those down? So I’m really starting to think about that.

The Dood: Do you see yourself as a prolific writer?

Melissa James: No! No, I don’t at all, and I envy people say, “I write like ten songs a day.” But I write what I write. What happens with me is I get a message and I write the message. So again, it’s like an instinctive thing, I wake up in the middle of the night with something singing in my head. I’ll be rehearsing, practising or vocalising at home, and as I’m doing it a song will come out and I’m like, “Oh! Get a pen and paper quickly!”

The Dood: So you don’t use a voice recorder?

Melissa James: I have one next to my bed and I have a book next to my bed… Sometimes it’s frustrating because it’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m tired, but I just know I have to get up and write it down, so I do. I probably should sit down and say, “Today is writing day!” but I do so many different things; you know I wear so many hats. I’m so much the one who manages what I’m doing… I’m learning the ropes and for me learning the business is really important, so I’m glad to do everything. Even for musicians who are considered to be successful, for them even it’s like a luxury sometimes to consider that they might sit down and have the time to write. I’m really glad with the songs that I’ve written so far; as long as they keep coming I’m happy.

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

The Dood: We’re looking forward to the sophomore album most definitely and we’re looking for forward to seeing you perform here this evening in this lovely space within St John’s Church. Thank you for your time.

Melissa James: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it to! Thank you.

Michael J Edwards

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Essential Tour Dates:
www.gigsandfestivals.co.uk

Essential Album:
Day Dawns (CD 2012) – Available now

Essential Website:
http://melissa-james.com/

Essential Supporters:
Paperdress Vintage
Japonesque (Make-up manufacturers & Cosmetics)

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