Melanie Fiona confronts love's grey areas on The MF Life
In a music industry obsessed with Auto-Tuned sing-a-longs, Melanie Fiona has struggled to keep it real. At the moment, the Canadian R&B singer is in heavy radio rotation with "4 AM," a restless ballad that carries an emotional torch for anyone that's stayed up late at night to wait for a curiously absent lover.
"It doesn't sound like anything else on the radio," says Fiona (born Melanie Fiona Hallim). "It's allowed me to show the power in my voice, but it still has that sense of vulnerability. I think everybody that hears it is like, 'Oh, I've been there. Like, wow she said that? Yeah!'"
The slow-burning song's slick and sparse sound also marks a new creative direction for an artist whose career has taken several, sonically adventurous turns.
The daughter of Guyanese immigrants, Fiona grew up in Vaughan, Ontario. She spent her teen years trying on various musical guises, briefly joining a girl group and working as a supper club singer in Toronto in a band called The Renaissance, which also counted the rapper Drake among its members.
In 2005, she moved to Los Angeles to make it as a musician, initially finding success as a reggae artist. She started songwriting and earned the attention from major label execs when a song she co-wrote -- "Dem Haters" -- ended up on Rihanna's second album. She signed with Jay-Z's management company Roc Nation, scored opening slots on tours with Kanye West and Alicia Keys and released the retro soul-infused debut The Bridge in 2009.
That same year her heartfelt single "It Kills Me" topped Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop song charts, which some have credited with nudging the genre away from Auto-Tuned anthems and back toward overtly emotional balladry. Earlier this year, her profile received a huge boost in the form of two Grammy awards for "Fool For You," her collaboration with Cee Lo Green.
Despite that success, the 28-year-old remains unknown to most Canadians. She hopes to reverse that situation with her sophomore effort, The MF Life (Universal). Released this February, the album is more eclectic sounding than her debut. Full of narratives exploring the heady, tumultuous and occasionally disturbing side effects of love, it boasts guest spots from the rappers Nas, T-Pain and J. Cole and features one song -- "I Been That Girl" -- penned by her former band mate Drake.
A few days after her Juno win for Best R&B/Soul Recording for her single "Gone and Never Coming Back," MSN sat down with Fiona to chat about working with Drake, her new single "4 AM" and finally receiving recognition in her home country years after her chart success south of the border.
You've been nominated for four Grammys, won two Grammys and now have a Juno. How does it feel to get that recognition from the Canadian music industry?
It's a beautiful feeling. It's home grown. It's love. I've been fighting a lot of battles to represent Canada abroad so it's a great feeling to get some love and recognition back home. My thing is always that it is a little harder for Canadian artists [to break through in Canada], especially in R&B or urban music. Better late than never.
Why is it harder for urban artists?
I don't think there's good infrastructure for urban music. It's much easier for indie rock bands to have a presence in Canada, but the industry hasn't developed to be able to support all the different types of genres and artists that Canada is budding with now.
Many people have been critical of the fact that a Christmas album -- Michael Bublé's Christmas -- won Album of the Year at the Junos. What do you think it says about the Canadian music industry that a Christmas album can win Album of the Year?
I mean, it is an album. It made it into the category in the first place. If it made it in to the category, then it's worthy. Everybody's always going to have some comment about who should've won but at the end of the day, he's Michael Bublé and there's obviously an association to his success based on the artist that he is and that's the album that he made.
Let's talk about your new album, The MF Life. The song "I Been That Girl" was written by Drake and the hip-hop producer T-Minus. How did that collaboration come about?
Drake and I have known each other for years and we've always discussed collaborating. After we had both gotten to the breakout points of our careers, we'd see each other and be like, "Yeah we need to work together!" I was working on my second album and he was starting his second and he was like, "I really want to work with you, but I want to write something for you. I want to do something really special for you for the album." I thought that was cool because typically everybody's going to expect a feature, right?
We talked about my approach for this album, which was about truth and relationships. He's very good at relating to women in his songs and speaking to the sensibilities of women and I pride myself on speaking to the sensibilities of women as well. I wanted to show how we all go through the same things but we have to learn from it. The conversation he created in the song was me talking to a girlfriend and just letting her know, "Hey, I'm seeing what's happening with you. I've been there, but never again." I think it's a brilliant song and concept. I love it.
Do you find a lot of male songwriters are able to relate to those female sensibilities?
I think a good songwriter can. It doesn't have to be male or female. What happens is you can make a song about a woman's perspective through certain key words, lyrical content and subject matter. However, what's the most important -- whether you're a man or woman -- is just the real emotion because men hurt too. If you replace 'he' with a 'she' or vice versa, it will still make for a great song.
Why do you think "4 AM" is resonating with people right now?
Because people like to be acting the fool in the club for some reason! I don't go out. I'm a home body so I think that everybody's experienced like, 'Yo! Where the hell are you?' at some point, whether that's midnight or at 4 a.m. But "4 AM" tends to be a little sexier and like I said, more vulnerable.
I like that you question your own motivations in the lyrics, though obviously you take your side in the end. A common criticism of current Top 40 radio is that the emotions expressed tend to be black and white and there aren't many grey areas being explored. What're your thoughts on that?
There's so much room in grey. My entire album talks about the ups and downs of love and life and it goes from being completely heartbroken to empowering yourself to leaving a relationship to being strong for your partner to a sensual, sick morbid love with "Bones." I think that that's living in the grey because you're able to touch upon so many layers. Once you're black or once you're white you're either done or you're in. I feel that the grey is good. You leave a lot of room for great storytelling in the grey.
Have you faced resistance from managers or labels to that approach?
I have. I've gotten things like, "You should be singing more upbeat songs" or "Step away from relationships."
Step away from relationships? Really?
Well maybe bad relationships. Some people might take it as weakness to be able to sing a sad song or a love song where you're expressing despair, but there's a lot of strength in that. I'm not a negative person. I'm not low on myself. I'm confident in my belief in love so being able to express what I've been through, what I think other people go through and what I think other people are unable to say for themselves -- I find strength in that. And if anybody has anything else to say, then I just say "I'm sorry, didn't Adele sell, like, a gazillion records? Yeah I'll sing about relationships until I die." [laughs]
When did you find the confidence to be able to say that? Was there a turning point?
"It Kills Me" was the turning point for me. Before anyone knew "It Kills Me," I knew that it was going to be the record that changed my life. I knew that.
How did you know it?
Because I'd never sung so much truth. I'd never sung with so much emotion. That turned out to be my first number one record and that earned me my first Grammy nomination. At that point, I remember thinking back to all the people who were like, "You sing too well. No one can sing along with that." And truthfully, in my own observation, that sparked a surge of heartfelt R&B songs right after and I think that's a beautiful thing. If that's what happened because of something I did, I take that as a high compliment. You just can't be afraid to keep it real.
Are there any songs on the new album that were tough to tackle emotionally or vocally?
It's interesting because, this time around, I understand my story a little bit better so it's easier to tell, but I'd probably say... um... hmmm. That's a very good question. I'm stumped. "4 AM" was a stretch for me especially coming from The Bridge, which had a big, retro sound and big soul. When I got to "4 AM," I really had to take a step back and be like, "How do I feel about this record?" It's different. It's a very linear, almost electronic-sounding song. Very different from what I was used to.
Was it 4 a.m. when you recorded it?
No, it was 4 p.m! I remember because I had to catch a flight that night. I remember having to really focus on singing straight and singing with emotion -- very clean, but very emotional.
Before you started singing R&B, you were a reggae artist and performed under the name Syren Hall. Where did that name come from?
Symphony Syren was my first MySpace page name. When I first started doing music, I had a friend -- we were 15 -- and he used to call me Symphony and in Greek mythology Syren is this mermaid that had a beautiful voice and could draw the sailors in -- so that's where the Syren part came from. I started doing reggae-infused R&B because I wanted to have my own place in the music industry, [especially] in [the United States] where there are a gazillion R&B girls, and that was a familiar sound to me being West Indian and coming from Toronto. That's really where I got my start. "Somebody Come Get Me" was the first song that came out before I had an album and a record deal, and the DJs just put Syren on the record and that was that. Once I started doing music for my album, I was like OK I think I'm going to go by my 'name name.'
Any rowdy crowds to deal with during the reggae years?
Oh my god. Of course! Lots of weed-smoking parties and Heineken bottles being thrown. I was doing it all in Los Angeles -- all the jazz and reggae festivals out there. But what a beautiful thing; reggae music is one of those things that people love. If you love reggae music, you love all reggae music and I think what I was doing was unique to me so I got a lot of love. But I did a lot of dodgy clubs too. It's all good.