[tabs tab1=”Intro” tab2=”Career” tab3=”Manchester & Tokyo” tab4=”Industry” tab5=”MSG” count=”5″]
MÉLANIE PAIN, known for her many vocal ventures with trendy new wave collective NOUVELLE VAGUE, is a French singer-songwriter in her own right, who now follows up her debut album “My Name” with her new “Just A Girl” EP, in anticipation of her upcoming second album “Bye Bye Manchester” due to arrive in September. The EP includes the brilliantly synthy chanson “7 ou 8 fois” which we discover is about overcoming fear of failure and not giving up, and of course the poppy “Just a Girl.”
Mélanie chose Manchester as her muse for her second album, spending 2 months in the city to gather inspiration for her writing. She has a deep affection for the city and its musical history, and has earned the respect and loyalty of many a Mancunian gig-goer.
Her live performances on this tour are backed by a drummer Julien Boyé and guitarist Guillaume Zeller. Singing in French and English works to her benefit as her husky-yet-silky vocals complement the two languages, and she demonstrates superlative showmanship skills as she gets the UK crowds engaged and wanting more at the end of her set. She has a natural allure and confidence on the stage, but there’s nothing remotely diva about her slick persona, and she’s great with the fans who she loves connecting with.
Today, we meet backstage at Leeds Brudenell Social Club. Clambering past the pool tables which have been tidied away in the Games Room to make way for her makeshift stage (she’s been bizarrely moved from the larger room, due to a certain Ms. Orton’s booking issue and sudden emergence on the night), I arrive to the sight of a mini table-tennis setup (they tour with it to relieve backstage boredom) and a footy match projected onto the wall. The atmosphere is very laid back, the band are more than accommodating, and Mélanie is utterly charming and ready to get down to brass tacks, including talk about her music, the industry and her love of Japanese food. Take it away, Mlle Pain…
Where in France did you grow up?
I was born in the North of France and lived in Normandy for 10 years. And then I moved to the South where I spent another 10 years, then moved to Paris.
So, where is “home” for you?
Nowhere, really… but I feel France is my country. I never go back to Normandy where I was born – I have no more family there, so it doesn’t even mean anything to me. I did all my studies in Aix-en-Provence, so that’s the more active period of my life…
And you studied Political Science back then. Although you’re doing very different things now, I assume that there are some overlaps and you’re still pretty passionate about social issues?
Yeah! I’m really interested in all the communication aspects of it. Music is communication. I was really into all the semantics and all the fields of study, power of words and everything in politics. I find it really interesting in the live shows how I communicate to people. I need to be very natural, but it has to pull the audience in. It’s a bit of diplomacy – you don’t want to be too much in their face, you don’t want to be too distant, so it’s interesting.
So, your studies were useful to your career?
Yeah, for sure!
I have to ask this, as Margaret Thatcher has just passed: Nobody talks much in the UK these days about France or what France thinks of Britain, but just from your perspective and studies, what did you learn about that side of British politics and that era?
Yeah, there was a lot of stuff about what she did in the Falklands, the economic stuff. But for us, she was a bit like Reagan – they were the two characters. For us at the time, we were on the ‘right’ side of politics, but we were moving to the ‘left’ and you could really feel the change. It felt like England was stuck on the ‘right’ economic side of things.
You’ve mentioned that you’re an ‘accidental’ musician, but what’s your creative process?
It’s finding something like this (plays a drumbeat on her portable Casio synth) then adding the bass (bass line enters) – I need a beat and a bass line, and often start with a vocal melody, then try and move together the rest. I usually start with melody and lyrics, then work on the chords and the instruments, but it’s not easy for me. Musicians know which chords are going to sound good, but I’m there trying everything and “I guess this one!”
And your English is so good – where did you learn it?
I was learning English the whole time, from the time I was 12 until I finished Political Sciences, and I had lots of stuff to do in English. Also, touring with Nouvelle Vague really improved my English – I was touring a lot with them and English was the common language.
When you’re composing, do you write in both languages, or are there things you can express in one language better than in the other?
Yeah. I used to know when I’d start a song if it was going to be in English or in French. And it’s a bit weird now because it’s all kind of confused – I thought I understood why this song is in English and this song is in French but now it’s all messed up. I always thought that, for me, French is very intense, with deep meanings, very personal, and English for me is like I can groove more, I can really work on different aspects, do pop songs just about the sound of the words, backed in the rhythm.
English is like another instrument for you, I guess…
Yeah, exactly! But it’s not like this in French because it doesn’t really sound very good, so you have to really work on your lyrics, make them work with the music, and the meaning is really important for me, because it’s mine. My English is good, but I can’t say things in hundreds of ways – I have an idea, I write it down and it’s like, “Sounds good…” In French, it’s like, “Okay, I have an idea and there’s 10 ways I can express this!” I still need both languages, because even in the live shows, it’s good to go through a sad song in French and then go to a very fresh, pop English one.
Now, the inevitable question of what it’s like being a solo artist compared to being in a band – have you noticed different pressures involved?
I think Nouvelle Vague is a bit special because it’s not a band – it’s really a concept and collective, so you come and you go. There are two producers and you bring everything with you, your ideas and stuff, but it’s not really your band. They ask you how you want to do this and you say “yes” or “no” – there’s no pressure. So for me, Nouvelle Vague is really cool because I’ve got all the pleasure to go on tour and sing amazing songs and all the new wave classics, and you don’t have the pressure to think, “Why am I here?” When I do my solo stuff, it’s more like I have an ambition, I have an idea of where I want to be on stage and what I want my album to sound like. Nouvelle Vague is a really pure holiday – I go, I sing and it’s good!
And the solo stuff is more personal, right? It’s stuff you’ve worked on yourself for a long time…
Yeah, it’s my story, and I feel more in control of what I’m doing – I know exactly every choice and I know why, so it’s really more rewarding.
You have an EP coming out now and a second album later in the year – do you find that the more you write, the more your style transitions?
Well, for me, it’s really the beginning of me as a writer, as a composer – I’m really excited because I really like what I’m doing now, but I have no idea how I’m going to evolve. I am very happy with this album, it’s really a new step for me compared to the first album, and the sound is really what I want. A lot of stuff is taken directly from my demos that I did with this little keyboard, and we just added real drums and everything on top of it. But it was really about the sound – I think you can hear it tonight as well – it’s really coherent and personal. I’m a big, big fan of all these kind of ‘toy’ sounds.
You did Manchester last night – how was that?
It was really good! It was really emotional, because it means a lot to me to begin the tour in Manchester and remember all this time I spent there, writing the songs, and now coming back, delivering the songs. I was amazed, people were very quiet – I know English crowds and I usually get myself ready to have a very noisy, drinking crowd! But the show last night was really quiet and really good fun.
So, it was quite intimate – tonight’s venue might be a bit rowdier…
Yeah, might get the drunk people tonight!
You wrote your second album in Manchester – how long were you there for?
It was like 2 months, but I went back to Paris a few times, because I have a baby boy and I was trying to get my baby and boyfriend over.
So, you spent most of your time on your own?
Yeah, I really had to have some time by myself, because I really didn’t know if I was able to write anything good. I became a singer a little bit by accident and I kind of decided that I really wanted to write my own stuff. I’m not a musician – it’s really hard for me – and when I’m in Paris, it’s impossible to have this space to just focus and work on a song for 5 days.
People often underestimate the musical impact of the late 70s and 80s in Manchester – electronics and a lot of experimentation. Now it’s kind of coming back and you’re inputting those sounds. A lot of people appreciate that because that era kind of ended too quickly. Are you feeling connected to that era, especially having spent time in Manchester?
I can really imagine the first synthesizer, or like when Depeche Mode got their first one, when Martin Gore was just discovering a new synth with all these sounds and all the possibility. It’s amazing, and it’s really about sound – it’s not about the way you play it. It’s not like a guitar, it’s really about the deepness of the sound or the delay, the echo, the reverb and the texture. And yeah, I feel connected because I think, on my little small level, I was really interested to just discover that and create from this and not just from the amazing playing of a guitar.
Talking about overseas travel, you toured in Asia with Nouvelle Vague – and you went to Japan?
I went to Tokyo, yeah!
What do you remember about it?
I remember I just wanted to go back! The food was so good! I remember the kind of craziness in the streets. I felt like everyone was going somewhere with a very specific purpose. It was so weird with all of those personalities – you’d cross a gothic person then someone completely different – it’s so crazy! We were really jetlagged, but I remember we were thinking, “Oh! What’s that?!” It was very different – high speed, high personality people – at least in Tokyo.
Do you remember the gig and the atmosphere at all?
Well the gig was a bit special because it was a showcase – it was not really in a proper venue.
It’s funny, because the producer (for Nouvelle Vague) called me one day and said, “Okay, I heard that you sang for your friend, and I really want you to sing on my new project.” I came to the studio for the first time, and he said, “Okay, this is the mic, here are the headphones – it’s a small project called Nouvelle Vague and it’s gonna sell a few records in Japan, because they follow this.” And it was actually the only country where Nouvelle Vague didn’t get anything! It’s weird, because he was saying, “Yeah, nobody will be interested in Europe, but maybe Japan will like it…” and he was a bit wrong about that!
Maybe it was the era? These days, there’s a bit of a trend for 80s synth music over there. And you know what it’s like in Japan, when they get into something, they go completely crazy for it, so things could be different now…
I hope so, I hope so!
Do you think that now is a good time for female solo artists? It seems to be in the UK at the moment, but maybe only for certain styles of music…
It’s not a good time in France – in France, it’s a good time for male artists at the moment! Because for maybe 10 years in France, there have been so many female singers getting really big. But, it’s good in England?
Yeah, there are lots of female solo artists coming up, doing mostly singer-songwriter pop or folk – it’s a lot blander than say in the 80s, but at least they’re visible to an extent. We’re in a period where female artists are embraced but only in certain ‘safe’ areas. Being a female artist, did you notice any difference in how you were treated over the years?
I didn’t really see a difference, but I was always very lucky, because Nouvelle Vague was kind of a collective of lots of female singers, and people were coming to the shows who could really identify with this – you know, lots of female singers onstage with a very feminine way of doing covers – so it was always easy for me, because people associate Nouvelle Vague with women. And I have the same kind of vibe for my solo project – it’s very feminine, and I try to be very natural and spontaneous and not really try and invent anything.
So what’s going on in France that women are not coming up as solo artists?
I think it’s just a media issue. There were so many new female singers over the last 10 years – like a lot – and they only had one name, like ‘Camille.’ And you’ve got the media thinking, “That was the new generation of girls, and it’s over now – now it’s the new generation of male singers.” It’s really interesting – I had a talk with a radio plugger and he was like, “It’s a bad time for you…”
I suppose in a way your connection to the UK is a good thing – you’ve benefited from moving around…
Well, the great thing with Nouvelle Vague is that I have access to a lot of markets – my album is already out in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Germany… Not so many French artists who are indie, like me, and small, get access to all of those countries.
Do you feel that you’ve learned a lot through your experience with Nouvelle Vague about how the industry works and the networks?
Yes, it’s about the networks. It’s a lot of touring, so I meet all these people with Nouvelle Vague, and they remember me – I’ll see them a few times and they say, “Okay, I want to sign your solo stuff because I like it!”
And they trust you because they already know you…
And I trust them, so it’s really easy. But really today, the industry is… (laughs) it’s really ‘despair’ – the big labels, everyone doesn’t know what to do…
This is globally speaking?
Yeah, I’m talking about the music industry. I think a lot of big labels with big money have completely lost it – they don’t have a clue what’s going to happen and how they’re going to work it out. I see stories of them spending so much on studios and stuff, and old fashioned kind of media – they don’t do anything on the web and I find it completely crazy.
There’s a big resistance by the established labels…
They don’t know what to do! I feel like I see them, and I talk to them and they’re just completely stuck – they’re paralysed, they’re scared of losing the power, the money and everything.
And yet, from what I hear, the big labels are losing their money, their control over the artists…
Of course! And I think they’re so scared of losing money that they just don’t do anything, They’re like, “Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck…” And you’ve got all these small labels that are fighting and they don’t have any money, but they have ideas – I’ll have a meeting with them and they say, “Yeah, I’ve really listened to that and it makes me feel like this.”
So, at least the independents are paying attention to what artists can do. Do you feel like independent labels are the way to go?
Well, for me it’s the way to go, anyway – I’m not a commercial project, I feel like I’m really more indie, so an indie label is perfect. I’m so glad I’ve signed with Fierce Panda in England – really glad. And I signed with the same kind of label in Germany and in France as well, and it’s really good – it’s people I like to talk to, and step by step it’s hard, but I’m here, in Leeds, and I have a new album coming out, so it’s good!
A lot of artists I’ve talked to recently say the same thing – they feel more comfortable with a small team, because you can talk to them about any issues, and you don’t feel isolated. But, as a solo singer, is there ever a moment where you feel on your own, like you wish you had that collective to turn to? How do you handle that?
I really have these feelings a lot… but at the same time, it’s really good to be by yourself and just find the resources. Like, okay it’s hard, but you’re just going to do it because you have to do it – no-one can do it better than you, anyway! This feeling is good and makes you really go forward.
And you chose to have a long period away from your family at one point. Not a lot of artists spend time alone these days – it requires a real commitment and understanding of what you want to achieve, a certain bravery…
Well, I made some hard choices, like I really had a really good job, having a lot more money than I do now. Before I became a singer, I had a job in Paris – I’d probably be richer now. I did the first show with Nouvelle Vague and felt so much on stage like, “Oh my god, I’m here! It’s here, it’s now! It’s like nothing else matters now…” so I made the choice to just quit my job and go for the risk and an adventure. And I do it now as well – I’m investing a lot on all those tours and my family and everything.
But I’m very lucky because my partner is also a musician, so he understands and really helps me. I go, and when I come back he’s going on tour for 3 weeks, so it’s really balanced. But I think it’s really hard when you don’t have a partner who can really help you do that. He really pushes me like, “Yes, go to Manchester!” and he doesn’t make me feel guilty – he’ll say, “Yes, this is great!”
I’m impressed with your positive approach – it would be so easy in between your work with Nouvelle Vague to take breaks, but you’re actually making concrete time to do your solo work. What keeps you going? And do you ever have moments of doubt?
Well, I don’t really have those moments. I really know that I’m here because that’s what I love to do – write songs and then go on tour with those songs. It’s really what I want to do – play all those songs live and share them with people. And every gig is different, every city is different… I’ve got this really big chance with Nouvelle Vague – one minute I’m in Bali to play an amazing show in an amazing resort, where we go for one week to have a holiday and do a show, but then we go on tour in Eastern Europe in a really crappy tour bus. It really makes me feel like it’s always surprising and always challenging for me: “Okay, yes this is very easy, great!” then “Okay, this is very hard, good.” Life is a challenge and it’s interesting.
What advice would you give to people who are in the same position as you were when you made that leap to leave your job and go on tour?
I think you really have to try. And my new album “Bye Bye Manchester” is all about this – all the songs on there are about this feeling that you’re going to try something six, seven or eight times, you’re about to change, about to leave, about to do it, but one day you do it and that’s the important moment. Even if you never change anything in your life, you have to keep trying. And what I learned is to be very patient, and wait for the right moment and the decision will be made for you. You just have to feel it, and it’s going to come when it’s time.