Melanie Safka: “I went out and tried to imitate Joan Baez and I got it wrong!”

melanie

In February of 2014 I was given an opportunity to speak to several of my musical heroes in order to promote a Beatles-related series of charity concerts in New York City (which marked the 50th anniversary of the group’s arrival in the United States). Tommy James, Gene Cornish, a member of The Spin Doctors, several new, up and coming artists, and Melanie Safka. Here I am, a new interviewer who still fumbles her way through questions and I’m talking to musicians who I grew up listening to. Thankfully each was an interview pro and through their warmth I was able to eventually get comfortable. Melanie Safka, who recently did a duet with Miley Cyrus in a backyard video that has gone viral at almost 4,000,000 views in just one month (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GX9A5vv-jOM), was so welcoming on the phone that we talked for an hour and a half, and could have kept going if we both didn’t have other interviews to take part in. This is the interview, in full, that was conducted last winter.

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February 1st, 2014

Me: The first question, and more obvious one, is how did you get involved in such an event? [The Fab 50 concert series that coincided with the 50th anniversary of The Beatles landing in America]

Melanie: I got a phone call (laughing).  It went through and didn’t go to voicemail. I got it right in my ear. Charles I knew from…When my husband passed away, he called me to give his condolences and see if he could help me out because Peter, my husband, three years ago passed away. He was my producer from the very first record I ever made. I’d never been in the music business. He recorded all of my hits and non-hits and he continued to do that right up until the end. We were actually on the road when it happened. You don’t want to hear this, but I just have to put it in sequence. Charles called me and he thought I could do something that didn’t work out, but when he was organizing this he said, “I saw you on youtube.com. You had youtube reviews singing some Beatle songs.” It was from a French television show and I did “Rocky Raccoon” smoking a cigar and “We Can Work It Out,” a really rocked-out version of “We Can Work It Out”. It was some bizarre television special they were doing in France. Richie Havens did “She’s Leaving Home”. And that was what Charles saw so he thought I would be involved in this.  Then I said, “Did you know I sang with John Lennon?” It was at the One-to-One Concert at Madison Square Garden and he and Yoko gave me a rose. A black rose (laughing). That’s why it was so significant. Actually she was the one who handed it to me. A strange Yoko story. I didn’t know if it was a warning (laughing). Keep away from John.

Me: (laughing)

Melanie: That’s one of the memories I have of that. I know he really liked my songs and had a kind of special interest. Anyway, I did that show and Charles had no idea. I said, “You haven’t seen the picture?”  I have so few photo moments because I’m pretty shy. I’m really an introvert, so I’m not the one who’s standing next to the famous person and gets her picture taken. Unfortunately, because I could have had a dynamite book (laughing), but I still might have a book because books do consist of words and I do write so I might still write a book with a few pictures (laughing). I notice that most people writing books have a lot of pictures and few words. But I wasn’t the kind, again, who got the photos, but I was lucky enough to get this one of me and John Lennon, so I sent it over to Charles. Who doesn’t have a Beatles’ affinity? I wasn’t an early-on Beatles fan, I wasn’t one of the screaming girls. I was in high school. I watched screaming girls listening to and watching The Beatles. It wasn’t my thing. I was into Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.  The Beatles didn’t interest me…yet.  When they did “Revolution” and The White Album, Abbey Road, my spirituality was awakened and I got very interested in The Beatles. I didn’t do a whole lot of their songs. I was asked to do a Beatles song on this French television show so I just picked two of the odd ones. They’re all pretty odd, really, and that’s what I love about them.  Jerry Leiber of Leiber and Stoller said to me the one thing he loved about my songs, and this is a great honor and I don’t say this lightly, is that like The Beatles, my songs intersect in a place where commerciality meets art.  I thought that was, “Wow, thank you!  Can you print that?”. (laughing) He told me that on the telephone. I thought that was interesting because their songs are all over the map and fortunately they had such a tremendous PR machine. I did not. (laughing) But my songs are all over the map. I’d go from “Beautiful People” to a black gospel choir singing “Candle in the Rain”, then it was “Brand New Key” and “Look What They’ve Done to My Song Ma”.  Nothing followed a line. In fact when my records were being distributed by RCA, it was like a Gulf and Western company, very big conglomerate, the president of Gulf and Western, and they came from a tire place. Jim Judelson, the president of the company, called me personally and said, “Do you think your next record could be more like ‘Brand New Key’?” Me being young and naïve and not that diplomatic, I don’t know how I handled it, but I was very outraged that somebody would think that they can special order a song (laughing). “Can you do another one like ‘Brand New Key’?” Now I probably would have said, “Yeah, Jim. I will give that some serious thought. I will do some of those same things that I did the moments before the song came out and see what happens.” (laughing) But I didn’t have that experience then. I probably just wasn’t too diplomatic about it, but again, I’m usually pretty nice. I’m sure I didn’t do anything rude. You never know, maybe I did. I definitely remember being outraged at the thought that somebody who owns a tire manufacturing company could decide I should write another one of those. My songs just came from wherever. To me it’s a sacred thing. It’s almost like a sacred responsibility or something (laughing). I have to put out what comes and I can’t just special order them. That’s what’s so strange about Nashville. They have these people who write together. People are always saying to me, “Oh, you should write with so-and-so or you should write with this one.” I can’t do that. I’ve done it, but I’ve never really loved the songs that came out of it. It feels a little bit contrived.

Me: That’s something I wanted to touch upon. I was doing some research for the interview and I was born in 1975 to put this in context, so I’m catching up on a lot of the good music I missed by not being born. (laughing) Thankfully my parents were both music aficionados and they really filled the house with all of the good stuff from their high school years. Just looking at the immense output you have, it really does seem like the songs are more written in the moment than written for a theme or some kind of pattern. With some artists you can see the evolution of the music. For example, The Beatles from Please Please Me to Abbey Road, it’s a huge gulf.

Melanie: Yeah.

Me: With your music it’s not like it doesn’t evolve because it’s constantly an evolution, it’s constantly in the moment, more like a Buddhist approach to writing…

Melanie: Right.

Me: …rather than going for an album theme. I was looking at your album list, too, and you’ve got so many albums out, too. It’s incredible. I think that my absolute favorite album title of all time is now Old Bitch Warrior.

Melanie: (laughing) I love that one, too. I think I scared a lot of men away…

Me: (laughing) That one just kind of jumps out at you. I’m like, “Go, girl!”

Melanie: (laughing)

Me: You mentioned your husband and my condolences on your loss. It’s such a beautiful thing to me to work with somebody that closely and live with somebody all that time and love somebody that much. Why did you guys decide to work together so closely and basically spend every part of your lives together, professional and private?

Melanie: I’d like to say it involved a lot of thought, but it didn’t (laughing).

Me: (laughing)

Melanie: I was very young. I was swept off my feet. It was a Cinderella story, not that I was really in cinders. I went to New York, I was an actress. I graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and hadn’t ever done anything professional. The only thing I had was I came armed with one season of summer stock in Hyannis in Cape Cod. That was it. I was very shy so I would read the trade papers and read what the casting calls were and think, “No, that doesn’t sound like me.  Mmm…no, I don’t think that’s me.” (laughing) One day it looked like an omen: I read in the trade papers that they were looking for a girl who played guitar and sang to play the part of Barbara Allen in “Dark of the Moon”.  I was a person who knew every verse of Barbara Allen from every person’s version. I knew about 82 verses of Barbara Allen. (laughing) I thought, “Oh my God, this is me! This is so me!” “Dark of the Moon,” the play, was pretty obscure and it happened to be one of my favorite strange plays. That I knew it was odd enough. That they needed somebody to play the guitar and sing…now, we’re talking about then. Then no girls played guitar. There was Joan Baez, and that was it, and on and off Judy Collins. And that’s how it was for me. Judy Collins was also second, the runner-up to Joan Baez. I thought, “Oh, she’s just trying to be Joan Baez!” (laughing)  There were no women playing guitars. In fact, you didn’t see people with guitars. You didn’t see advertisements for homeowner’s insurance with guitars propped against the wall. A guitar was something you hung over your shoulder. There was no case. Only people who went to Julliard carried a guitar in a case. It just wasn’t a street instrument. It wasn’t an instrument of the people. It hadn’t caught on as a way of life yet. I was a girl who played guitar so this audition sounded like me. I went to the audition. By that time I had already graduated and was living at home in New Jersey with my parents. I came in by bus and realized I didn’t have the room number of where the audition was being held. So I went up to the doorman, and he had what they now call Tourette Syndrome. He would mumble little things at people. He’d say good morning to somebody, and I was watching him (laughing). In front of the Brill Building he’d say things to people like “Good morning. How are you sir?” and then I was thinking, “Oh my God, oh my God…”  I walked up to him and said, “Do you know where they’re auditioning for ‘Dark of the Moon’?” and here I am, a girl with a guitar strapped to her back, probably in my buffalo hide sandals, and beatnik. I was a beatnik. I was not a hippie yet. There wasn’t such a thing yet. He looked at me with an intensity that was otherwordly, and he said, “Try 511. They’re always doing weird things in 511.”

Me: (laughing)

Melanie: So I walked into the Brill Building, went directly to 511 and met the receptionist/secretary, Joyce, in the outer chamber of an office and I said, “Are you doing the audition for ‘Dark of the Moon’?” and she looked at me like I was from another planet (laughing). She said, “No, this is a publishing company. We’re Hugo & Luigi. You have the wrong office.” Right at that moment I broke down and sobbed. I said, “No, no!  I have to be at this audition! You don’t understand! This is the part I know I have to have!”  She asked, “Who’s putting the audition on?” I said, “I think it’s the director of The New Yorker, the artist and director or something like that.” And she helped me. She actually went through her building directory and found where the audition was being held, and she wished me good luck. In the meantime, two men walked in, and they were Hugo and Luigi themselves. They were huge music publishers who’d written many hit songs including songs for Elvis. They wrote “Fools Rush In”. I didn’t know what a music publisher was. If anything I thought they were those people who stamp little images on sheet music and sell it on the street corners. Anyway, they came in and they saw me really upset, with a guitar, and they said, “Oh, are you here for an audition?” and I replied, “Yes, for ‘Dark of the Moon’.”  They looked at me again like, ‘What a weirdo!’ and they said, “Joyce, put her down for Thursday,” and I thought, “Yeah, Thursday.” I didn’t know what they were talking about. Joyce said, “Ah…okay,” and she put me down for an appointment. I came back after my acting reading audition and I knew I’d got the part.  I was so perfect for this part. they had me reading with different people.  So I came back and thanked Joyce and she told me I had an audition with Hugo & Luigi on Thursday. I said, “Oh, that’s nice.”  (laughter) I said, “Well, I’m an actress,” and she replied, “You sing, right?”  I said, “Yes, and I write some songs,” and she said, “Okay, just play them the songs.” So I came back on Thursday and I went into their inner office. The inner office was decorated in Louis XIV antiques and chandeliers, two inch thick carpets, gold-guilded desks facing each other. They had these giant desks facing each other, and they said, “Okay, sing something you wrote,” so I started singing some songs that I had, up to then, only sung to a few people, you know, my mother, boyfriends, but not, I wasn’t really a person who sang out. I did go to the Village sometimes and I would sing on Washington Square, but I wasn’t really pushy enough to pass the hat or anything. I sang them some songs and I could see them looking back and forth at each other. I’m facing these profiles of people looking back and forth at each other, and I could tell that they didn’t get it. They didn’t see it. Anyway, I didn’t care because I’m an actress! (laughing) They said, “Well, you know, you’ve got an interesting voice. Where did you get that style?” And I don’t know. They said, “We just hired Peter Schekeryk,” and this is where the story is coming together, “who we hired for our production company because we’re writing a Broadway musical,” and I thought, “Oh, very nice.”  So they had me come back to audition for Peter Schekeryk to see what he thought, and Peter Schekeryk was absolutely smitten. (laughing) Peter asked me to do a song again, and he was a scary intense guy. He was listening, and he definitely heard something that made him, his imagination, whatever go wild. That night we ran off to Atlantic City (laughing). We were together ever since.

Me: Talk about fate intervening!

Melanie: Strange. It was a movie. It really was a movie. And the way the doorman looked at me and told me to go to 511. I mean, how can you ignore advice like that? (laughing)

Me: That really is an absolutely wonderful story.

Melanie: So we were together ever since, and he produced all of my records and organized everything. He was the manager and the agent. At first we had major agents, and as things tapered…I had ups and downs three times because of the inconsistency of my songs. Peter, who totally supported everything I did, I mean, he was a one-sided manager, all for me. He wasn’t being a businessman from any sort of a ruthless business place, which is probably, career-wise, what I needed to keep a consistent, high-visual thing going. As I look back now I see he was as much of an artist as I was. He was constantly creating and making these deals. He just loved making the deal. He didn’t care about accumulating or what would happen afterward. His background was…he was like a P.T. Barnum person, of the moment. When he passed away, Beau and I were the two so-sheltered artists, Beau was up in his room, creating and writing, playing guitar, he’s a concert guitarist, a concert-level guitarist. He’s played all over the world as a solo, as well. He backs me, we write together. He produced the last album. If you like Old Bitch Warrior, you might like this title: Ever Since You Never Heard Of Me. Peter produced that with Beau. Beau says he’s grateful he got to do that because he can run it past Peter’s ears. He knows what Dad would have listened for.

Me: That’s a beautiful thing to see that continue on in your children. All three of them are involved in music, is that correct?

Melanie: Yes. My girls, in fact, Leilah just did a video. If people could watch that it would be great! (laughing) I’m trying to get as many viewers of that video as possible! She’s working all independent. She’s in Nashville. My other daughter, Jeordie, I just saw her play last night. She’s in Phoenix, Scottsdale. She plays a lot out here. She’s more like me, very quirky writing. She’ll go from a ballad to a strange little song about a chicken (laughing). She’s a real unique person. I love to help them as much as I can, but I’m not even able to help myself (laughing). Since Peter’s gone I’ve been without representation. I met Mike Gormley and I’m hoping that, that becomes the person who will help me get this all together. I intend to keep having my career because so many people in my position are doing it to do gigs, which is different than having a career. I’m not interested in doing “Brand New Key” for the rest of my life (laughing). I mean, I do it and I don’t mind. I actually have come to terms with that song. It became so ridiculously big that, that’s all anybody knew of me, they forgot about “Candle In The Rain” or all the other songs that I wrote. They forgot about all of the album cuts that have nothing to do with any of it. You can’t help feeling a little bit resentful about that at first because I was really young and didn’t know how to deal with it, but I outcreated it, continued to write, produce, sing so I’m still doing it, but without someone to front you…”Hi, I’m Melanie. I’ll have $5,000 please.” (laughing) How do you do this? People who book things or venues, they’re not used to dealing with the artist. I think it scares them. In fact I think it scares them double when it’s a woman.

Me: I’m so glad you brought that up, because here I go now. Being of the female persuasion myself, what I was really wanting to touch upon a little bit, because I’m a bit of a political activist myself, is that you are, in a lot of ways, an innovator for females in the music business. If I’m correct, you were the first female to have concurrent hits.

Melanie: Yes, it’s true. At the time, and this is something interesting, major radio, mainstream radio, wasn’t playing more than one female an hour. That was just written doctrine. No more than one female an hour. I wasn’t in the mindset of political activism, I was just, “I’m going to keep doing this. I’ll be that female.” (laughing) What’s so horrible about that is what that does to women, dividing them. You’re competition. You’re not considering other females as artists, you’re considering them as competition. If it was just treated as, “Is this a good song? Should we put this on our radio station?” instead of “Is this a female? We can only play one…” You’re pitted against each other. That’s true of booking concerts, and it’s even true now, because I was talking to a man who owns a theater in Tennessee, and he openly and honestly says, “Women don’t sell tickets as well as men.” I said, “Are you kidding? Is this something everyone knows and I don’t?” (laughing) He says it’s just the way it is. He doesn’t like it, but that’s just the way it is. He’s talking very openly, not having any kind of agenda with me. He says they have to consider two people, pretty much on the same par, and they have to decide who to book, they’re probably going to go with the man because he’ll sell more tickets.

Me: That’s ridiculous, but that’s why it’s so impressive looking into your career, to see how many doors I believe you opened for women coming after you.

Melanie: Thank you. I thank you for noticing (laughing).

Me: It’s hard not to, especially, and this is where I’ve got to tell a little bit of a backstory, too. I’ve told you my parents are big music fans and my dad is especially big on The Rolling Stones, and because he pushed them on me so much growing up that I rebelled by not liking them.

Melanie: (laughing)

Me: So what happened was I was watching a movie called The Royal Tenenbaums

Melanie: Oh, I LOVE The Royal Tenenbaums!

Me: Yes! I love Wes Anderson’s films so much, and that’s one of my favorites right there. I’m watching and really enjoying it, and all of a sudden this beautiful song comes on and I thought, ‘What is this?’ It gets to the chorus and I look up the words on the internet and it’s “Ruby Tuesday” and I thought, I’ve got to download this song. And I saw it was by The Rolling Stones and I thought, “Oh crap!”

Melanie: (laughing)

Me: I called my father and told him, “Damn you! I finally like The Rolling Stones.” “Ruby Tuesday” is the song that got me into The Rolling Stones.

Melanie: I’ve sang two of their songs in my life. “Ruby Tuesday” became bigger than theirs in Europe, as far as my record. It was the biggest hit I had up until that point in Europe. My version of “Ruby Tuesday,” to the point that people thought I wrote it because it wasn’t as big a hit for them as it was for me. A lot of people knew I wrote songs, I mean it wasn’t pushed that I wrote songs. They didn’t have the term “singer/songwriter” yet, so they just called me “The Female Bob Dylan”.

Me: Which is not a bad thing to be called, mind you.

Melanie: No. But I wondered if they called him “The Male Melanie”.

Me: (laughing) That’s a wonderful question, actually.  There’s some wonderful female artists that have come into play since then, and again I credit you with a lot of that, to your success. One of the semi-current artists that I would equate to you would be The Indigo Girls who’ve done some amazing work politically, but also songwriting-wise. Females powered by guitars in the vein that you also worked. Are there any current artists who you look at and think, “They’re doing the right thing.”

Melanie: I’m sorry, I got hooked on your “females powered by guitars”.

Me: (laughing)

Melanie: (laughing) That’s a good line. I love that. You know, I’m picturing that symbol. You know, the female symbol? Imagine somehow turning that into a guitar.

Me: Oh, that would be cool, wouldn’t it?

Melanie: Females powered by guitars…that’s a really good concept.

Me: That can be your next album title (laughing).

Melanie: I actually sang with The Indigo Girls when they did a show in Florida. My friend was there and she said, “They really want to meet you,” so we went backstage and talked and I sang them some new songs. It was really cool. I liked them a lot. It was a nice meeting.

Me: (laughing) Are there any artists who are currently out who you think are doing it the right way, who you see as the torchbearers?

Melanie: That’s hard now. What I’m hearing mostly, you know, somebody has to let me know because so many people sound exactly alike. I can’t tell one from another. I feel partially responsible for it. There’s this thing girls are doing with their voices, it’s demonic. I don’t know what in the hell are they listening to? I feel responsible a bit because my voice had that little gravelly feeling and that sense of in-your-ear thing. I was trying so desperately to communicate, and my voice had that…in fact Hugo and Luigi told Peter before he met me, “She sounds like she’s singing underwater.” (laughing)

Me: You don’t really hear that anymore because, as I think you’re alluding to, you have this slick production quality so the emotion is kind of cut out unfortunately.

Melanie: Auto-tuning has become…our ears are going to be ruined because we’re going to hear everything so perfectly pitched that we aren’t, we won’t even be able to hear a human voice anymore. You don’t hear the little imperfections anymore. Recording is so pasteurized you don’t hear a human voice much. It’s all got so many effects. That’s why it’s really hard for me to know. I love my daughter Jeordie. She’s the coolest thing I’ve seen! (laughing) She’s also got a website. I’m not kidding! I’m not just saying this because she’s my daughter. Honest and true!  I loved Joan Armatrading but she’s not current anymore. She had the real deal. She was really her own person, she had things to say. It was coming from her, it wasn’t coming from “What’s going to make me famous?”  Which is all I’m hearing is “What’s going to make me famous?”

Me: I was talking to somebody yesterday, I think it was Tommy James, about the idea that, I don’t honestly think that you’re going to (hopefully) ever see a 50th anniversary of Justin Bieber concert.

Melanie: I hope not! (laughing)

Me: Or Britney Spears. So the question is what is it about the ‘60s and ‘70s that is timeless, and that is still gaining new fans every year?

Melanie: I think it really comes down to an awakening. It was like a new renaissance on Earth at that time. People were investigating the source of things. People were going for different kinds of musical sounds in pop music. People were experimenting with different types of drums or, “Ooh, look! A plastic saxophone!” (laughing) for the sake of making it go further, not for the sake of being famous.

Me: I noticed in the publicity materials for the upcoming event, I noticed that you had been on Ed Sullivan and some of the biggest TV shows of, well, forever, but the one that I was most impressed by because any time you’re with Johnny Cash your cool points raise up a 1,000 fold…

Melanie: (laughing)

Me: …was The Johnny Cash Show.

Melanie: I think twice I was on The Johnny Cash Show because he really liked me, and he was such a cool guy. He was such a rebel and I did his show from The Grand Ole Opry when it was the original Grand Ole Opry. Here I am, from a New York sensibility place, and here I am being popped into Nashville. I mean, Baby June Carter had a bouffant hairdo, and Baby June with all her sisters all had bouffant hairdos and they looked at me with great suspicion (laughing). Everybody, people just didn’t know what to make of this. I mean, Johnny Cash and Baby June and what’s Melanie doing on the show? But again, the cool factor. He just loved music. He really got it. On my new album, Ever Since You Never Heard Of Me, I have a cut that Beau used Johnny Cash’s actual intro of me and the little applause before a song wrote called , “Working Legend”. In that song, Beau actually put Johnny Cash’s voice on the record. It’s amazing. We sang “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” together. He was definitely one of the greats. He had his own thing which is so rare. I think that’s what’s so missing right now. People are going out as the next whatever happened before instead of inventing anything or being who they are, or finding who they are and expressing it. It’s difficult for me to find somebody now other than my daughter Jeordie, and I don’t mean to lay her out, but she’s much more in the loop of what’s happening. Jeordie just does her own thing. I don’t…there’s so few people…It’s a kind of bravery. The powers that be have done a good job of making people behave well. Even politics. I feel a good distraction. I’m not so sure. I feel there’s two sides to keep us busy, making us think there’s only two sides. There’s really four hundred thousand sides. How can a country like America, with all of our population, all of our diversity, have two parties? (laughing) It seems unbelievable. How could they possibly represent us? And then people say things like, “Well, it’s the lesser of two evils,” but it’s still evil! (laughing)

Me: Oh, it very much is. I think George Orwell would be rolling over in his grave right now if he could see what’s happening in our country.

Melanie: Yeah!

Me: So really, there aren’t really many people in the Top 40 you can pluck out and say, “Now that’s somebody!”

Melanie: I’m getting to the point where I’m rediscovering people from the ‘60s, like Tim Buckley. Oh my God. I’m listening and thinking, “I remember that, I can’t believe I didn’t know that was a Tim Buckley song.” I love “The Hobo”. There are so many great people I never got to hear because I was so busy.

Me: Are there any favorite people you got to work with who stand out to you as people who really impressed you for whatever reason?

Melanie: Joan Baez. Joan Baez was my hero. She was at Woodstock and I was a very low echelon person. No one knew who I was. I mean, if 1% of the audience knew who Melanie was, I’d be amazed. Really, I did not know what kind of event this was going to be. I was in Europe writing a film score. Early on, when the guys in the same office as Peter were planning Woodstock, I very naively asked to be there because it sounded nice: three days of peace, love, and music. There’d be booths with items, and I thought, “Oh good, I can go shopping!” There’d be picnic blankets and families, and I’m picturing this nice pastoral scene and music. It was before anything. I was in Europe. I debated, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t bother with this,” because I was in the studio with the London Symphony Orchestra. The Rolling Stones were in the next building, the next cubicle. This was big stuff. At night I was singing with Rod Stewart, and it was a happening thing there, so I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t do this.” Peter said, “You go and do Woodstock.” It wasn’t even called Woodstock, it was an aquarian exposition. “I’ll stay here and finish the production.” I thought, “Okay,” so my mother picked me up and I went to the festival with my mother (laughing). We drove up in a Chevy, my mom and me. I had my guitar strapped over my back. We hit traffic and had no clue what this was. My mother said, “I think this is because of the festival,” and I said, “No, it can’t be. We’re too far away.” But it was. Finally I reached somebody; I don’t know how. No cell phones, no texting, but I reached someone who said, “No! Don’t go there, go to this other place,” and so I went to this motel in Bethel and there, in the parking lot, are wall to wall media trucks. I get into the lobby of the motel and there’s Janis Joplin. I had never met anybody really famous yet. I didn’t meet The Rolling Stones, I just knew they were in the next cubicle. For Janis Joplin to be standing there slugging Southern Comfort in the middle of a circle of media with microphones, I knew something big was happening (laughing). I thought, “Oh my God, what is this?” Sly Stone walks by and I thought “Oh my God, oh my God…”  Now it was becoming very real. This is something, I’m going to be singing with these people. Can I do that?  So I find someone and say, “I’m Melanie,” and they say, “Okay, get in the helicopter.” I thought, “The helicopter? What do you mean the helicopter?” I’d never been in a helicopter in my life. This wasn’t an everyday occurrence. (laughing) My mother and I are running toward the helicopter and right before we get in they say, “Who’s this?” and I said, “My mom.” They said, “No moms. Only performers and managers and groups.” I didn’t have the sense to say, “She’s my manager.” I said goodbye to my mother and I went to Woodstock all alone. All alone. Nobody there to encourage me. No Peter, no nothing. I’m delivered to a field and somebody says, “Go to that little tent there.” It was a little tent with a dirt floor. They told me to go there and I didn’t have any artist pass or backstage pass, and if I wandered too far from the tent these Hell’s Angels types tried to put me into the fields with the people and I’d say, “No! No! I’m supposed to be here! I’m Melanie! I sang ‘Beautiful People’!”  They believed me and let me go back, so I didn’t wander too far from the tent. Over the period of the hours and hours, the whole day…I got there when Richie was performing his 20th minute of “Freedom” (laughing) and I knew he was scared because I could tell. I knew him from The Village, and that wasn’t the Richie that I heard. He was screaming for his life up there (laughing). “Freedom! Get me the f___ out of here!” I’m thinking, “Oh my God!” People were running from the people who were trying to fetch them to perform. I heard stories of people running away from the person who was telling them to go on stage. Every other hour they’d say, “You’re next” because a person with a guitar is easy to throw up on stage while they’re setting up for Creedence, you know? There I was, in this tent, and I developed this deep, bronchial cough from hell. It became this nervous response, I was sure I was doomed. How could I possibly be singing in front of that many people? Me? Just me? I wasn’t a great guitar player. I was just a percussive strummer. All day went by, and during the day, Joan Baez from the upper echelon tent where they had some amenities, heard me coughing, and she sent over her assistant, or whoever, this beatific hippie girl, and came to my tent door and said, “Excuse me, Joan Baez heard you coughing and thought you might like this,” and she sent me over tea. She is truly St. Joan to me. She really is. She just goes on forever. Everything about her. I wanted to be Joan Baez, I just didn’t happen to have that kind of voice. I went out and tried to imitate Joan Baez and I got it wrong (laughing). I grew up with Billie Holliday and Bessie Smith and Edith Piaf, and I went out to imitate all of them, and it came out as me. I got it wrong (laughing).

Me: I noticed that you’re labeled as “The Queen of Woodstock” but really it seems like you were the queen of festivals. I couldn’t find a festival you weren’t at…

Melanie: The phenomenon of me is I walked onto the stage as an unknown person, nobody had heard of me, and when I walked off the stage I was an instant celebrity. The next day I was being put on panel discussions about the significance of what I had just done. Of course I was so inarculate, “Uh…I don’t know…” (laughing). But because of that, I became connected with the festival itself as an iconic image of the festival because I was a person that nobody heard of, and all of a sudden I was an instant known person.

Me: If you had your druthers, would you rather do a festival or a small, intimate venue type of show?

Melanie: It’s hard to say, I think I like the bigger venues, really and truly. Knowing that it’s big and having that fear factor, but for the sake of doing it. It’s so much easier when you have a huge crowd. Instead of three people clapping it’s 4,500 or 5,000, 10,000. It just amplifies it. People just want to do what everyone else is doing a lot of the time, so when you have a lot of them, they join. It gets harder to get real and intimate with a big crowd like that. I didn’t have any experience when I did Woodstock or other festivals. I hadn’t had much experience doing little things. I went from acting school and wanting to get a part in “Dark Side of the Moon” to having a hit record. I didn’t have the dues-paying part. I was just catapulted into it. Woodstock was the catalyst for it. I was just like I would be in my living room when I was up on that stage at Woodstock. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know about show business, I didn’t know about entertaining, I didn’t know about things to say, I had no in between stage patter, none whatsoever, so I was just as real as I could possibly be, and I really think the flow, the incredible power of the number of people being together, that in itself is a phenomenon, so I don’t know if I like doing that or a little intimate room where I can shoot back a couple of tequilas and get real with people. That’s nice, too. I don’t know.  Then there’s those nice performing arts centers where the seats are comfy (laughing). That’s nice too. Everything has its moment. Festivals are cool. Of course, I’m experienced (laughing). I kind of like them because they’re so instantaneous. There’s this amazing power of that much humanity gathered in front and all hearing at the same time the frequency. I really do believe that music is supposed to heal. I believe that. It’s a sacred charge that I have. I think it feels so much like what I’m supposed to be doing when I sing in front of huge crowds.

Me: That’s a beautiful thing. It does have this universal power to touch, excite, and heal at the same time, as I think you’ve alluded to. In terms of Saturday’s event, what are you most looking forward to at this Who’s Who of Good Music?

Melanie: I’m going to be singing with Roger Kellaway who did the original piano arrangement of “Brand New Key”. He’s the one who prepared the piano. I think John Cage was the father of the prepared piano maybe, and Roger was a very avant-garde jazz keyboard player. We went in and prepared the piano where we put little nails and tacks and rubber bands and pieces of chewing gum and put it on the strings of the piano. When you play it, it gives it other resonances, so we did that and really, I thought, “Well, this will be an avant-garde song. Not so…” (laughing).  We’re going to be performing together because he’ll be there. He’s either the musical coordinator or something, and I haven’t seen him for 40 years. We’re going to do “Brand New Key”. It’s going to be somewhat historic. Other than that, I just decided last minute to do “Let It Be” interspersed with a little bit of “All You Need Is Love”. I could only do a little bit as that’s going to be their finale. I changed the chords so it won’t be “Let It Be”. I don’t know if people will like me or hate me for that. They’ll probably hate me (laughing) I’ll probably also do “Candle In The Rain”.

Me: I’ve just got to put a plug in for “Lay Down”.

Melanie: Oh, okay.

Me: I mentioned to somebody yesterday that it’s going to be kind of like a high school reunion for a lot of you.

Melanie: Yeah, it is.

Me: It’s going to be a lot of fantastic energy and I’m so excited for Saturday. I’ve taken up so much of your time. Two quick last questions. Any upcoming projects you want to put a plug in for?

Melanie: Ah, I wish I did. I really wish I did. I’m just working. I’m a working legend (laughing). When I’m in New York, I’m going to do the Turning Point which I always do when I’m there. It’s very, very small. Intimate. If you really want to get to know an artist and they’re going to be at The Turning Point, that would be the place. Then there’s a place in Beacon, NY where Pete Seeger is from called The Town Crier and I’m going to go up there and do a show there on the 6th of February. On the 9th of February I’ll be at The Turning Point. It’d be really great if they were chuck full because it’s my birthday. I want a happy birthday (laughing).  I’m going to Australia, this summer I’m doing an Australian tour. I just do gigs.  I have a book called Tales From The Roadburn Café. It’s not a book, it’s a collection of journal entries that I would call Tales From the Roadburn Café. Sometimes I’d sum up a tour or talk about Christmas. I realized I had hundreds of these, so we put them all into a wanna-be coffee table book with color pictures that my son took. If people wanted to get that, they could. That’s it. I’m just touring. I’m hoping to do bigger and better things. Again, I don’t want to do gigs to collect money and watch television. I personally don’t watch television. I believe it’s a behavior modification tool. If I want news I have to go to the internet, but I’m not going to television.

Me: You really need to record yourself talking and put it into a book. (laughing) It’s just a pleasure to hear you talk! The last thing would be anything you want to say to fans, parting shots, anything.

Melanie: Oh, I don’t know! Stop watching television and buy my new album! (laughing)

Me: There you go!

Melanie: Somebody bootlegged my new album so it’s on iTunes of all things. The only real place, the real sequence and masters the way Peter, Beau and I put it out is on my website or at my shows. It’s called Ever Since You Never Heard Of Me.

Me: Thank you for your time!

For more information on Melanie Safka’s music, current shows, and other projects, please visit her official website here:

http://www.melaniesafka.com/

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~ by Jennifer Dodge on July 3, 2015.

One Response to “Melanie Safka: “I went out and tried to imitate Joan Baez and I got it wrong!””

  1. Reblogged this on Onder Zeeniveau and commented:
    Interview with Melanie

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