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Melissa James: A life’s work

| Culture, Music | 02/07/2013

Photo credit: Mark Guthrie

Melissa James is an up-and-coming singer with influences in the Roots, Blues and Jazz idioms. Over the last five years she has experienced a fascinating journey, in making the step forward to her present life in music. I am thrilled to meet Melissa at one of her favourite tea shops in Soho. As we settle into comfy armchairs in this easy and ambient space, it seems to accommodate her personality. Melissa instantly divulges a love of nature and the opportunities for wandering the riverside in London – recommending watering-holes en route – “So I don’t actually get very far!” She throws out a warm chuckle and lifts her head back depreciatingly.

I begin to ask how she made the step from a regular job to a full-time singer but am immediately interrupted: “I was pushed.” This is calmly stated with stolid conviction. But when I ask who pushed her, she replies “I don’t know!” Mutual laughter ensues whilst we gulp more tea and clank down respective crockery. She now seems lost in thought. “I think sometimes you’re just in that position. It was a gradual transition to actually get to the point where I was working part-time – but doing something that’s completely separate from music. I think you’re either the sort of person who could put up with that… Or there are those who aren’t.”

By this point already it’s as if we’ve been on the vino rather than the char. I feel so relaxed that it’s much like chatting to an old friend. What I get from Melissa is a sense of awareness and connectedness; a figuring-out of how to move forward. These are recurrent themes in her music. Has this lifestyle-change made her a different person? “I’m still the same person but I can see more of the person that I want to be.” It reminds me of her superb album track ‘Little Caged Bird’ with its perky lyric and attractive brassy riffs, a joyous reminder to spread your wings. Also, the excellent single and video ‘Don’t You Keep Yourself Down’ and its energy and passion.

I ask after her influences and at the mention of Lizz Wright she trills “I love her!” Melissa’s intonation is earthier and a little raspier like Cassandra Wilson. Nina Simone is another name mentioned, and the variety of approaches with this one artist. Melissa finds it tricky to categorise herself and maybe shouldn’t try. I feel that her output leans towards Blues but she remains ambivalent. “It depends. I co-write the songs with Ross Lorraine. We got together last week, and the song we were working on was quite different… This is the birth of a song, then you take it away, play it with other people. It feels like a Folk song but that doesn’t make me a Folk singer.”

Photo credit: Mark Guthrie

Photo credit: Mark Guthrie

Last October, Melissa was lucky enough to be invited to a song-writing retreat with Tom Robinson. When I mention his live act, she agrees that he’s really got something – perhaps the same Folky connection that Melissa is tuned-in to. “That weekend was about structure. I would have never have thought of writing this way. I also think there’s something to be said for being in a different environment.” Her wistful album track ‘Precious Time’ explores the notion of getting away – ‘A moment/With my thoughts/Far from anywhere/All alone…’ Song-writing, she says, is in the subconscious, and constantly ticking-over.

At present, Melissa focuses on gigs in London. She will also perform a ‘Gig in a Gallery’, a concept set-up to support the ‘Small Steps’ Charity. “In December,” she recalls, “on the radio was a woman speaking – Amy Hanson. My ears pricked-up… She was a celebrity journalist, and founded the charity after a trip to Cambodia where she found families living on rubbish dumps. I was inspired.” Melissa’s enthusiasm is infectious and she explains that “I created the idea of ‘Gig in a Gallery’ which is giving a concert performance in a gallery-space. The money goes to the ‘Small Steps’ project and I’m really excited about it!” By this point, so am I.

Melissa’s début album ‘Day Dawns’ is packed with gems. It features an autobiographical duet with Kevin Leo and the smoky, sexy ‘You Make Me Feel Good’ which is like Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ reworked. ‘I Miss You’ is heart-wrenching in its simple ruefulness, whilst the roots-iest version of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ takes some getting used to. Melissa is in her prime vocalising her inspirational ‘Long Road Travelled’ with its slightly jolting key-rises, and drawing upon global rhythmic influences. Perhaps Melissa’s next cover will be ‘Down by the Riverside’ but in any case we know that her ship will come in freshly laden with new treasures.

Melissa appears at Map Cafe NW5 3DU (Kentish Town West/Kentish Town), 8pm, Friday 12 July.

– Martin Slidel

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