Melanie Charles is like a musical octopus. With one hand she’s D’Flower, her alter ago. With another hand she holds the microphone as Melanie Charles, the singer who has graced stages in Brooklyn, Port-au-Prince, Portugal and Japan. And she’s also the co-founder of Rat Habitat, a musical project with fellow musician Jordan “Commissioner Wallace” Peters that has spawned the EP “Guns the Shoot Bubbles”. Rat Habitat’s musical style is a stew of electonica, alternative rock, and soul. Melanie herself is all-jazz, with roots, R&B, with finger print stains of hip-hop, soul, and rock. Won’t you follow your girl Kreyolicious as I interview this singer?
Kreyolicious: What are your childhood memories of music, and growing up in a Haitian household? How did you get started singing?
Growing up, music has always been important to my family. My mom tells me that before I could speak, as a baby, I was always singing “la la la”. When I was 5, my mom tried to get our church organist Michelle McCoy, to give me voice lessons. But Ms. McCoy refused and said that I was too young, but she would give me piano lessons and when I turned 7 it would be time to start voice lessons. At 7, I sang my first solo in church and the rest is history.
Kreyolicious: Have you ever lost your voice prior to a performance? How did you deal?
I’ve never “lost my voice” per se, but there has been times when I couldn’t sing certain notes the way I would like. A combination of my vocal training and jazz study allowed me to use my technique to get the difficult notes out and/or use my improvisation skills, to choose alternate more easier notes. I actually really like when my voice is tired or raspy. I just go with it.
Photo Credit: Chris Carr, BK Wildlife
Kreyolicious: There is no mistaken that you are highly influenced by jazz. But who’s your main girl…Sarah Vaughan or Eartha Kitt, Sade or Billie Holiday…Jill Scott? Or could it be someone else?
That’s a tough question. I really, really love Sarah Vaughan and if you asked me this question five years ago, I would say Sarah right away. I love Billie Holiday, Letta Mbulu, Marlena Shaw. Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Anita Baker, but if I had to choose one, I would have to say Nancy Wilson Her album with Cannonball Adderly is one of the best “jazz” albums of all time. I fell in love with jazz because of that album and to this day she still inspires me.
Photo Credit: Chris Karr, BK Wildlife
Kreyolicious: Music consumes a lot of performers. How do you know when to stop and how do you manage to keep a clear balance…so that music doesn’t overly consume you.
Balance is very important to me. I can’t say that I’ve always been the best at it. Music definitely is and always has been my main focus. But as I’m getting older the importance of a balanced life has been more and more important to me. I meditate, practice yoga, Muay Thai boxing. I’ve gotten into gardening and I’ve been learning how to repair bikes. I work out everyday and I try to cook most of my meals. I find getting into these things allow me to actually “live a life”, and in turn, it helps keep me inspired.
Kreyolicious: I was watching this video of you on Youtube in preparation for our interview. I saw this one clip of you playing with Jesse Fischer & Soul Cycle, and there you were playing a flute. I thought, “Total coolness”. At which point did you learn how to play the flute? Is it an easy instrument?
I started playing flute in Junior High. The first week of class was when everyone got to choose their instruments. But I came to band class a week late, because I was in a vocal competition, so my instrument was already chosen for me. I was upset though! I wanted to play a loud instrument like the trumpet or saxophone! [Laughter] But I fell in love with it. And when I attended LaGuardia High School, I was a flute major. The flute is very hard. It’s rooted in the classical tradition. Today, I’m trying to use this classical instrument and tie it into my own music. Hubert Laws is an example of someone who does it amazingly. It’s something that I am always working on.
Above: Melanie Charles during a performance in Portugal. Photo Credit: Gabriel Encinas
Kreyolicious: You’ve sung in Kreyol too…
Yes, I enjoy singing many of the great haitian folk songs. The stories and melodies are beautiful. I find that my singing is different when I sing in Kreyol. It’s almost like playing another instrument. Being born in America, learning the music of my ancestors is a beautiful way to connect with my culture and my people.
Kreyolicious: A broken guitar can probably be repaired, or at least be replaced. A performer’s voice is practically irreplaceable. What steps do you take to take care of your instrument?
Because I’ve done a great deal of vocal training early on, I’m pretty well set up vocally. The most important thing for me now is plenty of sleep and hydration. I also try to avoid spending too much time in air conditioning. You can often find me with a scarf wrapped around my neck even in the warmer seasons.
Kreyolicious: You attended New School University for Jazz and Contemporary Music. What was it like there? What are some of the things that you learned?
I had a great time at The New School. Some of the most important things I learned was how to write lead sheets, how to find my identity as a vocalist. I learned how to lead a band and get arrangements together. The ability to gather a band, present them with the music and get a good sound are all very valuable skills.
Photo Credit: Gabriel Encinas
Kreyolicious: And, throughout this…how did your parents react, knowing that you wanted to take music to such a level that you were willing to spend such a considerable time on it?
My mom wanted me to be a musician. She said that when she was pregnant with me, she prayed that I would be a musician. From day one, she has been an amazing support to me and my musical journey. She is my harshest critic and my biggest fan. And I love it! Being a Haitian mom, this is something that is very rare. I am blessed to have her support.
Photo Credit: Josue Azor
Kreyolicious: What’s the best musical experience you’ve ever had…hands down?
I’ve had man great experience but if I had to choose one, I would have to say singing at the Port-au-Prince Jazz Festival in 2012 was a highlight. It was my first time in Haiti and for me to sing to hundreds of my people really moved me. I felt the spirit of my late grandmother with me. As I walked on the stage, tears of joy were in my eyes. Definitely a highlight.
Kreyolicious: Do you keep strong links to Haitian culture? Go to Haiti often?
I’ve only been to Haiti twice. The second time I went, I spent a month with my aunt and uncle in the mountains of Thomasin. It was one of greatest learning experiences I’ve ever had. I would like to go more often. But while I’m in the States, I am constantly learning, asking questions and reading more about the voodoo culture. I incorporate different aspects of my Haitian roots in my music and I am proud to be an art ambassador for Haiti wherever I go.
Kreyolicious: We grow, or we are put in situations where we have to at least. What would you say to the Melanie Charles of say, 4-7 years ago?
I would tell her that being focused on music is great but also remember to be a kid. Nurture friendships. Have fun!