In some ways, it’s not quite correct to call Melanie Martinez ‘New Noise’. Thanks to her lauded appearances on the US version of The Voice, she’s actually been around for a few years now, even if she’s only 21. Still, her aesthetically heightened form of alt-pop is perhaps really just hitting British shores now, with her debut London show last month selling out in seconds. It’s no wonder that her popularity, evidenced by her impressive social media following, is ever increasing: the truth is, if you’re a fan of her doll-like, hyper-girly image and accompanying off-kilter sound, you’re likely to be a huge fan. That over-used phrase “cult following” seems like just the right term for this kind of fandom.
Earlier this year, Martinez dropped her first full-length record, Cry Baby, a vast, conceptual album charting the fortunes of the artist’s semi-fictional persona. It’s weird, fiercely unique, and so saccharine in places – both sonically and lyrically – as to be deliberately sour: hinting at the dark, twisted underbelly that lies beneath her ostensibly candy-coated pop. Then there are the videos; the curiously evocative visual world of the album’s title track or “Pity Party”, a self-directed number that features Martinez (hair bluish and vast, Barbie pink dress blooming like a marshmallow) popping balloons with a kitchen knife and punching her birthday cake to smithereens while riffing on Leslie Gore’s teeny-bopper classic “It’s My Party” to delicious effect.
Many musicians, of course, have stage identities like hers to perform behind. But Martinez – on the surface, at least – appears much the same in real life as she does in her videos. By which I mean that when we spoke on the Kensington Roof Gardens surrounded, appropriately enough, by lurid pink flamingos punctuating our conversation with their squawks, she came in an almost identical outfit and barnet to the one she sports in “Pity Party”. I’m just guessing, but I highly doubt it was for my benefit: that’s just how she lives her life. Something Wonderland found out when we discussed social media, telling stories, and the trials and tribulations of being a beautifully weird outsider.
How did you get into making music?
I really loved singing ever since I was really little, and I always loved writing poetry…so when I was like 14 I really wanted to learn how to play an instrument. I thought guitar was really awesome and I kind of just went online and taught myself how to play guitar just by looking up chord diagrams of songs that I liked, and would just play songs that I liked, and then also learn chord diagrams so that I could write songs as well. And writing poetry kind of led me into that – into writing and loving writing.
And then you went on The Voice!
When I was 16 I auditioned for The Voice, and it was just a random thing that I just wanted to audition for and see what happened, cause I had never done anything but written songs in my parents’ bathroom in Long Island, so I just didn’t know how else, besides putting videos on YouTube and really just trying out for a show even. I didn’t really watch The Voice or any of those shows, I wasn’t really into watching it, but my parents did – I feel like every parent is super into staying home and watching those silly shows. But I learned a lot through that experience just about how different it is being on a singing show and then having an actual career in music and actually putting out music, cause you’re covering songs, and as a songwriter it was really hard for me to be on that show, just because I wanted to put out original music and play original music.
But it was quite a formative experience?
Yeah, it was definitely a learning experience for sure.
Your album’s just dropped – tell me about that. What’s the process been like? What’s it all about?
Cry Baby is – the title came first, that was the thing I was super sure of when first figuring it out. I wanted to name it Cry Baby because I was called cry-baby as a kid, as a nickname, because I was super emotional and took everything super personally. I just didn’t know how to handle things beside just always – it was really hard for me to explain how I felt, and whenever I was hurt I would just overwhelmingly just cry. Tears would just start rushing down. So I wanted to – I think “Cry Baby”, that song, was written about who I am and really just being super emotional, and how I kind of wanted to change the word cry baby from an insult to a compliment. I think writing the album helped me become more comfortable with being super emotional and crazy.
But Cry Baby the album is about really this character, Cry Baby, who is based off of myself, and I wanted it to be an actual story from beginning to end. So the first track is “Cry Baby”, and that’s who she is, and explaining why she’s so emotional and how she feels, and kind of taking you into her brain a little bit.
So did that all come fully formed before you began, that narrative? Or did that come as you worked?
No…it’s interesting because the songs all happened at different times, definitely not in order, but it’s weird because when picking the track-listing, I was just really focused on making sure that all of it fit together and going from beginning to end, and I kind of made a story based around the track list that I put together. So, it’s interesting making a story with the songs that I had, it kind of weirdly fit with what I was actually going through and the transition that I made as a human, just being comfortable with myself and not caring so much about the things that I was insecure about before writing the album, and she makes that change into becoming comfortable with herself and so did I after writing the album.
You have this very heightened aesthetic, and that moves through all of your videos. Where does that come from? What’s inspired that?
I don’t know, I just – I used to take pictures a lot when I was younger, I really was into photography and art and I loved painting, and I didn’t really go out much at all. I didn’t go to parties or anything like that when I was in high school, I didn’t really have a lot of friends. I would kind of just stay home and listen to music and paint and cry. Just be very – I was a very emotional kid, and I just loved creating, whether it was writing music or whatever…I’ve always just loved visuals and I think it’s very important when I write music. I can’t really finish a song unless I can see a full music video ahead, so it’s very important to me.
How did you come to this doll-like look?
I don’t know really. It was really toy sounds that inspired the record, and the childhood theme, and I don’t know, it’s interesting because me and my friend were talking about this today: we were just walking around, and people were just staring at me, I guess because of how I’m dressed, and it’s interesting because looking around everyone’s just wearing neutral colours and whatever, and I’m just wearing an outfit that – I like neutral colours and I like black, it’s just I feel like it doesn’t fit my personality, you know what I mean? I feel like the way that I dress and my aesthetic is exactly who I am on the inside. My apartment…looks like a vintage nursery from the 60s or something. It’s just pastel colours everywhere, toys everywhere, it’s a mess of cute stuff.
Do you play with the toys?
I don’t play with them, I collect them. I collect vintage toys.
Not that you can’t still play with toys, of course.
I think that everyone’s allowed to play with toys.
How do you think your sound has progressed since your EP?
I think that I kind of just got out of –I used to write a lot on guitar, and I…was very inspired by it – but I think that I can’t listen to acoustic guitar any more. I can’t write to it any more for some reason, I’ve just gotten sick of it. So, I think that’s kind of the biggest change, not having guitar being the focus or whatever. There was “Dead To Me”, and “Dead To Me” is very different to a lot of the songs because of the guitar and I don’t know, I guess that’s one thing that’s changed. I’m more inspired by different sounds really.
So you’re quite big on social media – do you find that connection with your fan base important?
Absolutely. I think it’s definitely cool to communicate. I mean social media’s important for sharing music, art, and I think that that’s what I like it for. As far as personal….there is definitely a limit with me and social media, just sharing too much personal stuff. I definitely don’t do that, I’m not really into it. I like Instagram too for that reason because it’s visual. Twitter’s kind of weird because there’s a character limit and you’ve got to say whatever the hell you want to say in that character limit really fast, and it’s very, just spitting out words, and I feel like with that comes a lot of people not thinking carefully before they post, and that’s why there’s so much cyberbullying and and all that. I even get cyberbullied online and I hate it, I got bullied as a kid in high school and to get bullied as an adult now, in a different way, it just kind of sucks. So that’s why I don’t really care for Twitter.
Why do you make music? What motivates you to do it? Other than loving it, obviously.
I don’t know, I’ve always loved it, it felt necessary to always have music in my life, whether I was making it or listening to it. But I think the storytelling is really my favourite part of making music, and I think that that’s really why I do it. I just – at the end of my life, I want to look back and I feel like writing these concept albums that will connect and tell this bigger picture story…With Cry Baby representing me, it’s kind of like I’m documenting my life. I think it’s really important as in any case, every artist is documenting their life, every album is a phase in our life, and I think it’s just like a scrapbook, so I think that that’s why I do. I’m just documenting my life and also having fun just adding this fairytale element to it, and telling another story along with my own.
So what’s next for you now?
I’m making a lot of music videos now, that’s what I’m focused on. I’m just finishing the rest of the music videos for the album, and then I’m also writing the next album.
And you’re touring as well?
And I’m touring, yeah. I’m touring a lot. I just – touring is hard. It’s like – touring is just a lot when you want to write so badly, and it’s hard to find inspiration on the road. It definitely is exhausting…But it’s very fun travelling, this year especially of touring been really special, just meeting people and I had never been here: I didn’t really travel a lot when I was younger. It’s really cool to go to a different country and play a show for however many people, and they’re just singing every word to the songs that I wrote. It’s crazy. It’s definitely surreal.