With all this overkill
And bitterness instilled
My heart’s left unfulfilled
But I’m not jaded
AUTHORS NOTE: This original review was written in June 2003, way before MM saw huge success - playing in Sarah McLachlan's band and marrying then producer Luke Doucet and forming the amazing combo Whitehorse - check them out here!
Melissa McClelland is late and I’m in a music store waiting for her. Neither is a good situation. The poor girl’s manager has already called my cell to tell me she’s stuck in Toronto traffic hell on the Gardiner and is crawling as fast as she can. I’m forced to look at thousands of CDs I desperately want for another half hour at least. It hurts. A lot.
Under the heading of Worth Waiting For: Melissa shows up unnecessarily apologetic (NOBODY needs to apologize for urban traffic difficulties in this insane city), looking lovely and downright fresh as a daisy even AFTER an hour and a half in the car. Yours truly is sweating buckets on this hot June day and hoping MM isn’t completely disgusted.
I’m your missionary, your guru, I’m your God
I’ve been saving you all along
— Pretty Blue
For those who aren’t in the know, the Toronto-area singer/songwriter is quickly becoming the going concern of the vibrant local music scene. Though officially unreleased, her sophomore album, STRANDED IN SUBURBIA has been racking up the critical kudos based solely on word-of-mouth and what has recently been a relentless touring schedule. Indeed, STRANDED is an absolutely astonishing gem of an album, regardless of her touring efforts or the fact that she’s barely 24.
Her chronological age is completely misleading. McClelland is actually a veteran of the incredibly taxing troubadour lifestyle – a fact that she appropriately wears as a badge of honour. Performing live since the age of 16, Melissa was playing open mike nights and tolerating late-night bar crowds while others her age were still trying to score a cell phone from Daddy. The artist insists, however, that the performing lifestyle was less a conscious choice than it was an innate desire to which she submitted long ago.
“I have a very distinct memory, probably when I was 8 or 9… I just remember thinking ‘I am going to be a musician’,” McClelland recalls vividly. “It was a very decisive moment in my life, and ever since then I never really considered doing anything else. I’ve had a lot of other interests and a few other passions, but it’s been pretty full force towards music since the beginning.” She’s quick to add that it was her parent’s unconditional support that never really made her question her commitment. “They’ve been great all the way through. They used to drive me to my gigs when I was 16. I know I’m lucky. I really do.”
When all these colours blend completely
Tell me – can you even see me?
— Little Birds
Not surprisingly, an excruciatingly young girl performing folky tunes on Open Mike nights did not get taken as seriously as she took herself. “For the longest time I was considered that ‘cute little singer girl’ who would stand meekly behind the mike”, she laughs, imitating her early performances. “But it really was worthwhile, looking back. I met so many great people – other musicians mostly – that shaped my writing and performing over time. But man,” she readily acknowledges with a laugh, “some of those early songs were BAD!”
Fortunately for McClelland, ‘bad’ is not a descriptive phrase she hears much anymore. Sacrificing her formative years to the reckless gods of musical creativity has more than paid off for her. Her first CD, simply self-titled and released in 2001, was already leaps and bounds above most of her more experienced contemporaries, both lyrically and musically. Tracks like Garden Of Eden, Past Lives, and Whisper are sardonically vivid and incredibly eloquent – a strong indication of where she would eventually land with STRANDED IN SURBURBIA “My first CD was basically an accumulation of my writing since the very first days. Like Whisper – I was 17 when I wrote that. I’m really proud of that record – but I was just getting my feet wet. It was all very young material,” she says, almost apologetically. But that’s what is so refreshing about this artist. Her debut is, if anything, a work of stark maturity that actually betrays her youth. I mean, how many 17-year-olds can write like this:
6AM and the night is still breathing down my back
The radio is blaring static in the distance
And the sky is a circus of dark clouds and a rising sun
But I don’t want the day to come
I want the whole night to swallow me
Regardless of how ‘young’ she considers the material on her debut record, McClelland comfortably acknowledges that it went a long way to informing this new album. “Near the end of recording MM was when I began writing for the new one. Where MELISSA MCCLELLAND was written over a period of years, STRANDED was written in a significantly smaller time period. The process was much more condensed this time, and the material was more interdependent – more tied in to one theme.”
Melissa is as up-front about the theme of the album as she is in her songs. STRANDED IN SUBURBIA is about exactly that – the painful malaise of being a teen trapped in the suffocating confines of a bedroom community. But this is no pubescent bitch session or ‘I-didn’t-get-a-car-for-my-birthday’ menial complaint. STRANDED is alternately hilarious and disturbing in its brutal depictions of boredom, lust, dread, longing, and ultimately hope. It is an intricately woven series of lyrical vignettes so descriptive that you may as well be holding this girl’s hand while she wades through the odyssey. “Pretty much every song on STRANDED is derived from my personal experience,” McClelland admits openly, “it’s how I write and have always written.”
I am so in love
Barefoot in suburbia
But when the winter comes
This grass will shrivel up and die
–- White Lies
Personal she definitely is. Case-in-point is White Lies, a song that succinctly sums up the general tone of the album in its simmering angst and portrayal of destructive suburban boredom. The relentless, smashing backbeat further augments the underlying desperation. “That whole song was actually inspired by this memory that I had of me as a teenager,” she starts, “Me and my friends were always up to no good. We were definitely the ‘bad’ kids in the neighbourhood. It was – I don’t know – maybe two in the morning and we were in this junkyard. There was this old school bus there, and were just throwing stones at it, breaking the windows. This was somehow fun for us. It just completely represented my teenage years in suburbia. Being bored, being in love with troubled boys and doing destructive things like that –you think you’re happy, but when you really examine it there’s this dread that you’re not dealing with.”
Luckily for us, McClelland is dealing with it right out in front of everyone, in all its wistful beauty and brash ugliness. The language on STRANDED IN SUBURBIA is immediately in-your-face, frequently blue but never gratuitous. In fact, every time she says ‘fuck’ it’s like being punched – you know unequivocally that she means business.
Maybe I’m naïve but I’m not fucking stupid
Perhaps the most lyrically aggressive song on the record, Jaded can and will be easily misconstrued as lashing out angrily at a badly resolved relationship. In truth, stresses McClelland, it’s more about confidence in the face of adversity. “Everyone goes through their heartbreak and deals with their stuff differently,” she explains. “What I was trying to say in that song is that no matter what anyone does to me, I’m not going to put up walls. I’m not going to be scared to experience love or experience anything. It’s really about not being held back.” Though STRANDED IN SUBURBIA is doubtlessly an impressive achievement for McClelland lyrically, the musical metamorphosis between her sparse, self-titled debut and STRANDED is even more significant. Melissa jockeys between acoustic and electric guitars deftly and increases the presence of her violin considerably on this record. Kudos obviously go to veteran producer Luke Doucet who has beautifully captured the core energy of the songs, carved a nasty edge into the arrangements, and ratcheted up the alt-rock hooks to full bleed. “Luke is brilliant – bottom line,” she asserts without hesitation. “We were on the same page musically from the beginning, but he brought so much more to my songs than I could have done alone – things that I would have never seen or thought of doing. It was incredible to have a sounding board like him around.” Doucet is indeed all over this recording, not only in the producer’s role but everywhere from the toy piano in Little Birds to the crashing electric guitar in White Lies and Factory.
The latter song is actually one of two cover versions included on the album (the other being Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega) – a fact that Melissa herself still finds surprising. “It’s not like I do cover versions during performances on a regular basis – and yet there are two on the album,” she muses. “I actually was doing the Springsteen tune (Factory) live off and on. I worked in a factory for about a month to make some extra cash for Christmas, listening to DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN a lot, so of course the song hit home. I learned it and started playing it live. I ended up really liking the way it sounded and played it for Luke, but we figured if we were going to include it on the album, we’d have to change it up a bit.” Enter the wild guitar riffs and stumbling drum lines that render the song virtually unrecognizable to the pared-down original. No apologies from McClelland, however. “If you’re an artist and you’re inspired by another artist’s song, you have to make it your own or it’s a waste of time.”
These are my scars tearing
I’ve got to heal myself
– Pretty Blue
Though she’s a veteran and fervent supporter of the independent music scene, McClelland will be faced with some tough yet exciting decisions in the near future if the initial reaction to STRANDED is any indication. She confides that there is already some enthusiastic interest from established labels and has consequently held off on any wide release of the record until the options are fully laid out in front of her team. Characteristically, Melissa is dealing with her career openly, carefully and with confidence. “I’m under no misconceptions about label deals and contracts – we’ve got a really good lawyer,” she jokes. “And being independent has a lot of positive points – especially when I’m promoting something I am so happy with. There is something so much more personally rewarding about independent success, and of course it makes opening industry doors much easier. Barenaked Ladies shopped their stuff around for a year without getting a bite, then released it independently and it sold like crazy. After that, they had the majors bidding on them. In a perfect world – that would be ideal.”
That being said, the road-weariness and poverty of a musician’s life have forced her to look at the situation from a different standpoint. “My goal has always been to be able to support myself comfortably with my music. I’ve done the nine-to-five thing and it’s NOT for me,” she states adamantly (all it takes is one listen to Little Birds and you know this about her). “Having the distribution and support of a good label are important factors that I am seriously considering. But I’m looking for a very specific environment – something nurturing to artists, not just exploitative to them.”
I am playing God
And I am raising hell
As far as I can tell
I am all alone, alone in this world
Alone with you
Regardless of the outcome, one thing is inarguable: Melissa McClelland is a very rare commodity in music – profoundly talented, whip-smart, and unswervingly committed to her art – in no particular order. Work of this caliber lands in your lap maybe once a decade. Of course, though appreciative, she attributes the lion’s share of her success to the people by which she is surrounded.
“Lucky, very lucky is how I refer to myself all the time. Meeting and working with amazingly creative and supportive people like Rob (Lamothe – producer of her debut album) and Luke Doucet, The Ladybird Sideshow (an indie ‘supergroup’ of female singer/songwriters with whom she often performs featuring Janine Stoll, Erin Smith, and Lisa Winn), and my friends and family – I couldn’t do what I do without them. I’m one of those people who is DEFINITELY not an island. The incredible contributions of others brought me here. Me – my songs – whatever. It’s all a freakish conglomeration of my experiences. And…” she quickly adds, “…I wouldn’t have it any other way,”