INTERVIEW by ZAK SLOMAN
Hailing from the American city of Philadelphia, Melissa VanFleet is a person of multiple talents.
In addition to being a guitarist, pianist, and a trained dancer, VanFleet also specialises in crafting atmospheric alternative metal songs which naturally gravitate lyrically towards dark themes and topics, led by an emotionally intense vocal delivery, which has led to favourable comparisons to the likes of Adele, Alanis Morissette, and Amy Lee of Evanescence.
Having recently brought out a new album, entitled ‘Ode To The Dark’, which was produced by the team behind Lacuna Coil’s sublime 2016 offering, ‘Delirium’, and saw her collaborate with Doug Blair, lead guitarist of legendary Los Angeles metal collective W.A.S.P., and has so far garnered much critical acclaim, Melissa chatted to me, frankly and in-depth, about that, her journey up to now, as well as a little of what she has planned for the forthcoming year.
What was the first musical experience that you can recall?
Every memory I have from my childhood was accompanied by some sort of music, and my favourite activity as a two-year old was standing on a tiny makeshift stage in front of the TV, singing along with Alice Cooper and Lita Ford into a toy microphone, and I can vividly remember pretending that I was them performing on stage.
Are your parents musical at all?
My dad played piano and trombone, but most importantly, they both instilled in me a deep connection to music by surrounding me by all different types constantly.
The most prevalent genre was heavy metal, and some of my earliest memories involve my dad rocking me to sleep to Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Shot In The Dark’, or teaching me names of musicians in his favourite bands.
My mom has an amazing ear, and she also amazes me with her knowledge of lyrics.
As a child, you wrote poetry and lyrics to help deal with the complications of having a parent with a chronic illness. I can imagine that was a rather tough experience for you to have to go through growing up.
It definitely was, and continues to be challenging, but I believe it has made me a stronger person. I have always strived for optimism, and writing helped me to stay positive.
As I got older, I started playing instruments, and therefore, I could finally put melodies to the lyrics I was writing.
When was the moment you realised that you wanted to pursue a career as a musician?
My first studio recording was at age 12, and I knew then that I wanted to be a vocalist and musician. I was actually accepted into several schools to study dance, but decided at the last minute to focus on my music instead.
What are your main musical influences?
I have always been drawn to bands with powerful and unique vocalists. I remember watching a Ronnie James Dio concert videotape with my dad when I was in the fourth grade, and thinking I wanted to be up on a stage like that some day.
He had a huge dragon prop, and captivated the audience with his unbelievable vocals and performance.
Around the same time, I discovered Alanis Morissette, and I was immediately empowered by how she was so unapologetically herself in her music, and I am also obsessed with darker classical music, especially ‘Swan Lake’ by Tchaikovsky.
Working with Marco Coti-Zelati and the team behind Lacuna Coil’s latest release ‘Delirium’ has been very influential to the music I’ve been making, as well. I listen to so many different types of music, and lately I’ve been listening to witch house and dark electronic, because it has such a definitive mood, and is perfect to play in the background.
You are also a trained dancer, in all styles. What attracted you to that?
I began dancing when I was three years old. My mom found a local studio, because I was dancing and singing around the house, and she thought I would pick it up easily.
I am so grateful for my dance training, as it has taught me discipline, which in turn, is an integral part of having a career as an independent musician.
And do you still dance professionally, in addition to your musical career?
I teach master classes in dance, as well as exploratory classes for young children in every style.
What would you say was your approach to songwriting?
My songs usually begin with a chord progression or a melody idea, interlaced with abstract lyrics and thoughts, and it eventually develops into its own entity.
Melodically, I prefer to write on piano, as I find it more emotive and powerful for my writing style. When I have the structure of the song finished, I record a demo to get my ideas down, and then listen to it a week later to see if I really like it, and decide if it might have the potential to be as strong as some of my better songs.
And in regards to lyrics, you tend to naturally gravitate towards dark themes. Why is that?
The dark subject matter correlates with the melodies I come up with, and consequently, the lyrics and music feel cohesive.
I tend to write from a biographical standpoint, and typically research an idea of something that interests me to find out more information about it, and then write the lyrics as if I was the person experiencing the topic.
I have obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety, as well, and I’ve learned over time that it is cathartic to channel that darkness through my music.
In 2012, you recorded a piano cover of legendary Los Angeles metal outfit W.A.S.P.’s 1984 ballad, ‘Sleeping (In The Fire)’, for your father’s birthday. What made you decide to do that specific track?
It is one of my dad’s favourite songs. I recorded it in an hour, and never intended for anyone to hear it other than him, but he convinced me to put it on YouTube, so others could hear it.
You then subsequently uploaded that onto YouTube, where it got much positive feedback, most notably from members of W.A.S.P. themselves, past and present. Was that something you were rather taken aback by initially?
I was definitely not expecting it! After the W.A.S.P. cover, I recorded a Black Sabbath song, and that helped me to realise that the response from the other video wasn’t only a one-time occurrence.
I began to focus my attention on more metal covers, and released an album called ‘Metal Lullabies’ in 2015, with piano versions of some of my favourite metal songs, and acoustic original songs, as well.
That year, after bringing out ‘Metal Lullabies’, you were invited to perform on the Wacken Full Metal Cruise, alongside the likes of Wolfsbane and former Iron Maiden frontman Blaze Bayley, and Swedish heavy metallers Hammerfall. How was that as an experience?
It was so much fun. The crowd energy was unbelievable. Having conversations with the other bands and artists, as well as the fans aboard the ship, was an experience that I’ll never forget.
You’ve just brought out a new album, ‘Ode To The Dark’, which you recorded with the team behind Lacuna Coil’s 2016 album, ‘Delirium’. How did that come about?
I have been a fan of Lacuna Coil for over 15 years, and after listening to ‘Delirium’, produced by Marco Coti-Zelati, I couldn’t believe how the arrangements were exactly what I heard in my mind with the new collection of songs I was writing.
I was very fortunate to work with the entire team behind that album, including Marco Barusso, Dario Valentini, and Marco D’Agostino.
And during the recording process for the album, you collaborated with W.A.S.P’s lead guitarist, Doug Blair. That must have been quite an experience for you.
Doug is an insanely talented musician with such intense emotion behind his guitar playing, and it is always an honour to work with him.
And for those who have yet to listen to ‘Ode To The Dark’, how does it differ to ‘Metal Lullabies’?
‘Metal Lullabies’ was an acoustic album of metal covers and original songs. I was strictly an acoustic artist for a long time, and it was solely my piano and myself from the writing process to performing.
‘Ode To The Dark’ builds off of the same organic writing style, but incorporates heavy instrumentation, as well as atmospheric and gothic elements, however, despite the fuller sound of my new music, I’ll never lose that raw foundation, because my approach to songwriting has not changed.
You hail from the city of Philadelphia. How is the music scene there currently?
Philadelphia is the epitome of an arts-driven community, and it is inspired to be surrounded by such individuality is inspiring.
What are your initial plans for 2019?
Several new musical collaborations are going to be released in the winter. I am also looking to continue writing new material, and moving forward with touring and live show ideas.
And finally, what advice would you give to any bands/artists who are currently trying to break through?
I would say be true to yourself, not only in your art, but also in your career decisions. I know it might sound cliché, but it is so important. I would suggest, as well, to go with your initial instincts when you meet someone that wants to be part of your team.
Lastly, I’ve learned that no-one will ever care as much about your career as you do, so it is absolutely vital that you are content and confident with the music you are releasing.
‘ODE TO THE DARK’, THE LATEST ALBUM FROM MELISSA VANFLEET, IS AVAILABLE NOW.
FURTHER INFO ON MELISSA CAN BE FOUND THROUGH THE FOLLOWING SITES: