Image by Brian Zuniga
While Billie Eilish was stealing headlines in 2019, Melanie Martinez matter-of-factly released not just a fully-realized concept album, K-12, but also a jaw-droppingly accomplished accompanying film of the same name. Taken together, they offered a startlingly revealing window into the surreal-but-“real,” pastel-colored Wonderlandian world of the then just 24-years-old singer, originally from Astoria. It was, if you can imagine, equal parts Sofia Coppola, Clueless, and Carrie.
And while seemingly everyone else is busy following the by-the-numbers pop blueprint with producer-conceived collabs and surprise single drops, Ms. Martinez has whimsically stylized her own fantastical but visceral little universe, where she goes—or to be more accurate, stays—to work out the prevailing/eternal emotional and existential truths, with a wicked sense of fun and a biting sense of humor.
Also messing with the accepted formula, a five year old song of hers, “Play Date”—from her now cult classic debut album Cry Baby—was just certified Gold; it perhaps provides the perfect artistic juxtaposition to her latest single, the alarmingly titled “Fire Drill.” The stark video for the latter finds her very much up in flames, as she mournfully levels the accusation, “Living in the fake world, full of facades and chaotic behavior / You pull the lever for fun, yell, ‘Fire!’, then you just run.”
We caught up with the inimitable, fervently iconoclastic songstress for an unflinching discussion about intuition, outsiderness, and why one should never, ever be put up on pedestal.
First, what/how have you been doing under quarantine? Where have you been?
I’ve been at home in Los Angeles, and wearing my mask to and from the studio. I’m finishing up my EP, taking photos, creating video treatments and storyboards and writing my next album, as well as my script for my next film. And then painting, dancing and spending time with my dogs in between. My best friend since childhood just moved to LA from New York too, so I’ve been feeling very grateful. Thankful for good health, inspiration, and genuine people surrounding me.
Now, “Fire Drill” first appeared in the closing credits of your really pretty mind-blowing K-12 film from last year. How was that film ultimately received by fans and critics?
I’ll never really have a full understanding of how K-12 has been received by everyone. Just based off my direct messages it seems people are still re-watching, and finding details they missed the first time. I’ve seen a lot of kids say the movie has helped them with their eating disorders and body dysmorphia, emotionally dealing with bullies—understanding how people project their own hurts onto others—cutting out toxic people from their lives, standing up for themselves with confidence, etc. As well as being inspired to create their own art and music. It’s been a beautiful journey.
“Play Date” just went gold. What do you think it is about the Cry Baby album that has kept it in the musical zeitgeist now for five years going?
The theme of nostalgia will always find people coming back to it. The Cry Baby album was not only about childhood experiences, but also had many layers of multiple meanings that can be applied to adult life as well. I put so much energy into creating that album for the purpose of bringing healing to people in some way, no matter how big or small. I think when you put that intention into something, naturally people pick up on it and find it at the right time.
The world of Melanie Martinez seems an intensely holistic one—everything seems to relate back to everything else in a way. Is there a kind of aesthetic and/or philosophical “manifesto” at work? Or do things happen more organically?
I’m just creating from an internal place of connecting with my intuition/gut feeling. I have a particular style that feels natural to me. Whether it be my clothing, home, art, visuals… I am just choosing based upon what my intuition tells me.
“Fire Drill” begins with the line, “I’ve never fit in to any category / Always deemed an outcast / Since I was in Sunday school.” If I could be blunt, it often seems as if the “oddness” of Billie Eilish and Halsey is very staged and packaged, while you seem completely in earnest about not fitting in. How young were you when you first felt like an outsider?
A lot of people feel like they don’t fit in. Because none of us do. We’re on a planet of isolation. Think about how lonely we must all be for the general understanding of human life to be so important. General consensus is that we are the only intelligent life that exists, when we haven’t even explored the depths of earth’s oceans or the infinite planets and stars that exist throughout the universes. Why would any alien life talk to us when we are nowhere near mastering the art of talking to each other? We are all living our own individual experiences, so of course with that knowing comes inevitably feeling like said “outsider.” As an artist, I express myself through my music to connect with people and feel a little less lonely.
Another lyrical passage goes, “I am not the government, I am not the fucked up men, I am not a part of anything that is hateful, Love is seeping out my pores.” You seem to be actively rejecting self-pity culture, at a time when it’s a very fashionable way for artists to sell themselves. “Oh, look what a mess I am.” Is that a conscious thing for you right now?
I wrote that bridge as a chant/spell/positive affirmation to rid ourselves of the internalized conditioning we’ve absorbed throughout our time living here. Reminders of hate that need healing and transformation. Reminders of love and light that can be the catalyst for that healing and transformation. I think it is beautiful and powerful how each artist decides to express themselves. I don’t believe it is in anyone’s jurisdiction to place a label of “self-pity” on any artist’s expression of their pain.
What can we expect from the upcoming After School EP?
Songs that are much more personal and less focused on Cry Baby’s character, and more expressive of my own emotions and experiences, primarily.
Why does school figure so heavily into your lyrical world?
I chose school as the concept for my second record because I wanted to expand on Cry Baby’s universe, and create other storylines and characters others can relate with and find connection to. School is just one of the many microcosms of life. We encounter the same lessons, patterns and dynamics with people in school and adult life, just as we do from lifetime to lifetime.
Is the visual world of Melanie Martinez completely styled by you?
Yes. My visual world is my real world. I live in it each day. I express what feels most natural to me in that exact moment. I stay present and tap into what feels right for my art and my life.
Image by Brian Zuniga
You are very much a widescreen-thinking conceptualist at a time when the culture is more about short, sharp and disposable. Are there any other grand plans on the horizon you can share?
I have many plans for the future. But currently I’m working on my next album/film, writing music video treatments for the After School EP, designing clothes for a future clothing line, working on another perfume, writing poetry in the hopes of making a future photo/poem book, and honing my crafts altogether.
You have a seriously devoted and fanatical fanbase. How would you describe them?
Extremely observant, creative, passionate, emotional, and obsessive. I can relate to them in that way. Of course I express those characteristics in a much different way. I use my music and art as an outlet. I don’t find it healthy to put humans on pedestals, or to idolize people. If anything, I’d like to inspire them to direct these creative energies into crafting their own visions, art, music, and purpose.
Now describe Melanie Martinez in ten words or less.
The vessel I chose this time around.