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Melanie Fiona: A soul singer and her 'consistent variation'

November 16, 2009 |  6:00 am

Mel Other Shoot 8 Re Melanie Fiona is hoarse for a reason. The 26-year-old Guyanese-Canadian songstress has been on a grueling promotional tour for her debut album, “The Bridge,” which hit stores Tuesday.

She’s performed on BET’s “106 and Park,” “Good Day New York” and “The Mo’Nique Show,” as well as at her own album release party, and that’s just in the last 48 hours. She’s also touring with soul veteran Raphael Saadiq and fellow up-and-comer Ryan Leslie on a trek that rolls into Los Angeles on Friday for a show at the Wiltern. Fiona admits she’s “exhausted,” with a laugh.

Still, the excitement in her voice when you mention her new album overpowers the fatigue.

Calling from New York, the singer has reason to be giddy. Reviews for “The Bridge” have been generally impressive. The Associated Press hailed it as “one of the best debut albums this year,” and Vibe Magazine called it a “contemporary classic.”

Fiona’s vocals recall those of Mary J. Blige, Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill --  she's contemporary enough to soar in today’s market, but vintage enough to stand apart from the likes of Beyoncé and Rihanna, the latter of whom Fiona penned a song for.  On her first single, “Give It to Me Right,” her richly soulful voice rolls in like a thunderstorm over the familiar and captivating “boom-boom-boomp-tuh-ahhhh” of the Zombies’ classic “Time of the Season.”

After Kanye West hand-picked the Toronto native to open for him during the European leg of his 2008 Glow in the Dark tour, she paid tribute to the rapper with a stunning Island-tinged cover of West’s “Heartless,” which is floating around on the Questlove mixtape, “WQST Radio Presents Melanie Fiona Meets Illadephics (A Live Remix Jam Session of the Bridge).”

Pop & Hiss recently spoke with Fiona about her rich ethnic heritage, what she learned from West and the power of a good love song.

You have a very interesting background, with strong West Indian roots. How did your heritage inspire your music?

I love my background. It’s fantastic. My family is from Guyana and they immigrated to Canada. I’m the only one who was born in Canada. I have the best of both worlds. Toronto is just great; I love everything it has to offer. That influence was in the house. My mom would sing and play music in the house when she was doing laundry or washing clothes. She just loved music and singing. My dad would come home from work and gig out in the basement. That gave me a good foundation. I couldn’t sleep without it, growing up. It naturally encouraged me to follow through with my talent.

You opened for Kanye West. Did he give you any advice on your live performance?

The best advice was watching him every night. He really puts his passion and his story into his shows. Him telling me, “when you’re onstage, that’s your moment. That’s how you win them over.” I love to perform live, it’s my favorite part of what I do. He loved what I was doing. When someone in the industry that you admire loves it, that’s the best feeling. The music I have is international, but it’s unknown. I get thrown onstage to open for Kanye, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh.” My focus was to entertain [the audience], connect with them. I was overwhelmed. They were loving and appreciating what I’m doing. People appreciate good music. That was an amazing first touring performance for me.

During the summer, 'Give it to Me Right' was a staple on the radio. Why do you think so many people connected with the song?

It had a slogan, anthem feel -- especially for women. And for men, they were saying, “Who is this chick saying, 'Give it to me right, or don’t give it to me at all'?” People came up to me. I’m glad it was empowering.  If the music is being applied to people’s lives, it was that slogan of 2009. That’s the way I live my life.

It also uses an incredible sample that most people know. Was there any pressure when dealing with getting the song cleared?

Oh my gosh, yes of course. That sample is classic, absolutely. I knew we had to get it cleared. A lot of people are really sensitive with samples. I didn’t want to disrespect or copy the original. I looked at it like a tribute. I thought, “Let’s do a sexy, current day version, from a female’s perspective.” People loved it. I think it’s easier for people to digest when they’ve heard it before. The Zombies cleared it. When the artist approves it, that’s the highest form of approval, to feel like the original composers are supportive.

TheBridge_ApprovedCover (2) What’s the story behind the title of the album  “The Bridge”?

It bridges the gap. It crosses generations. I came up with the title with my mom. Bridges you go from one side to get to the next. The bridge was a great representation of the music, but I liked what it symbolized as an artist.

How would you describe your creative process working on the album? It sounds like a hybrid of reggae rhythms, jazz, R&B and Motown harmonies.

It wasn’t a set formula. Feeling is everything. If I feel a song -- let’s cut it, let’s write it, let’s go from there. I like to write about things that are relative to real life. I can’t sing about things that I can’t relate to. I wanted to make an album that was reflective of me. The one thing that I can say is all the songs have a soulful, refreshing feel. I’m diverse, I have a diverse mentality. I wanted to make music that reached different genres, different people. As cliché as it is, music is a universal language. I didn’t want to be put into a box. It’s what I like to call the consistent variation.

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy

Melanie Fiona plays Nov. 20 with Raphael Saadiq and Ryan Leslie at the Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 388-1400; 7 p.m. Tickets are $15-$35, not including surcharges. 

Photo courtesy of Melanie Fiona

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