In a recent AfterEllen.com article about out South Africa’s first prominent lesbian TV character, we also mentioned singer-songwriter Melanie Lowe as one of the very few high-profile openly gay or bisexual women in South Africa. Lowe came to fame in 2002, after appearing on the American Idol-type show Idol, and publicly came out as a lesbian this past June.
In her first interview with AfterEllen.com, Lowe talks about her musical inspiration, her label, Mellow Music, the importance of coming out, and her impending wedding to fiancée, Angela Brest.
AfterEllen.com: How would you describe your music?
Melanie Lowe: I have so many influences and they add bits and pieces to my songs in their own way. Guitar is my main instrument when I’m writing, so that means they are quite acoustically driven and, if you strip them down to the bare minimum, they have quite a folky/acoustic feel to them. The production and arrangement definitely puts them into more of an adult contemporary category, but I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as that.
I don’t subscribe to any requirements in terms of making a commercial hit and, to that end, my songs are lyrically and melodically driven and are definitely not your typical commercial type. I write what’s in my heart, pure and simple. However that translates, is what it is.
It’s very hard to be objective about your own songs. They are all far too close to me and I didn’t even know they would be of interest to anyone until a lot of people had spent a lot of time convincing me otherwise! I still find it hard to believe. I think if there were a category called "Melanie Lowe," it’d be easier to put them somewhere but, like their creator, they don’t fit into a box of any kind.
While I’ve had many people try and convince me that I will never get anywhere unless I find a target market, I tend to disagree. I don’t want to shut anyone off. I want everyone to hear my stories and take from them what they want to take. If they choose to take nothing then that’s fine by me. I want to reach the people that want to be reached.
AE: You list Tori Amos, Tegan and Sara, Tracy Chapman and Sarah Bettens among the musicians you admire. What’s the common theme that attracts you to their music?
ML: I think I just relate to them a lot better firstly because they’re female and their style of writing strikes a chord with me.
Secondly, they are all completely unique and have built a following by just being themselves and holding on to their musical integrity. Tori Amos is my biggest inspiration and the reason for that is that it hasn’t always been easy for her. She, like me, has played the smoky cigar bars, done the low paying or free gigs and the endless footwork required to just get your songs heard. She has paid her dues in many ways and she’s done it all by being herself, even though her style is completely alternate to the mainstream. I admire that so much. It inspires me to pick up and carry on when another door gets slammed in my face because, even having a name in the music industry, does not guarantee open doors.
I am part of a minority group of artists who won’t give in and do the song that everyone wants to hear, the one that’s a guaranteed money-spinner. I have frustrated more than a few record labels, I know, because in South Africa, that means that you are a very small corner of the market! It’s the toughest route I guess but for me, it’s simply the only route.
When I start to feel like it’s not worth it anymore, I think of how Tori struggled and, while I wouldn’t be so bold as to place myself in her league, I know I have an equal amount of passion, and my stories are just as important to me as hers are, to her. I know it’s possible, because she did it.
AE: In your experience, what are the best and most challenging aspects of being part of South Africa’s music scene?
ML: Every part of it! I think every country has it challenges but perhaps South Africa is a bigger challenge than most because we are still relatively new at all this.
The market is far smaller and finding the people with the right kind of experience and no-how, is tricky. For that reason South African musicians are very accustomed to doing it all themselves. The problem is that it’s an incredible amount of blood, sweat and tears, for very little reward. Luckily we all love what we do! Those that aren’t in it for the love of it, soon fall by the wayside because sometimes that passion is all that keeps you going.
I don’t want to make you think that it’s all bad though, I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t love it and every career has its pros and cons. The difference with music is that it’s more of a calling than a career. It is, quite simply, my life. I am Melanie Lowe, the artist, no matter what I am doing or where I am. Music is inherently part of who I am. It’s runs through my bloodstream. That in itself is a challenge. I have to separate myself from my career at times or you really do take everything far too personally.
People will only ever see the parts of you they want to see. I will never be a "real" person to a lot of people. For an artistic, over-sensitive temperament, that can be tough, but I love all the challenges. I would shrivel up and die if I had to do something else instead of music. I’ve never been more alive than I am when I am sharing my music with people. It feeds my soul. For that, I will face, and take on, any challenge!