Melanie Talks "Brand New Key," Starting Over, and McDonald's
Though best known for her folk-pop ditty "Brand New Key," (also known as "the roller skate song in Boogie Nights") Melanie Safka hasn't stopped making music over a four decade span. Her latest, Since You Never Heard of Me, is full of the wry, sturdy songs that have defined her oeuvre (when the bouncy, not-very-characteristic roller skate hit is removed from equation).
These days, Safka finds herself spending a lot of time in Arizona (she lives her "about as full time as a traveling musician lives anywhere full time"). Her husband and business partner, Peter Schekeryk passed away unexpectedly last year, and being here has given her a chance to be with her children and regroup. "Art and career don't always go together," she explains.
Her three children, Leilah, Jeordie and Beau-Jarred, have all collaborated with Safka -- most notably Jeordie and Beau-Jarred, who will join her for an intimate performance Tuesday, January 10, at The Rhythm Room.
I spoke with Safka about her novelty hit, her career, and "how big" lyrics can be.
Up on the Sun: I wanted to ask you about your latest record, Ever Since You Never Heard of Me. I assume that the title is kind of a joke?
Melanie Safka: It's more tongue in cheek. A joke? I don't know. I think I have a very strange career. I had some Number One records and there were times I'm a household world. Then I'm not. I have maintained fans all over the world, but some people just don't know who I am. Which is natural, especially now, because you have have to do bizarre things to have people know who you are. It's kind of poking fun at celebrity.
Sure. But people might not recognize the name, but they recognize the songs.
They do, which is more important I think. For me anyway.
Have you been writing in the last year, since your husband's death and the last record?
Oh yeah. I never stop writing. I write all the time. I write too much. Same with [daughter and Mixology songwriter] Jeordie. She's always two or three albums ahead of herself. Sometimes it's good to just create and lay it down as you go, but when you're way ahead of yourself, you tend to want to do the new songs when you're performing. I do some old stuff, some old things. I always feel it out. When I'm in front of an audience, I can really sense what they want. I'm a people-pleaser, I'm ashamed to say [laughs].
Obviously you want to explore your newest creative work, but is it also important for you to share those older songs?
I've come to terms with it, because I understand totally. If somebody knows one song that you did because it was a hit - "Brand New Key" or "Candles in the Rain" - if you don't do it it's a let down. That was the song that pulls them in. Like advertising cheap televisions in your store, and when people come you don't have them. Not that my songs are cheap television.
It's the calling card. Then there are other people, diehard fans and they know all my 47 albums worth of songs from the very beginning to now. They could care less if I do "Ruby Tuesday" or "Brand New Key." I have a good balance of people. I feel comfortable doing the hits, because I feel a lot of artists don't want to play the hits because what they do now is not as good. But if you're into what you're doing, you're not in competition with yourself.
The song, "I Tried to Die Young" features an interesting lyrical approach.
It's a turnaround. I love lyrics. I'm an unabashed, shameless lyricist. I love playing with words, and turning them around, and having a punch.
When you sing about "making friends with your demons" what are you discussing there? Or does it not work to explain it away?
If I was articulate enough to explain it, I probably won't be a songwriter [laughs]. I think a lot of art comes from the inability to express in other ways. Even if I could [explain] it would certainly take the magic out of it, and I couldn't do it as well as I can in a lyric. [Recites the line]. It's so perfect. Why would anyone want to explain that?
You're an artist from a time in American history that's now legendary. I guess it's more fun for me to imagine what you're singing about there.
Yeah, go right ahead [laughs]. It could apply to all of the above or none of them. That's how big a lyric can be. It can accomplish things in other people's heads the best.