Melanie’s Brand New Key
by Ronald Sklar
Look what they’ve done to her song, ma: they’ve made her a pop icon.
During the early 1970s, the underground press misunderstood Melanie, but above ground, her fans and future generations did not.
Brought up in New Jersey with the full, non-mainstream name of Melanie Safka, she wrote and performed her own songs. This in itself was a new phenomenon in pop music, but that she was a woman wowed the masses even further. In 1970, females were supposed to buy the records, not create them. And what’s with the hippie clothes, Jersey Girl?
Her hits were quirky but catchy: “Brand New Key,” “Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma” and “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” topped pop charts, but record execs and critics were scratching their heads. The flower child was hard to peg (and market). Was she singing for the kids? Or for all-time (history has only begun to answer this, siding with our gal).
Emanating out of that little-white-girl body came a hell of a voice, but a long-time string of hits was not to be. Still, she continued her pioneering ways by starting her own label (Neighborhood Records), and quietly left her mark as a player in an era that’s often hard to describe or understand.
She spent her non-hit years raising a family and working for charity (including UNICEF). Miley Cyrus’ recent remake of the Edith-Piaf-like “Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma” has caused heads to turn back to the source of such brilliant songwriting.
Now, she’s touring and reconnecting with fans, old and new. Here, she graces us with a PopEntertainment.com interview.
We love you to death, but the press not so much. Why?
I was unfairly attacked by the very papers that I thought would be simpatico with me, that they would understand my message and get it. I didn’t ever see myself as a mainstream type. I always thought of myself as ugly and peculiar looking. It was kind of an unbelievable shock to me that I had hit records. There was this thing going on that if you had a hit, you were highly suspect.
Were you maybe just a victim of your time? Or simply ahead of your time?
Rolling Stone magazine seemed to run an attack on me. I think it had a lot to do with me being on Buddah Records/Legacy Recordings, which before me was known as a bubblegum label. But then [the label] found Captain Beefheart and they were expanding their horizons. I guess I got caught in the transitional stages.
The review of “(Lay Down) Candles in the Rain” in Rolling Stone magazine was a damnation of any ability that I had. They didn’t mention that I wrote the song. And then they said that my voice was like a pencil scratch across the record. But when I listen to that song, I think, ‘My God, that voice! That’s a powerful little white girl in front of all those black gospel singers.’ I was really holding my own there. There was no mention at all that this was pretty revolutionary, a white girl singing with an all-black choir. In the South, that was still pretty risky.
What did they not appreciate about your music?
So many songs back then sounded “so Sixties” or “so Eighties.” But all of my songs just stand alone as musical tidbits.
Was “Brand New Key” meant to be tinged with sexual innuendo?
It’s unbelievable to me that I didn’t notice the sexual innuendo. When I look back on it now, I think, ‘how could I not notice that?’ I was one of those girls in school who if someone made an off-color joke, and I would be going, ‘what?’ My head was in such a different place that I just didn’t zero in on that. Maybe my inner-subconscious knew.
I was on a 27-day fast. I was a vegetarian before that. I went to this guru who put me on a cleansing fast. I was 27 days on nothing but water. About two weeks later, I went to a flea market in Englishtown, NJ, and on the way back, I passed a McDonald’s, and the aroma! I had the biggest craving! I went in and had the works, and no sooner had I finished my last bite of the hamburger that I had that song in my head.
I don’t know if it was that aroma, but whatever it was, it threw me back into that era of learning how to roller skate and learning how to ride a bike. I was under the sensation of putting all that shocking stuff into my body all at once after cleansing for that long. Whatever it was, that song came out.
Were you considered a hippie? How were you defined back then?
They called me a flower child. There weren’t many women [performing] at that time. This was before Joni Mitchell. There was no Carole King yet, as a writer. Back then, writers were confined to the back rooms. They weren’t able to wow audiences. [Performers] were more of a manufactured thing. They couldn’t avoid me because I was so there, but they would put me in the same article as, say, Bobby Sherman. If you want to make somebody look bad, it’s not that difficult. I had a career in spite of it.