The wonderfully gifted, gentle, and humble singer/songwriter Melanie Horsnell: "One thing I won’t do is bend to what’s cool.... I will not be influenced or harassed into trying to fit in."
Melanie Horsnell is the essence of singer/songwriter. She writes profound and thought provoking lyrics with melodies that comfort and compel, and most of all, she welcomes you into her headspace to take part in her world view.
Authenticity, honesty, and a longing for discovery - peppered with a dash of ambition and drive, though not too much, lest she ever sells out - mark Melanie's life as an artist who has been active in the music industry since 2001. Her records to date have been well received by critics and fans alike. And while Melanie isn't scared to try something different, like, packing her kids up and heading to Paris to write with musicians she says she found in "dark corners of Parisian cafes."
Melanie began busking the streets of Manly in Sydney from the age of ten, and would go on to busk in London and Paris later in life. After catching a break where one of her songs ended up on a Canadian compilation album, Melanie would go onto release nine recordings, both albums and EPs. Melanie has had a sustainable and worthy career so far. And while she has had her music played in television commercials and on film soundtracks here and abroad, by no means is she commercially driven. Melanie's latest song is called I Learned How To Love From Lovesongs, and it is as brilliant as all of her other songs, but also a fresh sound as she continues to build layer upon musical layer of her impressive and moving portfolio. The epitome of a consistent singer/songwriter who keeps inviting you over for cups of tea, chats and musings, Melanie Horsnell is an Australian angel we should all be proud of.
Melanie took some time to speak a little about her journey, lessons learned, with some great advice for aspiring musicians who don't quite fit in with the cool kids.
What does music mean to you?
Music is like food and water for me. My children and my music are the most important things in my world. I think music is medicine, there is nothing like watching music, or listening in a cafe, or putting some music on at home, or playing for sweet relief from the hardest of times, your body melts and sighs at the pressure being taken off. And dancing around the loungeroom to The Cure when you fall in love is just as magic and butterfly relieving!
You started busking in Manly when you were ten and continued to busk when you lived in London. Tell us about those times.
Dad would dress my little sister Christie and I up in Akubra hats, overalls, and long plaits and take us down to Manly cross to busk, we’d sit outside the Advance bank ATM near the newsagent and play classical guitar together, and I’d sing songs like The House Of The Rising Sun, Morning Has Broken, and Annie’s Song by John Denver. We had matching stools, were very shy, probably very quiet too (classical guitars played by little girls are not boomy!) but we did save up enough to take the family on holiday to Fiji at some point, and buy lots of comics from the newsagent. It was fun. Quiet shy fun. And I’m guessing our cuteness and Australiana was appealing to passers by!
London was different, I was big then, less cute hehe. I had been working at [supermarket] Woolies when I suddenly won a spot on a [album] compilation from the only song I’d ever written, about the gorgeous guitar player in my Year Ten class, and so suddenly at 22 decided to move to London and try and get signed by EMI (I can hear you giggling, I was very serious, I wanted to sing with Robbie Williams). I would busk in all sorts of fun places, including out the front of EMI in London... and in the tunnel on the way to Shepherds Bush Empire, and outside Tube stations. And when I went to Paris for a short trip - utterly broke with a flagon of cheap wine, a big jar of Nutella and a baguette - I found some Canadians and we’d daily meet out the front of the library in Paris to busk for the troops waiting to use the internet. It was such an intensely inspiring time, busking, but mostly open mic hopping. Walking along the rivers where songs were written, Waterloo Sunset coming to mind, I came back with a wagon load of tunes. I had experienced loneliness, being broke and eating Weetbix and cabbage mixed together for health qualities, a bit of unrequited love, I lived in council estates with lovely lowdown Irish people, one who wanted to throw things at me because she was pregnant and mad, and another older woman who adopted me every evening for dinner when her husband didn’t come home.. “Do you want to eat his tea?”.. Every day she would cook it and everyday I’d be there, and she’d say the same thing, and then pour us a glass each of whiskey. We'd eat dinner while listening to a tape of Patsy Cline, and then go and watch Heartbeat on TV. Golden times. I could keep writing.
You have had your work appear on TV shows and in advertisements. What spot do you remember being most thrilled about?
It is considered daggy in Oz to mention any TV work, but I guess the one that made me giggle the most was having my first single I Just Want Some Love featured on a Bonds undie ad where the pants were spotty and flying out the window. It is always charming to hear your song on TV or radio! Hang on, the most thrilling was actually having two of my songs in a beautiful film called Caterpillar Wish by Australian director Sandra Sciberras and featuring Susie Porter... when you hear a song creep in at a critical moment in a story it feels so amazing, to know you put it there and are helping people feel something.
Tell us about your new music
I write all the time, so new keeps evolving! But I’ve just released a new single, called I Learned How To Love From Love Songs and it has a film clip by a lovely friend of mine Kiah Roache-Turner who usually makes zombie movies (one amazing one called Wyrmwood). It's a song I wrote with Catherine Britt a few years back. It's been hovering in my pocket ever since and then when I was in Paris a couple of years ago it became really poignant at a time when there was trouble in the city [during the Charlie Hebdo shooting], and I was at a strange point in my life. And so it was instantly recorded with a band of musicians I’d found in dark corners of Parisian cafes. I find songs are peculiar, sometimes they seem to reflect your current situation, and sometimes they come out in advance... I understood the song when I wrote it, but I understand it a lot more now.
I’m also about to hit the road in Europe with Steve Appel (King Curly). We just met a couple of months ago at the Bellingen Festival, and sort of made instant friends, and so he is joining me on this Europe trip and we are wondering what kind of new songs or creations we could come up with. I’ll make a new album in the start of 2018, and the songs I’ve been writing now are a little more story like, Steve’s influence on the tempo makes them a little funky too, I’m intrigued what will happen to my new songs once we’ve run them through the Europe tour and let them evolve with the gigs and audiences.
You've been around a long time and seen a lot. How have you had to adapt to the music industry in 2017?
I always thought from the start that you have to be a chameleon to be a musician. I guess not all of them are, but I’ve constantly been aware of change, and the need to dance around catching the wind of what’s going on. One thing I won’t do is bend to what’s cool, I am not cool and I will not be influenced or harassed into trying to fit in. I remember years ago living in Sydney and the anxiety when making my second record of whether i should try and fit a certain radio stations sound, or do my hair, dress up like what was happening in Rolling Stone. It takes great effort to hold yourself, and ignore the pack. Thankfully moving to Candelo in the far south coast of NSW has been a huge blessing. The town is full of outstanding musicians - some of them parents too which is so nice - and they play amazing music and what they look like is secondary to what they sound like. I don’t think its just a female thing. Anytime you try and get a little industry notice you have to put up with stupid comments like “I will manage you if you lose 20kg and dye your hair blonde and put beats behind your music”. Oh man. So adapting to the music industry for me is just trying to learn all aspects, I've run my own label for fifteen years, and I do the PR. Learn to do everything so no one can stop you doing anything. The artists I admire most are all long haul, they can ring in a crowd with their first note. Australia has the hardest audiences in the world, seriously. If you can wrangle a drunken pub crowd in Bondi or survive a venue full of shearers having a reunion, I’m fairly certain you can play anywhere and do a good job of it. I could keep talking..
What advice would you give singer/songwriters?
A little bit of above industry wise - learn everything. For songwriting, I’d say, write something everyday, even about your cup and saucer, and maybe something about how you feel, just to keep the buzz inside alive. Play those hard gigs to work out how audiences react, not much point sitting in your room making nice things if you can’t sing them to people! Don’t worry if they ignore you, there is always someone, one person. Don’t worry too much if you have a gig with no one there - the next gig could be 5000. As far as gender stuff goes, male singer songwriters are as lovely as female ones. I spent most of my time in the Sydney scene amongst all the guys, a great bunch of big brothers who never left me out - I just noticed that the other night when playing with some songwriters I’d admired in Sydney. Make circles of songwriters, keep your cliques evolving, share and encourage the other lovely artists you are friends with. And for mum songwriters, make a songwriter night at home once a week, put kids to bed, and invite writers over for a post kids in bed session to talk about new songs or write a new song to a theme each week. We have one in Candelo, it’s very fun and inclusive and sprouts heaps of songs - and albums!
Who are you favourite women in music?
I admire Lindy Morrison and Amanda Brown from The Go-Betweens for many musical reasons and otherwise. They are great Australian musical women. I love Kate Burke and Ruth Hazleton (Kate and Ruth) for the same reason, they are Australian folk music queens, and also heavy duty questioners of the world, intense and amazing. I like Jen Cloher for her I Manage My Music program because I think encouraging musicians to be capable, independent and in control of their world, just means really great music will come out of Oz, and it’s something I do and believe in. Lucie Thorne is my current Aussie music touring hero as she never seems to get off the road and is a sweeeeeet lyricist... and I could rattle off musicians I love, like Gillian Welch for her dry straight delivery, Dolly Parton for her voice, tenacity and brilliant playing, Chrissy Amphlett for songwriting gold and those lips, but I’d be going on for ages!