Melanie Martinez was a 16-year-old contestant on The Voice, but her offbeat image and deceptively cute pop songs have found her an obsessive fanbase beyond reality TV
When I meet 21-year-old singer-songwriter Melanie Martinez at her record label offices in West London, she’s got her hair in pigtails and is wearing a pink satin dress with a fluffy hat, faux-fur collar, and pink boots – but her arms are also covered in tattoos, and she’s got a sick septum piercing. The contrast of light and dark, good and bad, innocence and attitude sets the tone for the singer’s musical repertoire. Her debut album Cry Baby, released last summer, is made up of tracks with deep lyrics addressing sometimes heavy issues like addiction and self-harm through the character of ‘Cry Baby’, a semi-fictional version of Martinez. All of this is sugar-coated with Martinez’s surreal aesthetic.
Having started her career aged 16 back in 2012 as a contestant on US reality TV show The Voice, Martinez has, for the last four years, been distancing herself from the covers-singing reality TV star that she was recognised as. Now she writes her own songs, designs her own costumes, and directs her own videos. She’s a very modern star, with a huge and dedicated online fanbase (she has over two million Instagram followers and 1.2 million likes on Facebook) committed to her feels-heavy electro pop music.
We caught up with 2016’s answer to alternative pop superstardom to talk about her music, videos, and the trouble with social media.
How would you describe your music?
Melanie Martinez: I guess I see my music as sort of like a storybook, you know? I feel like I'm just kind of documenting things in my life, but also telling a story about this other character, ‘Cry Baby’. Cry Baby is a character based on me – the reason I wanted to title the album Cry Baby is because that’s the name I was called as a kid, because I was super emotional and took things personally. I wanted to write an album that would help me to see that as a strength rather than a weakness, and turn the name ‘Cry Baby’ into a compliment rather than an insult.
You design a lot of the visuals yourself, don't you?
Melanie Martinez: All of the designs come from my head, although I definitely don’t build it with my own hands! But I’m very involved. I direct all of my own music videos, write all the treatments, do my own makeup, style myself. I even design outfits that my friend will then custom make for music videos and for stage.
“A lot of people go on (The Voice) because they think if you win, you become a superstar. Even when I was 16, I knew that that wasn’t it” — Melanie Martinez
How did it feel to go from doing reality TV to doing your own thing?
Melanie Martinez: It feels way more natural. I feel better now that I’m able to do my own thing. A lot of people go on the show because they think if you win, you become a superstar. Even when I was 16, I knew that that wasn’t it. I wanted to go on the show because I was just trying to do something – I didn’t know how else to put myself out there, because I was in a small town in Long Island and I was used to just writing songs in my parents’ bathroom on guitar and posting videos on YouTube and I didn’t know what else to do. It was really hard getting people who knew about me from the show used to my style in the year after The Voice. People were coming to my shows and I would have to be like ‘No! I don't want to play that cover. I want to do my original music.’ So that was difficult, but eventually people understood and really started connecting with the music.
How have you found it as a young female artist working in the music industry?
Melanie Martinez: I’ve felt throughout my career that there’s definitely a weird vibe if you’re a young girl. People feel like they can pull something over you. But I’m very stubborn and I think I’ve made it very clear to anyone working with me that I don’t play that! But yeah, there are definitely difficulties in how people view you if you’re a female artist rather than a male artist – there’s more of a younger generation of people idolising female artists in the pop world, so there’s a little bit more pressure because you’re expected to be perfect. People have more of a microscope on you, and they’re looking at every detail.
Where does the dichotomy between your dark lyrics and cuter image stem from?
Melanie Martinez: When I was writing the album, I was just focused on the contrast between light and dark. If you hear the song, I want you to hear it visually. I want it to be more of an experience than just a song. I was just really nerdy for a while and was very focused on just making that contrast stand out within the entire album.
How does it feel to have such a personal relationship with the people listening to your music?
Melanie Martinez: Music, for me, is therapy. I never feel weird about sharing songs, because they’re still songs. If I wrote something like a paragraph about how I feel, I would feel uncomfortable posting that on the internet – and I’ve had to do things like that before, because I always like to be honest online whenever there are rumours or whatever. But it does take me time and it makes me feel uncomfortable having to do things like that. I’d rather make it more creative and say how I feel in a music video, or through artwork, photographs, and music – that’s how I like expressing myself. Putting out therapeutic music, I just have to accept people are going to know things about me. I’ve been meeting people who say ‘I also feel the same way’, and they're relating to the music on a much deeper level than just relating to your favourite party song. To hear multiple times that a song like ‘Dollhouse’ has helped someone with their family issues is way more special to me than a hit record. So I try not to think ‘Is this too personal for a song?’ because I know that someone is going through the same thing and can relate to it.
“To hear multiple times that a song like ‘Dollhouse’ has helped someone with their family issues is way more special to me than a hit record” — Melanie Martinez
How important is having a big social media presence?
Melanie Martinez: I don’t really put a lot of personal things online; it’s more artistic, things relating to the music or the album or everyday visuals. I think people forget that I’m awkward and shy. People post things like ‘Melanie Martinez ‘facts’ – things like that make me uncomfortable, but nobody knows that and I don't want to say that because, like, whatever – I know people find joy in doing that. But I do wish that it wasn’t so much about analysing the human being and more about how it was back in the day. I feel like when people were fans then, it was ‘I really love this song!’, but now it’s more like ‘I love this person! I want to know everything about them, I need to know everything.’ And that’s scary to me, because I don’t look for that kind of attention. It’s definitely hard to see that on social media and to be a part of that, but I also understand that’s just the generation. I guess if I could say anything, (I’d say that) I know a lot of younger girls are inspired by me, and I want them to be inspired by me, but also to know that they are also very important and they can do amazing things. So instead of focusing all this time on making things like ‘Melanie Martinez facts’, maybe use that creative energy to do something that expresses how they feel and creating something for their own and focusing on what they want to do and who they are, you know? I think it’s really important.