This week I am happy to feature another young, and unique singer/songwriter: Melanie Martinez. Born April 28, 1995 in Long Island, NY USA, Melanie Adele Martinez got the big break she needed after appearing on the American vocal talent show The Voice. Her first appearances were not unlike other contestants on the show. She covered music of popular artists like Britney Spears and Elle Goulding. Later she sang music of Ray Charles and Gnarls Barkley. From the start Melanie Martinez displayed her own style of singing, and it intrigued the judges and audience alike. The competition began on September 7, 2012, and ended for Melanie Martinez on week five of the show, December 3, 2012. However, as Martinez walked off that stage for the last time, it would not be the end of her music career. No, this would only be the beginning. Martinez said, “I never expected to get this far and this is beyond what I’ve ever dreamed of. I’m just so glad I got to express who I am as an artist and really touch people’s hearts because that was the ultimate goal.”
After the show, Melanie Martinez began working independently on original material. “Original” is the best word to describe Martinez’ music. You see, Melanie Martinez did not just set out to create a collection of songs. She set out to tell us a story. Her début album titled Cry Baby, can be defined as a concept album. Before we talk about the album itself, you should understand that there is no clear definition of what makes up a concept album. Fiona Sturges of The Independent stated that the concept album “was originally defined as a long-player where the songs were based on one dramatic idea – but the term is subjective.” AllMusic writes, “A concept album could be a collection of songs by an individual songwriter or a particular theme — these are the concept LPs that reigned in the ’50s … the phrase ‘concept album’ is inextricably tied to the late 1960s, when rock & rollers began stretching the limits of their art form.” Author Jim Cullen describes it: “a collection of discrete but thematically unified songs whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts … sometimes [erroneously] assumed to be a product of the rock era.” Author Roy Shuker defines concept albums and rock operas as albums that are “unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical. … In this form, the album changed from a collection of heterogeneous songs into a narrative work with a single theme, where each song segue into one another.”
As I look at the variety of definitions of a concept album, I realize it might be best to look at how Melanie Martinez formed her unique artistic vision. According to her bio, we are given a clearer picture of the thought process behind the album. “It’s fictional, but it’s also about her, in a way that’s somewhat exaggerated and darker than reality. The tale traces through Melanie’s debut album Cry Baby, a collection of pop songs that draw inspiration from singer-songwriter folk and hip-hop and follow a character who learns to be more comfortable with who she is. The journey of the character, who Melanie dubbed Cry Baby, mirrors the musician’s own.”
The inspiration for Cry Baby struck when Melanie, who hails from Baldwin, NY, became obsessed with vintage toy sounds. The musician began writing songs and playing guitar at 14, combining her loves for poetry and music. She taught herself to play since her parents couldn’t afford to send her to guitar lessons, and was influenced both by her dad’s predilection for old school hip-hop and her own interest in folk songwriters like Regina Spektor and Feist. After appearing on The Voice, Melanie signed with Atlantic Records and headed into the studio to begin writing songs. During an early session, after Melanie asked her producer to play some toy sounds, she came up with “Dollhouse,” the origin of the story.
“I was sick of writing on guitar and I was looking for something different,” Melanie explains. “I immediately came up with lyrics and melodies when I heard the toy sounds. ‘Dollhouse’ was the first song that I was really excited about. It was like magic. It helped create this world and I wanted to keep writing songs that were inside that world.”
The album, which Melanie created with producers and songwriters like Kinetics & One Love, embraces childlike themes and imagery, connecting each song together like a children’s storybook. But the recent adult experiences in Melanie’s own life, with relationships and heartbreak and self-discovery, are juxtaposed against these young aesthetics in a deeply interesting way. “Carousel,” which also appeared on last year’s Dollhouse EP and was used to soundtrack a trailer for FX’s American Horror Story: Freak Show, conjures up a carnival to show Melanie’s feeling of being stuck in a cyclical relationship.
As I watched a few of the videos for some of the songs, I felt this was such a great era for an album like Cry Baby. Melanie Martinez is a practiced photographer since childhood, took a lot of the accompanying photos and directed the colorful video for “Pity Party.” She’s interested in bright, candy-colored imagery that reimagines these moments from childhood, often filtering them through a darker lens or exaggerating their tones. Thanks to Melanie’s clear vision, her videos have become fast viral hits, amassing millions and millions of views on YouTube.
Some might think with the imagery, and childhood themes that the album might not be a comfortable listen. Nevertheless, I listened to the entire album a few times and found it quite entertaining. I’m not alone in finding Cry Baby a well-crafted album. Cry Baby received highly positive reviews from most music critics, who praised its conceptual themes, and production. Allan Raible at ABC News gave the album 4.5 stars out of 5, describing it as “a jarring, affecting record that will stick with you days after listening.
After my introduction to Melanie Martinez and her album Cry Baby, I now wonder what she will do for her followup album. Will it be another concept album? Will it carry the Cry Baby theme further? Those are questions I cannot answer now. We will know soon.