Mel and Joe are familiar faces on today’s Macc music scene with their band ‘Butterfly Jam’. Individually they also both have extensive careers in the music industry, with chart success and international acclaim. They live in Macclesfield with their two children, a cat, a dog and a recording studio in the cellar. We met them in the Snowgoose where Joe is the first to arrive…
What is it we’re doing here? Is it an interview..? I forgot…
Yes, an interview – about you and music! Did you always know you’d end up in the music industry?
From when I was about 4 or 5 I always knew. Making up songs in the back of the car and stuff. I grew up on a commune in Norfolk with lots of music happening there and 30 miles away was this other commune with a band who was signed to Virgin Records. When they were sound checking, I went up on stage with them, messed around on the mic’s and keyboard… I must’ve made a conscious decision then. And then just before I started secondary school and they asked what we wanted to be when we were older, I said ‘pop star’. And they all burst into laughter!
I grew up on Elvis and Dylan, started playing piano at 11 and wrote my first full song on the piano at 12 or 13. The first time I performed on stage I was 15 with my first band The Risk. I always thought I’d be a writer, I didn’t think I was good enough to be the singer.
I went to music college, Arden College Community College in Manchester, part-time for two years so you could still sign on and get the dole cheque… There were all styles of people, classical and rock musicians, and for the end of year exam you had to do something different, like have a cello on a rock song… the college had its own studio and theatre. A lot of the classical musicians didn’t write. As a classical player you’re trained to perform not really to write. A writer often is a free spirit. For me the writing was first. Performance is the pop star side, the bit in front of an audience. Being a writer, like Joni Mithcell, Leonard Cohen, they’re not interested in prancing around. The main thing is to tell a story. It’s like a movie.
So you wanted to be a writer but ended up on Top of The Pops..?
People misunderstand what it’s going to be like. When I got on Top of The Pops I wasn’t ‘famous’, my single was in the charts for a bit, when it happened I wasn’t comfortable with it. I’m much more comfortable now. The performing and pop star bit, I found out once I was having that kind of experience that I wasn’t so keen on that. It seemed to me it was all about how I looked, about my voice, expensive videos. Actually my songs to me were more important, the sounds we were getting in the studio…
Yeah, I had a no. 23 ‘Lover’, a no. 31 and a no. 28 together with Mel. But that’s not the main thing… thing is, that you have to sell your art so you can keep doing it… The weird thing about any art is you need to sell your art so you can carry on making your art. You need time. Everyone needs time… So it’s an important part of it, being in the charts and stuff, but now it’s more organic. A lot of people just play their music and today it’s possible for everybody to get it out… How you reach your audience is more organic. Access is more democratic. It’s kinda good there isn’t loads of money floating around. People are just doing it for themselves rather than the money… Money and pressure dried me up. I had a period when I had dried up for 6 years, it drains you having to produce because you’re expected to produce a number one…
You’ve got kids now writing songs about stuff, the lyrics are true, they’re real… they write fantastic songs, great lyrics…they write about their lives…that’s why I’m not keen on R&B any more… people are writing ‘ooo I love you, I need you, I miss you’,… old fashioned lyrics, lyrics like that really turn me off now. But people are writing about life stuff again now. Punk was great in that respect, but I missed punk as I was a mod back then.
Is it becoming more political again do you think?
Yeah, with less mainstream control going like with radio approval and the freedom of the internet. The punk thing was amazing lyrically. A real underground revolutionary platform. It was amazing when I clocked what punk was really about!
We start chatting about the beauty of experiencing music when playing live with a band and how it all feels so differently when you have to doctor a piece of music into marketable songs…
Everything happens for a reason anyway. You just have to be patient, usually it comes around sooner or later. It’s like magic. It’s amazing!
I had a band, it was quite organic, but the record company decided to stop paying for my band, it all went pear-shaped within six months. I wasn’t in my power, I didn’t know how to say no. I believed they knew better and I didn’t have a clear vision at that time. I had a band but was signed as a solo artist. We were quite raw, just warming up for the album release. But they wanted to pull the band money and put it into remixes and videos. The club remix thing was massive, all good, but my organic raw side got brushed under the carpet. The live music, the band, was gone… So I ended up being the pop star I thought I wanted to be. The raw hippy side of me went. I looked ridiculous sometimes when I look back… and then I woke up. I asked my manager how do I get off this label? He said if you don’t write any songs in the next six months they’ll drop you anyway.
I’m working with young artists now and one of the things I’ve learnt is to do it the way you want to do it. Don’t let anybody tell you how to do it. So if you feel in your heart ‘fuck off!’, then why do it? The most important thing is the art, the music, that’s what people fall in love with. That you’re genuine.
Were people using or listening to music in a different kind of way 30 or 40 years ago, were they less consumer-minded and had a less fast-track interest in being entertained with music?
I think people have always had the same relationship with music. Something to dance to, escape into or to inspire their life somehow. The consumer can get hoodwinked sometimes by the industry but honest music has always found a way through. In the late 60’s early 70’s the record companies realised a lot of the artists were in the driving seat…
Our last record deal together (with Melanie) ended 2008. The last album we match funded it so we were out of money. We needed to keep the wolf from the door, so I thought I’d do something I like doing. I always liked doing carpentry stuff but I was so ridiculously slow with it back then…. I started joining Alan Davies (Fats from The Chinese Marbles) for decorating, and he taught me a lot. When I go out decorating I usually come home bursting with musical ideas because I’ve been contemplating them all day with a brush in my hand, in a Zen like state sometimes… I decorate if I need to, to help keep the studio going, so that I can spend more time in the studio, recording, writing etc.
Alan, he was one of the people that reminded me music was fun. When we came to Macc we noticed straight away at Storm Brewery rehearsals, gigs with the Chinese Marbles, Hot Bananas… we noticed how much fun everyone was having! Compared with my past experience, most of the time it was pretty stressful!
At this stage, Mel joins us…
Mel, how did you first get into performing?
I spent part of my childhood in Macc. I was always singing with the hairbrush. My neighbour used to swear through the walls to shut up! I did want to be Diana Ross but didn’t know that’s what I’d do.
I had a boyfriend at 14 and he said I should go and audition for this girl group, which I did, but the man in charge made me uncomfortable… I escaped in the night with my suitcases but at least I learnt to get in touch with my gut feeling. And above all I say that to our kids now – above all we tell you, trust your gut instinct. I just wanted to be a normal girl. It had all been very official and my parents had signed a contract, they wanted us to be like a modern young Three Degrees. I just wanted to get home.
How did it all go on then, did your parents carry on supporting you?
They did. From when I was 13 on I had several after school jobs, then when I was 17 at a party these guys said, you look like a singer, will you come and sing in our band Adventure, and we used to rehearse in the Beehive Mills at the back of Oldham Street in Manchester. I started writing for the band and that morphed into me and Eric Gooden leaving and becoming Temper Temper, and we got singed to Geffen Records.
I’d immediately started hearing whole songs in my head and used to think I’d stolen them, I did everything with my voice, I didn’t learn an instrument. And then I’d sing the song and they’d be like, no that’s original, let’s write it down!
I gave up A levels for it. At one stage, living in poverty in Hulme, my parents did say maybe you need to stop dreaming, but then I was spotted doing covers in a cabaret band – spotted by a guy with a studio and he gave us free studio time. And we were signed from those demos and then we were whisked off to Chicago, New York and LA!
As soon as I started it was like a door burst open and there was nothing but music in quite a dramatic way. Nothing else matters. This is it. These things just happened like a sense of destiny. If there was a grand plan, I didn’t know this was it! But this is it. This is what I have to do. And to be a part of the driving force of the music industry. It’s like an addiction – it’s fine when it’s all going well, but it did buffet me around a bit. But it’s obsessive. I had to find a way to live and breathe as a musician. It brings you so intensely into the moment. That sense of connection with other musicians, it’s amazing… That’s the stuff of life. Those connections. The essence of life. Connection. Being in the moment.
Everybody seems to be able to record music these days, but what about talent?
Everyone has a voice, some of us just come in more connected to it. It’s good for the soul, good for breathing, good for health to sing. So once you’ve been bitten by that bug it takes over. Connecting to your true voice. It helps you to connect to yourself. But, you have to be prepared to allow creativity into your life….
They start discussing how hard it is to maintain creativity and manage an image of yourself that is meant for the outside, for ‘the industry’….
We work so hard, rehearse ourselves rigid in order to re-produce music on the stage so that it sounds like on the record… when you find that the real creativity sits in the live music. The benefit in later life is being able to just jam, ‘the pearls of poverty!’ (said in unison). The pearls that come out. Before if I changed my hair there would be a three-way conference call. Once I was flown to California to do a different shoot, we did quite a dark arty shoot for the UK, but was flown over there to do something more sex-kitteny for their R&B market. I wish sometimes in hindsight I’d been stronger. I said yes to some things and no to others that perhaps I shouldn’t have… But it was an overwhelming force. At the time I felt in power, and strong, but I wish I would have said no, and not ignored my authentic self. The main struggle is to remain creative and be your authentic self… Today there’s a lot of freedom in the arts and you can develop individually …well it depends on the area of music.
Once you’re in it, I thought myself a strong woman, strong artist, driven, ambitious, I would say yes to thinks I thought I was in agreement with because I wanted it to work. Ignoring my authentic self didn’t work for me. For some people it does. I look back now and think I knew that feeling and I ignored it… I was always trying to be reasonable to the investors too, but when trying to make things more commercial the creativity was inhibited. It was too contrived. It didn’t work. The pressure to get a top record doesn’t work creatively.
…Prince he can do it. And Madonna – she has scouts on the street sweeping for the next big thing. She takes it over, superimposes herself on it… I thought I was like that, then realised I wasn’t. She got authentic later, whereas I was hampered by wanting to be authentic now!
She pours more Gunpowder Green tea thoughtfully…
Nile Rodgers too. I met him once in the Ritz… he was so generous, like he was ‘giving’ generously all the time. Some artists are just drawing in to feed their egos… It’s feeding an addiction. Other artists are pouring out to me, to the audience… Erykah Badu talks about the journey of the artist… she’s a neo-soul artist, she’s a real icon for me. Her records went from making 7 million, to 2 million, to 1 million, she’s also an activist… I like the way she goes about it.
It’s incredible in Macclesfield at the moment! You wonder why you end up here and then you think wow I see it now!
We reflect on the fact that most of the musicians who have approached us for GITM are men. There are plenty of female musicians in Macc, but perhaps they don’t push themselves forward in the same way.
Is there something about rock music that is particularly ‘male’?
Joe: Prince always has female players. The work ethic of women is incredible, they won’t give up. Men less so, maybe because they’re used to having things done by them by their mothers..? Men would be like, fuck this let’s go to the pub, but not women…
Mel: I said to my daughter, be a bass player and you’ll never be out of work and I’ve encouraged her to play piano and sing so she can go out on her own and be independent.
Do you think this is a gender thing then, because only one other person has mentioned that need to be independent as a musician, and that was also a woman. None of the men have mentioned it?
Joe: I think the gender thing is changing though… but men are used to having people do things for them.
Mel: My babies were strapped to me during recordings, you can hear Pheonix and Coral gurgling over them ! I breastfed through business meetings… They learnt to cling on my children did, I think I got into a kind of superwoman trap, don’t think I slept for 7 years, recording, singing, writing, producing, breastfeeding, trying to be a perfect mother as well… I realised I wanted to be there for them, a perfect mother and a successful career woman… challenging call. My orbit got smaller and smaller – the kitchen, the basement studio, the school run… I’m wanting to expand my orbit again now.
Joe: What I hate about the decorating was it got me into this culture of pubs and men and after work drinking, and I’d get home, sit down, thinking… I’ve been out, done work, haven’t I? Whilst the person at home …well, would have worked too… don’t get me wrong, but… (Mel nods in agreement). I met such great people in the pub and got lots of new work from there too… but it was strange. I didn’t want to be that person.
So what advice would you give to aspiring musicians today?
Joe: Avoid ‘being famous’ as a goal. It’s about your expression as an artist. Keep expressing yourself… and you don’t have to have a lot of money to do that. Just enough money to have a few days off to write. Keep writing, keep playing live… keep a life. Most people who are famous don’t have a life. People miss their mates and their home life when they’re touring. It’s tough.
Mel: It used to be all exclusive, held back, you’d tour to promote a record, there was mystery… Now more people know you, you give your record away to sell the tour and that’s how you make your money, from the tours.
Mel: Be connected to what your particular feelings and goals are. For some people fame is very useful, they do a lot of good things from that platform. It’s about checking in and being as connected to your authentic self as you can and then get paid for who you are… Get paid for who you are. If you can manage that, that’s the way forward.
Joe: My original childhood goal was to be famous.
Mel: Was it? I didn’t know that!
Joe: …and then when I got there I froze. I realised I just wanted to write and feel connected. It helped me emotionally… It’s saved a lot of lives music… A smaller audience is more connected.
Mel: For me all my nerves disappeared when I got eye contact with the audience, a real energy, connected. Sometimes when you play live, you make eye contact with people, some may be really cautious or doubtful at first and then further on, this moves on and you make a more trustful connection with them, like something has been exchanged with them through music. I get grounded in my body. It’s an exchange. We’re all in this together. Everything fell away when I had that connection. Some kind of energy exchange… I wanted to use the music to support amazing causes. I feel I’ve gone from an egocentric space programmed by society to prove myself as a powerful woman to the deeper and deeper expression of my authentic self…an ongoing re-discovery ! Butterfly Jam is like a parent energy, a force, spotting new talent, we’re encouraging the next wave of musicians now… It’s lovely for us to see how the next generation of musicians emerges and develops.
Joe: Macclesfield’s got this rally amazing support system. Everyone goes to see and support each other and then talk and drink together… It’s like Greenwich village in 1963! Amazing writers supporting each other, playing in bars… yeah, that’s it! Like the poetry slams in Inca…
Mel: There’s something going on every night… Art is so revealing. That’s why people are scared to do it. It’s like being stripped naked. It’s hard to hide anything. Even if it’s revealing what you’re hiding, you cannot express something truly creative without revealing something about yourself. You have to be very strong to be vulnerable, to be able to reveal your vulnerability.
Joe: In Macc there’s an amazing amount of people taking a risk, setting up platforms for musicians, poets, artists… It’s always this difficulty with music. You have to build the vision first, get the essence of it and then get it out there…
Mel: I wanted to do an A to Z for artists tips! It’s all gobbledygook in a contract first time you see it. Later on you get to know it and understand it… but it’s changing so fast. It’s a whole new territory now…
The older I get the more open I feel about things. It was very important to me first we had to build it, there are no guarantees, we had to build the music first, with no illusion of security, build that vision first. It’s quite a magical thing. To create that out of nothing. It’s impossible to be uncreative, it may have been crushed out of you, but there isn’t a single being on this planet that isn’t creative . It might be blocked, but it’s in there somewhere…
Joe: The function of music, it’s a childlike state of being in the moment where everything feels possible. It’s kept me in touch with the openness to ‘anything’s possible’. With music anything’s possible – wow we’re free!!
Mel: It connects me to the limitlessness, limitless possibilities, magic. It’s the one thing that connects me, I’m not worried about tomorrow. Fears and worries about the future and past disappear. It takes you intro timelessness and spacelessness. Time ceases to exist… And you can experience it with others.
Joe: It’s limitlessness and magic. That’s why drugs are so prevalent in the creative world, because they extend that childlike openness beyond the performance…
Thank you, Mel and Joe, for taking the time to talk to us, and for sharing your timeless, spaceless, magical world… here’s to Macclesfield’s next generation of free-souled musicians!