(Published to Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls)
The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, CA, is all warm reds and carved wood, with a grand chandelier dripping from the vaulted ceiling. Years of clacking cowboy boots, and buzzing amplifiers have worn her like an old Tibetan rug, but don’t be fooled—this old broad knows how to get down.
Tonight, the crowd is dancing out on the lacquered dance floor as the opening band, Front Country, plays. The lead singer and lone woman, Melody Walker, commands attention with her impressive dirty-blonde ringlets, her large acoustic guitar, and her voice—full and warm, with a growly dash of sass. She is a gregarious performer—enjoying every note and bringing her audience into that joy.
Backstage, after their rousing set, Melody is still beaming, buzzing off a performance high. In the greenroom, there’s a menagerie of shabby-chic couches and black leather instrument cases. She says this is the room for the Steep Canyon Rangers, the headliners of tonight’s show.
Melody grew up in Martinez, CA, a suburb of San Francisco. “It’s a waterfront town with oak-covered rolling hills, lots of trains, and an oil refinery. My mom owns a family auto-body shop…and my dad has worked in refineries and power plants since I was a kid, but [he] always played music.” Her father was her earliest musical mentor and is a huge reason she became a songwriter. “I started playing the piano at my house as a toddler. My dad would set me on his lap and let me play. Then around age five he started showing me the basics: middle C, how to build chords, major and minor scales, [the song] Heart and Soul.”
Melody preferred to figure things out by ear and her father would help her harmonize those simple tunes to see how chords and melodies worked together. Really, she says, she’s still just using those basic skills her dad showed her as a kid. “All the technique, repertoire, and theory aside, it’s all just chords and melodies,” Melody said. She describes her first time performing on stage as “terrible and terrifying” but bookended with a “huge standing ovation for having the cojones to actually do it… I learned a valuable lesson: that courage is what people admire most about performers.” For 15 years now, Melody has been writing and performing her own songs. It’s only in the last few years that, as she explains, “I’ve started to feel like I might be getting good at it.”
Melody has tried all sorts of creative processes but right now she likes to compose acapella “with no instruments, no chords and also no written lyrics in front of me,” she says. “Direct imagination to vocalization. I find that I preserve the initial idea best this way and don’t give my analytical brain a chance to chime in and square it off.” Like most of us, her creativity sparks when she’s doing something mundane. “Most of my initial ideas come when I am driving… Something about the meditative state of motion and being slightly preoccupied with a task (and maybe a little bored) let’s my mind wander off and access that [creative] place,” she says, “However, I am pretty private about my creative process so it leads to a lot of furtive truck stop bathroom stall singing,” she laughs.
Melody is inspired by people who, as she puts it, “push the envelope and do things that seemed taboo or impossible before.” She cites “smart, feminist” women with “real stories” like Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, and many others. “I think [Meghan Trainor] is a total badass for writing that song about body image and then having the courage to record and release it herself when no one else would.” Feminism and body image are important issues to Melody. She says she’s never been a “naturally thin person” and she struggles with her body image as a female performer. “Guys face body image stigma too, but not to the extent that women do. The seemingly impossible media standard of beauty made me reject it altogether for a long time. It has taken me years to create my own ideals for holistic personal health and beauty, and I still struggle when shaping my image for mass media (like in press photos, or videos) with how I fit into the cultural norm.”
To that effect, she says she is “absolutely” a feminist. “Feminism is all about rethinking those gender norms and sexist institutions that separate and harm us as a human race,” she adds. She brings her feminism into her music, even considers her music be “activist” songwriting. “I don’t generally write straight ahead protest songs, but the personal is political, and challenging traditional song themes (especially in a traditional genre like bluegrass) is a life goal of mine. The song ‘Undertaker’ on Front Country’s new record is one of the most directly political songs I have ever written, it’s also deeply personal.”
It takes courage and wisdom to face the issues inside her self that birth those “deeply personal” songs. Melody says it requires she-work to disregard the ego, and listen more to her intuition. “Listen…for that deeper information and understanding, just below the surface, [and] you find those world-changing, mind-changing ideas that ring true, both to yourself and the universe,” she said.
Melody and Front Country are touring a lot these days and Melody is ecstatic and fulfilled to be on the path that she’s on. “I’ve been surprised by how the art has provided for me, the artist, as I keep participating in it. No one owes you anything in this world, and you are not entitled to make a living as an artist, but we always seem to find places to stay on the road, friendly people, home cooked meals, adventure, joy, meaning and love. Money comes and money goes, but those human connections are real richness that we are especially tapped into as traveling musicians.”
It’s important to Melody and Front Country that they continue to find “their people” out there. The people who, as she describes, are “[t]he ones who get it, who like our sound and my songs and like a lot of soul in what they put in their ears.” What do you think Smart Girls? Are they talking about you?
Front Country just released their newest album Sake of The Sound. For more information on how get their album or see them on tour, visit their website. Melody is also the founder of a blog by and for female roots musicians called Dim Lights/ Thick Smoke.