The New Pioneers: Melanie Martinez on Transcending 'The Voice' and Pop's Conventions

Lucy Hewett
“I think of myself as a storyteller, ” says the  21-year-old singer-songwriter, photographed on July 28 at Lollapalooza in Chicago.

Melanie Martinez has always felt like an outsider. "I was picked on when I was younger for being super ­emotional," says the 21-year-old singer-­songwriter, who grew up on New York's Long Island. "I didn't have a lot of friends." Today, though, she can claim a cult of teen admirers as a rare Voice success story who finally broke through when she embraced her not-fit-for-network-TV surrealist-pop impulses.

Billboard Photo Shoot: Melanie Martinez

The daughter of Puerto Rican and Dominican parents, Martinez channeled this adolescent alienation into her first full-length, Cry Baby, a concept album about a young woman ­struggling with teenage issues like family, boys and body image through the proxy world of sinister teddy bears, fairytale villains and nursery iconography. This cathartic approach ­resonated so deeply with the Tumblr generation that Cry Baby debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and has since gone gold, with no commercial radio airplay.

"Most of my listeners are 13 years old," admits Martinez, who has become a kind of cult heroine among them. Her YouTube channel has accrued more than 2.6 million subscribers. The dates of her current North American tour have long been sold out. She also has the best-selling music T-shirt at Hot Topic. Her songs, her fans tell her, help them cope: "There are people out there who need music for therapy just like I do."

Melanie Martinez Performs Stripped-Down Versions of 'Pity Party' and 'Soap' Live in the Billboard Studio

At 14, Martinez wrote her first song by studying chord diagrams online and pairing them with her poetry. At 16, she appeared on The Voice, auditioning with a haunting arrangement of Britney Spears' "Toxic" and finishing in the top six (Team Adam). She started playing live shows, just her and a guitar. "People were coming to hear covers that I would sing on The Voice, but I would tell everyone, 'I'm not singing those songs, I'm singing original music,' " she recalls. "People got mad."

Eventually, they got over it. In late 2013, she crowdfunded more than $10,000 to shoot a video for her song "Dollhouse" and signed to Atlantic Records in 2014. Martinez, whose 2016 festival bookings included Lollapalooza and Panorama, is also something of an auteur: So far, she has directed seven videos for Cry Baby's 13 songs. The most recent, "Alphabet Boy," reached 1 million plays on YouTube in eight hours. "When I'm done making music, I want to make a movie with my favorite director, Tim Burton." Here's hoping he's listening. 

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 20 issue of Billboard.