Atlantic Records Group chairman and COO Julie Greenwald says she won’t forget the day she met singer/songwriter Melanie Martinez. “She walked in and she was wearing this baby-doll dress, her hair was two different colors. She was wearing a crazy-looking necklace made from doll parts and she had made a video for her song “Dollhouse” by pulling in every favor she could get,” the executive says. “It was such an impressive commitment, and it was all her vision.”
Martinez could sing, too, as she had demonstrated as a finalist on the third season of The Voice in 2012, and Greenwald says that her “amazing voice” and well-defined “point of view” convinced her and Atlantic co-chair Craig Kallman to sign the then-teenager to the label. “We wanted to give her the resources to go out there and build a real foundation,” she says.
Now 20, Martinez, who is of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent and a native of Baldwin, N.Y., worked with the songwriters Kinetics & One Love, and in May 2014 released an EP called Dollhouse, which contained the title track and “Carousel.” Martinez says the latter song is about an ex-boyfriend, and, perhaps in a bit of poetic justice, was used by Ryan Murphy as a soundtrack to a trailer for American Horror Story: Freak Show. Martinez then went to work on a full-length album, Cry Baby, which was released on Aug. 14, and although “Dollhouse” and “Carousel” make repeat appearances on the full-length release, the album is a fleshed-out expression of her dark, hyper-sensitive take on the underbelly of American life. (Her point-of-view could be called Lynchian — although, she tells Billboard, she has not seen David Lynch’s breakthrough film, Blue Velvet. She does watch a lot of Law & Order, however.)
While Cry Baby has its critics, the record has resonated with the record-buying public. With no radio play or national TV appearances by Martinez, Cry Baby debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 chart dated Aug. 5 and currently resides at No. 26, having moved 54,000 units, according to Nielsen Music.
The singer-songwriter is currently out touring behind her new music, and her manager Ron Shapiro, who worked closely with Tori Amos and Jewel during his tenure as an executive at Atlantic, and Regina Spektor, whom he managed, says demand for tickets has been such that he is having to upgrade to larger capacity venues. Meanwhile, Greenwald says the label is taking the single “Soap” to alternative radio, where Martinez is getting some play, and is in the process of looking for TV appearances and other promotional opportunities for her. Martinez took time out from her touring schedule to talk about her new album, the persona she’s created with Cry Baby and fans who show their appreciation for musical artists in rather bizarre ways.
Have you ever seen David Lynch’s Blue Velvet?
No, I haven’t.
There’s a pretty iconic scene at the beginning of the movie where the camera opens on a beautiful, well-manicured suburb. The sun is shining and the grass is really green, and then bad stuff starts happening, the camera descends beneath the grass, and there are all these insects and creepy things slithering around. Your music struck a similar chord with me: The songs have these child-like titles and elements, but then you listen closely and the lyrics are brutally frank and really dark.
Well, thank you.
You’re 20, but your music makes you sound like you’ve lived a lot longer than that. Is that what it’s like being a young adult today?
I don’t know. I guess. I feel like, growing up, I’ve always felt things a little bit harder than most people. Working on this album has been very emotional and super personal, and creating this character Cry Baby helped me deal with my own insecurities. I was able to throw it all on to Cry Baby instead of myself, which really helped me. It’s definitely been a process.
When you say the album is super personal, have you lived these songs?
The song “Carousel” is about a boy that I dated. That was a personal one. And the first track on the album, “Cry Baby,” is too. Cry Baby is basically me. I’ve been called cry baby, like, my entire life, and, growing up, I thought of it as an insult. I was super insecure about it because I did take things too personally, and, in the music business you can’t be soft about things. I’ve definitely gotten better with that, but I think it’s been very hard for me because I’m very emotional. So, writing this album and creating this character, I think, was me trying to turn the words “cry baby” into a compliment.
You embraced it.
I realized that over time. Cry Baby goes through all these things, and some of the things I’ve been through, and some I’ve obviously made up because I love writing stories and making stuff up. Towards the end of the album, Cry Baby evolves into someone who’s very comfortable in her skin, and I can definitely say that I have had the same kind of change within myself. I’m a lot less insecure, and I have embraced a lot of the things that I hated about myself before.
You came of age at a time when pop music was mostly about singles, and yet, you’ve put out a collection of songs that holds together as an album. What are some of the albums that inspired you?
I love The Idler Wheel… by Fiona Apple. It’s one of my favorites. I love every single album that Cocorosie has put out, and I love the last two albums that Ariana Grande put out. When I listen to an artist, I listen to albums. Obviously, the label’s going to push a certain single, but you don’t know if that’s what the artist really wants or what they’re trying to do with their music. It’s always important, I think, to listen to the hidden weirder tracks on the album in order to know what the artist is really about.
In the liner notes to Cry Baby, you thank “anyone who made me cry, broke my heart, made me angry, or made me feel anything at all.” As a songwriter, do you feel the need to go out there and get your heart scuffed up in order to write authentically?
I don’t write as well when I’m happy, if that’s what you mean. It really does suck. I can write about something that someone else has been through, whether it’s someone I actually know or a story I’ve made up. I have a pretty good imagination, and I watch a lot of Law & Order [laughs]. But I definitely feel more connected to the music that I’m writing when I’m in that actual place, and I’m genuinely feeling what I’m writing about. So, yeah, that’s what I prefer. It’s a blessing and a curse because I find myself wanting to be more sad in session so I can write more. It’s really messed up, but it’s the truth.
So where does your dark streak come from?
I don’t know. Really.
Listening to your lyrics, you seem anti-alcohol and drug and, judging from the song “Mrs. Potato Head,” anti-plastic surgery. Do your lyrics reflect how you really feel about these subjects?
I’m definitely not anti-alcohol or drugs. I smoke weed, and I drink occasionally, but I’m like any normal human being. I’m not anti-anything, really. I just think that these subjects can be used in songs in ways other than, “I’m gonna like party all night and get f—ed up.” I’d rather talk about those subjects in a more meaningful way. But the plastic surgery thing, yeah, exactly. “Mrs. Potato Head” was something that I had in my head for a long time. I liked the visual of being able to pull apart pieces off of a toy’s face. It’s interesting how that can double as a metaphor for plastic surgery. It took a while to put on paper, though. That was the most challenging song to write, but it was worth it.
So, you’ve created the persona of Cry Baby. Do you envision yourself as an artist like, say, David Bowie, where you will change personas as you move through different periods of your career? Or is Cry Baby going to be around for a while?
I’m not sure yet. Cry Baby is me, so it’s kind of hard for me to let go of a character that really isn’t a character, you know? I’m still figuring it out. The couple of songs that I’ve written for my next album — if I was to stick with the Cry Baby character, I could definitely continue the story in some way. But if not, I still want what I do next to be in the same world. If you were looking at it like a movie, Cry Baby is a girl in town and now that I’ve told her story, I’m next going to talk about her neighbor. I still want it be connected in some way.
You do seem to have created a world around Cry Baby. You conceived of the packaging for the record as a kind of “See Dick and Jane Run” reading primer for messed-up people.
I wanted it to be like a baby board book for adults, and my friend Chloe Terisigni — she’s like 19 years old and incredible, and she illustrated all of it. She was able to like bring everything that was in my head onto paper, and I’m so happy with it. It’s my first album, it’s like my baby, and to have someone who I love as an artist draw the entire thing — it’s just a great feeling.
You also conceive of and star in your own videos. You built the sets for “Dollhouse,” did the wardrobe and now have directed your last three videos for the album, “Pity Party,” “Sippy Cup” and “Soap.” What’s it like for a very independent, self-directed artist to work with a major label that is used to leading when it comes to shaping and marketing artists’ work?
I’m always going to have my ups and downs, but so far, it’s been pretty incredible how much control Atlantic has let me have in the past year or so. I get to direct my own music videos now. I wasn’t able to do that in the beginning, but I did write all the storyboards for the videos for “Dollhouse” and “Carousel.” Obviously, someone else directed them because I wasn’t really confident enough to feel like I could take on that role. But once I told Atlantic that I was ready, they were, like, “Okay, let’s do this.”
I realize it’s a little early in your career to be asking this, but do you see yourself eventually working in film or television? I mean, this fall, Lady Gaga will play a substantial role in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Hotel.
I would definitely love to dip my hands in whatever I can. Right now, I’m just so focused on writing music. I’m on tour, and all I want to do is write. But I do want to make a music video for every single song on my album and connect all of them and tell the story of the album visually. I know it’s going to take a while, but that’s something that I’m just willing to go broke for, you know.
Are you funding these videos yourself?
Some of them, yeah. “Dollhouse” was fan funded. “Carousel” and “Pity Party” were done with the label. But there are definitely times when I’ve been like, I’m going to pay for this if no one will because I really need it. I’ll just do an extra show or whatever to make sure that I get it done. I actually paid for the physical copies of the album — the storybook — because it’s so detailed and cost so much to produce the extra pages. I did three VIP shows because I really wanted my album to look like that.
Speaking of performing, you recently had your purse stolen at a show and then wrote an interesting Tumblr post addressing the trolls who responded to your attempts to get it back. I know that you’ve moved on, but I’m wondering if your post had any effect on the fans who call you “Mom” and otherwise behave like tools.
I hope it was, because it has been something that’s been on my mind for a while. I’m sure that it’s on every artist’s mind 24/7 and it’s really hard for us to speak up about it because we’re judged so harshly. I would like to live in a world where artists and fans can have a better relationship. Fans are always reaching out and asking for a better relationship. They say, “I want to be your best friend,” but they don’t really make you feel like you can open up to them, you know? Because if you were really friends with someone you wouldn’t judge them. You express anything to them, and they’ll know everything about you and they’re fine with that. I would like for that to be how people treat me.
Taylor Swift recently weighed in on fans calling her “Mom,” too.
They may think it’s endearing to call you “mom” and “queen,” but it actually puts so much pressure on you to, like, stay perfect and to be someone that like they can look up to. And like that’s not why I make music. I don’t care to be anybody’s role model. It’s just something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, and I really wanted to express how hurt I was because someone had taken something so personal to me. I mean, that’s so illegal, too.
Was it a fan that stole your purse?
Yeah. I’ve gotten stuff stolen before. On one of my tours, I wore a vintage robe onstage that my friend let me borrow. I took it off onstage, and when I walked offstage, someone climbed up onto the stage and took it. Security was not very good that night.
That’s pretty brazen.
That’s why I was even crazier this time. But I was able to get the robe back by going on social media. Someone told me, “My friend has it, but he’s too scared to talk.” So I was able to get his address and we drove to his house. And even then, he was so rude about the whole situation. I told him that I was personally going to come and get it, and there was this whole thing about, “My mom doesn’t want you to come in, and she’s sleeping and blah blah blah.” I was like, “I don’t want to come inside your house. I don’t want to meet your parents. I just want my robe back. You have something that doesn’t belong to you.” So, the kid put the robe in his mailbox, and my drummer went out and grabbed it. We saw the kid watching us from the blinds the whole time.
That experience could be a song.
Yeah. You saw his little eyes peeking through the blinds. So, my drummer got the robe back, and then the kid wrote all over Twitter, “She didn’t even come herself. She sent someone else to get it.” And I wrote back, “No, I was there. I was in the car, and I saw you hiding behind your blinds.” It’s so funny. You get your stuff stolen and then somehow they love to twist it and like make it about how you did something wrong. You’re like not treated like a human being.
I hear you’re a fan of horror movies. What are some of your favorites?
The Shining is my like favorite classic horror movie. I’m trying to think. I hate that my brain just goes into stealth mode when I like try to think of my favorite things. I’m going to stick with The Shining.
I realize that The Voice is long behind you, but I’m wondering if you learned anything from that experience that you still use today in terms of your music and performances?
I definitely learned a lot about the whole behind the scenes of TV, and I’m definitely not like, ‘Oh, everything is so perfect, and I’m having such a great time it’s so perfect, you know?’ When I was 15 that’s obviously what I thought. And then when I auditioned when I was 16, I realized that it’s actually very crazy behind the scenes. I’m definitely more comfortable in front of a camera because of it. Which is cool because I was not before that. I was very awkward. And I definitely made a lot of great friends that I’m still friends with today.
The tour is going well. You’re selling out a lot of dates and in Nashville, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Minneapolis, they’re having to find venues with larger crowd capacities to meet ticket demand.
I didn’t think it would happen so fast, but I’m really excited because we have these huge Cry Baby blocks that light up and stuff and didn’t fit on some of the smaller stages. So it’s cool that we can actually use them now.
What’s the age range of the fans that are coming out to your shows?
If it’s an all-ages show, it’ll be literally all ages. There will be really weird creepy, like, 60-year-old male humans who come and then there will also be 9-year-old girls there and everything in between.
Very confusing [laughs].