Last year, I met Ethiopian-American singer-songwriter Mélat in Austin, Texas, during the annual SXSW Conference and Music Festival. The soulful singer, who is from Austin, caught my ear with a set of arresting R&B tunes performed during Audiomack’s Leaders of The New School showcase.
The quiet power of Mélat’s voice and the poetic language of her songwriting made for a memorable performance. Mélat, 31, felt like an artist who belonged on that stage. For that reason, she was one of the first artists I thought of when SXSW announced on March 6 that they would be canceling the entire festival in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. At the time, the choice felt surprising, but little did we know what was to come.
“I had everything mapped out!” Mélat exclaims over the phone.
Now, a month-plus into social distancing, Mélat has been processing the experience by writing songs, watching shows, making Zoom dates with friends, and working out.
As a musician who quit her job as a Marketing Automation Consultant in 2018 to pursue a career in music full-time, there have been obvious setbacks and plenty of money lost. Yet Mélat has her health and is grateful for this slow-down period to be deeply attuned with her thoughts and feelings.
“I found myself with all this time,” Mélat says, “but over the past couple of weeks, it became like, ‘Oh, now I have time just to take my time with the craft.’”
During our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity and following below, Mélat’s quarantine clarity shined through. We discussed her journey and the music she’s working on while at home, the makings of a follow-up to her 2019 album, After All: Episode One. The new music sounds inspired, and so does Mélat.
DJBooth: How has COVID-19 and being quarantined changed your weekly patterns?
Mélat: Every week has felt like charting a new course. At first, it was like, “Oh, okay, this is weird. I don’t know what to do with myself.” Then the next week, I was like, “So what am I going to do for the next month?” And then the next week, it was like, “I don’t know what’s happening. Why did I choose this career?” It makes no sense at this point [laughs]. I’ve gotten to a point recently like, “Okay, this is life for the foreseeable future. So let me just take a step back and focus on doing what I do best.”
Has it been a natural transition for you?
I’ve always been super introverted and wrote down all my feelings. I always felt like I wasn’t able to quite capture everything I felt whenever I spoke words out [loud]. Being at home, I’m writing a lot and have these songs of all the things I want to say. That’s what my days have been, just existing in my own thoughts and putting them onto paper, into song.
How long have you been a full-time musician?
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It’s been a year and a half.
Was it a big leap for you to take?
It was. I’ve always had a “job” job, but in October 2018, I got presented with this opportunity to go play in London for the premiere of this film called The American Musical Journey. It followed Aloe Blacc around the U.S. in all these musical cities. Morgan Freeman does the narration. So they wanted an up-and-coming American singer to play in London, and they chose me, but I had used up all my PTO at work. Do I [not] go to London and spend five days working every second that I’m not doing my music work? Or do I go there and make the most of that opportunity? I decided to leap. Luckily, I had my finances sorted for the next handful of months. So I quit my job. It was terrifying. But on my last day, I ran around my apartment like an anime character screaming because I felt so free. The best decision I ever made. It hasn’t been easy, but worth it.
Now we get to 2020, and COVID-19 hits. What has been the biggest adjustment career-wise? Especially with the cancellation of SXSW.
Oh my god! I had everything mapped out. I was planning on going to LA and New York for the next couple of months. It was all canceled. One swift, big ol’ cancellation. At that time, when they canceled SXSW, it felt like overkill, because I was working with a couple of dream brands. All my plans were erased, and thousands of dollars gone.
The hardest part was realizing I had finally fallen into a regular schedule for my music. I knew when I would write and when I would record. I had that set with all the events, shows, rehearsals, and other things like that. And then, all that stuff got pulled away. I found myself with all this time, but over the past couple of weeks, it became, “Oh, now I have time to take my time with the craft.” So that’s been a big shift for me.
I want to ask you about your first quarantine creation, “Happy Hour.” What was that process like?
Luckily, Pha, who produced [the song] and someone I’ve worked with for years, sent me some beats. I was listening to them, and I thought about what my friends have been doing. I feel like, especially at the beginning of this, everyone was on a Zoom call with drinks in their hands. I remember seeing a TikTok of this dude [running] around his neighborhood, and all these recycle bins were filled with bottles and bottles of wine [and] beer. It was hilarious to me.
I was like, “Okay, this is something that’s happening to everyone.” So what about this concept of happy hour, and how can I take that and not make it about drinking? [“Happy Hour”] is not about the drinking part. I tried to write the song as if I was talking to someone. It was about the fact we had started to establish these deep connections without physically being together. I started thinking about relationships, too. You can’t physically be together, so now everyone has to speak to communicate with the people they want to be with. That sparked the entire idea behind it.
What are some other subject matters you feel in tune with right now?
I’ve been watching shows and paying attention to other people’s relationships. So there are negative feelings, and there are positive feelings. I wrote a song from the perspective of this girl who, on Instagram, looks like she has it all together. But as of late, at the beginning of quarantine, I could tell she was going through it, but she wasn’t saying what it was.
I would say I have a sixth sense when it comes to relationships, so I was like, “Okay, I think she broke up with her long-distance boyfriend.” I wrote a whole song from that perspective of feeling like you have it all together, but actually, the thing that matters to you most is gone now, but you don’t talk about it.
I remember reading this quote by a writer, and I don’t remember what the quote is exactly, but basically, she said, the words are out there, and sometimes they float to you, and you have to grab them and write them down. If you don’t, sometimes they’re gone forever. That’s how I feel about songs. A lot of times, they just come to me as if they wanted to be written.