writer / Mikhael Agafonov
photographer / David Lekach
Melanie Martinez is a playful one, in the most literal sense of the word. At times it feels like the 20-year-old singer, who dropped her debut record Cry Baby in August, is the embodiment of the vintage dolls you’ve been obsessing over on Pinterest. So it’s a no-brainer when we select the Family Arcade in Los Angeles as a backdrop for Melanie’s photo-shoot.
“I absolutely love arcade games,” she tells me over the phone. Instead, it’s the real-life scheming and tabloid worshiping she has no interest in. We chat on the same day the whole VMA battle between Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift erupts on Twitter, so naturally I ask Melanie about her opinion on the #trendingtopic. “To be completely honest with you, I hardly know what you’re talking about. I don’t really care about any of that, unless my friends literally show it to me in front of my face,” she says. “So I’ll just say that I think everybody should be friends and there shouldn’t be any fights!”
For a person who doesn’t follow pop culture much, she surely has been backed up by not one, but two pop entities of seismic proportions: First, on the third season of The Voice in 2012 (she was part of Team Adam and left Week 5), and then when her
accordion-heavy song “Carousel” was used in the trailer for FX’s American Horror Story: Freakshow last fall. But as she’ll tell you, singing competitions are hardly her thing. “I just did it because I was 16. I wrote songs in my bathroom in Long Island and wanted to get out there, but didn’t know any other way. As I was the youngest on the show, I learned a lot from the other contestants.” Horror hits closer to home though. When asked about what character in any movie she’d like to become, Melanie has to take a minute to think before stating the obvious: “I would definitely be in a horror movie or a Tim Burton movie. It has to be creepy.”
Turning creepy into cute seems to be one of her biggest skills. Everything about
Melanie—from her gothic Disney princess looks to her Margaret Keane-esque take on indie pop —adds vibrant layers to her dark pop identity. Even her striking black-and-white hair is a self-described act of rebellion. “My mom never let me bleach my hair so I told her I’m gonna go all Cruella De Vil when I was 16, but she did not believe me. When I came home from the salon, she freaked out and didn’t talk to me for a week.”
The artist is equally headstrong about her artistic vision and adventurous in the studio, sampling soap bubbles on one of the album’s standouts, “Soap,” and using enough toy sounds to make her record the perfect soundtrack for a late-night Toys R Us hangout. “The story of the album is basically the story of my life in a little bit more twisted way,” she explains. “If I just made an album about everything being mature, it would be like any other dark album. So mine has all the frosting and sprinkles, but also has this dark chocolate core.” She also wants her album to have a lasting aftertaste: “I definitely want to put out a music video for every song. Even it takes two years I’m gonna save up and go broke to make sure that I have videos for all the songs that I like,” she adds.
“My album is a concept record about this little girl, Cry Baby. But my artist life and my personal life are pretty much the same: I always act and dress the same way,” Melanie reveals, noting the 50s, Peter Pan, and Japanese fashion as influences and picking Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea as her ultimate growing-up record. But does she actually cry a lot? “Last time I cried was two days ago. I was writing a hook for a hip-hop song and got really frustrated. Then my friend said some things that made me re-think everything I was writing. And I just gave up and started crying,” she laughs.
Even if the said song doesn’t work out, by now she has enough material to please her fans, which have started calling themselves “cry babies,” naturally. “I try to stay away from calling my fans anything. I look at everyone as an individual person, so I don’t want to categorize them. They’re all unique and they all have names,” she insists. So, here comes the challenge—can she give a shout-out to her most devoted cry babies? Yes, she can: “Brian, Courtney, Becky, Evy, Nava!”
Who knows, maybe by the time her fans have kids on their own one day, they’ll be tucking them into bed to the sounds of a Melanie Martinez lullaby record. “I feel like my debut album is kinda on the edge of being a dark lullaby record, but a straight
lullaby album would be very cool too,” she agrees. Well, the world’s your playground, Melanie.