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Interviews

Melanie Durrant

Burned Before, Back for More

Melanie Durrant If Melanie Durrant has learned one thing from the music business, it’s to take nothing for granted. Two years ago, the soul singer was cresting a wave of hype: she’d signed a deal with Motown records, opened for top-flight acts like Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Sean Paul, and was garnering air play for tracks leaked from an upcoming big-league debut.

Then without warning, she lost her deal and found herself in record-company limbo as Motown sat on music they failed to release. Now, with a new label and a new debut, Durrant is keen to offer her story to aspiring Canadian musicians – it’s not so much a cautionary tale as an inspiring one.

The petite Toronto native had wanted to sing professionally ever since she first saw her mother perform as an irrepressibly energetic Tina Turner tribute artist. “As soon as I was old enough to get into a dinner club,” Durrant recalls, “I was on stage introducing her like it was The Muppet Show: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, Karen Durrant!’”

Melanie followed in her mother’s high-heeled footsteps and found herself working as a backup singer and dancer in Karen’s revues. She became Flo in the Supremes, Bonnie in the Pointer Sisters, and Bubba in Gladys Night’s Pips (or, rather, “Pipettes”). They’d play weddings, casinos, corporate parties – even the occasional bar mitzvah.

In 1997, she landed a part in the Canadian touring production of Rent as a “swing,” an understudy for various parts. But Durrant wasn’t content to play perennial second fiddle. Inspired by rising star Jill Scott, whom she befriended in Rent, she began writing and performing her own material. One of her songs, the slinky “Where I’m Going,” detailed her determination to forge her own path. Its chorus proclaims: “I’m going to get to where I’m going, slowly but surely.”

The song contained a self-fulfilling prophecy. Brampton-born, U.S.-based video director Little X chose “Where I’m Going” to soundtrack a Chrysler commercial and flew Durrant to LA to lip-sync it on camera. Soon after, Motown CEO Kedar Massenburg, famed for signing “neo soul” artists such as Erykah Badu and India.Arie, took notice, and Durrant landed a record deal before she knew it.

“They had flown me out to New York,” she recalls, “and in the office, everybody started shaking hands. The president asked me, ‘Don’t you get excited about anything?’ And I said, ‘I need something to get excited about.’ My manager’s whispering, ‘Shut up, Melo – you got the deal!’”

Her subsequent arm’s length relationship with Motown was a benefit in one sense, as she and producer Rahmel recorded a debut album with little creative input from the label. Occasionally, however, her situation got bizarre. Conscious hip-hopper Common recorded a guest verse on a new version of “Where I’m Going”; when Durrant and Little X shot the tongue-in-cheek video, Common’s rap was performed by a muppet lion.

“We brought them the product,” Durrant recalls, “and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, how come Common’s a puppet? Take that off! Common’s insulted.’ Common was like, ‘What happened? I didn’t even get to see the thing.’ We told him, ‘You’re a lion.’ He was proud. He’s like, ‘That’s powerful.’”

Worse, however, was to come. The second time Durrant travelled to the Motown office, she met teenage singer Lumidee, whose song “Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh)” was garnering radio play on local taste-making station Hot 97. “They put her [record] out instead of mine for timing,” recalls Durrant, “and then when her stuff bombed, everybody got fired. They were really excited about my project, and the next thing I know, it all dwindled away. What am I going to do – call them and say, ‘Sorry you got fired. What happened to my stuff?’”

Unbowed, Durrant went back to playing shows with her mother and recorded more material. Her manager, Taj Critchlow of Maxamus Entertainment, started his own label and signed a distribution deal with independent label Koch, and Durrant’s new and improved debut – featuring both new tracks and slightly older “classics,” will finally be released on September 27th. It’s an eclectic affair, offering everything from drifting dub to roaring-twenties-inspired broken-beat swing to stuttering, dancefloor-driven r’n’b to a rolling hip-hop cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” produced by, and featuring, Kardinal Offishall. Durrant makes full use of her varied musical background here – her voice can be light and kittenish one moment, knowing and sultry the next.

Throughout, she sings about asserting oneself and overcoming opposition. Her song, “Eddie” reworks the chorus to Sting’s “Englishman in New York” as Durrant sings, “I’m a Canadian. I’m a real Canadian. I’m an illegal alien.”

She explains, “Within the music business, I feel like the Canadian talent has been alienated from the American side. A lot of times, it seems that they’ll sign us on just to dump us off in the end. ‘Oh, you’re doing something good? Hold on right there.’ They’ll keep you there, stagnant.

“I’m not the only one that that’s happened to, but I won’t let them stop me. I’ll have my time. My time is now.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, Aug. 25, 2005

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