mel c talks girl power
With a new solo album ready to go, the artist formerly known as Sporty Spice shares her understanding of girl power then vs. now, reflects on working with Lisa Left Eye, and counts the ways in which the music industry has shifted throughout her career...
At the start of 1999, a young Melanie Chisholm appeared on the cover of i-D with a short fringe, cheesy grin, gold tooth, and iconic nose stud. "RISKY" read the coverline across the black and white portrait, because though youthful, fresh and fun, it was a world away from the high pony/high kick photos we were used to seeing her in.
Fast forward to today and she who will forever be Mel C — despite press releases feeding us information about someone called Melanie — is about to release her latest solo album. Version Of Me is an impressive pop record that shimmies into the realm of dance music, and is semi-produced by grime producers Sons of Sonix. Having teased out summer single "Anymore," an almost Years & Years tune with a very danceable chorus and plenty of 'heys!', it seems that the world is probably ready for the rest of the record. The title track is an emotional number and almost musical-like, which makes sense considering she's spent the past half a decade performing in them. Across the record, her raspy vocals are instantly recognizable and actually really nostalgic atop the electronic production.
Joining her for a cup of tea last week, we touch on clubbing in the 90s, her take on why the Spice Girls managed to conquer the world, and girl power through the ages.
Your i-D cover is one of our favorites but we're pretty heartbroken because it recently vanished from the archive.
I bet my mom's got one... shall I see if she's got more than one? It was one of my favorite shoots, actually. I look so different! I was like a little urchin, wasn't I? With my little tiny fringe.
I've been listening to the album and it's really great. A very different direction for you but very cool.
It's always a little bit daunting because I've been working on it for three years and I was so happy but then you think, 'what if i'm just a little bit too close to it?' And people will hear it and think, 'what're you doing?!'
Has anyone picked up on anything on the record that surprised you?
I really want the words of my songs to be my own, because I think that life is such a great inspiration, so a lot of the songs are about quite specific things. There have been a few journalists who have gone, 'is that about that?' I think I've been more open than ever on this record; as I'm a little bit older and a few records down the line, I just feel a bit braver and I care less what people think. So that's allowed me to be bold.
You worked with grime producers Sons of Sonix.
Obviously never a direction I thought I would be taking. Working with new people is exciting but it's pretty scary. But they're fun and really young. It feels to me that they're just on the cusp of greatness. We had this funny conversation when we first got into the studio because I truly believe that the first song you ever do is the best, because it's like a first date. It's funny because one of the songs we released earlier in the summer is tropical house. I used to go out clubbing in the early 90s and of course there are so many genres now and I didn't even know what tropical house was! But I love it. At the time we were listening to DJ Snake and Major Lazer, and that's kind of what inspired going in that direction. So I think the great thing about the way we live now and how much music we've exposed to, it's just opened the music world up and made it so much more available to young people. When I was growing up you either liked Duran Duran or Wham, you know? Or you were either into pop music or rock music and everyone had their own little tribes, which still exist, but we're just exposed to a lot more diversity now.
You mentioned very briefly going out clubbing in the 90s. Was there a particular favorite club that you'd go to?
I used to go to hardcore raves but then it moved into drum and bass, which is when we started going to Lazerdrome in Peckham. We used to go to warehouse parties; Elevation was the one we always used to look forward to because it wasn't every weekend. That was one of my favorites.
Which film do you think your album would best soundtrack?
I think it's got a lot of light and shade, with it being written over a three year period and it being five years since my last. So much has happened and life just keeps throwing things at you, doesn't it? There have been highs and lows, so something that would portray that. When I think of movies, I just think of action movies. I'd love to be in an action movie. An action movie with an emotional side.
Ideal. Post Spice Girls, you had a series of really great collaborations with Bryan Adams and Lisa Left Eye. Was there a favorite for you?
I remember the time spent with Lisa very fondly because obviously she died so young, and I feel lucky to have worked with her. It's a great song, isn't it? We still do it now actually because it goes down so well. Bryan has a very special place in my heart because it was the first outing without the Spice Girls for me. I can't seem to get in a black cab these days without them telling me that they love that song. Bryan was so kind to me and gave me such a lot of confidence to go on and to be a solo artist. Even now he still keeps in touch, he's a really cool guy.
Does your daughter know that you were a Spice Girl?
She does! It was important to me for her to be aware of it from the get-go, and she's got a really good attitude to it I think. She's very proud of mommy but she does a lot of eye rolling if I get stopped in the street for photographs. Actually her and her friends watched Spice World at her birthday sleepover this year, which was funny. I think she's a bit too young to be embarrassed by the fact that I was Sporty Spice, but I'm sure that time will come.
What do you think would be an appropriate Spice Girl name for you today?
The funny thing is, I was christened Sporty Spice but I'm actually a lot sportier today than I ever was when I was younger. So Sportier Spice maybe? I started competing in triathlons in 2011 and now I compete a lot more seriously than I ever did in my 20s.
Why do you think that there hasn't been another girl band like the Spice Girls since?
There have been some really great girl bands, but I just think what happened with us girls was quite unique — there was a huge selling point in us being individuals, and how that worked so beautifully within the marketing, and how these nicknames were given to us by TOTP magazine, and how it stuck. It was at a time in the UK when the Brit Pop scene was huge and there were lots of uber successful boybands, and a girl band had never really matched that. It was a really positive time in the UK. Tony Blair has just got into government and everyone was feeling very optimistic about New Labour and it was just a really buoyant time, so we kind of rode that wave and it became more than a pop band. It affected fashion and culture and I think that the 'girl power' message went on to affect a lot of women today.
Definitely. What did girl power mean to you at the time vs. your understanding of it now?
It was quite an accidental thing. We were touted around and going into offices of magazines and radio stations and record companies and we started to come up against people telling us that boybands sell records and girlbands don't. We thought, 'fuck that!' We're doing this for girls. We wanted to prove that girls can bloody well do it. We didn't set out with the intention of being this band about girl power; it kind of came because of the situations we found ourselves in. So it was a really organic thing. We had such young fans because we were so colorful and fun and silly, and obviously the music was very pop, that it appealed to really young girls and seemed to have a big effect on people. And I'm finding that younger artists that I meet, like Adele, they were influenced by our band, which is incredible.
What are the stand-out ways that you've seen the music industry change since you started out?
It has changed beyond comprehension. When I started recording it was in studios to tape, but people can record albums in their bedrooms these days, which is a really interesting change that has enabled people to do much more interesting stuff for much less money, which helps younger artists. Obviously records sales have dropped so significantly that they aren't making the big bucks that they were. You know in the mid-90s we were selling millions of records which some artists still do, but I feel like the top tier of artists is so much smaller than it once was. I just think about young bands and how when we signed to Virgin Records, there was money in abundance because of all the records they'd signed previous to us girls turning up; then our success went on to help newer artists. But that just isn't there anymore and money's quite tight. I remember Spice Girls video budgets being up to a million pounds and now you're looking at 10-15 grand to make a video.
They were amazing videos, though.
They were, but it's nuts! There's pros and cons, and the thing that I've found releasing this record is that people are having to be more creative because the money isn't there to be thrown at things. Now it seems that people in these professions and similar creative jobs really love what they do because financially, there isn't the money to be made there that there used to be.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were 16?
It's funny how life has these peaks and troughs… when I was a kid I was really confident, really ambitious, and obviously all of those things stood me in really good stead for my time with the Spice Girls, but that time was also such a huge upheaval in my life. I started to question myself, and my self-esteem was a bit battered and bruised from being in the media. So I started to feel a bit embarrassed about being ambitious, so I had this dip in my mid 20s to late 30s. Now I've come out of that and I just want to get that feeling back. I wish I could tell my younger self, or even tell other young girls; seriously, don't worry about that spot. Whether it's about body image or what people think about you or being in a relationship — all of those things that really troubled me when I was in my 20s — I think 'oh my god!' It's such a great time in your life, just live it! I think there are a lot more pressures now, too. I think there are a lot of strong-minded young people out there though, and I find that really inspiring.
And I'm sure the majority of them would class themselves as feminists and could well have learned about girl power from you when they were children.
We get approached by people all the time — whether people in the industry or who own their own businesses — and told if it wasn't for us… which is weird but amazing.
I'm sure you're still approached for photographs and autographs, but have you ever asked anybody else for an autograph?
I've never really wanted to. I've always found it a bit weird, the idea of having somebody's name scribbled on a bit of paper. People don't really ask for autographs now anyway, it's all about the selfie.
Can you still do backflips?
Very good question… do you remember when everyone was doing the Harlem Shake? That's the last time I backflipped. I was doing Jesus Christ Superstar at the time and we did it with the whole cast, starting out with Jesus on the cross and then all joining in. I reckon I could probably do it.
What do you want that you don't have?
A simple life.
And what do you have that you don't want?
Loads of stuff.
Is there a song from your discography that makes you particularly nostalgic?
So many have been written from personal experience but funnily enough, I've been rehearsing this week and it's probably because this album is so new and so raw, but some of the subjects on this record happened a long time ago. "A Version Of Me," the title track, is about being bullied and how that goes on to affect you. So that one takes me back. I like that though, it makes it feel very real to be able to draw upon those emotions.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?
My mom always said to me, never do anything you're not comfortable doing. I've always always tried to have integrity, I think sometimes when I was younger I'd sometimes do things for other people rather than putting myself first. So it's been really inspiring now to realize that actually, you have to put yourself first. And by putting yourself first, you can be a great friend and mother and lover, rather than compromising yourself.
If you could ask anyone a question, who would you ask what?
I'd ask Donald Trump, 'what the hell?!'
Text Frankie Dunn