360°Sound caught up with R&B singer-songwriter Mélat. Born and raised in Austin, Texas, Mélat is a first-generation Ethiopian-American. In the 1980s, her parents fled the Derg, a brutal military junta regime that ruled Ethiopia, and settled in Cedar Park, a suburb of Austin.
It’s been nearly a decade since Mélat released her first recordings, and her star continues to rise. The 2020 music video for “No Promises” has racked up nearly 150,000 views on YouTube. Last month, she performed at the famed Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. in recognition of World Refugee Day. Mélat’s latest single, the soulful “The Lesson,” dropped earlier this month. In this exclusive interview, Mélat talks about the new single, songwriting, live performance, and more.
360°Sound: What do you tell people about your music who aren’t familiar?
Mélat: I always start off with the fact I was born and raised in Austin, Texas. I am an R&B singer, a Black woman, and a first-generation Ethiopian-American. I think when people think of Austin, Texas, pretty much everything I am, people don’t think about that, aside from music. Even when it comes to music, the music I make is not the type that people think of.
I always think it’s really important, not just for me, but for the story of my hometown that people know this can be born and bred of this city as well. It’s always been a low-key mission of mine to make sure everybody is aware of that because I never saw those types of role models growing up. The awareness of that being able to exist is super important.
Tell us about your new single “The Lesson.” I understand this is a song you wrote on piano with no intention of recording. How did it come to be?
Honestly, it was a very personal experience that made that song come to fruition. I was sitting there like, ‘Why do I even want to stay?’ This doesn’t make any sense. I’m not the best piano player, but I can finagle a few things here and there. I would just sit down and kind of play out my feelings essentially. I’ve been trying to get reacquainted with the piano for a long time. This was not only a catharsis but a way for me to get my hands back acclimated to it.
I played it over and over. I never quite finished it. The sequencing wasn’t quite right. When you have about a year of solitude, things come out. I kept playing it and was like, ‘We can probably turn this into an interlude or something.’ Every time I’d post it on social media, it would get a response. People would say, ‘I can’t wait to hear that when it’s fully produced.’ I said, well, maybe there’s more to this song than my own personal feelings. I’m lucky enough to work with some really talented musicians. We got into the studio at Electric Deluxe Recorders and made this masterpiece. I really call it a masterpiece.
I don’t really get too emotional about things. I’m not really a cry-in-the-movies type girl. But this song really pushes me to my limit. It’s definitely taken on a life of its own, which I’m very thankful for.
This year alone, you were on the cover of the magazine EASTside Austin, were featured in Austin Monthly, and got to perform at the Kennedy Center. Do you feel like right now your career has more momentum than ever?
It definitely feels like I’ve hit a different stride or phase. It definitely feels like more and more people have heard what I’m doing and, on top of that, I feel like in the past year, having to sit still and really kind of reframe our thoughts and our ideas around everything that we do in our lives has really allowed me to kind of get a new sense of clarity and a new sense of understanding.
I think a lot of that has lent to things like “The Lesson” being my first song ever recorded with live instrumentation. I think it’s led me to a place where there are new challenges and new frontiers for me to explore, but I definitely feel more centered and excited to do all the things I’ve thought about over the past year.
You’ve talked about how much you love performing. Is live performance your favorite part of doing what you do?
Yeah, 100%. If you would have asked me before the pandemic, I’d say hands down that’s the reason I do this, because of that connection with people and getting to see that live reaction to your music. There’s nothing in this world that compares to that energy. But I had to pause because taking a pause allowed me to really delve into my creativity. I didn’t realize how much of my energy was devoted to going and keeping things moving forward. I think I have a new appreciation for the tedious creative process. It’s not always tedious. But the live performance is definitely my favorite part.
I understand you’ve been writing since you were a young girl. You used to journal before you started making music. Tell us a little about your songwriting process.
I think my songwriting process has evolved a lot, too. Because when you’re writing a journal or diary entry you’re literally just spilling your guts on the page. It doesn’t really matter the timing or the words or anything like that. You’re just saying what you feel. Writing songs to me is very similar. However, I think one thing I really struggled with for a long time was the vulnerability that comes with the songwriting. Because you are usually intending for the song to be listened to by other people. And maybe they’ll look at you a certain way or want to probe into what happened. And you’re like, ‘I don’t really want to talk about it’ or ‘It actually had to nothing to do with me’ [laughs].
I think the vulnerability aspect made it really difficult for me to get to a place where it’d be simple to write a song. But now I feel like it comes a lot easier the more confident I’ve become in not only songwriting but storytelling. As my character grew, I feel like the songwriting has become an easier process than what it initially was just because of that vulnerability that needs to be there.
How do you think you’ve grown as an artist since you first started?
The funny thing is when I go back and listen to where I started versus where I’m at. I hear like elevated versions of what I did in the past. I’ve always had something that was island-y/African vibes that maybe slightly harkens back to my Ethiopian heritage. At one point it was just a little saxophone we hid in the background, and then it became a little bit of English and Amharic [the official language of Ethiopia] mixed in the song to where it was fully Amharic. And I just really start embracing those things that made me uniquely me. I think that’s where the evolution has really occurred. Embracing the vulnerability that comes with making music and the willingness to tell stories that are not only mine.
At first, I just wanted to tell my own story, but I think there are stories that invoke something within us and then when I feel something from that story that’s where I want to share it. I’ve just had a big evolution in understanding what it is I want to say and what it is I want to make and not being as afraid to do those things.
What are your goals as an artist?
I just want to share my music with as many people as possible. And I want to make music that makes people feel, whether it’s old emotions, new emotions, things they didn’t realize they felt. I want to pull at your heartstrings, and I just want to make good music that lasts.