Melinda Ortner’s hoping that the comparisons to Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple she keeps getting aren’t just empty compliments.
The LA based singer/songwriter has been sweeping up awards and praise over the last couple of years, finally getting the recognition she deserves now with the release of her debut EP Strangers.
With Strangers out now, FemaleFirst spoke to Melinda about the record, her cinematic ambitions and getting a rather unique reception in Japan.
So, what’s it like having your debut EP just come out?
Oh it’s amazing. It sounds terrible, but it’s like giving birth to this thing that been inside me for a long time. I’m sure a lot of artists say that. It’s just taken so long to do. I’ve had vocal issues that meant I couldn’t sing for five months, I couldn’t even speak for a bit of that. So I had to stop everything during that time. And then I paid for whole thing myself so I had to fit that around normal work too.
What do you think it says about you though?
Well, I certainly don’t like starting things I can’t finish, even if it takes years. I hate when people start something and then just talk about it. I’m not on a label, I’m not going to rely on a record company to pick me up, give me a break and throw me in a studio, and it’s just not that glamorous at all.
I often walk dogs to make a little bit of money sometimes I’ve ended up bringing the dogs into the studio, sneak them in when I had to. I think that it says that I’m driven when I need to be, a (laughs) lazy when I really can be.
You won the grand prize at the MTV ‘Steal the Spotlight’ contest in 2011, what was that like for you?
Well, it was kind of unreal as I didn’t even remember for ages even submitting myself for the contest. I mean, in most big cities there’s contests and a lot of people just don’t enter them. So I didn’t even remember doing it until I got this e-mail saying I’d been selected and I thought it was a scam! Then I got this call and I started thinking ‘Maybe this is actually legit?’
Then when I went to them, I met my producer and he was like ‘Aren’t you excited!’ and I finally let myself be. Its fun to get excited, gives me an excuse to be even if it didn’t make me famous. It definitely opened up doors and I made connections in MTV and I got to open for Joe Jonas and Cobra Starship and build some really good relationships.
And winning the Best Song and Best Performance awards at the West Coast Songwriters Showcase four times in a row’s not bad going either.....
Thank you, that was a really nice experience. Usually the judges are someone who runs stuff in LA, so I’ve gotten a lot more gigs through connections from that. So that’s always nice.
Your music’s been featured in a couple of films hasn’t it?
Yeah, I always wanted to my songs to be in movies. Honestly, I didn’t push for it, I didn’t bug a load of music supervisors (who seem to have a really cool job) but I only e-mailed a few. The first time came because of friend of mine works in film and she said to me ‘We have no budget for this film coming up and I was wondering if we could use one of your songs’ and of course I let her take it because I really wanted my songs to get on film.
So it ended up with her using two songs, which was even cooler!
Then the same year, my song got in one of the American Pie films, so I thought I was on a roll, and this was going to happen every six months! Then it didn’t, so I was just sat there thinking ‘What’s going on here?!’ (laughs).
So what was it like doing a Japanese tour then?
It was really interesting and so different. I really didn’t know what to expect. In Japan I heard the phrase ‘If there’s one pin sticking up, you push it down.’ It was a very non-encouraging place for the individual. I couldn’t imagine being a singer/songwriter there.
In a lot of the venues there the music was really different and the women were very high pitched in their singing. In know it wasn’t their natural voice and it seemed in their culture you were almost looked down upon if you have a raspier tone. So actually, I was kind of made fun off quite a few times after the show.
They would buy my CD after the show because it was polite to but then they would kind of mock my voice and make fun of the fact it wasn’t high pitched. I’ve got a more alto style of voice, heck, I’ve even been mistaken for my brother on the phone (laughs). So it was really interesting, but quite an experience.
Is it true that you only really started singing when they drafted you into a choir because they didn’t have enough girls?
Yeah, pretty much. Of course I’d sing when I was a kid to music videos, but nothing really serious. I wanted to be an actress. Not anymore though, I’m terrible at it. That was just from family movie nights, seeing ‘My Girl’ and wanting to be like them. So the choir needed more girls and I’d done a few musicals because I could project well.
I didn’t think I could sing, they just needed someone who could project and I had a loud voice. I think it was my dad who got me to keep singing at home, and I just got more into it in high school. It wasn’t like when I was six I was there going ‘I want to be this singer/songwriter!’
Your dad also was the one who made you play the piano wasn’t he?
Yeah, he pushed me and made me an after school schedule as a kid. It was like 1- Piano practice, 2 – Ballet, 3 – Play, 4 – Dinner and he was diligent about it and I’m grateful for it. I kinda wish I still had his schedule with me, I wonder if he could e-mail it over to me and keep me on track. It’s a bit more difficult when you live on your own.
I do think though that if you have a natural feel for just melodies and writing, sometimes the more time you have on the piano the more you can be a little limited. I’ve worked with classical pianists and they’re so amazing at what they do, but they can’t write a song for s***.
It’s amazing, I’m so incredibly intimidated by them but then I’ll just play I wrote and they’re just asking how I wrote it. I mean, I just tell them “I don’t know, I guess I just followed my hands and I didn’t think about chords” and they just can’t do it. It’s really interesting what parts of your brain you develop and use.
What’s it like when people compare you to singers like Aimee Mann?
Well, it’s amazing, I only hope I can reach the same levels of success she had. It’s completely flattering because I always had massive respect for her. I mean, she’s one of my favourites. I also get compared every now and again to Regina Spektor and Fiona Apple and its always amazing and a massive compliment.
So, the EP’s out now, when can we expect an album?
It’s fully done! The EP’s kind of a nice precursor to the full album, it’s a nice way of getting people’s attention right away and then follow it up nice and quickly. Everyone knows it takes a long time to record and have something like that and people are getting used to having things faster with the internet being able to record in your home and have it sound like a million bucks.
So that’s all done and I’m really excited to share it with everybody. I’m literally looking at about 6 massive boxes of CD’s in my room right now, it’s great!
Melinda Ortner’s debut EP Strangers is out now. We've also got a stream of her first single Sweet Little Lies right here for you.
You can find more of Melinda at her facebook (/melindaortnermusic).
FemaleFirst Cameron Smith