Who Is…Melanie Fiona

Christina Lee

By Christina Lee

on 04.04.12 in Who Is...?s

File under: Shape-shifting soul that toys with throwback flourishes one moment, thrusts itself into anguished '90s balladry the next

For fans of: Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, and Raphael Saadiq

From: Toronto

The MF Life

Melanie Fiona

Melanie Fiona often plays the standby to someone who’s emotionally abandoned her — a lover who’s thrust herself completely into unrequited love. “I’d make the perfect wife,” she sings in “4 a.m.,” a tortured torch ballad about waiting for her man to come home, featuring little more than synths dripping faintly, like a leaking faucet.

But, as a soul singer who’s flirted with reggae backbeats, then won two Grammys for a duet with Cee-Lo Green (“Fool For You” won Best R&B Song and Best Traditional R&B Performance), Fiona actually enjoys flirting — with genres, anyway. “I wanted to keep the versatility that I come with, to be able to flip my look and flip my style up whenever I want to,” she says, of her recent decision to sign with RocNation.

So throughout The MF Life, Fiona shifts from soaring arena sing-alongs to funky kiss-offs without hesitation, thanks to a wide range of producers (including Salaam Remi, Andrea Martin and No I.D.) and complementary collaborators (Nas, John Legend, fellow signee J. Cole). eMusic’s Christina Lee talked with Fiona about The MF Life, Sade and standing up for herself.

On why she now calls her music “stadium soul”:

Think big. Think world arenas. Think loud acoustics, soulful drums and soulful voices. Just sonically, it’s a big-sounding album, but, in true fashion, it’s about highs and lows. There are very full songs in this album, and then there are quieter songs as well. It can be more intimate but still feel full. And truth be told, I got spoiled on tour. I loved hearing my songs in big arenas, and I just got used to it. So when I got off tour, that was just the state that I was in. I wanted these songs to be full. I wanted it to be bigger than The Bridge.

On the most nervous she’s ever been:

I was in L.A. for a private event with Debra Lee, the chairman of BET. We all sat at her table, and across from me sat Prince — so I’m already shook because Prince is sitting in front of me. But the time comes for me to perform. I go backstage to get myself together. I’m terrified. My manager comes and asks me what’s wrong. I said, “Oh my god, Prince is out there. Oh my god, I’m so nervous. I’m about to perform in front of musical royalty right now. This is insane. What if I’m not good enough? What if I suck?” She just looked at me and goes, “You don’t suck, so you have nothing to worry about.” I said, “But what if I suck today? I can’t suck today. Prince is out there.” And she said, “You don’t suck, and Prince is going to see that. You’re going to be fine. Just go out there and do what you do. It’s not about who’s out there — it’s about you.” Prince came up to me afterward, and he just shook my hand and said, “I had no idea.” That’s what he said!

On how she empowers herself:

I normally go to the place of being a woman, really, and what it takes for a woman to feel empowered. That’s a real big focus for me — owning your confidence, owning your sexiness, having people trying to tell you “no” for being a woman a lot and able to stand up and say “yes,” [as in] I’m going to stand up and fight for what I believe in. I think of Sade, who is sexy, strong, beautiful and intelligent. When I think about the fans out there who have supported me through my music, I think about the things that I want to get through to them.

I’ve experienced people telling me, “Oh, you may want to take off some clothes.” “You might want to be sexier.” “You might want to dress ‘sexier’ aka more scandalous.” I have no problem speaking to any stylist and saying “no.” I have no problems telling an executive “no,” photographers “no.” Truthfully I haven’t done anything that didn’t feel comfortable doing, that I’m going to feel tormented or scrutinized over. I’d rather be criticized for doing something I believe in and feel comfortable doing, than something I know I’m not comfortable doing. So I’ve definitely had to put my foot down and say, “I’m not comfortable doing that. What’s the compromise here?”

On what “MF” stands for, maybe:

I had a ring I used to wear that just said MF on it, and everyone was like “Oh my god, your initials are MF. That’s so dangerous.” I was like, “Are you serious?” Then I realized where people’s minds were going. From the first album to the second album, I experienced a lot of triumphant moments, a lot of slumping moment, a lot of ups and downs. So “MF” became “The Magnificent Fantastic Life” at the top, and at the bottom it’s like, “Oh, don’t you hate that? He is such a motherfucker.” I kept it really ambiguous so that people could develop their own interpretations, decide what MF stood for. It just worked out, and it was my greatest lesson in terms of moving from the first to the second album — that life is full of ups and downs, and you have to find the balance in between.

The one thing I wanted to get across to everybody is, I want to encourage people to live their MF Life every day, whatever MF is.