Over the last five years, London singer songwriter Melissa James has carved a name for herself as one of the capital’s safest pair of hands.
An impressive performer and massive stage presence, she’s graced many of London’s jazz stages, winning over audiences with her inimitable voice.
Melissa’s debut album Day Dawns, in 2012, documented her steady rise from the open mic nights of her university days to her development as a bonefide songwriter.
Meanwhile, more recent song, Live Again, was released last October as a charity single for the mental health charity SANE.
On 26 January, her Sing4Sane event at the Virgin Lounge, Piccadilly, London, will gather a small army of singers to help her deliver the song and celebrate the work of the charity.
We caught up with her to learn more about her songwriting journey and find out about Sing4Sane…
What’s been keeping you busy lately?
I have been rehearsing and songwriting, which feels like a treat. Usually I’m busy doing loads of admin so it’s lovely to do some creative stuff for a change. When you’re working independently as an artist, as I am, you are your own everything. I wear many hats. There’s are loads of positives to that, but the downside is not having time to do all the things you’d like to.
What’s inspired you along the way?
I’ve always loved music. I grew up in a household where there wasn’t that much diverse stuff being played. My dad was the main music source in the house and he liked reggae, calypso and soca. But my sisters were quite a bit older than me, and growing up in the eighties, they were playing people like Alexander ONeal, Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack and Anita Baker. We sing that stuff together round the house.
I wasn’t until I went to the University of Sussex to study media studies that I fell in with a crowd who were studying media and music that my eyes were really opened. It meant I was very influenced by what they were doing and listening to. We’d go to great jazz clubs in Brighton – the music scene generally there is brilliant. That began to stir me.
How did you get into performing?
The campus had a bar which ran weekly jam nights. I remember clearly when I first go up on stage, I sang What A Wonderful World by Sam Cooke and was filled with nerves. I was horrified with myself when I’d finished, but then I went back week after week and sang again!
So you were drawn to jazz in Brighton?
Yes, my flatmate made me a tape of Billie Holiday songs and it was my introduction. I didn’t grow up with anything like that. It really opened up my world and I began to drink it all in. Ella Fitzgerald, Dina Washington, Nina Simone, such amazing talent.
I also remember the day I discovered Joni Mitchell and that was like a big lightbulb going on too. I listened to her greatest hits album again and again and got really into her songwriting style.
Is that when you were first encouraged to start writing songs yourself?
Yes, she’s the first person to plant the seed in my head. But because I was so young and in awe of what she did, I thought, ‘I can’t write, because I can’t write like Joni so there’s no point’. So it remained just an idea for such a long time. I didn’t start writing until I was about 29 or 30, so it took a really long time to get over that fear factor!
What has been a real highlight of your career since then?
It has to be the making of my first album Day Dawns. The period spent recording was amazing because I was in RAK Studios with so many amazing musicians. I’ve never recorded in that way before – in a proper studio, making a proper album with all these great guys. It was an amazing experience. It was so exciting, as was performing at the launch.
Can you tell us about how Sing4Sane started?
It was an accidental project. This time last year I had no plans for any of the stuff that’s happened. I work on gut feeling and if something feels right then I go with it. I’d decided I should stop planning for a big album that I’d record in the States. It was proving too hard to put in place.
Instead I thought the most important thing was to record the songs I had and record them well over here with people I was happy working with. I went back to the Cowshed, where I’d first begun recording and we made stripped back versions of the songs.
Live Again, which is the Sing4Sane song, was recorded in that way. When I listened back to it, the message and sentiment of the song really hit me. I’d written it about a year before about someone else, but hearing it recorded in that way, it stirred a lot in me. I had to face a lot about myself that I’d never expected. It was the beginning of a difficult journey.
I plunged ahead and launched the record. I asked all the people who attend an amateur singing club I run to come along and help me perform that song. When we did it, it stirred something further – the song felt important.
What happened next?
I chatted to Caffe Nero and they’ve been supportive of my music generally. They suggested we did it at the Heathrow branch where they have a piano with 30 singers.
Months later I pushed the idea of recording it out to Andrew Hunt, who loved the idea and became the producer. RAK Studios were supportive and liked the idea of it happening there. Here I am now, the single is out. It’s amazing.
What do you have in store for the song and for you this year?
On 26 January there’s a Sing4Sane event at the Virgin Lounge in Piccadilly, London. That will bring everyone together again and also anyone new who wants to come along and join in. It’s all about that.
The event will give people the chance to hear about the charity Sane and the work they do – and why it’s important. There will also be an interview with me about the song. It feels like a really important thing to do.