The Grammy-Winning R&B Star Is A Bashment Girl At Heart
Melanie Fiona is best known for heart-wrenching hits like “It Kills Me” and “4 A.M.,” which have made the soulful singer a major star among American R&B fans. The two-time Grammy winner grew up in Toronto as the daughter of first-generation Guaynese immigrants. Her Caribbean influences have always been clear to the educated ear, from her dramatic vocal delivery to specific songs like “Somebody Come Get Me,” which was released under her old nom-de-reggae Syren Hall, as well as “No Cigarette Smoke,” her smoldering duet with Stephen Marley. Melanie continues to flaunt her Caribbean colors on “All My Love,” a new reggae-flavored duet with Toronto soul singer Glenn Lewis. Listening to the song there’s no mistaking the fact that Melanie’s Caribbean roots run deep. So we thought it would be cool to ask her to pick her top 10 reggae and dancehall tracks. Her picks speak volumes about her musical taste, her artistic temperment, and (dare we say it?) MF’s wild side. Click through the gallery above to check out Melanie’s selections and then read her candid conversation with Reshma B. Video And Interview After The Jump…
Reshma B: Thanks for taking the time to pick your favorite Reggae songs for Boomshots. The list is great.
Melanie Fiona: Oh thanks, I loved that! I really had to get myself to narrow it down to ten.
It’s quite tough, especially when you know the genre well. Some people don’t know that you were actually a reggae artist at one time going by the name of Syren Hall. We heard you at Tobago Jazz Festival singing one of her songs. How and why did you choose that name?
Well the truth is, when I first started doing music, I had trouble identifying with the music industry in America because it was very categorized and I didn’t really feel like it fit naturally for me, just the genre of R&B. So when it came to working with producers and playing music for people, I started to realize that it was important to define myself. It really forced me to look at what kind of made me different from other R&B singers. Having Caribbean heritage growing up in Toronto and having Guyanese parents it was something that was rare. I would say I was from Guyana and people would be like, “What? Where is that?” Some people would be like, “Ghana?” I would say, “No, me and my family are from South America,” and people would think I’m Spanish and I’d be like, “No…” So it always came with this conversation.
So pretty much I started out doing a fusion of R&B and reggae with Supa Dups and they kind of just gave me this nickname. It started off as Symphony Syren—Symphony obviously being musical and Syren was actually in Greek mythology like a mermaid with an amazing voice who would capitivate the sailors that would crash their ships. So it was kind of like a nickname, and that’s how I was making that music under that name. I was doing it under Syren. So when it came down to actually getting my record deal and getting my album, I knew that I wanted to go by my name, Melanie Fiona. But Syren we released because that’s what people knew it as. That’s what the DJs were spinning it as. So we kept it as that and we released that. Sometimes people get confused but it’s still the same me and I still perform that song and I still perform all my Reggae songs at my shows. It’s an essential part of my craft; showing my heritage.
How did growing up in Toronto’s Caribbean community influence your style and your sound?
It was a massive part because I was able to know that there were people out there who understood diversity and I came from a city of diversity. So I approached music from a perspective of pleasing diversity so it allowed me to be the mixed Caribbean/Canadian girl that I am and to make music about all the things that inspired me. From having European friends, Caribbean friends, African friends and exposing myself at a very young age to all those cultures, I always recognized music to be universal language. So I approached the music that way. Growing up in a multicultural environment absolutely fostered that. I didn’t have to choose to be one thing or another. I could be just as diverse as I actually was.
Is Toronto still your home?
Yup! That’s always home. That’s where the heart is. That’s where my family is. That’s where I grew up. That’s obviously what’s more familiar to me. I also do call other places home, like New York. I love my job. It takes me places. But Toronto absolutely is always home. There’s no place like that.
I bet! So let’s get to the list. Are they ranked in any particular order?
They’re not. I can’t really rank it, but all of those songs have very emotional meaning for me—where I was when I heard the record and what made me fall in love with it. They are all very happy times in my life. I can’t even remember what I put but there should be a Buju song on there. I chose “Champion,” there are so many songs, I could have chosen “Love Sponge” and all these other songs that I love, but I feel like “Champion” is that bad boy tune that people just loved. Buju is Buju. That voice is just amazing.
Do you remember where you heard “Champion”?
I pretty sure the first time I heard Champion was with my cousin Aliyssa, she’s actually older than me and she’s always been a Reggae head and as a young girl, I was into all types of different music but I remember being with her and she’s such a huge Reggae fan that she was chatting every lyric. So I had to learn every lyric of the song.
So you guys were out spitting Buju lyrics? You must’ve have been some bad ass girls! A lot of people have a problem with Buju. What would you say in his defense?
In his defense, I’m just going to say he is human. Humans we make mistakes. That’s just it.
Just a few weeks ago, Selena Gomez just released her own version of Champion. Have you heard it?
Oh no, I haven’t! That’s interesting……Alright, go ahead Selena!
I really want to ask you about “Coca-Cola Shape” by Simpleton. What a hardcore sexy song…
That was my favorite thing when I opened the list!
That’s another one that just reminds me of being 16, 17 in Toronto and going to an all ages party but there’s always a dope record… I mean Toronto parties, that’s an essential part—the Reggae set—and you wait for the Reggae DJ to come on and when that song comes on….I think of one person and it’s my best friend, Stacy and I think of her because every time that song came on, that was just the song we would just bruk out to. We were like this is our song, nobody can chat to us right now, this is what we are doing. And it’s such a super sexy song.
That song is on the Bogle riddim. Do you know how to do the Bogle dance?
Of course I know how to do the Bogle! I know how to do the butterfly, the Tati, the Pon di River, the Thunder Clap, the Willy Bounce….I’m telling you, Toronto totally allows you to be what you are. I had a community of friends where I was able to listen to Reggae music like it was dance music out there. It’s really a blessing for me. Now, when I come to the states, I go to the find the Reggae spots – That’s where I party, I dont party at big clubs
You have “Hardcore” by Lady Saw, the Queen of Dancehall. Do you think she has influenced big hip hop artists like Lil Kim and Nicki?
I would definitely say that she had an influence on people like Nicki and Foxy and Lil Kim because Lady Saw, even till now, she’s so unapologetic about her lyrics. Everything that she does is so unapologetic and as much as some people would be like, “Oh my god, did she just say that? That’s ricdiculous!” I think that she says that’s who she is and she keeps it real. I really commend her for that. She is the queen of dancehall, absolutely.
I can see Mavado, “So Special,” which you mentioned earlier. You didn’t have a Kartel track so I have to ask whether you rep Gully over Gaza—or is it that you just love Mavado’s voice?
No, you know what? I just love that song! When im so special comes on it comes on, it’s such a gangster song. There’s so many like I said. I couldn’t put Vybz or Baby Cham so many songs, Sean Paul. I really just picked songs that I know for me that when they come on, I’m like oh yeah!
It’s all over!
You got some really beautiful tracks here too. its a great mix. You have “Night Nurse” by Gregory Issacs—one of the greatest singers ever. As a vocalist yourself what do you admire about him?
I think it’s the same thing that I love of the Beres’s of the world and obviously Gregory and Bob. I just think there is a vulnerability in these men’s voices. And that is like an amazing thing as a singer as a woman to listen to. It’s very soothing, it’s very comforting. With Gregory Issacs it’s all about the tone for me. I just love toned singers. Even with R&B, I just love singers that have a character in their voice.
Again, you have Beres and Barrington. I saw both of them performing at Sumfest this year and they were amazing. So you chose Barrington’s “Here I Come.” Have you ever felt so good that you would say you were broader than broadway?
Hahaha! You know what? It takes guts! These are the types of things. It’s like rap in Reggae. You have to have a certain persona. People have to know who you are. People have to distinguish what you’re about as an artist. Each one of these artists that I have listed have definitely left an impression on me and of course on music.
Bitty McLean “Walk Away From Love” is a classic Treasure Isle sound from London’s Pecking studio. Do you prefer old school Reggae over new?
You know what? It’s a bit of both for me. I’m just as much dancehall as much as I am lovers rock and roots. I just like both, I really, really do. But “Walk Away from Love,” is…. I love old singers, I love Sam Cooke, I love Nat “King” Cole. And “Walk Away From Love” by Bitty has that very old, retro feel and that’s just a great jam when it comes on. [Melanie sings: “It’s not that I don’t love you…”) The lyrics are so real, so honest.
David Ruffin’s original lyric is so heartbreaking. Have you ever been in a situation like that before?
Umm, yeah. Where you have to walk away? Absolutely. I think we’ve all been there. That’s the thing about love, it’s always pushing and pulling us and it’s essential so we continue to stay in that pattern and it’s what we live off really. It’s what we do.
And just to talk about your music for a moment, you do sing a lot of these heartbreak, tracks: “Gone and Never Coming Back,” “4 AM,” and even your Syren Hall, “Somebody Come Get Me.” Are these all based on real experiences?
Yeah! They are all definitely real experiences. I just feel that music is supposed to express what you go through and what other people go through. It’s supposed to be honest. I do make lots of songs about different contexts and it’s interesting because it’s the fans that focus on the heartbreak songs. For me I write it. I try to be honest about it. I definitely find strength in talking out the things that I’ve been through—good and bad. So that’s what the music is supposed to do, give the fans something to identify with. It actually is easier for me to write about heartbreak than it is about love. I just think because most of my greatest lessons that I have learned or ways that I’ve grown have all been through hard moments in my life. Those are usually heartbreak and I absolutely embrace them.
Well hopefully they’re not all about one bloke right? That would make it bad!
Ha! No, but it could be. he could have been a pig. I mean Amy Winehouse dedicated her whole album to her one love.
Reshma B Kickin’ It With Melanie Fiona In Tobago
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