Woodstock star Melanie Safka plans rare show

From the Tennessean - October 10, 2014
Melanie Safka was 22 years old in the summer of 1969 on the day her mother couldn't board the helicopter.

"My mother was right about to get in, and they guy said, 'Who's she?' " Safka says. "I said, 'She's my mother.' He said, 'No moms, just musicians and managers.' I said, 'Bye, Mom' and got in."Then it was up and away, but not too far away. The helicopter soon began to descend, though it was hard to tell into what.

"I asked the pilot, 'What is that stuff?' It looked like miles and miles of some kind of crop."

Turns out the crop was people, in various stages of dress, undress and chemical alteration. The people were there for a music festival. The music festival was called Woodstock.

Safka was just called "Melanie," like Cher or Reba. And Melanie was starring at the musical festival. She, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin were the three women to perform solo at Woodstock. Melanie didn't meet folk music queen Baez at Woodstock, but Baez heard Melanie having a coughing fit and she sent over some tea.

"I saw Janice Joplin in the hotel lobby the night before, slugging Southern Comfort," Melanie says. "Sly Stone walked by, and that's when I realized that something big was going on."

In those days, Melanie's presence was enough to indicate that something big was going on. She was an international star already, having found success in Europe with "Bobo's Party." She wrote a brand new song called "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" after the Woodstock appearance, and that one became her first Top 10 hit.

In 1971, she topped the charts with "Brand New Key" (that's the one you have have heard in that "Boogie Nights" movie), and won notice with "Look What They've Done to My Song Ma," which has recently been covered by Miley Cyrus.

"Miley and I, we chat once in a while," Melanie says. "I really like her. I think she has a total sense of the absurd, and a great comedic sense."

Melanie has that sense of the absurd, too, though sometimes people don't notice. She's an introvert, always uncomfortable in the spotlight, to the point that she long ago let the spotlight dim. She has lived in Middle Tennessee for nearly a decade, though many in the music community are unaware that she resides here.

Melanie was a frequent star on nationally televised programs. She received four standing ovations at the Isle of Wight Festival. She was Billboard magazine's top female vocalist of 1972. Her songs have been performed or recorded by Cyrus, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, Olivia Newton-John and fellow one-namers Cher and Bjork.

But for all of that success, she's a lousy self-promoter. Or she thinks self-promotion is a lousy way to spend time.

"I'm pretty secret for a person who had a lot of hits," she says, sitting in an apartment overlooking Old Hickory Lake. "I was a completely unwilling celebrity. I hated it. I was the person who brooked, thought, worried, pondered and double-thought everything I said. If I talked to somebody and they didn't call me back, I thought I'd done something wrong. But I'd like not to be that person."

Melanie hasn't charted a hit in 30 years, but she's remained active as a performer and recording artist. This year, she toured Australia with her son, Beau, playing guitar. And she's planning a quad-leafed-clover-rare Nashville appearance: Later this year, East Nashville's Fanny's House of Music will promote a Melanie concert. The show should highlight Melanie's introspective, emotional musicality, which marries folk sensibilities with tinges of cabaret and pop.

"I probably have a quirky way of writing, and I think I was misunderstood," she says. "I had this smiling, cherubic thing, and I think that worked against me. Girls with guitars who were relevant were angst-filled and angular."

Safka's songs have remained relevant, as evidenced by frequent placements in film and television. (She has a song in "Low Down," a new movie starring Elle Fanning and Glenn Close.) And she is taking tentative steps toward meeting and working with musicians in Nashville. The Fanny's show will provide something of a local introduction, and she's working to move past deep grief in the wake of husband Peter Schekeryk's death four years ago.

"In some ways, grief is a blessing," she says. "You're in this buffered cloud of sadness, buffered from the sharp edges. Now, I'm coming out of this place of darkness, and there are sharp edges. I think I'm gonna have to do something about that and connect up with people again."