Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Beats Happening

Tender Forever
interview by Kenyon Hopkin

Armed with ukulele, guitar, digital pop beats and love, the sweet-natured Melanie Valera is one-girl band Tender Forever. Originally from France, the adventurous Valera has since settled in the Northwest corner of the U.S, where she continues to be inspired by her surroundings as well as be the inspiration to others. Today she shares insight into life in the DIY-rich Portland Oregon, the benefits of veteran indie label K records, touring with K records founder Calvin Johnson and the making of her third record, No Snare.

Advance Copy: How's life been lately in Portland? Is it worth it for someone from New York to experience the underground culture there? What are the pros and cons of living there?

Melanie: Portland is totally treating me and the work that I have to do just right. The city is full of supportive, other radical females involved in millions of other projects. It's really inspiring and pushes me to do more than just what I think I can do. Portland is kind, creative, beautiful and will give you a lot of rain but not a job. You know, it's a pretty dark and damp place but a lot of amazing things come out of this harshness. You wouldn't believe it! You re-learn your possibilities of adaptation to life and how to work with and around the things that make it difficult. So you reinvent your way, your art, your connections and your relationship to others and ultimately yourself. The culture is made by radical kids for other kids. I think it's easy to find your community in Portland cause it's so linked to the music that you like and what people do is visible everywhere. It was easy for me, and I'm French, so imagine how easy it would be for someone that's used to the culture-- a piece of cake!

AC: What prompted your move from France to the West coast of the USA?
Melanie: Adventure, Love, Music!

AC: Do you go back to France often?
Melanie: Not that often. It is mostly when I tour Europe that I make sure I can see family and friends but it's definitely not a place where I can live. It's too old fashioned, racist and gendered for me but i do love my family and my friends. They are so special and make it a better place.

AC: How did you wind up meeting Calvin Johnson and signing on with K records?
Melanie: I met Calvin at the end of an attic show in Olympia, Washington. It was called the world's smallest venue. Only 10 of us could fit. He came and I guess he liked the performance and asked for a cd. We both had planned on going to the same show the next day so i promised i would bring him one. He somehow managed to get it before that and told me "Hey, I really like your songs! You want to record them?" I didn't have the full knowledge of what that meant but I think that i was just up for adventure and he seemed really cool so I said yes. He helped me change my plane ticket to extend my stay and the next day I was in the studio with him and Khaela Maricich [of the Blow]. I didn't know that this would be the most amazing and life changing experience of my life (and so far still is). K records is a very very special label and Calvin is a very very special person. K doesn't make you sign any contract and I think that's why people like me stay. You're free and let me tell you, there is nothing like freedom. After we recorded the album, Calvin took me in his office and pointed at the US map and said "let's go on tour now!" And i said yes again. We played over 56 shows in a row together. We shared the bill every night and sometimes, we would play two shows a day. Today I have played almost a thousand shows, traveled to so many countries and met amazing people. I had never thought that this would happen. But everything is possible, at all time. My life is changed, forever.

AC: What was it like touring with Calvin, are you guys buddies?
Melanie: Calvin and I are friends. I have the deepest love for him and I'm pretty sure he does too for me. Touring with him was like reading the best road trip novel ever. He knew where to go for dinner, for a fun time, for great thrift stores or just a cookie. He loves cookies. I learned so much in such a short amount of time. Touring is just so amazing cause you get to do what you want. It is a certain type of freedom that I don't get elsewhere. I taught him the French alphabet, he taught me names of hills and states. He showed me that you can play whatever, whenever and for as long as you want. He taught me that the reason why we do this is simple. He let me drive at night, he trusted me. Mostly he taught me so many many many words and I taught him some more. It was the first time he was going back on tour after that accident he had few years ago. It was freeing for him too I bet, with all the fear that came with it. But we just had a fine time, the finest indeed. While we were on tour, I had learned from my room mates that a new person had finally moved into the room for rent. So did her guns. I was so terrorized, but since none of my room mates made it a big deal, I thought that my fear probably came from some cultural differences. But to clear it up, I asked Calvin "is it normal to live with people who have guns?" He told me that I should not be living there. He said "you're moving in my home when we get back from tour." So my girlfriend and I moved into Calvin's for a year or so. This was the nicest thing someone has ever done for me. I live in Portland now, so I don't see him as often which is bogus but he gave me a ride to Olympia the other day and we surely laughed a lot.

AC: I saw you about five years ago here in Long Island, New York, when you were touring with Calvin. You played at someone's house and you got very interactive with us a couple times. In fact, you touched my leg. Is it safe to say that you enjoy smaller more intimate shows than a club with a four-foot high stage?
Melanie: I remember that show. What a weird place that was! It was Calvin's birthday too! I love small shows, I like big shows, big stages. I just don't like alcohol and venues that just have a bar in them. I think it sucks. I come up with the funniest little things on a high stage and I can do the same in a living room. I love performing. I can do it anywhere cause that's what i like doing. But I think [clubs with alcohol] are horrible. I now refuse to play such shows. But you have a lot of fun anywhere, just not with alcohol.

AC: Do you love being on stage alone? Have you ever thought about adding anyone to the Tender Forever line-up?
Melanie: Tender Forever started alone and will stay alone. It's such a personal project and it's been good for me and to me. Why should I get a backing band? But I love playing music with people and I'm indeed starting a new project. It's so much nicer to have people start something all at once, at the same time and be all emotionally involved in it. I don't feel alone on stage, I feel alone on the road, but it's taught me a lot of things as well.

AC: What instrumentation are you using now for live playing?
Melanie: I use so many things that it's ridiculous to name them. But let's say I use Ableton Live, some other software to use the Wii as drums, a sampler, iPod for video projections so that it's independent, guitars, ukulele and other things. It's a small set up made out of a million tiny things.

AC: The songs from No Snare are less bouncy and more serious and symphonic than the previous records. What did you do differently when approaching the writing of this latest album?
Melanie: Well I had already recorded the album back in February 2009 at the Dub Narcotic Studio and ended up losing everything even before I got a chance to back it all up in tour with Mirah [also on K records]. I still wanted to put it out, but didn't feel like redoing the same songs and definitely didn't feel like touching a computer in the process. That's how I ended up asking Christopher Doulgeris. He was super excited about it. We had 15 days to do it all. So I sat down every day in the studio and wrote a new song and we'd record it as we go. It was really fun and easy for me cause that's how I work in life, in general. I think that maybe living in the damp Pacific Northwest and wanting to make deeper sounding songs took No Snare where it is at now. It's a dark but straight forward series of songs. That's what and who I am.

AC: "If I'm Wierd I want to Share" [from Tender Forever's first album] is a song to which a lot of people could relate. Has that or any of your music served as an inspiration to anyone?
Melanie: The most gratifying thing indeed is when it does inspire people. Whatever they do with it, I think it's always amazing cause it seems that they feel free and confident enough to do it. It's a formidable experience to see people and read people's letter telling you that you changed their life. That's the kind of inspiration that I think is valuable. I am just glad and grateful for all the love I get to give and receive.

AC: Many people don't like to label their sexuality, be it straight, gay or bi. Do you identify yourself as anything in particular? Do boys often get crushes on you?
Melanie: This is how it works: Boys want to marry me and girls want to have sex with me. I don't know if I exude any kind of sexuality, but I do identify as a woman and a lesbian. But I believe in keeping my options opened, always. I just don't believe in one way or the other, especially looking back onto my life and how it changed drastically right around my 27th birthday. I get crushes on beautiful souls and I'm in love with everybody. Isn't it what other people do as well?

AC: Are there any specific gender/sexual orientation issues that you think the culture in the US needs to deal with better?
Melanie: The whole world needs to deal with sexuality and gender issues differently. I actually find the US to be quite organized and progressivist if it wasn't for the powerful Christian, vicious organizations polluting the system and getting in the way. France isn't better. Spain and Netherlands are the example to follow to me. Seriously. But there are no rules beside to love and embrace differences. It blows my mind to think about how some people live in the fear of the difference. It's sort of stupid cause we're all different, really. When you start thinking about how everyone is different from everybody, then you are able to understand how you can love them all and therefore yourself. But we, as a materialistic society, care only for ourselves, our belongings and our close and immediate family. We need to change that, cause when shit will go down, we'll all need each other. We just gotta love each other. Easy, right?

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