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Melinda Ortner - The IndieLondon interview

Melinda Ortner

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WE kind of fell in love with Melinda Ortner as soon as we heard her Strangers EP, so we leapt at the chance of asking her some questions about it.

Here, she talks candidly about song-writing, her biggest fears in life, the inspiration behind some of the songs, why she digs the UK and would love to live in London and why Thom Yorke rocks her world so much. There’s a lot more too – and she’s totally worth the read and the listen!

Q. Hi, we’re loving the new EP and especially the title track, Strangers – what inspired that lyrically and how did you go about crafting such a distinct sound for it?
Melinda Ortner: Thank you! I was freaking the f**k out actually and was trying to drown out the sound of scary noises coming from downstairs when I was mansion sitting in Bel Air. It was an old beautiful house, but old nonetheless and creaky. I felt something there that night and just kept hitting the keys louder and louder on the keyboard singing the lyrics “Strangers In my bedroom!” So, literally, it came about quite naturally! I’m glad to hear you think it has a distinct sound… I pulled from many influences – Radiohead, Poe, Zero 7, Muse. I wanted that dark haunting vibe without a dated sound…

Q. Conversely, Sweet Little Lies is impossibly catchy yet bittersweet. What inspired you to write that song?
Melinda Ortner: Ha. Well, if you want to know the truth… I met this guy from one of those online dating sites. In fact, it was and thought maybe, in a very foolishly naïve way, “maybe this guy is the one, he’s perfect!” But it was all lies, lies lies… sweet ones at that.

Q. And you really let it go for Somethin’ Sorry, which really gets those feet stomping. What inspired that?
Melinda Ortner: Thank you! When I wrote this one, I had been wanting a boyfriend, had been single for a long time in the worst place to be single, Los Angeles. But I digress. I pretended (a sort of fairytale then I guess), that I was with somebody in fact, and I had been losing interest and began to follow and question my wandering eyes. OK, so the strange part is, this all came true. I never cheated on anyone, but I lost interest and got those damn wandering eyes. Be careful what you write about!

Q. Will these songs appear on the forthcoming album and what else can we expect from the LP? Does it have a name yet?
Melinda Ortner: Yes, they will! The full album is titled I Wanna Be Ok and you can expect another interesting mixture of electronic dark haunting emotive tunes evenly matched with brighter, happier ones… it’s just my style I guess.

Q. How important is it to get soundtrack recognition from songs? Heartbeats went to American Pie and really set you on your way…
Melinda Ortner: It’s something I’m really interested in and would love to get several of my songs in bigger films. In fact, the reason I’m so late in getting these questions and answers back to you is because I’m re-working a tune (not on the record) to pitch for a scene one of my music supervisor friends showed me. I am keeping my fingers crossed, it would be awesome.

Q. How come Heartbeats didn’t end up featuring on I Hate Valentine’s Day?
Melinda Ortner: Hmm, good question! That’s the biz. They asked me to write a song like Walkin’ On Sunshine, the Ally and AJ version and so Heartbeats was the result. But you just never know what will work and what won’t – you just have to write and write and re-write and make the deadline, hope for the best! I was bummed for a minute, until they were like: “Hey, so that new one doesn’t work but we’re still gonna use two of your old ones!!” Can’t complain, nope!

Q. Talking of the movies, I read that when growing up you originally wanted to be an actress, or rather Anna Chlumsky from My Girl? Do you still harbour ambitions to go into acting as some singers combine the two successfully?
Melinda Ortner: You’re emphasizing “some” right? Ha. Because I can’t think of any! But it’s late. Honestly deep down, yes…I’d love to partake. I started in theatre moreso than music stuff. I don’t think I’m that good though – would really need to take some classes. Acting is a whole other type of confidence some people have and most don’t.

Q. What was it about My Girl you loved? And Anna? And do you still look back on the film in the same way?
Melinda Ortner: I’m not sure what it was about My Girl… perhaps the influence that Jamie Lee Curtis had on this innocent 12-year-old… and when you see a movie about a girl around the same age as you, you can’t help but think it could be you and relate so much. I definitely wanted to be her and totally started acting like her for a minute, walking like her. I was a copycat! I’ll admit! But I grew into my own finally. Last year. :-)

Q. You also mention having a moment and realising it had to be music while in junior year – what was that moment of realisation?
Melinda Ortner: It’s hard to explain these things! I felt all teary eyed and free. Maybe it was the fact that I was just starting to drive and that in itself was liberating, catering to dreams tucked away until you can sit there and drive by yourself on the freeway at 16 and start cultivating them while no one’s around. I just remember driving my mom’s Dodge Neon back to Petaluma and listening to that song, What If God Was One Of Us on the radio (I don’t even really like that song). But then I saw the sky and it was clear and I just had that moment, ya know? I curse it now everyday… more like What If I Told You How Hard This Road Will Be?… all worth it. I have no choice honestly. It’s one of those things.

Q10. Given that your dad is a music teacher, how does he feel now about your success?
Melinda Ortner: Every voice message has something to do with how proud he is of me… and that includes emails which he’s not too savvy with. I’ve been trying to get him on Facebook, but his girlfriend keeps him updated with new reviews, interviews (like this one!!) and shows/tours. I’m very grateful for his support in that way.

Melinda Ortner

Q. What do you love about song-writing? And is that still the part of the process you prefer?
Melinda Ortner: It’s like a puzzle… some people thrive on challenges like this. I do some of the time, other times I have to really work to get through it. I’m like a radio receiver and have to just jot down whatever comes to me and then make it GREAT, not good. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, when I do something it really has to be perfect and if it’s almost too much pressure then I cave in before I even try writing. So, I still can’t believe I actually finished this record. It was so much re-writing and time wasting and episodes of 24 and Lost for every new lyric I came up with that I was proud of. Lots of calls to friends too about which version they liked best. I’d write like three songs for every one song just to make sure it was as good as it could possibly be.

I wouldn’t say my process of writing is as fluidm artsy and inspiring as other “artists” I bump into. I actually prefer the performing/tour part the best. I’m an extrovert most of the time (although I don’t know anymore) and I am restless mostly. I can’t be in one city more than a few months or I start to go crazy, which is why I’m losin’ it right about now (been in LA waaayyy too long now)!

Q. You also have a passion for the piano – what makes that instrument so special and the bedrock of your songs? And how does your relationship with Asaf Rodeh help to expand on that sound with the use of guitars, effect pedals and cello?
Melinda Ortner: Thank God for Asaf on this record… otherwise it would have just been a piano girl singer/songwriter-ey record (which isn’t a bad thing), but I wanted this record to be something similar to what I actually listen to. I actually listen to the more produced stuff if we want to be perfectly blunt. I have ADD and sometimes the mellow acoustic albums don’t hold my attention enough, especially if I’m running – and I run a lot. And drive a lot. I need big sound arrangements, personally. As long as it’s tastefully done and intricate… I love the piano but I’d reallly love to play the guitar… would also make taking the tube a lot easier [laughs]!

Q. What is the hardest instrument you’ve had to pick up?
Melinda Ortner: The violin! In middle school I gave it a go at some afternoon group lesson and it didn’t stick. I truly admire and stand in awe of people with enough discipline to practice and get good.

Q. What, in your opinion, is the greatest song ever written? And why?
Melinda Ortner: Let It Be, The Beatles. It’s so simple… yet so goosebump inflicting. Now I want to know yours.

Q. You’ve played over 50 dates in the UK? How are your UK fanbase and what do you like about the UK when you’re here?
Melinda Ortner: I feel like my music is very well received over there and I’d love to continue growing a fanbase there. Particularly in the smaller towns, people are so appreciative of the writing and performance and no one is fake. If they’re nice to you, they’re genuinely nice and if they don’t like you, they won’t say otherwise! It’s like New York, but less rude and a much lovelier accent. But we all love a British accent, come on now. I love so much about the UK I can’t even begin to get it all down. I have wanted to live in London since I was 10. I’m workin’ on it. I really don’t mind the rain… but yes I say that now, while in sunny LA.

Q. Do you intend to come back in support of the album soon? What are your touring plans?
Melinda Ortner: I plan to be there all of summer and fall next year… if not sooner. I’m working out tour dates now so please stay tuned! I want to expand to more European countries this time, not just UK… Germany, France, etc and if I can, Scandinavian regions as well.

Melinda Ortner

Q. And what are some of your favourite live memories to date?
Melinda Ortner: Most definitely the pre-VMA’s here in LA at the House Of Blues after winning the VMA Contest. Performing in Italy, Brighton many times and The Blues Bar in Harrogate is very special to me.

Q. You mention being a huge (even stalkerish) fan of Thom York. Have you ever met him? What makes him the one person you’d love to perform alongside?
Melinda Ortner: God I’d love to say yes I have. Was sort of joking about the stalker thing… man now I know what it’s like to get your words twisted from previous interviews ha! But I’ll never be too careful about what I say. Screw that. He’s brilliant! He intimidates me… his craft, skill, lyricism – anytime I feel uninspired I read his lyrics online somewhere or listen to a record of his and it’s like magic, I’m back!

Q. What song would you most like to cover and why?
Melinda Ortner: Back To Black by Amy Winehouse. And Behind Blue Eyes” by The Who. I gave you two, accept it!

Q. Can you tell us one interesting fact about yourselves that we may not already know?
Melinda Ortner: I’m afraid of sitting with my feet exposed dangling from the bed… all because of that movie Pet Cemetery. I’ve never gotten over that scene with the psycho baby underneath and he… just watch it.

Q. What’s the best piece of advice and the biggest lesson you’ve learned in reaching this point?
Melinda Ortner: Regret is a huge waste of time and energy. I tend to do it a lot. You can only get better every day. It takes 21 days to form a habit, so get in the habit of setting goals and achieving them. You can only focus on the things you can tangibly do, instead of the dreams you want to attain. A “deal” of some sort a few years ago fell through and I regretted for so long not taking it and where I’d be right now if I did. You just have to let it go… don’t get bitter just yet.

Q. Finally, what are the 10 tracks that are never far from your iPod player at the moment?
Melinda Ortner: I’m Gonna Be – Proclaimers
Life in Mono – Mono
I Could Never Be Your Woman – Whitetown
Karma Police – Radiohead
Talk Show Host – Radiohead
Unintended – Muse
God Only Knows – The Beach Boys
Chan Chan – Buena Vista Social Club
Paper Bag – Fiona Apple
Us And Them – Pink Floyd

Melinda Ortner’s Strangers EP is available now.