High up a dusty desert road, overlooking a windy vista in the Yucca Valley, I sat down with Melaena Cadiz to discuss legacy, motherhood, and mythology. She had made a pilgrimage back to a familiar and sacred house in the desert, and was reveling in the expansive silence the place afforded her.
Melaena’s voice eludes typical comparisons. She has a wide-open tone that sounds honest, delicate, and sure, and she cuts into her high register in a way that recalls early folk recordings from Appalachia, Spain, Mexico. She is solidly in the folk tradition, and on her last record, Sunfair, all instrumentation but her acoustic guitar is stripped away, letting her essential musical self shine. Her lyrics are Dylan-esque – magical imagery in a free-association framework. She weaves transporting and fanciful narratives recalling daydreams, memories and journeys.
In person Melaena projects a quiet power that, like her music, patiently draws you into her spiraling orbit, rather than shouting for your attention. The night before the interview, she had performed to a rowdy crowd around a desert bonfire and she rendered everyone silent, their reverent faces turned up to her in a medieval frieze. She stood confidently over the cracking logs in her work coat, her voice ringing out through the chilly air.
Kat: You seem to have this amazing way of making the room go quiet and turning everyone's focus to you – how did you hone that special skill?
Melaena: I have played a lot of bars that are noisy and it's like, there's no way that I can sing over this […] sometimes when I take the space and time to be quieter, people do stop to listen. I try and be in my own head space because I'll get nervous, but I take a deep breath and get back to my center.
Kat: You have such a unique and beautiful tone when you sing. Did you always sound like that, or did it take you awhile to find your voice?
Melaena: I feel like by doing it more and more you just find your voice. I feel like the less self-conscious I was about it, the more it felt realized or self-actualized.
Kat: Has your writing followed a similar trajectory? Are there parts of your writing you feel like have evolved or things you still struggle with?
Melaena: Sometimes it's not overthinking things. Letting it flow and figuring it out later. Also, trusting my instincts. I feel like the more I do that the better my work is. I guess that's the one thing I've been working on, following my own compass.
Kat: What's your writing process like?
Melaena: Sometimes I try to journal for a little while and get clutter out of my mind. Or if I feel like playing guitar I'll play ... I'll find a phrase I like and turn that into more of a song. Sometimes, I'll be reading and I'll find a turn of phrase I really like and I'll start with that. It starts with a little nugget and then grows from there. I don't have a real system, it's fluid.
Kat: How's the journey been, moving from Brooklyn to the west coast? Has it changed how you approach your music?
Melaena: I feel like here there's a lot more space to do everything. It doesn't feel as frenetic as when we were living in Greenpoint [Brooklyn]. There were things I loved about that. Now, I've been nostalgic for all the noise on the street and the trash and the hustle and bustle but then it's nice to be removed from it and to be able to pop down to town when we feel like it but to otherwise feel like in this little spot hidden away in the hills. We're growing vegetables and things. We're growing Kale and Swiss Chard, peppers, the peppers didn't do so hot. The tomatoes got eaten by tomato mites. We have so many pests, we have raccoons and possums and coyotes …
Kat: You have coyotes?
Melaena: There are coyotes in Silverlake. We were driving home the other night and one was standing in our path staring at us.
Kat: That sounds like an omen. Is any of that stuff finding its way into your music? What kind of themes are you kicking around right now?
Melaena: I feel like I'm really drawn to stories that are about getting by, the individual struggle of getting by, just trying to do your best. The things people turn to in their struggles when they're trying to make sense of everything. I really have gotten into Raymond Carver's poetry lately. Have you ever read his poetry? It's so great. I feel like each of those poems are so specific about someone’s life and their individual struggle.
I'm slowly working my way through The Bible. As a mythological text is so beautiful. I don't know if it really has a huge impact on my writing but it's something I'm interested in. I also love Joseph Campbell and all the work he did. I love this idea that all cultures and all religions have a really similar narrative, these parallel narratives that we all are drawn to, that I find amazing. That we have these stories that we create ... Joseph Campbell talks about how we have this mythology to constellate our existence. I love this idea that we have these stories that we tell ourselves to comfort ourselves and to make sense of where we are in our life. Your different phases in life. I think that's so beautiful that humans do that.
Kat: In the past year you had a daughter. Has motherhood changed the way you think about writing or creating?
Melaena: Yeah, it's definitely changed my view on the world and my perspective on everything. Especially in the beginning. In the beginning, it was so refreshing because it was like nothing else matters except for this moment, this here and now, this little person. I don't know if you felt like this, you slowly re-emerge into the world, into society. In some ways, I feel like everything is through this lens of motherhood and then some days I feel like, especially when I'm by myself, I feel like I'm totally the same person I was before. Everything's changed but not much has changed. And for a while I think I was writing a lot about losing sleep.
Kat: I don’t know if you feel this, but becoming a parent has made me think about what parts of myself I’ll leave in the world and what my kids will remember. Have you thought about your own legacy as a musician?
Melaena: I just wanna make some beautiful music and hope it sticks around. I've had these moments ... sometimes I feel like, if I stop making music tomorrow, I would have all these records and my daughter could be like, oh, my mom made these records when she was young, and then she'd pass them on to her kids. In a way, that's totally enough. When I look at my own grandparents and their stories and what they have to pass on… sometimes you'll hear one story about someone way back in your family and that's the one thing that has characterized their whole life. Like, my grandpa hitchhiked to Mexico when he was 18 years old. There's just that one story that we keep repeating about him.
Kat: We cull our ancestors’ lives to one defining story, whether it was actually defining or not.
Melaena: And they live for 90-something years but that's the one story... my grandpa's still alive but that's the one story that, whenever I go to visit him, he talks about that, again, which I think is so dear. The story about his mom, who was really poor in the depression and she was school teacher and every year they would have a Christmas tree at the schoolhouse and she would bring it home to them on Christmas day so they would have a Christmas tree as well. That's the only story I know about her. How people are defined by their actions and that oral history that gets passed down.
Anyway, all that to say about legacy: I just wanna make some really beautiful music and be a good, kind person and to be remembered for that.
Interview by: Kat Parker
Photos by: Jac Potorke
This interview has been condensed & edited
All images copyright of Nativen and Jac Potorke