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You wouldn’t think many viewers who tuned in to “The Voice” in 2012 were in the market for an artist as provocative as Melanie Martinez, who went on to make a concept album using childhood themes to paint a dark, unsettling portrait of deeply dysfunctional family life in the 21st century.
But by the time that album, “Cry Baby,” arrived last August on Atlantic Records, Martinez had done a decent job of weeding out the “Voice” fans who came to her concerts expecting to hear her revisit the covers she sang on the show.
When she found herself eliminated from “The Voice” after making the Top 6 and went back to doing her own shows, the Team Adam veteran, now 20, recalls, “I wanted to play my original music but it was really hard because a lot of the people who would come out to the shows found out about me through ‘The Voice’ and wanted to hear covers. So they were really upset when I would say, like, ‘I’m not playing “Toxic.' And I just continued to push the original music, and I guess I lost the fans who didn’t care about that and gained new fans who were connecting with the music.”
So, why do a show like “The Voice” in the first place?
“Honestly, I was 16 and had been writing songs in my parents' bathroom in Long Island,” she says. “Hated high school. And I don’t know, I really wanted to push music as an actual career and I didn’t know how to do that. So I went online and saw this ad. It was an open call in New York City and I went and I waited a couple of hours and just sang. And it kept going further and further.”
Martinez looks back on it as a learning experience.
“The behind-the-scenes kind of process at TV, especially live television,” she says. “That was super scary, but I think it’s made me more comfortable now. If I ever have to go on live TV, I at least remember what it was like when I was 16.”
Martinez self-released a debut single titled “Dollhouse” in early 2014. Two years later, the "Dollhouse" video is pushing 37 million views on YouTube. The video was fan-funded. She probably couldn’t have made that happen if she hadn’t done “The Voice.”
“I raised $10,000 in a week for the video,” Martinez says. “And that was before I got signed or anything. So the “Dollhouse” video is special for that reason. It was just a project I really wanted to do but obviously didn’t have enough money and was able to get a lot of help from the people supporting me. It really meant a lot to me.”
"Dollhouse" was the first song she wrote for “Cry Baby,” collaborating with songwriting duo Kinetics & One Love. That song and several others were inspired by Martinez’s obsession with toy sounds.
“I really wanted to learn how to collaborate with people because I was so used to writing on my guitar," Martinez says. "And when I had my first session with Kinetics & One Love, I sat down with them and just went through a bunch of sounds, mainly toy sounds. And that kind of sparked a few ideas and themes. Eventually, I started writing down a bunch of titles that related to childhood themes and would pair it with an adult situation that either I was going through or someone else in my life was going through.”
Another source of inspiration, she adds with a laugh, was “Law & Order: SVU.”
“I watch a lot of that,” she says.
The title track is drawn from personal experience.
“Cry Baby was this name that I was called when I was younger just because I took things very personally always and was super emotional, maybe too emotional,” she says. “And I still am. But I think maybe when I was younger, I looked at it as a weakness. And after writing the album, I think it kind of gave me a little more confidence in who I am. And it kind of helped me embrace being this emotional and this in touch with my emotions.”
She already knows exactly what she wants do on her next album but she doesn’t want to share too many details until she’s finished making videos for all the songs on this one.
“I want to finish telling this story before I go into another,” she says. “But I want to keep Cry Baby as a character and what I want to do with all my albums is eventually I want them all to connect and tell a bigger story. My biggest dream, really, is to make a movie with someone like Tim Burton, who is a huge inspiration to not only this album but to me as an artist in general. I want to make a movie with him eventually about the story of all the albums. But the second album is Cry Baby basically going to this place and the album is called whatever this place is. I’m not gonna say what it is."
Cry Baby will serve more as the narrator, telling the stories of new characters Martinez plans to introduce.
And those stories will have their own videos as well.
“It’s really hard for me to finish a song unless I have a strong visual in my head while I’m writing it,” Martinez says. “I can usually see at least the general storyboard of what a music video would be because it’s always based on the story or theme of the song.”
Martinez has directed all her videos since “Pity Party," her first single after signing to Atlantic. She’s a very hands-on artist.
“I write all the treatments and storyboards,” she says. “I’m picking out exactly what I want for the design. I’ll tell the set designer exactly what I want, like down to the specific little color detail, everything you could possibly imagine. I design all the clothes that I wear in the video and my friend Stella makes them. I do my own makeup. I am literally the brains behind all of it, every single bit of it.”
She likes to direct her music videos, she says, “because it’s really hard for me to work with other people just because of colliding ideas. It’s easier for me to just do it myself. And now I work with the same team — same cinematographer, same lighting people, same set director. I feel like I’ve finally found people who understand my vision.”
Martinez was also very hands-on when it came to album art.
“The physical album was something I had to fight for because it’s an actual storybook,” she says. “And it’s hard to convince a label when you just get signed and it’s your first album that you want this crazy packaging, obviously for money reasons. But I finally got my point across. I just wanted to make sure that people saw the album as a story. It was important to me and I felt like it wouldn’t be right if the packaging didn’t reflect that.”
Martinez wrote the story for the storybook, recruiting Chloe Tersigni to do the illustrations.
“She started out doing fan art for me and I emailed her because I loved her work," Martinez says, "and really wanted her to do the illustrations for the album. So we worked together. I would send her paragraphs of details for exactly what I wanted and she nailed it every single time. She did, like, 13 illustrations for the storybook. So I’m just really happy that I got to put that out because that was a battle. I’m also shocked that they’re letting me do a video for every song. That’s so rare. I’m very grateful that they believe in my vision.”