Melanie Martinez first came to our attention—and the world's—as a contestant from the third season of The Voice when the gap-toothed, blunt-banged singer reworked Britney's "Toxic" in sweetly assured tones, acoustic guitar in hand, tambourine knocking between her ankles. With her idiosyncratic sense of style, and vocals that managed to embody throwback soul, coyness, and modern sass, Martinez was an intriguing proposition—one that could never be hemmed in by a reality talent show. That was three years ago and in the interim the now 20-year-old singer has been honing her sound resulting in last year's debut EP, Dollhouse, and finally, below we're streaming her debut album, Cry Baby, a week ahead of its release. Hers is a distinctly 21st century twist of pop, spikily honest and occasionally barbed words served up in cinnamon-dusted melodies, a swirl of R&B curves, stuttering beats, and ratatat hi-hats.
The New York-state born Puerto Rican/Dominican singer pens tunes that'll appeal to fans of Lorde as much as Purity Ring. On recent single "Soap," Martinez surprised by dropping booming, dubby sonics in the chorus and it worked. It also helps that her videos are an entire, immersive world, equal parts Edward Scissorhands-odd and Candyland cute. She's Lydia from Beetlejuice reimagined as as a pop star who skewers each song with evocative imagery coiling around essential and universal experiences. Which brings us to photographer friend Kimi Selfridge—a friend of Martinez's—whose photos, as Tan Camera, we've long been a fan of (she shot for Noisey at this year's SXSW). In an insta-world, Selfridge makes her mark by capturing the stolen moments with the likes of Charli XCX, Alex Winston, Kate Nash, and of course Melanie Martinez, in 35mm, Polaroid, and Fuji Instax film. (Not to mention her recent collaboration with A$AP Rocky.) Her images are both intimate and feminine, her double exposures a middle distance memory. So we had Selfridge call up Martinez for a chat.
Kimi Selfridge says: To know Melanie is to love her. Having met by chance just over a year ago, I've had the opportunity to watch Melanie create, define, and curate a world. A world in which she lives both on and off camera, where make-believe intersects with reality. Attention to detail not only comes through in her visuals, but also in her songwriting. She is a storyteller, truly seeing a vision through to the end.
In anticipation of Cry Baby’s release, we had talked process, inspirations, and most importantly, each song’s story.
Kimi Selfridge: The album is coming out so soon, I’m probably more excited than anyone. I'm such a fan, you don't understand.
Melanie Martinez: I’m excited too.
What's your perspective on this album? Obviously you're connected to it, you wrote it, but I would love to hear how you feel about each song—how it applies to you, your bigger story, what character this is. How much of it is you? How much of it is exaggerated? Talk.
I am Cry Baby. It's very hard to separate myself from the character. It's still something that I'm trying to figure out. I am the character that I made for myself. [Laughs.] I knew that I wanted the album to be called Cry Baby for the longest time and my main reason for it was because I was teased as a kid for being super emotional and I took things way too seriously.
I feel you. I feel like I was the same way.
I think this album was kind of a way to overcome my insecurities in a lot of areas of my life. I wanted to turn the name cry baby into a compliment.
Is there a line between Cry Baby the character and Melanie?
Yeah. In the story of the album there's some things that I didn't experience. I love stories and fairytales, so I wanted it to still feel super whimsical, or else it wasn't fun for me. I look at music like I look at art; it's like painting a picture. If I had a strong visual behind the song, I knew that I was going to use it. It was about the whole package.
It's part of the story.
Exactly. The first song "Cry Baby" is the introduction to who she is. It gives you a deeper look into her mind and how she reacts to things and how she feels.
Who'd you write Cry Baby with?
I wrote it with Kinetics and One Love in New York. I came into the studio and was like "I really need to write this song, 'Cry Baby,' I’m gonna lose my mind if I don't write this song." And at first it started with me just ranting on my phone. I was trying to write down lyrics, so I just went off on my phone about how it made me feel when people called me a cry baby when I was a kid. I wish I could find it now; it's a huge bummer because my phone broke after that. I should have just written it down. Most of the lyrics were just from me ranting in rhyme. One of the things I wrote was "Someone's turning the handle to the faucet in your eyes / You pour it out where everyone can see." That's an exact lyric from me writing out of frustration on my phone. [Laughs.]
I love it. That's amazing. So, track two is "Dollhouse." I feel like people can read a lot about it, but tell me what people don't know about Dollhouse.
"Dollhouse" was the first thing that started everything really. It was the first toy sound inspired song. It’s describing Cry Baby's family life and who she is surrounded by. The concept was kind of a double meaning for how I think people view celebrities and artists. You have to be perfect to be a "good role model" when those aren't realistic expectations. "Dollhouse" was the first session I had with Kinetics and One Love; it was really awesome because I wasn't really into co-writing, nobody was understanding me, nobody was getting what I was saying. So, when I met Jeremy and Tim [Kinetics and One Love] it was just fucking awesome, because they were down to experiment with toy sounds for hours and watch Tim Burton movies in sessions before we wrote.
Let's talk about "Sippy Cup." It's a part two to "Dollhouse." I walked into the studio and was like "I'm obsessed with water, I really want some water sounds." And I always had a list in my phone of titles and that's how every session would start. The titles were the concepts. "Sippy Cup" is a deeper look into the "Dollhouse." It's kind of the uncensored more descriptive, how her family life is shaping her, type of song. In the music video I continued the story and had the mom kill the dad and mistress and poison Cry Baby putting her to sleep to forget what happened.
The next one is "Carousel" and that's Cry Baby's first love interest. I wanted it to be kind of magical to capture those first love feels, but still express the dark side of how toxic and kind of one-sided the relationship was. I was actually telling the story of one of my relationships and "Carousel" was the perfect title because I felt like I was bolted on a never ending carousel ride and he was on the horse in front of me, I was reaching out and could never grab him.
What's interesting about your whole vision is how you're able to take these darker emotional topics and have this bright, whimsical imagery to pair with it.
That was the whole point of the album. I wanted there to be a contrast. The next track after "Carousel" is "Alphabet Boy," and that’s mine and Cry Baby’s break up song. I wanted to title it "Alphabet Boy," because he was in college for music and used to try and "teach" me how to write songs as if there was a formula or I wasn't writing songs correctly. It made me furious and I just wanted to elaborate on that. Me and Jeremy used lots of alliteration in that song for all the verses. We wanted to go in order of the alphabet. So the verse lyrics are "Always aiming paper airplanes at me when you're around / You build me up like building blocks just so you can break me down / You can crush my candy cane but you'll never catch me cry / If you dangle that diploma and I dead you don't be surprised." The next song is "Soap."
You don't even want to know how often I listen to "Soap" on repeat. I love playing it for people and just watching them as the chorus approaches and seeing them experience that beat for the first time.
[Laughs.] "Soap" is about "Cry Baby" being hurt after her heartbreak and too scared to say how she feels about a boy she meets. So she washes her mouth out with soap because she doesn't want to fuck anything up. This was also a situation that I went through. I was referring to my words being like the water coming out of the faucet. And it was like he was taking a bath in what I was saying. And if I said I loved you it would be like throwing a toaster in the tub. I didn't want to electrocute him. And the next song after "Soap" is "Training Wheels."
So, "Training Wheels" is a love song.
Yeah, "Training Wheels" is the only love song on the album. I had this idea of taking off the training wheels and really going for it. I basically wanted to say that I wanted to ride a two-wheeler with him and go to the next level. I wrote this song in like 20 minutes. It was always a difficult experience writing to happy major chords. But somehow because of how happy and in love I really was it came super quick.
What's the next track after "Training Wheels"?
"Pity Party" is about "Cry Baby" inviting her new love and all of her friends to her birthday party. He doesn't show up and neither does anyone else. She's broken-hearted for a second time. I think "Pity Party" is a huge turning point for Cry Baby.
What's the next track?
The next track is "Tag You're It." Cry Baby is now single and wolves are on the prowl. She gets kidnapped by a "wolf."
Is this a certain person or is this a fantastical thing?
This is just part of the fairytale. I love making up stories. After "Tag You're It", it's “Milk and Cookies." "Milk and Cookies" is her poisoning the wolf with milk and cookies and escaping.
Yeah. [Giggles.] After that she becomes a different person, she's completely embraced the crazy for sure. She's absolutely insane. So the next track is "Pacify Her," which is basically her being a home wrecker. She’s so numb to love and doesn't think that it exists. She just stops caring at this point. And after that, is "Mrs. Potato Head." She’s becoming more confident and comfortable in her own skin, so she's forming opinions. I had the idea for "Mrs. Potato Head" for a long time and the whole visual I had in my head was the fact that you can pull toy pieces off the face and that could represent plastic surgery. It was not me bashing women who get plastic surgery, but more of a "Why are you doing this when you're beautiful without it?" The last song, and the last story of the album, is "Mad Hatter." It's very lyrical, very hip-hop. I wanted it to be about my transition and Cry Baby’s transition into embracing who we truly are. Crazy people.
Celebrating who you are.
And celebrating the most comfortable in my skin I've ever been in my life. Same for Cry Baby.
It seems like a breakthrough. Yeah, totally.
Elaborate on your style and when you started dying your hair two different colors. I think I started dying my hair when I was 16. My mom never let me bleach my hair growing up; she was so against it. So, I was watching 101 Dalmatians one day and I told my mom I was going to dye my hair like Cruella de Vil and she was like "No, you're not, you're not gonna do that." She thought I was kidding. I was like "OK", and I went to the salon and called her before I got it and she didn't believe me. [Laughs.] And I came home and she just freaks out and didn't talk to me for literally a week. My dad didn't give a shit, but he wasn't talking to me because she wasn't talking to me, it was hilarious. [Laughs.]
You had a vision; you just had to do it. I love that. When did you start dying the blonde a color?
The first color I dyed my hair was purple, it was random, I kind of just grabbed a bottle of Manic Panic at a Hot Topic and went to my friend's house. We had no idea how to dye hair, and she just glooped purple all over my head. I was addicted from that point on.
Talk a little bit about your aesthetic.
I think that it's all been based on the whole little kid theme. It's like the music. Still making it kind of adult, but inspired by nursery vibes. The music really sparked everything. Once "Dollhouse" happened, I really came into that whole mode. I wanted everything to be so cohesive and it felt natural to dress the way I was because I just liked it and clung to pastels and fluffy marabou and vintage little girl-styled dresses.
Have you always had this aesthetic as your preference?
I would wear darker colors back then but still wore bows and dresses with Peter Pan collars. My color preference has definitely changed. I love pastels now. I'm obsessed with them. I still haven't gotten sick of them. And I feel very awkward in black.
When do you wear black?
I try sometimes. I just feel more comfortable in these colors.
Because you're so dark on the inside...
Yeah. [Giggles.] I do like to give it contrast.
Lure people in…
Yeah. [Laughs.] So I can bite 'em!
Cry Baby is out on August 14 via Atlantic.
When I found out that I was going on a breakfast date with Melanie Martinez to an ice cream parlour, I was chuffed. Not just because I would be living everybody’s childhood dream by stuffing my face with sugar-laden balls of frozen cream before the sun had risen properly, but because Martinez always struck me as an intriguing character. Despite having a devout online following who she shares her every move with (she currently has nearly two million followers on Instagram alone), she still seems largely unknowable. She's an enigmatic paradox in the form of a popstar, and one I wanted to find out more about.
After being voted out on the fifth round of The Voice in 2012 at the terrifying age of 16, she gave a metaphorical shrug and started working hard on her own material. During that time, she pulled a slew of favors to create the self-made video for her track “Dollhouse.” When it was finished, she slung on a necklace made from creepy doll parts, rearranged her black-and-blue hair, and stormed into the offices of Atlantic Records to show them her creation. In the end, the label were so convinced that they signed her on the spot.
Since then, Martinez has stayed true to herself in everything she’s done: she writes her own music, designs her own album art, and usually directs her own videos too. Last year, she released her debut album Cry Baby. The music itself is 100 percent pop, although there’s a creepy edge that simmers beneath the surface, and her pastel-colored, cutesy aesthetic is vaguely fetishistic, like a twee, Tumblr-fed lolita. Lyrically, she never holds back; her music is peppered in themes, from broken families to her own insecurities and anxieties, making her hugely relatable to her largely teenage girl fanbase (a fiercely loyal following who she has nicknamed her “cry babies”). When I arrive, I am immediately drawn to Martinez's never-ending collection of multicoloured tattoos—she has ice-creams, lollipops, bunnies, headless dolls, carousels, and gumball machines dotted all over her body. She’s also dressed in head-to-toe baby pink and gingham, making her resemble a real life doll. In many ways, it’s hard to tell where Martinez ends and her music persona begins. Before we launch into conversation, our waiter brings over a selection of tiny ice-creams in a multitude of flavors, from salted caramel to hazelnut and chocolate to strawberry cheesecake—although after sampling all of them, we decide that ice-cream for breakfast is a bit much, and order croissants and coffee instead.
Noisey: So this your first time in London. What are your plans while you're here?
Melanie Martinez: Later today I want to walk around and experience the city and go shopping. One of my favorite clothing brands, Lazy Oaf, is based here so I'm going to check out their store.
I read that you're planning to film a video for every song on your album. Are you going to film any videos while you're here?
I wish! We don't have time to do fun stuff like that this time. I'll be playing my first London show at Heaven, and I'm really excited because the venue is supposed to be super cute. I've brought my angel wings that I wore in the “Sippy Cup” video, which I thought would be appropriate.
The video for “Sippy Cup” is surprisingly dark compared to the playful, childlike sounds your music incorporates. What's the idea behind that?
I was very inspired by toy sounds making the album. For some reason, it was the only sound that I felt went with the melodies and lyrics I had. I was so used to writing songs on guitar, but I became sick of the sound; I couldn't work to it anymore. When I started co-writing and working with producers it was really fun because I was able to actually experiment, and that really inspired me to go in the direction of children's themes.
When I write music, I'll try to think of a list of things relating to a theme, then try to add an adult situation to give a contrast between light and dark. I really wanted all of the songs to have this honest, mature message, but while still keeping them sugary and sweet.
Let’s tell each other some secrets. I was an emo in my teenage years. I have a theory that you used to be a bit of an emo too, right?
Um...I dunno...not totally but...OK yeah. I don't know if Hot Topic is a thing here, but when I was 13 that was “the spot.”
When did you start dying your hair?
When I was 16 I bleached half of it blonde, and that was because my mum wouldn't let me bleach it. I was watching 101 Dalmatians and said to her, "How would you feel if I dyed half of my hair blonde?" She was laughing, so I went to the salon the next day and did it! She didn't talk to me for like a week—it was hilarious. I've kept it since then, with one side either blonde or colorful.
Do you get any comparisons to Sia now that she wears a wig with two colors on it? Are you ever sitting there thinking “I did it first”?
I did do it first! But I also feel like female artists tend to get lumped together over the most tenuous things anyway so it’s like “whatever.”
Who was your favorite female musician growing up?
When I was really young it was just what my parents listened to. I loved Brandy; she was my favorite. I also loved all the pop female divas like Britney and Christina obviously—who didn't?!
I was listening to “Training Wheels,” the last song on your album, and it feels like such an honest love song. Is there a personal story behind that?
I don't usually write happy love songs. I use music to process emotions that I find harder to deal with, like sadness and anger and insecurity. That was the first time I was able to write a song about feeling happy.
What's your favourite track on the album?
Probably “Mrs. Potato Head” because it was the hardest song for me to write. I had the title, but it was difficult to figure out how to write a story about plastic surgery without coming across like I was bashing it. It's not a negative take on plastic surgery; it's more of a personal song about feeling happy with what I look like, because at the time I was going through a lot of stuff and feeling really insecure.
I was looking through your Instagram before our date to get a better idea of what you're into, and you seem to love creepy dolls.
[laughs] Yeah, I'm obsessed. I collect vintage toys and my apartment is full of them. It's a cute colourful mess.
Does it not freak guys out when you take them back to your apartment?
My boyfriend helped me decorate so he knows what he's dealing with. I'm not really a one night stand kind of girl, but I can imagine that if someone came back to mine not knowing anything about me it would be really awkward.
What is your ideal date?
I like staying home at with my boyfriend—I'm kind of a weird homebody. Actually he’s right there [points at a table behind us].
I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that you brought your boyfriend to our date. Is he spying on me?
No definitely not!
What do you look for in a partner?
Everything that my boyfriend is.
He can't hear you. You can be honest.
No, he's incredible! It's so nice having someone that is not only your best friend but is a music partner—he's producing my next album. Writing with him is my favourite thing in the world. It's just really easy.
I was watching your audition on The Voice, and Christina Aguilera was the only judge that didn't turn around, which I thought was rude. Do you think it's because you auditioned with a Britney song?
I'm not really sure, but honestly, being 16 and on that show was really weird. Like I said before, Christina Aguilera was someone I really looked up to when I was younger. You know how they say '“don't meet your idols”? After that, I realized it was a very real thing.
You call your music persona “Cry Baby.” Can you tell me about her?
Cry Baby is a character that is based off of myself; it was a name that I was called when I was younger, and I wanted to change the name cry baby from an insult into a compliment.
Do you still cry a lot?
When was the last time you cried? Hopefully not today because it's only 10 AM and I think this date is going pretty well.
Not yet, but who knows? I'm just very emotional. People often see being emotional as a weakness, so I really wanted to write music that changed that perception, and made me feel strong. The album is about that, but through the life of Cry Baby. It's about how different experiences shape her, and help her become who she is, which by the end is someone who's crazy and emotional, but confident and comfortable in it. I think over time it helped me do the same thing.
How many tattoos do you have?
Off the top of my head, about 37. It's definitely in the 30s.
What's your favorite one?
I have a gumball machine on my abdomen, that one and these two big ones I have on my thighs.
What do you want to get done next?
I really want a Mark Ryden illustration tattooed. He has this series called “Blood, Sweat and Tears,” and I really want the “Sweat” one.
Are you a sweaty person?
There's a photo of you smoking on your Instagram and you've captioned it, "it's a joint not a cigarette for those of you wondering in the comments."
I get so many little kids in my comments being like "stop smoking you're going to get cancer and die" so I feel like it's important to make the distinction between marijuana and cigarettes. They're very different things.
I really don't know how I'd deal with that. I'd probably be @ing 12-year-olds like "do your homework you little shit."
Yeah, ride a bike! I do wish kids would get off the internet and go outside more.