Melanie Penn picked the perfect time to be so straightforward.
Artistic work often includes laboring over the choice of the right analogy or descriptive phrase, a way to dress up meaning or cloud the obvious. Melanie’s latest album, More Alive Vol. 1, is earnest through and through. With a musical goal to provide hope and encouragement, Melanie and longtime producer Ben Shive (along with Cason Cooley on this project) delivered a surprisingly bright light for these dark days. As I said, her timing was perfect.
In the midst of a global pandemic and social unrest, Melanie says her goal was to boldly state what God says to be true. There is hope on the other side. There is comfort for our grief. There is joy to be found today. I recently sat down with Melanie to ask her about the new album and what it’s like to release an album in a year like 2020.
There’s an almost David-and-Goliath thing happening with this encouraging or optimistic release coming into such a dark year. Did that context worry or excite you at all?
A positive message will conquer every time. I really believe that. A true positive message will go so far. In the short-term, it might not seem that way, but over time, the positive messages really endure. I really believe that.
Let me lean further into that. Many times, the optimism is balanced out or shrouded in some imagery or something. Your album, on the other hand, is such a blatant offering of optimism——
10 straight tracks!
Yes, it is. Front to back, it’s one encouraging message after another, one bright light turned on after another. How intentional was that for you to create a package like this? Or is that just a byproduct of your natural disposition?
It was 1,000 percent purposeful. It’s actually pretty risky business because I’m well acquainted with suffering. I never want to be an artist who is forcing people to smile or saying, ‘Things are fine, guys,” while in complete denial. That’s the balance that I have to work in with sensing what kind of artist I’m supposed to be. I have to hold that loosely so that I’m not trying to shove something down people’s throats.
There’s this proverb that I really take to heart. It says “singing cheerful songs to a sad heart is like one who takes off a coat in winter.” I think of that all the time because you could potentially make someone colder because you’re trying to remove whatever defenses or grief they have that is actually preserving them. I never want to be doing that. So I just want to be aware. I don’t have strategies on how I hold those things in balance when I’m trying to write an album. I just try to be aware and hope that awareness solves it.
Was there conversation around that with Ben or Cason?
Tons. I felt so strongly about the album I wanted to make and for the material to be so optimistic, like you’re picking up on. We worked on this song “I Want To Know You” with a line in the chorus that says, “I want to share your sufferings like a child of God.” Which is straight from the Bible, straight scripture. I was like, “I don’t know about sharing in suffering. That’s not what I’m talking about. I want people to rise above.” I think Cason and Ben had to ground me a bit and help me tell a deeper story and a more true story by even referencing the word suffering in a poppy praise song, you know? So there were a few conversations like that.
You mention a true story, and I wanted to jump to the final song, “Avenue of the Americas.” You end this album with what seems to be this really vulnerable admission toward the end with “Maybe this will be my year.”
It’s the most singer-songwriter-y song on the album for sure. It’s definitely the most biographical. I want “Avenue of the Americas” to live in this genre of New York songs. Singer-songwriters have talked about trying to make it in New York for many years in their songs, so I wanted to pay homage to that. Of course I finished the song last year so I never knew that “maybe this will be my year” would become an ironic statement in 2020. Everyone’s dreams have been pretty much crushed.
I can’t tell you how many years someone in the industry or someone else has told me, ‘This is gonna be a big year for you, Melanie.” So that line is also an echo of how many times people have said that to me over the years. No one actually ever knows what the big year will be. So I think that line works on so many levels. I think it works for us collectively as a very ironic note on the album. It’s also my heart as an artist, too. Everyone needs a big year. I think a good artist career has a periodic good year and then you move forward. But, yes, it is a very vulnerable, honest line.
Which song are you hoping finds a home with listeners the most?
One song that means a lot to me is “One Word.” What I love about that song is that it takes us immediately to that story of Jesus calming the storm with the disciples in the boat. Jesus’ power is on display and his ability to be completely nonplussed is on display, but also the disciples and Jesus experience this when they’re on their way to do something great. I would want us to remember in this very stormy year that we’re on a passage. We’re on our way to do something great. There’s great work on the other side for us to do. If we can look at this very crushing year in that way, I think it can help keep us going. This is the wave of resistance while we all have very important work to do and I think we can continue to trust that God will bring us to the other side.
Anything else you want to say to readers about the new album or where you’re at?
I love this album. I do intend to tour it when the world opens up, even if it’s a modest, socially-distanced kind of way. I’ll trust my instincts to know when that will be back and happening. It’s definitely another chapter in my artistic collaboration with Ben, and it feels important to continue to evolve with him and figure out what we’re doing. I know I could work with another producer, but my relationship with Ben is very foundational. For anyone following along, this is totally a step forward for us.
Matt Conner is a former pastor and church planter turned writer and editor. He’s the founder of Analogue Media and lives in Indianapolis.