V Magazine is an American fashion magazine that was founded 1999. Mathias Rosenzweig did an interview with Melanie Martinez in September of 2019.
Melanie Martinez has vision. Not so much the literal type that an ophthalmologist might praise, but rather the kind that would make a psychologist feel unsettled. Drugged up mothers, decapitated school principles and abusive teachers—these are some of the darker sides to Martinez' K-12 film and album, released last Friday. But, as has become customary to her artistry and brand, the singer balances out the bleakness of being a teenager with its occasional and comical absurdity. Martinez, now 24-years-old, uses her juvenile characer of Cry Baby to represent elements of our younger years that carry over into adult life, ranging anywhere from insecurities to drug abuse. Her style is unique, compelling, and down-right impressive for a first time film director.
In only seven days, the film and album tracks have stacked up million upon millions of streams. It's obvious that Martinez struck an eerie but beautiful chord with her first album; the second one maintains the same DNA but moves things forward.
We spoke to Martinez about her first feature film: how it came to be, releasing it into the world, and what she'll be working on next.
Mathias Rosenzweig: Hi Melanie. How are you?
Melanie Martinez: I’m good, how are you?
I’m good. I just finished the film because I wanted it to be fresh in my head. It must feel great to be done and almost have it put out into the world.
Yes, I’m very excited. It definitely took a long time so I’m excited to be here at this point where we’re only a couple of weeks away.
I know you're going to be doing an accompanying tour as well. How are you going to translate this movie onto the stage?
Basically, I’m going to create vignettes on stage so that I can tell the story the way I want to tell it, but it will obviously be a visual representation of each song. There will be connecting pieces as the glue between each song, which will be more story-based and in-line with the film, but I think the way that I’m recreating the tour is almost like a version of the film. My intention with it is to represent the school system that we were trapped in, in the movie, and I’m trying to make the tour kind of the same place, you know? So it’s a hard thing balancing that world and making it a place where we can come, with oppression and everything. It’s a polar opposite, and I’m going to really try to have the tour be a learning experience, but also something that is exciting to all five senses. I want to give the audience different actions that they can do, like physical actions that they can do, so that it makes it more interactive, and it’s not just a show.
That’s wild. It sounds like a lot of work, but worth it. I’ve been to one of your shows before and they’re already pretty theatrical, so I feel like it’s not totally new to you or anything, it’s just going to be a bit of a switch.
Yeah, it’ll be more evolved. But I think it’s more about the visual being more next-level than Cry Baby. Each song will have its own design as opposed to there being this general design that is the layout for the whole show. It’ll be changing constantly. There are wardrobe changes. There are dancers. I’m doing a lot of choreography. It’s very intense in comparison to the last.
I know there were a lot of “good guys”, but most of the characters outside of the main crew were antagonists in one way or another. Why the need for so many "bad guys?"
Yes. So, really, the best way to describe it is that it was more about showing how positioning works the way it does. It’s like a hand-me-down thing. It starts with the principal, right? But then it goes to the staff, and then it goes to the nurses, and it just keeps going and going until finally the students become infected with this positioning. And then we have characters like Kelly or any of the bullies, like any of those characters who are acting out with that kind of energy are just showing how their environment is shaping them. So, it’s less about them being bad guys. It’s more about the system that is creating that energy.
My assumption was that you placed it in a school because it works with the characters, but also because that’s supposed to be where you’re getting educated on the world so it seemed like a fitting place for all of that to be going down.
Yeah, for sure. I definitely picked school because I really wanted to show the parallel between school and life and how school is really just a condensed version of life, you know? We meet a lot of people and personalities that we encounter later on in our adult life and we kind of have to go through the same cycle just to show we’ve learned the lesson, you know what I mean? So, it’s kind of that mentality as well. It was interesting because everyone has such a different school experience. My goal was really to make sure many different people would be able to resonate with the movie, or be able to resonate with one character. My biggest goal was just to expand Cry Baby’s world and make sure there were other characters that people can resonate with because everyone’s school experience is very, very different.
Do you think you’re ever going to try to expand her into adult life? Like is she ever going to be working out there as a lawyer?
No, I already know my two next films and albums. I already have the next two planned because obviously I have to prepare this in order for the character to be able to evolve the right way or the way that I would like them to. But, basically, it’s hard to say much without giving it away, but no, it doesn’t go into her adult life. She grows and transforms in a different way than you would like. It’s not just her going into her adult life, it’s also her soul transforming. That’s the only thing I will say because I don’t want to give away too much because it would be a major spoiler.
Do you ever tire of that character? Are you ever like, “Fuck all of this, I just want to do something totally different”? You’ve been so good at being really consistent, and it obviously works so well. I just wonder if you ever have the desire to completely change things up.
Well, I think that the interesting part is that half of her story and what she deals with are elements that I don’t relate to and I am not connected to. But her styles and her hair obviously, I’ve had this hair since I was 16, this is the hair I want to die in. It’s never been a phase for me, like this is who I am. My whole life is about contracting polar opposites and dichotomy and duality. I love that idea of the contrast between light and dark; some of my art kind of reflects that. So, yeah, that’s a big part of it. Her story is different than mine, but a lot of her personality traits and her interests are mine. I’m very sensitive and the whole Cry Baby thing was a real thing where I was always the one crying or people were like, “There she goes. She’s crying again,” and it always just made me feel like something was wrong with me. It’s good to have emotional intelligence and to strengthen your depths of emotion because a lot of people are taught to just block it off.
I think it’s a good character trait because if you’re sensitive yourself, you’re also really sensitive to others and just generally less of an asshole.
Absolutely, it’s all that empathy really.
You included a lot of real-life topical issues surrounding gender, race, and so on. Can you talk about how you approached these sensitive subjects and why you wanted to include them?
Yeah, I think it’s really important. Artists have the power that art and music hold with being able to heal the world and heal people around you. That’s a big thing for me. Ever since I was 14, I only started writing music because I had this goal and this intention of making music that can act as therapy for people and really help them heal. I knew this film was important for me to be able to really show each character in a way where people go through different experiences. I want people to be able to resonate with different things, but on the other hand, it was very difficult because showing a lot of oppression riddled throughout the community, it can also be hurtful. I didn’t want it to be this thing like, “And here is all this fucked up shit that’s going on in this school.” In the original draft when I was writing, I had all of these aftermath situations where there would be scenes I just had to cut out because of budget and time, where the characters who were going through the discrimination would find justice. I was really caught up in that because I really wanted people to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel there and add that sense of hope. And, with movies, as a story teller, but also as a writer and as a director, finding a balance between all of that is difficult. There’s so much. There’s so much light among the girls, among the cast. We were all extremely, extremely close and we became such good friends and eventually our dialogue, the way that we spoke on camera, was just how we would speak in real life even after shooting. So, the amount of light the characters brought into it really just lightened up the film. But, I also think it’s important to show the fucked up side of the world and the things that do happen because a lot of the time we’re blind to it. We’re just shown movies that glamorize life and romance and all this stuff and not everything is, you know, fine and dandy and sugary. There’s a lot of fucked up shit going on in the world and so it’s important to display that through art as well.
So there's Melanie Martinez, and then there's Cry Baby. I wonder if that’s a hard life to live, where you’re in between and people try to understand what’s you, and what’s a character. I wonder if it’s hard for you to understand yourself.
I think that I understand it more than anyone else will. Naturally, we all have our own ways of dealing with things and separating the character and yourself is hard for any artist who has a character that is based on themselves. For me, it being so intertwined, I think sometimes it feels really heavy because people have expectations of what you should be like. They want you to be like the character. They want you to be exactly the way they see you, and I also don’t want to ruin the illusion for them as well. I like being able to play that character when I’m on stage. I have to put on that character. But it’s funny because in real life, I don’t know. I’m really shy and introverted. and I guess the character is that way as well in that regard. I don’t know if it has really affected me too much in a deep way, but I’m still working through it so we’ll see what comes up.
Could you talk a little bit about Plus One?
Yeah. I really wanted to create a space where people can feel like a community and less of like, “Oh, we’re at a show and we’re pushing each other.” A lot of the energy is going to be catered around self-love and pushing kids to really take care of one another and their community, their friends, their family. Just spreading more positivity and love because it’s so hard. The amount of things that kids have to deal with, especially now with technology too, it’s even worse. Bullying is out of hand. There are so many things that can affect the younger generation now, with climate change and all this crazy shit that’s going on in the world. The world is literally dying. So, it’s just a really crazy time, and I just want to get to create a place when I travel, just this one place where everyone cand come together, meet new friends, all for a good cause. This project is known for for doing such good work, and I feel like it’s going to be really cool to see people join in on that and also a lot of my fans are a part of the LGBTQ community so it’s just kind of perfectly fitting. I also want to do a few other things just revolving around school in the future. I want to do some sort of school supplies donation thing. You know how fans bring gifts and stuff? I’ll probably figure it out so it’s on the next tour or something, but I just want to instead of fans bringing gifts, I want them to bring school supplies to different schools.
That’s so cute. That’s so smart.
Yeah, it’s little ways like that that you can help and still be able to have fun and be creative with it, which is the goal because it gets kids on board and makes them really want to help out with their community.
The song writing process is really vulnerable. How do you decide what you want to share with people and what you want to keep private, for yourself?
I think it happens naturally. Like, “Oh, this is something that is off the table.” Pouring out any personal bit of myself in the music, I think comes out in different energies. Putting any emotion down on paper is so cathartic for me and sometimes it expresses itself in different ways, but it’s not always going to be exactly what I’m dealing with in this moment. I like being creative with song writing. I like having things that challenge me. I could easily write a song about my life every day of the week or a normal pop song about love, but those things are so easy. I really like to challenge myself and I think that being able to tap into my empathy, put myself in other people's shoes, be able to tell their stories, and in some way, resonate on a larger scale with not just people who feel the same way I do, but with people all around the world who have their own experiences. I want people to enjoy themselves. I want people to dance and enjoy life, but also just be able to be in touch with yourself and feel a bit more introspective.
I have songs in the future, like next year or something, that I’m going to be putting out that are in-line with this record and what-not, like bonus tracks that just open up. Those songs are more personal and more vulnerable in that way where I definitely have a break up song that’s very, very specific. But those are the things we talk about in those moments. You make sure that both people understand that no matter what, everything is for the arts and music and it’s a moment of vulnerability that comes up. It expresses itself in the form of a song, you know? I think naturally and organically seeing what that is is important.
I thought the costumes and styling for the movie were really incredible. How much of that was just you or were you working with a bunch of stylists?
I literally costume designed it. I sketched out all of the designs for everything and then I worked with this woman Christina who’s just amazing and had a whole team of seamstresses and people that are creating. They had all of my drawings up, and it was the first time I ever designed. But, just having people that are on your side who really want to see your vision come to life is so important and I’m so happy that I was able to find that among the wardrobe team. Everyone was super supportive and just wanted to make sure that my vision came to life, so I couldn’t have asked for a better team in that way. It was crazy. Yeah, I’m definitely very involved. I’m involved with picking all of the fabrics and every little detail and every ruffle. I’m just very, very specific and very, very clear. I wanted the school uniforms to be very feminine. I really wanted ruffles on the collars and on the sleeves and bottom of the pants, which I wanted to be floral embroidered.
How long did it take to put the whole thing together, including like you conceptualizing?
So, I started writing the album in 2015 right after I put out Cry Baby, and I kept writing the album until maybe the end of 2016, early 2017. During the summer of 2017, I committed myself to writing the film. I went to Amsterdam for a couple of weeks and started off that way and then kept writing at home and finally I handed in the film in January of 2018. When I handed it in, they were like, "This is going to be an 11 million dollar film." I had to cut all of my babies, all of my scenes that I really wanted to do. I really had to prioritize, which is helpful because it would’ve been a three-hour long film.
I was surprised that it was even feature film length! It’s a real, full-on film.
Yeah, I’m definitely going to be getting more and more into making film. I’m just so excited to go more in that direction. I think it’s going to be fun for me.
And you can tell just from the ending that there’s going to be more, so people will be expecting it too.
Totally, yeah. So, they handed me the revisions, which I made all the way up until spring and summer 2018, and I kind of just kept cutting away the scenes that were just going to be extra things that didn’t really cater to the story. I just wanted to make sure the story was told in the easiest way to understand.
Well maybe whatever you've cut can be saved for the next film.
Yeah, I think so. I love that idea though. I saved a lot of my visual ideas. Like obviously, I’m going to try to utilize those shots that I wanted to put into the film for other things. Shooting it was two and a half to three months of just being in Budapest. It was a 30-day shoot, or something like that.
Yeah, it was a lot, and my schedule was really crazy too. I had pre-production in L.A. for a month and my schedule at that point was like, go in at 9:00 a.m. and then come back at like 10:00 p.m. All night I would have to work on homework from that day because I would have meetings with people and all of that information was needed in order for people to really get on board with my vision and really understand what I wanted. I had to do a lot of work overnight and I would come in in the morning again and show them everything because the way that I work is that I can’t really work with people. I have to be in my own little bubble, like lighting my candles and just being in a space that I feel completely comfortable to create. I had to do that a lot, like go off into my own little world and come back with everybody and explain what I wanted to do.
That’s a lot of work.
So, I had a month in L.A. Then I had a month in Budapest and then I had dance rehearsals on top of that. I mean, I got sick at one point in Budapest because it was just non-stop work, and then it was like after production meetings, go to dance rehearsals, and I was in dance rehearsals for hours. I only had a budget for a certain amount of rehearsal days, but I learned five routines in three days and it was like learning two routines a day.
Yeah, that’s wild, that’s really like –
It’s all just insane.