Click Here To Hear The Single "Mad Talkin' Man"
Rod Melancon can't miss - he writes great songs, sings like a bird, and looks like a young Elvis. I don't know exactly what it is, maybe reincarnation, maybe fate, maybe destiny, but while I may not know what it is, I know it when I see it. He's got star quality, and he's fairly steeped in it. He was born into this.
Melancon started an acting career when he was barely out of the crib, and his theater director mother had him hamming it up, and reading classics from an early age, and he definitely paid attention. He moved to Los Angeles at 18 to become the next James Dean, but he fell into his guitar and the Hank Williams songbook, and out came a new Country/Americana prodigy at 22.
His songs come across as world weary tales told by the participants, sounding like good books read, and great film play. After releasing his debut album, My Family Name, in 2012, he has now followed it up with the Dave Cobb produced, Mad Talkin' Man EP. Where My Family Name echoed the tones of Hank Sr., and the solo Springsteen years, the new EP is a raucous rock ' n' rolling trip through Americana. The hell of it is, both products manage to simply sound like different facets of the same diamond - the lyrics and the tales are still the key, and every song in the kids canon sounds like a mini novel.
When I first agreed to talk with Rod, it was me buying a product sight unseen. He came so highly recommended that I agreed with no prior knowledge - and to be honest, I thought I had stepped into a mess. He was so handsome and so well presented that I thought he was a pre-packaged, Hollywood designed, reality show product, and I cringed and bit my lip. However, a deal is a deal, so I dove in - I had to admit - the bio was intriguing, and when I put on the records when they arrived, I realized that I had made the age old mistake of judging the book by its cover. Rod Melancon turned out to be the best singer/songwriter I've heard in ages. The writing is timeless, his voice is outstanding, and he's managed to surround himself with some fantastic players on both outings.
After I did my research, and got my bearings, we had a chance to chat on a warm Los Angeles afternoon:
Rod Melancon: "I've been walkin' dogs! That's how I've been making a little money during the days, playing weekend shows and getting gigs, so that's been good, too."
Well, so much for the handlers, limousines, and pre-fab stardom. I was curious to hear how he transitioned from the solitary, stark country soul sound found on My Family Name to the audacious rock and Americana found on his new EP:
Rod Melancon: "Well, that was when Dave Cobb got involved, and wanted to produce me. We went to Nashville, and I recorded a few songs with him, and you know, the song Mad Talkin' Man was kind of like a solo Springsteen, State Trooper, kind of song.
"But we were in the studio with all the guys who played on it, and Dave was like, 'Hey man, let's maybe move that capo up some and speed it up a little bit.'
"So, I kept moving the capo up higher and higher - I had never really tried to sing like that, I just usually try to sing in a low soul voice, but I really didn't think about it too much, I was just, 'Aw, screw it' - all these guys are looking at me, and stuff, waiting to see what I'm gonna do, I might as well just belt this. Basically, thats how it happened. It was all Dave Cobb's doing, hahaha!
"I think he's one of those producers who 40 years from now, they're going to be talking about and studying his recordings in recording schools, and whatnot. I think he's one of the modern greats!"
I believe Rod's got a point there - when I first put on his new EP, the first thought I had was, damn, that sounds like Dave Cobb's work, and it was!
Rod Melancon: "I've always wanted to play rock 'n' roll music, but I was always a little bit nervous to, for some reason. I just didn't know if I had it in me. He's the one who brought it out, man. I like that guy a lot!"
They do form a formidable team, and we'll talk about that more, but first, lets go back in time a bit. I wanted to hear about how Melancon's mother had developed her son's skills as a youth, back in South Louisiana:
Rod Melancon: "Yeah, my mom played a huge part in that, because I grew up in a small town in South Louisiana - it kind of had like one red light, and we lived just outside of town. It was a very conservative environment, you know?
"But my mom, when I was younger, she put me in her high school plays that she directed when I was just a kid, I'd be in like Little Shop of Horrors as a homeless kid, or something.
"She kind of threw me in there - I remember she had all these plays in her classroom, and all this stuff. I used to skim through those and I remember one of the big things for me was when she showed me Streetcar Named Desire when I was just a kid, the Kazan movie.
"She would explain to me what the symbolism was, like the mirror cracking in that last scene with Blanche and Marlon Brando. She explained to me the symbolism to it, and that's what got me goin', man! I'd watch a film, I'd watch plays, I'd kind of look into it, and try to see what it was trying to say. So I owe her a lot, because that's what I try to do in my writing as well, you know?"
There is no substitute for enthusiastic support - that's clear to me when I speak with someone of Rod Melancon's age, and I am presented with a humble and confident character. Still, it had to take some nerve to head for LA by yourself at age 18. I asked Rod was possessed him to take such a leap:
Rod Melancon: "When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an actor, or filmmaker - that was what I was working towards in school. The thing that was most successful at our high school was the speech/drama department, and my mom was the head of that.
"So, we'd do all these plays and it just felt so good to hear people say that they thought I was great, so that's what I wanted to be.
"When I was 18, I was like, 'I'm going to move to LA and just try to really do this.'
"The big thing for me was that I had read a James Dean biography, and I really got into him, and how he was from a town very similar to mine in Indiana. I was reading about him, I related to him a lot, and that's what made me move to Los Angeles - really getting into James Dean, he was a big inspiration to me."
Listening to Rod's records and songs, I got the impression that while maybe he hadn't listened to much modern music, he had listened to a lot of great music:
Rod Melancon: "Oh thanks, that's what I like to tell myself!
"I always liked music growing up when I was young. I'd listen to whatever was around. I remember my grandma really liked Patsy Cline, so I heard her when I was a young kid, and I thought she sounded cool. When I was 18 and out in LA, my parents bought me a guitar for Christmas, to just kind of fill my time, I guess.
"One of the guys I listened to was Hank Williams Sr., because I had just seen Peter Bogdanovich's Last Picture Show, and Hank Williams' music is all through that, and I liked how it sounded, so I started learning his songs because the chords are basic - I was just learning chords as I went through his songs, y'know?"
Between the Hank Williams songbook and a childhood amongst great books and plays, I asked what writers had gotten inside his head, and influenced his work, and his stories:
Rod Melancon: "Oh man, I love Sam Shepard! I love Shepard's journals, and I love his plays, too. I love Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurty - when I was writing Mad Talkin' Man, I was reading this book called Dirty Work by this guy named Larry Brown - a kind of Southern Gothic writer from Alabama. That really inspired me to write Mad Talkin' Man, because the story was about a kid, and he goes off to Vietnam, and he comes back - so that has a lot to do with Mad Talkin' Man - I'm really very influenced by books, plays, and movies, just as much as I am by music.
"I do kind of like the stuff that my mom taught me when it came to acting - before we'd do a scene, she's say, 'Rod, try to envision what this guy would be doing before the scene starts. What would he be feeling, thinking, and all that.'
"Now, when I write my songs, I'll try to do a similar thing. Kind of like character songwriting in a sense. Of course, there are personal touches in it, but I don't know, maybe that's how I kind of get my acting fix these days!
"It's just by trying to slip into some character and write it through song, Y'know? Like method acting songwriting, hahaha!"
I asked Rod if with all this background, picking up a pen and trying his hand at some fiction was a temptation:
Rod Melancon: "Yeah, I have. I've tried to write a couple of plays, trying to write a collection of short stories - I want to start working on that, and that guy I was talking about, Larry Brown, he started out writing a collection of short stories in a book, and that's really something I could see myself doing. I'm ready to start diving into that, I think."
Getting back to the rock 'n' roll, I asked why he had switched producers after such a great sounding debut album, which was produced in Los Angeles by Chad Watson, and a group of stellar session players:
Rod Melancon: "I was a big fan of Dave Cobb's. This is actually a kind of interesting story!
"I met Dave Cobb for the first time three years ago when he was living in Silver Lake. This guy who was booking shows for me, he took me over to Dave's to kind of pitch me to him.
"I hadn't really written much yet, I was still figuring myself out - so I went there, played some songs, and Dave was like, 'Man, I'll be honest - I just don't think you're ready yet.'
"So I was like, 'Oh Goddamnit. I screwed it up. My big moment to work with this guy who creates big records, and I screwed it up. So, I went, and I finished that album with Chad, all my country songs, or whatever. I was going to the Americana Music awards in Nashville, and Dave got a hold of me, and said, 'Hey, let's get together and maybe just talk about stuff.'
"We got together, and he said he wanted to record me - there was no way I could turn that down!
"I had a lot of trust in him, so I was like, 'Man, do whatever you want, whatever you feel.' He was like, 'Well Rod, I just want to say this. We're not making a boring country record.'
"I'm like, 'That's how you felt about the first one?' Well, that's OK.
"Looking back now, he was totally right when he told me I wasn't ready yet. I was far from being ready.
"I have nothing but love for Dave Cobb, that guy has done a lot for me. I can't help but respect that he did that. He told me I wasn't ready yet, then three years later, I guess I was ready."
Vocally, Melancon has the depth and chops of someone twice his age - he's a soulful crooner, who has a molasses thick tone, and he brings a world weary sense of phrasing to his tales. I was curious as to his vocal influences:
Rod Melancon: "Vocally? That's a damned good question. When I recorded the first album, I was listening to Steve Earle a lot, Waylon, I like Keith Whitley a lot. When I was young I listened to Keith Whitley a lot - I think he was one of the great voices of country music. Sadly, his life got cut short, I think he died back in '89.
"Now days, I really like Springsteen's voice, that's who I listen to the most. He belts it out when he needs to, and he keeps it soft when he needs to, and I really think he conveys the power of his songs, lyrically and vocally. Like on Born In The USA, he does ten seconds where he's just screaming at the top of his lungs. You can't help but feel the angst of his character - he came back from Vietnam, getting treated like shit, I'm sure the guy would want to scream, and that's what he does in the song! I get inspired by things like that."
"I really like the characters Springsteen creates - they're almost like the characters in a Sam Shepard play. Like on the Downbound Train Song, when he says - 'Now days, I just work at the car wash, and all it ever does is rain,' that's one of the saddest things I've ever heard.
"That's the kind of stuff I like, those kinds of characters. That's why I get inspired by film, as well. I just saw this movie called, The Place Beyond The Pines, which was amazing! The main character is played by Ryan Goss, and he works for the circus. He runs into this girl in a town they had gone through, and she says she got pregnant by him last year. He's like, 'How can I take care of this kid?' and then he's like, 'I guess I'll start robbing banks.' Now, that's a terrible decision, but you can't help but be intrigued by those kinds of decisions, y'know?"
Getting back to the recording on Mad Talkin' Man, I was not just shaken and stirred by the growling guitars and thunderous drums that accompany Melancon on the opening title track, there is also a co-lead vocal that came as a surprise:
Rod Melancon: " That's Kristen Rogers - she's from Nashville, and that was all Dave Cobb's idea, actually.
"Man, I was so excited about that, too. When he said he wanted to put a girl soul singer on the song, I was like, 'Man, I don't know about this!' But whatever - she came in and did it, and I was like, 'All right, I get it now!'
"The whole session was just filled with moments like that, where I was just like, 'OK, I'm just going to trust him.'"
It does sound great, and Rod's trust in Cobb was well placed. In fact, the EP sounds like the soundtrack to 5 books or movies that I've never read, nor seen:
Rod Melancon: "Man that is so good to hear you say! Because that's what I want to try to do. That is what I set out to do.
"I really hope to finish this thing up this summer. I really hope we find a way to get to finish it. It's my intention to do a ten song album with Dave."
While I had originally thought that Rod was a pre-packaged product, in fact he has done it all himself through a series of lucky breaks. I asked him how he made such headway in such a tough town in such a relatively short period of time:
Rod Melancon: "It's kind of like, the way I look at it is that the people that come into my life, and I'm not a super spiritual person, or anything, but I just kind of believe that they all come into my life for a reason. Basically, it's been lot of good people that have had my back, inspired me, and helped me out. The kind of world I want to live in contains mystical elements - I like to think that things happen for a reason, and I just feel like all these people have come into my life because they are supposed to.
"A lot of the songs I write, the stories I come up with, almost all of them are inspired by stories I heard as a kid. Things I saw my family go through - especially on my dad's side, the Cajun side, y'know. There's a lot of interesting stories in there, I had a second cousin who died in prison - a lot of crazy things like that. The song South Louisiana is based on a thing like that."
Another influence Melancon notes is that of country legend Kris Kristofferson:
Rod Melancon: "Oh man, I love Kris Kristofferson! The thing about Kris, I love the honesty in his songs - especially in a time when maybe country music was not necessarily being as truthful as it should have been. He came along, and wrote songs about sex, about being stoned on a Sunday morning, which is a holy day, and it didn't sit well with a lot of folks in Nashville. He was just an all around bad ass, basically!"
"He became an actor, worked in film, people were covering his songs - at the time, one of the things I like about him was that he was kind of a drifter, cowboy guy. I got nothing but respect for that.
"He speaks his mind in a kind of conservative genre of music, where I'm sure the labels told their artists not to say certain things, but Kris never gave a shit. He always said what he thought was right. I got nothing but admiration for that."
Speaking of acting, I asked what the chances were that Rod would at some point make a return to being an actor. I can't imagine that given his looks and skills, it's only a matter of time before the offers roll in:
Rod Melancon: "People bring it up. People that represent me bring it up from time to time. I haven't necessarily had any offers yet, or anything like that. I think some of the people representing me, it's in the back of their minds. I think in a sense they kind of expect things like that to happen. And, if something came my way that I thought I would be good in, I'd probably do it!'
"The thing about it is that I've worked so hard over the last few years to prove myself as a songwriter, I'd be nervous to screw it up, by giving some crumby performance, or something, hahaha!"
So - what's next for Rod Melancon?:
Rod Melancon: "My number one mission for this year is to get this record done. Dave Cobb has sent it to some pretty big folks, and they're like, 'Oh, this is great,' but they want to hear a full album. I'm sure more doors are going to happen, it's just a matter of getting the album done now. That's what's on my agenda."
I asked if he's be getting out of LA for some festivals, or State Fairs this summer, what his management had lined up for him - his answer rather shocked me:
Rod Melancon: " Well, I don't have a manager! I've got a publisher, and a publicist. At SXSW I got on some really good showcases, so they have been helping me out a lot. My publicist, she's really great, I really love her a lot - she's been there from the get for me. You can tell she really believes in it, y'know?"
Yeah, this I do know. Rod's publicist is amongst the most revered in the country, and her passion is how I came to stumble across Rod Melancon, who if I'm not mistaken will soon be one of the bright stars on the American musical horizon - he's got it all - all the tools, the talent, he's a great looking guy who writes like a Pulitzer prize winner, and not only is he a great guy, but the cards also seem to fall rather heavily in his favor.