I am pleased to present an interview with the beautiful, charming and incredibly talented Melody Sweets. I finally got the chance to see Melody perform live in 2011, when I was invited to see the smash hit show Absinthe with other Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend attendees. The show was incredible, and she was incredible in it. I was eager to find out more about her life and career leading up to this role, as well as her seductive new album, Burlesque in the Black…
Can you begin by sharing a little about your early life? Do you come from a creative, musical family? Did you receive any training and/or perform at a young age?
I moved around a lot when I was growing up; between the East and West coast, between my mother, my father, foster homes and shelters. I never received any formal training and was forbidden to sing during my childhood! I didn’t start to sing until I moved to New York in 1999. New York is an instigator and an inspiration in itself. The energy of New York alone pushes you to be the person you really want to be… or, it at least can give you the opportunity if you have the balls to put the work in. I didn’t find out that I had any musical history within my family until a couple of years ago! My father was a rock and roll drummer, my mother was a painter, my grandmother was an opera singer in Italy, and my great grandparents met in their high school band!
You moved to New York in 1999, and I read that you quickly found yourself frustrated by ‘being in the background and singing other people’s songs’. Have you always felt that you are meant to be right at the front, calling the shots and impressing your own voice and brand? Has it been a difficult, gradual rise at times, or have things generally fallen into place for you in your career?
I quickly realised that if you want something done, you have to do it yourself. Singing other people’s songs is great, but if you want to express yourself, it has to be your own creation. And, no, it definitely wasn’t easy. People want to quickly judge and label you, and they do this often when you tell someone you’re a burlesque performer. When people ask me what I do, I say I’m a singer and burlesque performer; people often only hear the burlesque performer part. This can become frustrating, especially when you’re booking yourself as a singer. I enjoy the challenge, though. I love what I do and I love that I’m able to create my own path. As hard as it may seem sometimes, it’s always fulfilling in the end.
After a period of recording with your band at the time, I believe your friends eventually invited you to be involved in a burlesque production. What initially appealed to you about burlesque, and has that largely changed years later? What changes and developments have you observed?
Well, I’ve only been doing burlesque for about six years. When I moved to NY in 1999, I was performing in rock bands, not doing burlesque. I didn’t do my first burlesque show until some time in late 2006. What initially appealed to me was the fact that I was going to continue to sing and perform in front of a live audience and I was doing that with the support of my friends, who happened to be in the show I was cast in. Then, of course, there was the money. I was getting paid! When you’re in a rock band, it’s a hustle to try to make a dollar. Burlesque paid per song. And, even though it didn’t pay so much per song, it paid. I was actually getting paid to write songs! Okay, so I had to strip some clothes off to do it, but come on – I get to strip off some pretty elaborate, glamorous costumes and I was very okay with this! I’m a sucker for sparkly things.
Was burlesque something you immediately felt comfortable with, or did it take a little time to feel completely sure of yourself? Were you already incorporating similar, sensual elements in your performances previously?
It felt immediately comfortable. I think it happened this way because there was no initial pressure for me. I was doing it for fun and never imagined it would end up becoming my life. It was a complete change from what I was doing before. I was actually a huge ball of nerves in my previous band, GOODFINGER, because there was this huge pressure to succeed; the only thing that stayed the same from my previous performances was that I was able to continue to sing my own original songs.
“Being active and persevering are some of the most important things to do to be able to continue doing what you love and better yourself along the way. Think of yourself as a professional student. Keep learning.”
I find your voice so interesting; I didn’t expect to hear this knowing, Kate Bush-like voice come out of such a sweet, innocent face! How did your brand and sound develop? What are your main inspirations and influences when you create new music and routines?
Ha! “Innocent face” … “Kate Bush” … I’ve never heard anyone use those two words to describe me before. Haha. Thank you. [Hah, sorry! Ed.] I think, like anybody, practice has pushed my development. Being active and persevering are some of the most important things to do to be able to continue doing what you love and better yourself along the way. Think of yourself as a professional student. Keep learning. I try not to put any boundaries on what I’m doing, so whatever ‘branding’ has happened has happened naturally.
I have read some comment from you about your time at The Box; performing your work for a celebrity audience and alongside an inspiring variety of bold, innovative performers. (I’m particularly envious of your STING encounter!) How did your time at The Box affect your career, and what lessons and lasting impressions did you take away from it?
I love The Box! The Box pushes boundaries and so helped me push my own boundaries and challenge myself. I also learned a lot from the back of the house, behind the curtain; the stage crew and production team there are warriors. Awesome to watch it in action: the set changes, the drama, the dancers, the host… the audience’s jaws on the floor. LOVE IT. If you’re ever in NY, you must check it out!
Can you tell me a little about how you came to perform in Absinthe? Did the initial role you were offered match what we see now – were you always going to perform your own material and play your role from the outset? As I have previously touched on in this interview, I imagine you wouldn’t want to become part of a daily production like that without incorporating your own material and standing out in some way…
Purrrrfect segue… The producer of Absinthe saw me perform at The Box and set up an audition with me for the role of the singer in the Absinthe New York run. While in the waiting room to audition, with about twenty other singers warming up their vocals (sounded like a vocal acrobatic army singing next to me), I look around and quickly notice that I’m the only one putting pasties and glitter on! I found it to be quite strange because the producer of Absinthe saw me doing burlesque while I was singing at The Box, and so I automatically assumed they were looking for burlesque. Thank goodness I didn’t chicken out! I put my pasties on, auditioned one of my singing burlesque striptease numbers (to two people in the room… awkward!) But, hey, I landed the role. It was awesome.
This then led me to travel to Australia with Absinthe as part of the Australian Tennis Open, and then, of course, here to Vegas. Absinthe Vegas is very different than any of the other Absinthe productions I was a part of; instead of playing myself, Melody Sweets, I’m now Melody Sweets, the Green Fairy. I still get to sing my own songs and do my own acts, which is a must for me, but with a twist…
Did you anticipate how successful and long running Absinthe would become, or that you would still be in Vegas performing in it today? Do you feel that you have become part of a family?
NO! We initially only signed a six month contract, and, honestly, I didn’t think we’d last that long! Only because our show is a pretty crazy, in-your-face kinda show. The hosts are raunchy, there’s danger, there’s boobies, there’s naughtiness… I didn’t think a huge corporation like Caesars Palace would have the guts to back something that wasn’t some cookie cutter, innocent show. But, after two years and almost 1000 shows later, we’re still here going strong and don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon!
Absinthe has given you an enviable and rare long term residency and artistic freedom. Have you found that it has begun to restrict other projects you would like to pursue, or are you happy to remain in the production for the foreseeable future?
I’m happy where I am for now. I’ll be able to get out and do a little travelling and touring this year so we’ll see where life takes me at the end of this contract!
Have you discovered any downsides to performing the same show every night for a long period, or do you see little difference between this and, say, the regular repeat performances at The Box and other venues? Are there times when you have to work a little harder to keep things fresh and motivating, for yourself and the audience, or are you yet to experience an Absinthe ‘autopilot’ moment?
I would’ve thought that it would become monotonous after a while, but the fact that I’m singing my own songs and have quite a lot of audience interaction, and the hosts of the show do mostly improv, keeps the show fresh for me. And, besides, there isn’t a boring moment in the show, which makes going to work every day a highlight to the day.
Have you found that your demanding Absinthe schedule has prevented you from being as socially involved and visible in the burlesque community as you would like? Would you like to appear at more festivals and annual events, for example, and are there any current popular issues or topics you have strong opinions on?
My schedule has definitely prevented me, in a way, from being as socially involved in the burlesque community as I would like to be, but I feel I’m in a great position to promote burlesque to an audience that might not ever get to see burlesque, and by being involved in a show like Absinthe, I seem to get more exposure and press in many different forms of media, which definitely helps my way.
What do you do with your ‘downtime’ between shows? Are you always working on something, or do you schedule time for relaxation?
If I’m not working on my next project (whatever that is at the time – right now it’s promoting my recently launched debut album!), I try to schedule in time to explore my surroundings. I don’t know how long I will live here in Vegas, so I try to get out as much as possible. I’m one of those people that can’t sit still, so ‘relaxing’ never sounds very appealing to me. Haha.
“If it wasn’t for burlesque and this amazing community of people, I would not be where I am today, and for that I am grateful.”
Your residence in Vegas has allowed you to be close to and active with The Burlesque Hall of Fame. What are your feelings about its importance and the history of burlesque?
I feel very lucky to be able to be so close and active with The Burlesque Hall of Fame. If it wasn’t for burlesque and this amazing community of people, I would not be where I am today, and for that I am grateful.
Burlesque has given me confidence to explore my own creativity, and as cliché as it may sound, I find burlesque to be very empowering. I see it helping women’s self esteem and confidence on a regular basis. Burlesque knocks down the mainstream idea of what a woman’s body is ‘supposed’ to look like and celebrates every body. For this alone, I feel it is important for not only the history of burlesque to be told, but also for it to keep thriving and inspiring.
I have enjoyed your music videos; they looked like a lot of fun to create. Were they difficult to plan and finance, or were friends and colleagues happy to give their time to make it happen?
Thank you! They’ve been TONS of fun! They’re a bit addictive to make, they’re so much fun! But, yes, yes and YES! Yes they’re difficult to plan, difficult to finance, and friends seem to be happy to give their time to make it happen, for which I am truly grateful. You are depending on a LOT of people to make your vision and dream come true; you must work with many different schedules, make the costumes, figure out the choreography, hire the film crew, etc., etc. But again, in the end, it all seems worth it.
Can you tell me a bit about your new album – the overall theme and mood you were going for, the creative process, and any interesting stories, ideas or emotions attached to some of the numbers?
The new album, Burlesque in the Black, is a collection of songs composed exclusively for my burlesque journey around the globe, accompanying me on stage every night with each performance that I do. Each song has a burlesque act, an entire story that goes along with the act. Slice of Heaven was the first song I wrote to take my clothes off to and I’m still singing that song today every night, ten shows a week, in Absinthe! It’s also the first song in the history of burlesque to have a music video that has been written, produced and directed by a burlesque performer. Very exciting for me. The Slice of Heaven music video stars some of my all time favourite burlesque performers such as, Julie Atlas Muz, MsTickle, Harvest Moon, Stormy Leather and so many more! A couple of my favourite songs on the album are Up All Night (featuring members of the Dap Kings) and Voodoo You (featuring my band, The Candy Shop Boys!)
What are your hopes and plans for the near future, and long term?
I hope to continue to enjoy my time here in Vegas while performing for Absinthe, and I’m looking forward to working on my next album! We’ll see where life takes me; wherever it is, I plan to be singing and stripping while doing it.
Find out more about the fantastic Absinthe (and go if you get the chance – it’s brilliant!)…
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.