Austin, Texas has historically been praised for its abudance of blues and rock acts — from Gary Clark Jr. to Spoon — that transform from buzzy local talents to mainstream success stories. But R&B singer and Austin native Mélat is aiming to use her platform to show that there's more to the Live Music Capital of the World than electric guitars.
"There’s now a consciousness coming into the city where people are supporting the people of color in these spaces," she tells Billboard. "We have Gary Clark Jr. who is super-revered, but he still makes traditional-style music. So that’s part of the reason why I’m still here, because I’m hoping the success that I have doing R&B will shine a light on a scene that was always seen as a hidden subculture."
Mélat's new video for "After All," which is exclusively premiering on Billboard today (April 9), is the lead single from her upcoming eponymous EP that's due in the late spring/early summer. The summery visuals represents Austin to the core — but not in the way that most people would expect.
The singer, who is of Ethiopian descent, collaborated with local creatives that she felt deserved more visibility: Ethiopian-Eritrean director B.B. Araya, Austin's Luxe Apothetique that contributed to wardrobe and historic venue La Zona Rosa that was used as the video's backdrop.
Below, Mélat reveals the inspiration behind "After All," her admiration for the late Nipsey Hussle, and why it was so important to break out of her quiet shell to find her creative voice.
Who were some of your biggest musical inspirations growing up?
Well I’m a first-generation Ethiopian-American, so of course there was a lot of Ethiopian music being played in the house. We listened to classic artists like Tilahun Gessese and Aster Aweke, but my mom was a big lover of Donna Summer and Diana Ross. When my dad first came to the States in the ‘80s, the first concert he ever went to was Kool & the Gang. I remember he would play their CDs almost every weekend!
And for me personally, I’ve always had an affinity for jazz music. Everyone in high school was listening to contemporary music, but I loved Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. Of course I had my Alicia Keys and Beyoncé stuff in there as well, and I’m heavily inspired by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.
This industry is notoriously tough, so why did you choose this instead of going another career path?
My parents put in me in piano lessons when I was really young, so music has always been a constant in my life. Since they were very strict, I couldn’t go to school dances or call my friends on the phone. I always felt very isolated because I didn’t have anyone to talk to, so I started writing and just emotionally gushing on the pages. I loved music but I thought I needed to do something practical. So I went to the University of Texas at Austin and studied advertising, because that’s what was expected.
I was always really shy and terrified to share what was going on in my head — I hated solos during school choir — so I started doing marketing for local artists while in college. But it became more than that, as they asked for my thoughts on their writing and different melodies. I eventually put out my first two EPs [2012’s Canon Aphaea and Canon Ourania the following year]. It was nerve-wracking at first, but when I saw that people were relating to my writing, I realized that I wasn’t alone. It was the power of music that I felt I could never harness before. The more I wrote, the more confident I became.
What are the vibes like on your upcoming EP?
It’s definitely the most fun project that I’ve done. You listen to “After All” and it’s definitely a more uptempo vibe [compared to] what I’ve done before. There’s a few more gems like that on this project that shows my evolution of communicating. The way I used to write was definitely a lot more vague and ephemeral, and now it’s a little more grounded. There’s this notion about quiet girls not having anything [important] to say, and that’s untrue. Maybe it doesn’t pop into their head as quickly, but there’s so many people who have all these gems in their mind and are just nervous to put it out. So it’s those people that I’m really gunning for and hopefully be an inspiration for them.
I always like to stay as positive as possible — not that everything is roses and gumdrops — and the fact that this was a little more uptempo than what’s mostly out there was attractive to me. But [it comes from] this idea of what fulfills you and makes you happy is right in front of you all along, yet we put up these barriers that keeps us from that. Obviously the song is from a relationship perspective, but the director got this self-love vibe.
How did you end up linking with B.B. Araya for the video?
She’s a filmmaker here in Austin who’s actually of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent. She works with a film production company called Arts & Labor and we were lucky enough to have them fall in love with the song as well. This is actually her music video directorial debut, and it was great to come together as black creatives in Austin — we don’t get too much shine here. There’s so much black girl magic [in the video], it’s not even funny!
I actually wanted to touch on that, because I’ve been to SXSW a few times and rarely see R&B acts. Is that climate even there?
Well it’s kind of lukewarm! [Laughs.] You can probably count on your hand the number of people who are doing R&B in this city. We’re called the live music capital of the world, but that’s because at one point we had the most live music venues per capita. You can literally go anywhere and find music. But the history of this city is very white, male, guitar-playing — usually Americana or folk-rock — type of music. Growing up, I never went to SXSW or Austin City Limits because it wasn’t for me.
I’d say that Austin is in a creative renaissance now, because now we’re starting to see different types of people emerging who actually look like me! Seeing that gives me inspiration to think, “Okay, maybe I don’t have to go to Los Angeles or New York.”
I really appreciated that you are surrounded by black women in the video, so another interpretation I got from it was about loving your fellow friend. It sends a message of female empowerment.
I absolutely love that! You just gave me butterflies. I think my reasoning for that goes back to my purpose for staying in Austin. All those women live here and are either artists, hairstylists or professionals. I wanted to showcase that we all come from all walks of life. If you pay attention, we’re literally everywhere. I think it’s important to shine a light on that underrepresented group here.
Are there any elements of the music video that you contributed to?
I had received a pair of roller blades for Christmas, so I had been dead set on having a roller skating/disco party theme for the whole video, complete with those awesome people who can roller skate like they’re on ice. I also wanted to highlight historically Black areas and murals of Austin to shine a light on the history of the city that is often overlooked by those who [visit]. And I wanted to have pops of our Habesha (people of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent) heritage. I was able to build upon those ideas with B.B. Araya to come up with the final product! Instead of the roller blades, we see the bicycles, and instead of going around to all of the different areas of Austin, we see some amazing Black women of Austin.
I am wearing traditional jewelry in the scene that I'm wearing white in and did a little traditional dance move to serve as Easter eggs of our ethnic heritage. That being said, R.I.P. Nipsey Hussle. I blank out every time I think about it, because I’m still in shock. I remember he was the first Habesha person [the rapper is of Eritrean descent] that I saw do well in music and make a name for himself. Along with all the amazing things he's done, that really made an impact on my life.