Welcome to the dollhouse: In conversation with 'Cry Baby' artist Melanie Martinez
When I meet Melanie Martinez, she is wearing a fuzzy pink coat and immaculate makeup (like, this level of immaculate). She’s recently wrapped up her first tour, for her debut album Cry Baby; away from the lyrical content and delivery manner of her songs, which range from disarmingly tender (like “Training Wheels”) to low-key terrifying (like “Dollhouse”), Martinez is reserved, but has a hearty laugh which cracks her uniform outside presentation and reveals the passionate artist inside.
And what a presentation it is: With boldly contrasting split-dyed hair, dark lipstick, and a penchant for pastel-hued clothes, the 20-year-old Martinez feels like she’s in costume, and she partly is, though this is her off-duty look as well. The blurry divide between her and her uncanny art alter ego (Cry Baby, whose journey defines the titular album) isn’t an accident: Like so many great pop artists before her, Martinez leans on a more exaggerated public persona to help define her space in the pop world. After all, having been in the mainstream spotlight before (on season three of reality singing show The Voice, where she made it to the Top 6), she knows the importance of highlighting and accentuating her idiosyncrasies.
A fascination with toy sounds has her committing (for now) to an unsettlingly infantile aesthetic; she sucks pacifiers and plays with dolls in promotional images and videos, but don’t be fooled into thinking that she’s merely recycling or bastardizing girlish imagery. Martinez has poisoned the well, so to speak, and beneath her sticky sweet façade, she filters disgust, rage, fear, and desire. It’s a gamble, to hope that listeners can distinguish the artifice of her concepts from the pulsing heart underneath them — but it’s one worth taking, and she’s a voice worth hearing again and again.
HelloGiggles spoke to Martinez about her album Cry Baby, storytelling tactics, and how she puts together her memorable ensembles, both musical and otherwise:
HelloGiggles: I recently saw on Twitter that you got tattoos on the back of your legs.
Melanie Martinez: Yeah! They’re really scabby right now.
HG: As you have a lot of tattoos, which places hurt the least and which places hurt the most?
MM: Least, probably on the upper arm, shoulders. The most, the back of my calves; that was the first time that I couldn’t keep still. Usually I sit like a rock, but I was so… ugh! It was terrible.
HG: A friend of mine got a tattoo around her elbow until it hit the crease.
MM: Mine felt like it was on the back of the knee.
HG: Your tattoos have a really unified aesthetic!
MM: I like to be cohesive and fit together.
HG: You do have a “look” associated with your pop persona/yourself. How did you decide on it, not just with your tattoos but also your super!pop aesthetic?
MM: I always have phases, stylistically, and they also go with what music I make, too. When I was younger, I wore overalls and hats and I wrote folk music on my guitar. As I got older, I started to cling to different things. I really love collecting vintage toys from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and that relates to what I was inspired by with my music, too. Toy sounds were my biggest inspiration for the album; it’s kind of where everything started. I love dressing in vintage, pastel dresses and stuff. It goes with the music too.
HG: I’m actually headed to Japan soon, and one of the things I’m definitely going to do is to check out the Harajuku district. Does that culture play a part in your look?
MM: Totally, I love Lolita fashion! I was really into collecting Lolita pieces, but it’s just so expensive. I would be broke if I went there.
HG: The way that the things you grow up with, and manifest into as you grow older, is so interesting. With you, the idea of taking a “childish” frame for your music, beauty looks, and style is really unique. (The split-dyed hair, for example.) How did you build your public-facing persona?
MM: I did my hair when I was 16 to rebel, because my mom never let me bleach my hair. I was watching 101 Dalmatians and told her I wanted to dye my hair like Cruella de Vil. She didn’t believe me — and then she didn’t talk to me for a week. Now she likes it, but I’ve had it for a while; she just didn’t want to ruin my hair, which was long, brown, and natural.
Now, I’m like, I should’ve just worn a wig or something! I wish I had healthy, healthy hair.
HG: Ugh, I had the same fight with my mom about dyed hair a while ago. She was like, “Nobody’s gonna take you seriously!”
When you carry that kind of subversive spirit into your music, as you write with these childish themes but take them into darker and weirder places, what kinds of people do you see gravitating toward your music? How do you see songs like “Cry Baby” and “Pity Party” translate into the listening world?
MM: I didn’t really think about what age, or who was listening to the music; I was focused on telling a story and getting things that needed to get out of my head, out of my head. It’s the only way I really express myself; it’s my therapy. I’ve never felt like, I have to write this song because this kind of person will relate.
I do notice that there are a lot of young, really young people that come to the shows. It’s surprising! I’ll ask their parents, “You let them listen to my music?” I see it as, it’s pretty explicit, but it’s disguised by the visual and my image. Little kids are attracted to it or something because it has that little kid façade; kids will literally replace the curse words automatically in their head.
This one three-year-old, my friend’s kid, actually says “F—king,” and it’s so weird! I thought my music would be for an older audience, but yeah, a lot of young kids are into it.
HG: It’s like when the Spice Girls first came out with that song “2 Become 1,” the fact that they were singing about sex totally went over my head. And that was another group that had a really kid-friendly image, all things considered. What acts and artists did you gravitate toward, and influence the way you treat your performance aspect now?
MM: I really love Brandy and whoever my dad would play when I was younger. I loved all the pop girls like Christina Aguilera, Britney [Spears] and stuff. But my dad would play a lot of hip-hop, R&B, The Beatles.
HG: There are a lot of pop people who split their personal side from their performing side. For you, Cry Baby both is you and isn’t you — could you describe the relationship between you and your adopted character?
MM: Through the album’s story, Cry Baby is super insecure and vulnerable and shows that in the beginning. As it goes on, she has many experiences and becomes a little bit more confident in being the crazy human that she is; she’s more comfortable in her skin, and in the process of writing the album, I’ve also made the same changes in how I feel.
I made up some things up to fit the storyline, but a lot of it was personal, I did go through things, experience many of the changes that she goes through. However, she gets kidnapped and poisons the Wolf with milk and cookies, and I obviously didn’t do that! The weird, fairytale elements separate us, but in how we feel and if I were in the position that she’s in, I’d react the same way.
HG: One of my favorite moments from the album is in “Pity Party,” when you SCREAM. Everybody’s had that kind of a day — they tried REALLY HARD to make this thing happen, and then it all falls through.
MM: You reach a point where you think everything is over, you’re like . . . [Ed. Note: Martinez makes a strangled noise.]
HG: With the album, I don’t necessarily see myself reflected in the carousel elements or the carnival elements, but when it comes to feeling the anxiety and frustration of seeing people not be the best they can be, that’s so real. Does having songwriting motifs make it easier to put these really personal things out there?
MM: I used to write a lot differently than I write now; when I was younger, it was much darker and the lyrics would be like, whoa, this is heavy. There was no sugar-coating like with pop, but I slowly started having fun with it. I view music as more like painting a picture rather than making a song: I have to view it as a visual thing from beginning to end. The story, every little bit has to make sense.
HG: Part of this is difficult when you’re making a concept album, you lose control of it a little bit.
MM: You have to let other people have their view on it, but it’s hard when you have a vision for it and people see it as something else. You have to let it go. HG: You do have more say in it, since you’re so hands-on with your visual components. When you’re translating the songs to the videos, you keep a uniform universe — they’ll move from theme-to-theme, video-to-video. Was it something you insisted on doing, doing all of your own videos?
MM: Yeah, that’s my goal: I want to create this weird town, and Cry Baby’s a character in it. I always want it to connect, I’m making music videos for every song on the album; I’m very stubborn and passionate about it. I wanna see it as visual as possible, because it’s one thing to have an album that tells a story, but for me, it’d be complete if I had music videos to put in front of peoples’ faces.
HG: Like Beyoncé’s album, with all the videos out at the same time.
MM: It’s important! It helps you view the album as one piece, instead of each individual song.
HG: How did you articulate your vision to potential collaborators and supporters? I mean, your video for “Dollhouse” was fan-funded.
MM: I had friends who shot the video and friends to do hair and makeup, even be a part of the video as actors. It was something I really wanted to do; I wrote the whole storyboard and everything, and since everyone was my friend, they wanted to do this. It was very stressful!
HG: I’m always amazed by artists’ abilities to enact their vision through fan and friend power. A friend of mine did a Kickstarter for her first recorded album.
MM: Yeah, I did an Indiegogo.
HG: Would you do that sort of thing again in the future, if you wanted fan suggestions, or are you keeping things more in-house now?
MM: I’m definitely interested in seeing who’s out there and would collaborate with me. Right now though, I’m focused on working on, and working with people, to figure out the bigger picture. Maybe one day though.
HG: When you took Cry Baby on the road, did you pull your stage show directly from your music videos?
MM: I have these huge blocks, children’s blocks, that light up and spell out CRY BABY. I try to tell each story within the album and play the part of Cry Baby. That’s really it! I just drew out the blocks, and had two guys who did the lights, picked the colors.
HG: Would you ever want to take the Cry Baby character into a theater-kind of arena, or to direct her in that way?
MM: That would be incredible, to have stage pieces like a play, but less theatric and more like, the songs. But no acting!
HG: When you meet fans at your shows, what parts of Cry Baby’s persona do you find they most connect with?
MM: I think Cry Baby’s crazier side . . . I don’t know, it’s all over the place, it probably depends on how they feel that day! A lot of people cling to “Mad Hatter,” the last song on the album where she’s like, “I’m okay with being completely insane.” That’s cool, because it’s not a sad song. Or they connect to “Soap,” and it’s sad because I know how I felt in that moment, writing that song. It sucked!
HG: When you brought up “Soap,” it made me remember: When I was in middle school, I was this goody two-shoes and the guy friend of mine said something really mean, so I told him to wash his mouth out with soap. And he did it!
MM: It tastes SO bad!
HG: You’ve actually tasted soap?
MM: For a video that I have up on YouTube . . . it was so bad. I didn’t get too much, but even that little bit feels so chalky and strange.
HG: Do you find that it’s tiring to keep up the Cry Baby persona when you’re out and performing? It is a very extreme persona — it’s not like, I’m friendly! It’s more like, let me go through this emotional journey right here again.
MM: It’s hard; this tour was really hard, since I wanted to write really badly but I couldn’t because I was so busy with the shows. I found myself being upset all day, and then once I get on stage and in that moment, it’ll just come out naturally. I’ll think, I have to move my face this way, this is how I feel, how I felt when I wrote these songs.
HG: A lot of the songs are about relationships with your family, with your friends, with ex-loved ones. Do people come back to you afterward and say, “Hey, what’s this about?”
MM: No one’s ever said anything about a song that was written about them. I’m sure that they know . . . except for boyfriends that I’ve had, when I wrote a love song for my ex-boyfriend, that was really nice. But nobody I’ve talked s—t about on my album has said anything about it!
HG: “Oh, it’s just the character!”
Speaking of your character: When you’re touring, how do you keep up your hair?
MM: I just let my roots do their thing until I can fix them! Sometimes I have lucky breaks, like when I’m in New York; the guy who does my hair lives there, so I’ll get it done.
HG: You’re from there too.
MM: Yup, I just moved to LA in May.
HG: Now that you’re done with your first tour and you’ve brought your Cry Baby persona out, are you ready to retire her or are you more interested in evolving her and thus your songwriting as you go into your next album?
MM: Cry Baby’s just a character, but it’s hard to separate myself from her because I am her. Instead of retiring her, I think I’d be speaking from her perspective, but it wouldn’t necessarily be about her life. Like, someone else’s story through her eyes.
I want to create different characters and explore different things, have different places within each part of the town. But the plan is to continue the story, and when I’m older, I wanna look back at all the music that I’ve written as a continuous story.
HG: There are so many storybook themes in your work! Do you have any children’s books that influenced you?
MM: It’s really funny because I actually don’t even read, like fairytales and children’s books when I was younger. I just like writing and creating stories.
HG: Instead of reading them, you’re making your own!
Man, it must be tough to be touring, and to be a “role model” . . . when you’re trying to speak to your fans, how do you connect with people when you’re stretched so thin?
MM: It’s hard, but whoever is similar to you will connect as you are your true self. I try to keep it real and honest, and if people don’t agree, then they don’t agree. But the people who do: That’s really special and awesome, you find your people. I’m basically talking about how I feel and putting that on the Internet, and people are also feeling that way. It makes me feel less alone.
HG: Because you have such a distinct look and a strong fan base, did anyone dress up as you for Halloween this year?
MM: Yes, so many people, it was so funny! They really do a good job.
At shows too, some people dye their hair or wear wigs. My friend came to my last LA show and she saw the back of a girl and thought it was me.
HG: Does your fan base have a name for themselves?
MM: Eh, I honestly try to stay away from like, “You’re all a group.”
HG: You’re not their mother.
MM: Yeah, but I understand why they like it. To feel like you’re in a club; it’s fun, and I get it because I used to feel that kind of way. Not in the way they do about me, because I didn’t have social media, but whenever I refer to anyone on the Internet, I just call them “babies.” They just call themselves “Crybabies.” But I don’t know what they’re gonna do for the next album, because it’s obviously not gonna be called Cry Baby! But it is the name of the character.
HG: Maybe they’ll be crybabies forever.
MM: Haha, maybe!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Images courtesy of Catie Laffoon and Emily Soto.