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Taking on capitalism

Meath electronic artist Meljoann told David Hennessy about being compared to Janet Jackson, why it took eleven years to follow her debut album and the damage capitalism does to people.

It has taken eleven years for experimental Brighton-based pop producer Meljoann to release her sophomore album, HR.

A lot has happened since the Meath singer-songwriter won wide acclaim for her debut, entitled Squick, in 2010.

Critics loved Meljoann Ryan’s electronic and R&B-influenced pop from the start and Squick marked her out as one to watch.

Her sound has been described as ‘like a long-lost soul-pop album from the mid-1990s as remixed by Aphex Twin’.

But unfortunately for her, Top of Formthe critical reception did not translate into commercial success.

However, her new album HR takes a look at the drudgery of dead-end jobs but also uses the workplace as a metaphor to look at topics such as identity, relationships and gender.

But more than anything it is about capitalism, which she is sure there is an alternative to.

The song I Quit is a power ballad where Meljoann sounds like she is breaking up with capitalism.

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The opening track Assf**k The Boss deals with the ‘stockholm syndrome of the employed’, while the previous single Overtime is about a woman who must be overly polite to her predatory boss.

The album has received glowing reviews including a 7.3 score from the influential US taste-making website, Pitchfork.

Several critics have compared the vocals to Janet Jackson.

It’s a comparison that she is honoured by as Janet and her work with songwriters and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were one of her early musical discoveries.

“I love it,” she says of being mentioned in the same breath as one of her heroes but she can’t help laughing at the same time.

“Obviously I’m sure people don’t mean that I’m exactly like her.

“I was definitely always very inspired by the way they put records together- Janet and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis- and the amazing sounds they were able to create.

“That was like a childhood favourite, you know?

“So I think people are picking up on that.”

Her mother, Imelda Nagle Ryan, is a classical guitarist and encouraged Meljoann to start playing the instrument at the age of two.

She describes how she found music like Janet for herself.

“That would have been my formative experiences in music outside of classical music.

“I was brought up in classical guitar repertoire.

“And it was kind of the first music that I found on my own and it just really caught on with me. I love it.

“It used to be much more difficult to find out the influences of your influences and kind of follow it back.

“But I managed to find a book here or there, where I could see, ‘Oh, there’s someone called James Brown… There’s someone called Ray Charles… Jazz exists apparently’.

“I could listen to all the classics, and then educate myself that way.”

Meljoann wrote and recorded the album while working dead end jobs.

She has serious misgivings about the capitalist system and thinks there could be a better way.

“You feel that you’re actively making the world worse by doing your job because no one else will pay you, only people who are fully willing to exploit not just you, but the planet and everyone in their path.

“I think sometimes people take it as, ‘You’re whining about your job, and that’s all you’re doing’.

“I just feel that no one should be doing any of these jobs.

“They’re just useless.

“Surely we could organize a society in such a way that we can work on things that can make the world better, help each other in some way and help ourselves to live more meaningful lives.

“And I do think that’s possible.

“I’m a utopian thinker at heart.”

Another theme of the album is the work-like roles that people take on in relationships.

“I definitely explore relationships in that context on the album as well.

“I think the fundamental unfairness that is the way our society is structured infects our personal relationships all the time.

“It makes us feel insecure or maybe it makes us feel overly secure. If you’re the breadwinner, you can feel comfortable in treating people badly.”

So why did it take over a decade for Meljoann to follow her first album? Well, she hasn’t been idle. In fact, she has released a more dance focused album as her character Scout Hardcastle in the meantime.

“The album itself took me four years to make and the rest of it was literally just wrestling with the music industry and pleading with people to help me release it.

“I knew if I just threw it up on Bandcamp, about ten people would hear it and that would be it.

“That’s the way it goes generally if you don’t have the funding to release something with some sort of help.

“I think people who don’t know much about the music industry might be fooled into thinking it’s a meritocracy.

“It’s not a meritocracy at all. It’s very much dependent on your resources.

“I also had an opportunity to work on the visuals myself this time.

“So developing visuals was a nice, satisfying, artistic thing I could do alongside just trying to cajole the music industry into helping me.”

The eye-catching videos may well have helped her there.

The videos depict a character called Office Girl, a more cowardly version of Meljoann, who is being bossed around by Scout Hardcastle.

You wouldn’t know it but Meljoann created the office with software called Unreal Engine, and shot the whole thing in her living room using green screen.

“I gravitate towards the theatrical method of expressing opposing elements in my own psyche or opposing elements in my environment that I’m trying to deal with: The boss- employee relationship, but also the boss inside your own mind and the cringing employee inside your own mind.

“And the horrific distortions of your psyche that occur under capitalism.

“That’s what I was really trying to explore with the characters.

“I found myself kind of developing an alternate universe.

“I was exploring the gender thing as well because Scout was my drag king side and I think as a non-gender conforming woman making electronic music, it just feels like there are certainly certain sides of yourself you just feel being squashed down and squashed down trying to fit into ridiculous ideas of what a woman is supposed to be.

“So I found it quite freeing to play with the drag thing, and I found that actually completely opened up all my other theatrical sides as well.

“So when I play a woman, I’m also in drag in a way and I put on a blonde wig. That’s just as much drag to me.

“I just find as well if you make things funny, that always helps me to learn.”

The subject matter can appear dark on the surface while it is looked at through a surreal lens.

Was it intended to be this way? “Well, it is dark.

“Basically, I’m describing an absolute horror show that we’re all living in.

“So there is that, but I think I do tend to have this overarching sense of the cosmic joke about it.

“And that’s the only way that I personally can deal with it a lot of the time, is to laugh.

“It’s like gallows humour really.

“And I suppose the sounds that I use a lot of time- I find these pop sounds or these RnB sounds fun, I find them comforting and I find them uplifting.

“So I needed to put it in that framework so that I could deal with the subject matter.

“And I hope other people feel the same way coming to it.”

It is hard to believe as the album sounds polished but practically all of it was recorded in Ryan’s Brighton home.

She played every instrument and produced the album herself.

But it is not like she did not know what she was doing as she spent two years studying full-time in the Sound Training Centre in Dublin’s Temple Bar.

And all done while juggling shifts in a call centre.

“I think you can get away with a lot.

“I studied sound engineering for two years so I was familiar with the mechanics and the theory behind it and even the physics to a certain extent, so I knew what I could and couldn’t get away with.

“I had these cushions from an old sofa and I arranged them around to block out some of the sounds when I’m recording the vocals, it was little hacks like that basically.

“And because I’m multi-tracking a lot, I think it doesn’t have to be completely clean.

“Say if it was just your voice a capella or a classical recording, you can get away with a lot less there.

“I did four days a week in the call centre, and I did night shifts. So I used to get up early mornings, do maybe four or five hours on my own stuff, and then go in to the call centre.

“I would always work at least a six-day week and then I would try and take at least one day off to go for a hike or something.

“So it was very full on for a long time because I really, really needed to make this album.”

When she lost both her job and her apartment in 2012, Meljoann and her musician partner, Ewan Hennelly, also known as Brontis, moved to Brighton.

Regarded as England’s most liberal city, she says it is a place that has been good for her.

“Well, obviously I moved over here with my partner so that’s probably why my accent hasn’t changed even slightly. When I feel it going, I clamp it back down.

“Brighton’s got that kind of relaxed feel.

“I feel comfortable here with the kind of the social attitudes people have like the way the queer community is really strong here.

“That makes me feel really comfortable.

“And yeah, I love Brighton but I’ll always miss home.

“There’s this real can do feeling somewhere like Brighton.

“That does rub off on you.

“I can leach off some of that.

“I’m glad we came here. It was tough to leave but I always kind of wanted to see what was out there really.

“I remember I was living with a lovely lady from from Poland when I was in Ireland.

“And she said to me something I always remember.

“She said, ‘It’s good to experience being a foreigner somewhere’.

“It helps you in a lot of ways. I guess it takes you outside yourself and outside of your comfort zone, but it also helps you empathise with people who have emigrated.

“We’re dealing with a lot of post-colonial baggage, Irish in England definitely and I have you experienced that.”

Meljoann continues to say she has encountered anti- Irish feeling and ignorance: “Until recently, I used to work in this pub just outside of Brighton that was very, very Brexity if you know what I mean.

“It was more there and then maybe the older generation that you do hear comments.

“Most of them don’t even seem to know that Ireland is a separate country from Britain. They don’t know.  And even the younger generation actually don’t seem to know that.

“Their education seems to be very, very scanty, maybe glorifying themselves and not really going into it.

“I remember in school, we obviously did Irish history, but we also learned it in the wider context of other countries becoming independent.

“Our education system is pretty good, I think, in comparison to when you come over here and you realise, ‘Oh right, you actually don’t know anything’.

“I think maybe if the Tories got out, someone else could have a go at maybe designing a curriculum that actually didn’t pussyfoot around rather than telling the truth.”

Meljoann recently returned to Ireland to see her family for the first time since the pandemic started.

Was it hard not being able to get back for all that time? “I guess, it’s better now you can zoom people.

“So it’s not as bad as it would have been if it had been before all that, we’d have to write letters or something. Or emails like savages.”

She also recorded a session at Whelan’s in Dublin while she was home.

“Luckily my family are super supportive so they understood that I had to squirrel myself away to practice for it when I was there.

“I hadn’t even met my smallest niece before so I got to hold her and it was just lovely because kids grow up so quickly.

“I do have the actual cutest nephews and nieces of all time.”

HR is out now.

Meljoann plays New River Studios in London on Tuesday 2 November.

For more information, click here.

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