Struggles, Inspiration, and Cautionary Tales with Mel Alston Jr.
Soulful R&B artist Mel Alston Jr. brings a unique flavour to every project with which he is affiliated. Coming off of his recent Movie Muzik: Director’s Cut live album, Alston’s life in many ways encapsulates the struggles faced by independent artists.
24Our Music: What major styles or artists have been your biggest inspirations for the various works across your career?
Alston: Early on, I want to say Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, and D’Angelo. Then I started reading some books on rock, so I became a fan of Jimi Hendrix, No Doubt, Earth, Wind & Fire, Steely Dan a little later, and then The Rolling Stones.
24Our Music: That’s really interesting—your inspirations have a bit more of a rock edge than I was expecting.
Alston: Yeah, I mean, I like a lot of R&B, but rock isn’t as controlled, which I appreciate. With R&B, it’s a lot more controlled and there’s a lot more attention to the melodies and whatnot. But with rock you get to let it all go. That’s why in my own music I like to build it up gradually and then let it all out and go crazy toward the end. At the start you’re like, “This is pretty solid,” by the end you’re like “Damn, what’s good?” [Laughs] You know what I’m saying?
24Our Music: I get where you’re coming from there, as will anyone who’s listened to your recent work. On that subject, your most recent project, Movie Muzik: Director’s Cut, tackles a lot of themes that some would call rather old school or antiquated. How do you take these themes, such as longing and heartbreak, and make them feel newer and fresh again?
Alston: I think that one thing that will never get old is being able to connect with your audience. Even though these are subjects that have been discussed since the beginning of time, it never really gets old. Each and every day someone has that longing or experiences heartbreak, so you have that opportunity to let them know that they aren’t alone. Those subjects will always be relevant. I try my best to be creative with it in a metaphorical kind of way. If you take, for example, “Science and Math” I try to use some basic elements of metaphor—nothing too deep—but I try to touch that subject in a different way than anything I’ve ever heard. In another song, I might try to use the weather as a metaphor for the way that love is always changing, and it’s just something you can’t control. When it’s a different voice or melody, you get a different vibration from it even though you’ve heard the same story a thousand times before—it makes it new all over again. At the end of the day, you want people to feel it, what you’ve gone through and your experiences, and that’s what matters most to me.
24Our Music: It’s almost timeless in a way.
Alston: Yeah, yeah.
24Our Music: I want to go back to the subject of your musical inspirations because you’ve piqued my interest. Marvin Gaye I kind of saw coming, but Hendrix and The Rolling Stones? That kind of caught me by surprise.
24Our Music: So now I really want to know: if you could collaborate with any single band or artist, who would you choose?
24Our Music: I’m putting you on the spot here. You seem to have a long list.
Alston: Yeah, for sure. Because when I was listing my inspirations I didn’t mention Ramsey Louis, and he’s more so of a composer—he worked a lot with Earth, Wind & Fire. Now I’m looking into the studio with instrumentalists and stuff like that, so I’m thinking I’d pick Ramsey Lewis if he was still at it. I feel like composers inspire so much in artists. But that’s a tough question man.
24Our Music: I’m not looking to throw softballs.
Alston: Because I could also Say D’Angelo. I think a lot of how he composes and puts a lot of things together, you know, I can feel it. I just love the way he mixes things—I can’t recall the name of the man that he works with for mixing, but when things are mixed just right, you can add a whole other element to your sound, and it comes across as more organic.
24Our Music: So, shout out to D’Angelo from Mel Alston Jr.: he wants to work with you if you’re reading this.
Alston: [Laughs] Yeah man, I just want to be at the point where I’m in the studio working with violinists and horns and flutes where it’s almost like a symphony. But damn that was a really good question.
24Our Music: I’ve got a bit more of a loaded question for you: what are the biggest challenges that you have faced, be them artistic or commercial, as a musician in the independent music scene?
Alston: The biggest challenge for me is that I’m an artist but I still work 50 hours a week working for the government. Sometimes I go into work and I go “Damn, I’ve got to do this again?” and other times I go “Well, this is allowing me to exercise my passion, so best keep at it”. My job allows for me to continue to be passionate and create music, but it’s definitely the biggest challenge for me, trying to balance the two. Another thing is that there are so many artists in the industry now, and while many are passionate there are so many who are just in it for the limelight. I hate to use the word “competition,” but I’m competing with so many other people who are on the same frequency as me and then all of these other people who are all just like “look at me”. And it’s weird because to me music is about so much more than that. Nowadays music is so much about material things and partying that it’s easy to lose focus of the spiritual aspect of it all, and that just kind of bothers me at the end of the day. Staying true to yourself is so hard because the music industry would have you believe that you need to fit a certain mold with your sound so that you can be on the air. But we’re really lucky to see so many independent artists now rising in popularity, showing businesses that you don’t have to fit a certain mold to touch people with your music. But to answer your question, the biggest challenge is trying to still be myself despite the industry standards while also keeping to a 50 hour a week work schedule.
24Our Music: If you could drop everything else for music, would you do it?
Alston: Yeah, definitely. Another challenge is trying to avoid pitfalls. You’ve got so many people trying to take advantage of up-and-coming acts, so you have to always be on the lookout for jank promoters or people who try to overcharge you and other stuff like that.
24Our Music: What can we expect in your upcoming projects?
Alston: Well, the Movie Muzic project is like a trilogy, so next would be Movie Muzic 2, then Movie Muzic 2: Director’s Cut, then Movie Muzic 3, then ending with Movie Muzic 3: Director’s Cut. Part 2 is going to focus a little more on contemporary issues like politics rather than love, and we really want to add a lot more footage to tell more of a story. We really wanted to have that with Part 1, but we just didn’t have the budget, so now we’re hoping to get some sponsorship and things of that nature, which is why it’s great to have the opportunity to be in the 24Our Music Magazine. It’s really helpful because I really want to get my brand out there and push the music as far as it can go. When people start tuning in, we’re going to have something for them. We wanted to add so sci-fi elements in there too; I’m a huge movie buff, and that sound isn’t typically heard in today’s mainstream music. I want this next project to act as a bridge between two worlds in that sense, to add a new element to my craft that has been left out of popular music for some reason.
24Our Music: Thank you so much for your time Mel. We’re going to be looking out for Movie Muzic 2 because it sounds like a really interesting project.
Alston: It’s going to be interesting for sure—I’m just trying to add a little something different. Thank you guys so much.