The times they are a changin’. And so is the stage for conscious music and creativity. Local musician Mel Bryant is emblematic of this reality. Singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist, Bryant’s musical trilogy reminds listeners what a good sonic recipe sounds like. For starters, it packs a powerful punch.
I met Bryant at a Sofar Sounds event in March before her album, High Priestess, dropped. It was an intimate, bare bones-loft performance. There was dim lighting, a Persian stage rug, two stools, guitars, amps, and petite Bryant strumming a melodic intro that signaled the calm before the storm. It wasn’t long before the room shook with her soulful vocals. Her songs carried tiers of genres that ranged from blues, soul, indie, folk, and rock. Her influences are colorful and her oeuvre proves it, as does her background.
Bryant is no amateur. A recent grad from the University of Miami Frost School of Music, she knows a thing or two about instrumentation, writing, and stitching together quality performances. Bryant’s musical studies have encouraged her to “think critically about music.” To Bryant, studying the greats is a lot like cracking open a history book, “absorbing their prowess and borrowing different artist’s techniques, combining them to make something new.”
So, it’s no surprise that her style can be likened to predecessor songstresses like Lisa Loeb, Dolores O’Riordan, and Shirley Manson. But while her influences are varied and she sounds familiar, her style retains a unique and original flavor. Bryant’s writing represents her refusal to substitute mere vocals for artistic purpose. She is committed to using her music as a medium for reflection, and if possible, positive change. She textures her music with truths that carry universal appeal – themes of friendship, love, loss, betrayal, anxiety, and all the in-betweens that make being human a complicated production.
Without further ado, here’s what Ms. Bryant has to say about self-invention, resilience, and being an unapologetic woman.
Who is Mel Bryant?
I’m a woman with an excessive amount of passion and ferocity looking to make the world stop and wonder for a bit. I’d like to think it’s a selfless endeavor, promoting thoughtfulness, respect, justice and love through rock music, using brutally honest lyricism with folk and blues influenced guitar stylings.
Can you tell us about High Priestess? What’s it about? What inspired it?
High Priestess means a lot of different things to me. First and foremost, it is inspired by and created for all the powerful women in my life and throughout history, who gave me the strength and resilience to work through the pain and confusion that this crazy thing called life doles out. Specifically, I was really inspired by and interested in the female characters in religious texts like the bible; women like the virgin Mary, who according to some people was solely a maternal figure, but to me, she was the catalyst of miracles and that’s kind of telling as to how I view women in general. With wonder and awe, mostly. It was also inspired by my relationships with different men in my life; my father, my boyfriend, strangers in bars. I’ve had strained relationships in the past that instilled in me some intense anxieties and obsessive tendencies, and while some of the songs are dark, brooding, almost creepy (my songwriting friends poke fun at the fact that I apparently mention a lot about blood and scars), there are still a couple of sweet, tender love songs in there too.
What’s the theme that resonates throughout High Priestess?
High Priestess is also, as these things tend to be, deeply personal and so, inevitably political. Many of the songs focus on the injustices that one faces as a woman (Lace/Chains describes the feeling that I get when I’m walking home alone late at night in the city, not really sure whether I’ll make it back alive), issues of political partisanship (“The Other Side, Growing Pains”), immigration (“Bridges”), and gun violence (“Get Used To It”). If there is an overarching theme, I would say that it is empowerment more than anything else—hopefully, that when people listen to the album, they feel assured in their pain or frustration, they hear that there is someone out there who understands, and they are inclined to in turn be more understanding of others. In that way, I hope to empower people to be their best, kindest selves.
How long have you been a musician?
I’ve been a musician since the fourth grade, I would say when a few things happened at once. For reasons unbeknownst to me, I started singing incessantly on the bus ride to and from school.
What musical themes do you pursue?
I have extremely eclectic tastes (as mentioned above) but this album has been most deeply influenced by the music of artists like Jimi Hendrix and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. My heart will always belong to musical theater, and I think that passion comes through in my vocal style and my performances, but I really felt the most emotionally stirred by blues rock music. The simplicity of the style, combined with the ferocity of the guitar sound, creates, in my opinion, the most powerful and soul-rousing music.
Do you study music? And do you think that’s helped your performance?
I am currently studying Commercial Composition and Production at the University of Miami Frost School of Music, and I graduated this May. I definitely think my writing style has done a complete 180, and that was definitely a good thing.
School also equips you with the knowledge necessary to act as an entrepreneur as well as an artist. It’s really quite empowering if you think about it— as tedious as it may be to act as your own booking agent, publicist, manager, etc., you no longer have to rely on other people or answer to anyone else when creating your art.
Who has influenced your work?
I’m honestly really influenced by lots of classmates here at Frost. As cheesy as it may sound, I was very much influenced by my boyfriend, Conor McCarthy, who plays guitar and writes music as well. He introduced me to a lot of the less mainstream classic rock artists that ended up inspiring a lot of my songs and encouraged me to focus more on my guitar playing. I’m also influenced by folk songwriters that I had been listening to since high school—like Laura Marling who is part of a community of neo-folk revivalists from England— that style of writing is really poetic and is the kind of stuff that you can listen to dozens of times and still catch something that you hadn’t quite understood before.
In your opinion, what role does the musician have in society?
I think musicians have many options as far as which role they wish to fulfill. For a lot of people, musicians provide an escape. Some musicians are like historians, encapsulating the soul of a given time period. I hope to be a refuge—not a place for people to run away from something else, but space for people to come and feel welcome and truly understood.
If given an opportunity to teleport to a musical era, which would you choose and why?
I don’t think I’d really want to be living in a musical era other than this one. Temporarily, I’d love to check out the 60’s, go to Woodstock and see all that stuff in person, but as far as a permanent situation I think what we’ve got going on right now is a pretty sweet deal. There’s so much more diversity, so much more accessibility, and so many amazing technological advancements that have expanded the community of musicians beyond anyone’s imaginations. I’m not sure a past time period would have allowed for someone like me to pursue music. I’m really lucky to be alive today.
What’s next for you?
After I graduate, I’m going to be staying in New York City over the summer to play shows, including a tour of the northeast and some of Canada to promote my album, intern at a recording studio in Manhattan, and work on new music. Come September I’ll be moving to Nashville to keep on keepin’ on.