Candles in the rain, or in our case, the heat, because a week ago the children of singer/songwriter Melanie Safka – or simply Melanie, as music fans knew her – announced her death.
A folk artist, a ground-breaker (one of a bare handful of women who played Woodstock on her own) and someone whose music turned up in the most unlikely places (hello Adelaide’s hip hop scene!), she was an under-recognised writer who carried our assumptions, expectations and, often enough, ignorance, with grace. “Some people say I've done alright for a girl,” as she sang in her biggest hit.
A decade ago, as Wind Back Wednesday recalls for us, she did all that with humour as well. Maybe that was the key?
WHEN MELANIE SAFKA BEGAN performing her songs in the late 1960s she had her stage name shortened by her promoter and producer, who would later become her husband, Peter Schekeryk. It was as Melanie that she appeared at Woodstock and had her first hits with Lay Down (Candles In The Rain) and Beautiful People and it was under that name that in 1972, she had her biggest and most lasting hit, Brand New Key (as in “I’ve got a brand new pair of rollerskates, you’ve got a brand new key”).
However, Safka points out, she always insisted on having the songwriting credits show her full name at a time when the term singer/songwriter hadn't been invented.
“I thought it sounded more legitimate if I had two names as a writer,“ the now 67-year-old says. “The songwriters were those people they kept in the backroom and the singer was the pretty one.".
Straddling both sides of that division, Safka’s songs were also hits for others, such as Mott The Hoople, Ray Charles (“I didn't think of myself as a songwriter really until Ray Charles sang Look What They've Done To My Song Ma”) and, more recently, Adelaide hip hop crew Hilltop Hoods who sampled her in their breakthrough song The Nosebleed Section. Yet most of the time the writer of those songs wasn’t trumpeted for it.
"They never even mentioned that I wrote the songs: I was this beatific little flower child because a songwriter wouldn't fit into the image they were promoting,” Safka says, more calmly, even serenely, than the words suggest. “It was so men [focused] that they only played one girl an hour on commercial radio.”
Still, Safka says she’s grateful that while being the “pretty one” or the “beatific little flower child” as a performer may help start your career, being a songwriter – acknowledged or not – means you’ve got a chance of sustaining that career.
“In fact, the need to keep writing hasn't waned in any way,” she says. Nor has the interest in performing which she took to in her youth with the same commitment she put into her writing, despite a high, folkish voice which some mistook for delicate. She still dines out on the fact that she followed The Who onstage at the Isle of Wight and got four standing ovations.
But then mistaking her was hardly uncommon, then or now. Safka has always argued against being called a hippy, preferring to be remembered as “an oddball”, but the image of her that lasted for decades was the quintessential flower power maiden, all long hair and innocence, with a crystal voice singing about being one with nature, of sharing with others.
"Because I was very pretty – and I never saw myself that way; I thought I was odd looking - people didn't see much else,” she says. “I think that really counted against me being taken seriously as a writer of relevant material. I was being tied to Brigitte Bardot not other songwriters.”
Still the songs kept her in work, the covers piling up, including eventually one by a young Miley Cyrus who recorded Look What They've Done To My Song Ma. Does Safka think she could write a song for the older, rather differently styled Cyrus?
"I think so. But it probably will be hard to sell that concept to her people," she chuckles. "I think she did a really good job of that song and I think she could do a lot of my new songs. We actually tweet, but I haven’t proposed that idea.”
The divisions in the industry now, mostly around age and perceived irrelevance annoy Safka whose mother was a jazz singer and who as she was growing up listened to Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday before going to acting school and falling in love with Edith Piaf.
“It was all going in [her head] and it all came out in weird, eclectic things; it wouldn't be allowed to happen now,” she says. "So, I have songs for Miley Cyrus but I don't know if they would even be introduced [to her]. They would be too highly suspect.”
Maybe her people could talk to Safka’s people?
“Well,’ laughs Safka. “I don’t have ‘people’ anymore. That’s my problem.”