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Melissa Sandulo

Spotlight Series | Melissa Sandulo [Interview]

by Jennifer Fall

Sometimes the most surprising discoveries are completely accidental. I had big plans for the Wednesday that I happened to drop in unannounced to my favorite local Indianapolis haunt, the Melody Inn.

We are blessed with some incredible talent in Indianapolis, and after only one song I was rescheduling my evening plans to fully engross myself in a set by chanteuse Melissa Sandulo. I purchased her EP’s on the spot, and couldn’t wait for a chance to sit down with her and talk music, life, and hope for the future.

FMF: What informed your musical sensibilities and styles before becoming a singer?

Melissa: I grew up in the church. So much of my musical leanings were rooted in old hymns and spirituals. I still really love the hymns of the 19th century, especially. And, if you listen, you can hear a little of that gospel fire in some of my tunes.

FMF: You are classically trained. Tell us about your training?

Melissa: I had a voice teacher encourage me to continue to pursue classical training through college, despite the fact that I wanted to deviate more into the pop/soul genre. She said, “approach pop like an opera singer.” I thought that sounded ridiculous, but I really trusted her. As I moved into higher education, I learned that a classical technique, even in pop, would preserve my voice for years to come. Knowing and understanding the mechanics of voice has helped me to still sound as healthy and strong at 38 as I did in my early 20s.

FMF: Who/what are some of your biggest non-musical inspirations and how do you creatively translate those influences into your own music style?

Melissa: My most recent project was influenced largely by my journey through mental illness and the political/religious landscape of our time. Any time we write, we tell a story in our own words. As I put pen to paper, I often have a picture, in my mind, of a screenplay of sorts. Sometimes, as the melody comes to mind, I see dancers in a ballet, or I see a dance riot (I’ve never been a very good dancer, so perhaps that’s why my mind goes to dance troupes…it’s a hidden desire of mine). The action is always somewhat choreographed, and what I picture in my mind informs the overall feel of the tune. Other times, I write directly from life experiences, but I soak the experience in metaphor so it’s relatable to others. I see trees bending in the wind or natural disasters playing out in slow motion…darkness and light. It’s a strange sounding process, but it surely is fun.

FMF: What’s your social media presence like? How much do you run it and how much does someone else?

Melissa: Right now, I have just under 1,000 Facebook followers. Just under 600 Instagram followers. And less than 100 Twitter followers.  I manage all of my social media on my own. Twitter has been the most difficult platform for me to build. But I’ve seen steady growth on Instagram over the past couple of months. Obviously, I’d really like to see this grow.

FMF: How do you expand your musical horizons and keep yourself on your toes?

Melissa: I’m friends with a lot of musically gifted people. I often reach out with the question: Who do I need to listen to RIGHT NOW? Who is doing something different than what I’m hearing on popular radio? Who is on the fringe in a most excellent way? Then I plug in my earbuds and hit the gym.

FMF: What is your preparation process like for each set? How much do you plan out ahead of time and how much do you just go with your instincts in the moment?

Melissa: I have about a three hour set that I pull from. I often ONLY know what song I’m starting with (when I’m solo). Then the rest of the set is carried by the mood in the room. Or I may sense that people need to be thrown off the scent a little and drop in a crazy different arrangement of a very popular song to trip them up a little. It’s fun for me to experience the audience’s reaction to the unexpected.

FMF: You have two albums out of all original music. What was the process of recording and planning for each album like?

Melissa: Poets & Misfits–Much of the writing of this project was happening at a time when I was figuring out who I actually was as opposed to who I thought I was supposed to be. I was sorting through a major deconstruction of faith and redefining my belief system. I was in and out of open mics all the time, testing out new material, and meeting some of the loveliest bohemians and gorgeous weirdos I’d ever had the pleasure to know. Hence the title: Poets and Misfits. I contacted my good friend Steven and told him, “I think I might have something good here.” So he and I plotted out a production schedule and I got to work building a Kickstarter to fund the project. With only 3 days to go, we hit the $10k goal. It was a really exciting, validating moment…knowing that people believed in what I was working toward. I released the album in September of 2017. It had been about 13 years since I had been involved in performance in a professional capacity. So it was scary to jump back in after so long. But I haven’t slowed down in two years. And I don’t plan to.

Eating Shadows–This project was rooted in my journey through mental illness and the political landscape of our time. The tune “Shadows” is one of two songs on the EP that contain verbatim verbiage from conversations I had with my husband when I was very very ill and fighting not to give up.  One might guess that the project would be a bit of a downer, but it’s really not at all. It’s drenched in hope, romance, humor, and rebellion. And releasing it felt like a monumental victory…One, because it meant I survived the absolute worst time in my life and made something beautiful out of it…Two, because it was funded by my pay from shows and sales of the other album. I had never experienced the joy of a project being “self-funded”.

FMF: What songs/tracks are you most proud of?

Melissa: I’m proud of all of it in different ways. My favorite track from Poets and Misfits is Spider Silk. I wanted it to be a stern, delicate, and powerful song…like an incoming storm. That’s exactly what was birthed in the studio. I cried when I was listening to Lorin Lemme lay down layer after layer of drums…it was absolutely incredible to witness it taking shape.

My favorite track from Eating Shadows is Ghost. We almost cut that song. I wasn’t happy with it melodically, and I wasn’t crazy about the chord progression I’d assigned to it. But I loved the lyrics. So I revisited the experiences that led to the writing. I got a little righteously pissed off and felt a bit flirty and menacing. I sat down at the piano and hammered out a brand new song (preserving every lyric) in about an hour. I also absolutely love the vocal breakdown leading into the bridge. I think there are about 12 tracks of spooky vocals happening there. It was so so fun to record all those parts.

Melissa Sandulo
Melissa Sandulo

FMF: Any personal experiences behind your favorite song?

Melissa: Interestingly enough, both of my favorite tunes are based on some incredibly abusive experiences I had as a teen. Spider Silk was about a boy who nearly ruined me in every possible way. He isolated me from the people who loved and cared for me. And he tore my confidence apart through threats and sexual intimidation. But I finally saw the light and walked away. I wrote the song after seeing a newspaper story wherein he had been arrested for a domestic violence incident.  

Ghost is about another boy who was a little more skilled in gaslighting. There was sexual abuse in that relationship too. I was very kind and devoted to him. And he often calmly told me he didn’t think he’d ever love me, but he didn’t want to break up. Maybe if I would allow him more access to my body…

It’s kind of incredible how experiences from so long ago can still inform our worldview. Writing it down and making something beautiful out of it is incredibly cathartic.

FMF: You mentioned taking a break to start a family, and that recently you had come back better than ever as a singer/songwriter. Tell us a little about your decisions, and what is next for you now that your children are in school?

Melissa: I just think that through the years of being a full-time stay-at-home mom, way more self-discovery was taking place than what I realized. Eventually, the itch got to be too much to ignore, and I had to get back to the business of writing. I don’t really know what’s next. I’m just going to keep working and see what happens.

FMF: What are your most current goals for your singing career?

I would love more steady work. I’m averaging 1-2 gigs a week, and I’d really like to grow that to at least 3-4. I love playing solo shows, but getting my band out there more would be such a bonus. They are incredibly talented guys and we don’t get to play together as much as I’d like. Not to mention, they’re super fun to hang out with. I’m working toward more “short runs” out of state as well. Expanding my horizons.

FMF: Tell us about some of your upcoming future projects?

Melissa: I’m back to work, writing the next album. My hope is to be ready to release it by September. There’s a lot to be done between now and then!

FMF: Any tours/ upcoming events we should be aware of?

Melissa: I’m really excited about the next show with my band, “Melissa and the Neighbor Kids”. We’ll be at Union 50 on January 18th. Otherwise, you can follow me on social media and find me popping around Indianapolis

FMF: What is your favorite venue to play?

Melissa: That’s a tough one to answer! I really enjoy all of the places I play. I think if I HAD to pick favorites, they would be the HiFi as a full band (just a super cool atmosphere and experience. Good energy with the crowds) and Union 50 as a solo artist (awesome sound system and stage, great staff, delicious food and phenomenal martinis).

FMF: Anything you would like to add Melissa?

Melissa: Being real is vitally important to me. I want people to feel like we’re just hanging out together when they come to my shows…like we’re all doing life together for a minute. I think we forget to really connect and engage far too often. So I do my best to provide an atmosphere that allows for connection and engagement.

Listen to Melissa Sandulo below:

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