A New World Opens Up for Austin's Soul Priestess Mélat
The daughter of Ethiopian émigrés finds a voice with Move Me II
Holding a martini glass as sharp-edged glasses and blond curls frame her face, soul stylist Mélat Kassa details last weekend's solo hang with ordered-in pizza and wine. It's a ho-hum experience that positions the Austin native as a normal 29-year-old enjoying the simple comforts of cheap food and drink. Her formative years here weren't quite so everyday.
"As a first-generation kid I have to create a brand-new culture," reflects Kassa on an upbringing that traversed two entirely different cultures. "While I won't be 100 percent American, I won't be 100 percent where my parents came from either."
Her parents emigrated from Ethiopia in the Eighties to escape the brutal communist regime and settled in the predominantly white Cedar Park. While assimilation proved the singer's main concern growing up, that foundational culture remained front and center thanks to her parents speaking Amharic at home. Kassa also recalls attending Sunday congregation at the area Ethiopian Orthodox church and listening to African heroes Tilahun Gessese and Teddy Afro on the home stereo.
"I hated [Amharic] when I was younger, but I was able to talk to my grandmother, who only spoke that language," reflects the UT graduate. "She lived with us for 14 years before she passed, and I couldn't imagine not being able to talk to her."
Approval of their daughter's musicianship came hard for her parents, but slots at South by Southwest, ACL Fest, Stubb's, and even a featured spot on Bob Schneider's Valentine's Day slowly coaxed their support. It didn't hurt when Mayor Steve Adler proclaimed Dec. 14, 2017, as Mélat Day.
"My parents warmed up to the idea when I had them sing with me on 'Sit Down' from MéVen," she grins.
Prior to that acceptance, insecurities manifest on her first two EPs, 2012's Canon Aphaea and Canon Ourania one year later, "introspective [collections] that feel like a room full of mirrors." Battling through familial, romantic, and platonic love, the theme threads her music like crystallized journal entries, each song building off the last and growing more confident at every turn. 2014 EP Move Me embraces monogamous doldrums and lovesick naivete, gripped in either infatuation, lust, or love as lush instrumentals sprawl across her lithe and sublime timbres.
Initial full-length MéVen in 2016 then turns the corner.
For "Negn," she chronicles the story of her family. Like etching words in a sacred text, she weaves the origins of the names her grandmother's called her, including Mewded, meaning "To Love," and Addis Alem, meaning "New World." Grounded in dark atmospherics, the album boasts strains of African percussion as contemporary R&B rubs elbows with brooding melodies and mystic pomp. Now Move Me II: The Present, her sixth release, offsets Move Me's doe-eyed perceptions with love's unpredictable sting in Kassa's second collaboration with California producer Jansport J.
Submerged in sunshine-kissed soul instrumentation, the new album parallels their first collaboration on Move Me by swimming in lavish productions of watercolor jazz, vinyl-crackled ballads, and space-aged funk. Originally, they planned a first-quarter 2017 release, but the two decided to let the process flow organically instead of rushing the album.
"He sends me batches of beats, and if I hear anything I like, I'll put it aside and write to it," says Kassa. "It wasn't until I heard 'Push' when we had that moment of, 'Okay, we have something really special here.'"
The interstellar cruiser single launches the local's voice above glassy synths and interspersed guitar shuffles. Enamored, she sings, "Your gravity has pushed me in," although not all crash landings end well. In fact, romantic strife steams, explodes, and subsides on Move Me II, its mouthpiece navigating through impassioned relationships as she renders late-night texts, dreams of the one that got away, and detaches to vulnerability in vivid detail. All the while, she relays the unvarnished plight of her race's experience in the context of police brutality and equality, heavy topics never fully explored in her previous work.
Amid sampled police sirens and crackling percussion in the melancholic "Worries (Revelation 8:3)," Kassa's voice ripples soft and gentle like a prayer, reflecting on the trials plaguing many African-American mothers and grandmothers that she may one day face: "I worry if I have a son, what if he gets stopped by a coward dressed like a cop." Even so, this weary-eyed focus always comes entangled with hope. At song's end, she's resigned: "Some people call me mad, because I'm still singing about love, y'all." Buoying wrenching emotional moments, the album's optimism draws from Eckhart Tolle's celebrated spiritual guidance book, The Power of Now.
"The more I stay in the present, the more everything makes sense," smiles the singer. "There was a time where I was always so consumed about the next album, but if it's time with my friends or family, the song can always wait."
On the jazzy "The Now," her register ebbs and flows, floating above clouds of twinkling keys and soaring choruses. Finally she surrenders to ethereal reverie, her creed fully realized: "The future ain't promised/ And the past has abandoned us/ And the only thing we can trust is what's in front of us."
Mélat plays the Neches stage of the Pecan Street Festival on Saturday, May 5, at 6:05pm.