Material Object: Melanie Charles
Melanie Charles, as told to Joshua David Stein
Illustrations by Lucilla Tubaro
What's the most important item in your home? In the Material Object series, we explore that very question, asking some of our favorite people which of their possessions connect them to their past, to their family, and to themselves.
Melanie Charles is a jazz musician, flutist and singer. She has performed with Wynton Marsalis, SZA and the Gorillaz. Her newest album, Y'all Don't (Really) Care About Black Women, was released by Verve Records in 2021. Below, she tells us about the cassette tape that changed her life.
When I first started studying music seriously I wanted to be an opera singer. I ended up studying traditional jazz vocal performance at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary. Though I enjoyed it, I was always interested in finding a way to modernize the music. (Imagine if I had studied opera!) Even before I came up with the expression, Make Jazz Trill Again, I was looking for a way to make it relevant. I often felt frustrated that the music we were studying and performing was so far removed from the world we were living in. I wondered how I fit in.
"As any tapehead will tell you, a cassette is a special thing."
After graduation, I fell into the underground hip-hop beat scene in New York. One night, at a friend’s house, I saw a box of cassette tapes and pulled one out of it.As any tapehead will tell you, a cassette is a special thing. There’s a sound and warmth you get from tapes you don’t get from other media. You can trade them. You can collect them. They are exclusive. They are elite. This tape in particular was by an artist named Dil Withers, who produced beats by sampling jazz pieces.
"All of a sudden, my world opened up."
All of a sudden, my world opened up. Immediately, it changed how I made music. It opened my eyes to how I could modernize the sound by utilizing the music that’s already part of my repertoire. The guy gave me the tape and said, if you like it so much you should do a project over it. I did and that became my project, Deflower EP. I’m sure I would have found my place eventually but that tape was the gateway I needed at the time. Now I have hundreds of tapes at my house but this one will always be special to me.