From a worn-in Coney Island diner booth on a worn-out street in the worn-downest side of Pontiac, Melanie Rutherford sits like a captain before her ship's instruments — ink-heavy notebooks, creased inspirational paperbacks, scuffed laptop — steering her fledgling music career and plotting to take over the world. It's here within the Formica fortress of Bravo Cafe that Melanie feels most at home, and she shows up here daily to write songs, do business and spend time with an adopted family of Bravo locals and staff. At Bravo, Melanie can be Melanie. At Bravo, she can pepper her conversations with bursts of soul singing and nobody'll pay it any notice. At Bravo, Melanie can audition ideas for R&B hooks on waitresses like Shapai or Monique and get either a "That was slick" or a "That's some bull-shit." At Bravo, Melanie can tease and be teased and find acceptance, not because she fits in — she doesn't, she stands out like a peacock among pigeons — but because Melanie has been Melanie here for so long that it gets taken for granted in the way that rainbows, lightning and flowers can, with enough time, all seem unremarkable.
Melanie Rutherford is not having an unremarkable year, though. She's having a wild, seismic one. The kind of year that makes the failures and droughts seem purposeful. The kind of year that's left her well on her way to becoming a prime mover in urban music, even if most people haven't heard of her. "I'm the black Diane Warren, to be honest" is how she explains it. She's referring to one of the most commercially unstoppable songwriters ever, whose catchy, soaring compositions have won Warren heaps of Grammys and the honor of being the first songwriter ever to have seven hits on the singles chart at the same time. But Warren's success, while lucrative, is of the behind-the-curtain variety — when done right, it makes others famous — which means that Rutherford's dream of penning Warren-grade blockbusters is not likely to bring her any household notoriety, even if it comes true. And it certainly seems to be coming true.
Though Melanie doesn't yet have so much as a Wikipedia page, let alone a chart-topping hit under her belt, she has an impressive list of completed projects in the pipe for 2009 that include vocal and writing work for Black Milk, Vesta Williams, Redman, Rahzel of the Roots, Dru Hill, Pharoahe Monch, Day 26, LeToya and American Idol finalist Lakisha Jones. It's probably premature to call her Warren's chocolate nemesis, but there's no denying her rising influence.
Rutherford's work behind the scenes is only part of the picture, though. Because what the Diane Warrens don't have — what few people, anywhere, ever have — is a singing voice like hers. It's a husky, glistening instrument — raw but controlled, with a lot of volume and color. The kind of voice that gets used often and without reservation simply because when people hear it, they want to hear more. As Rutherford's portal to expression and affirmation, it's been a lifelong friend and protector, a kind of soulful weapon, and she can't talk for more than five minutes without taking it out and using it on you. The mention of an idol like Marvin Gaye or a current fave like retro-crooner Anthony Hamilton will set her off on an impromptu one-woman concert. Her palm bumps out the kick drum part on the table, while her fingers snap snare hits over her left shoulder and she belts her favorite lines in a voice so resonant and heavy, no more music is required. Her singing is a totality — chord progressions, harmonies and embellishments are all there, implied in the galaxy of overtones conjured by her throat and shot ricocheting through the room. As anybody who caught her scene-stealing guest appearance last year on Black Milk's Tronic knows, the girl's got pipes.
As a child of the church making R&B music, Rutherford says she suffers from the "Sam Cooke curse," a psychological affliction that has dogged soul artists from Nina Simone to Al Green to D'Angelo — all preachers' kids whose guilt over making music for the world manifested in self-destructive behavior. But she's ready to turn that train around. "It's my season," she says, mentioning Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come."
Six years ago, after nearly a decade of bad breaks and missed opportunities, she finally got her foot in the door when rapper Redman heard her sing at a Florida music conference and began introducing her to his powerful friends. Her brother, Crunch, had given her the money to make the trip and urged her to make the most of the opportunity, but Rutherford had other plans. She was going to kill herself in Florida.
"I was in a bad spot," she says as her eyes go dead and she looks aside, vacating her body for a moment. The suicide anecdote's the kind of thing that a savvier interviewee could've worked for effect. In Rutherford's case, though, it seems to have slipped out, given only from her commitment to the truth of the conversation. There are other revelations — a preacher father who abandoned her and her 12 siblings when she was 7, abusive relationships, selling drugs — but all are quickly followed with religious truisms and positive-thinking mantras. ("Without a true form of struggle, there can be no true form of success" gets a lot of play.) For many black artists, playing up a hood childhood is just another selling point. But survivors of truly hard times don't tend to see the glamour in it and there's little remove in Rutherford's eyes when she speaks of her troubled past. She considers herself a soul artist, but she also wrestles with a true definition of soul and whether or not real soul music can come without adversity. She identifies most with the King David of the Bible who, she feels, wrote his best psalms when under attack. "David wrote from the realest point," she says. "I have to fall, you see. If I don't have no story to tell, then I'm just singin'." The past month alone has brought her a few tribulations of biblical proportions — her best friend died, she was forced to find a new home, a publishing deal she was counting on fell through. Rutherford is quick to frame these conflicts in terms of disappointment serving destiny, and of pain being the path to growth. At different times throughout our conversations, depending on the point she's making, her faith in God saved her life, then it was her daughter, Mariah, later, music. It's beside the point which has had the most elevating effect on her; what's interesting is what those claims have in common: her sense that she's lived a threatened existence. "My last two years have been hell, and yet I'm still standing," she says. "That's how I know my breakthrough is about to come."
With a voice that's a golden ticket and a knack for hookcraft that has established artists nationwide seeking out an unknown from Pontiac, what, if anything, is blocking Melanie Rutherford from being the next Keri Hilson or Beyoncé — supra-glam diva beings as comfortable writing their own hits as dolling it up for their magazine cover? Is it as simple as the impossible standards of a weight- and youth-obsessed buying public holding a true beauty down? (Rutherford recalls that when she was first discovered and flown to New York, the label execs she met with "didn't know what to do with me. You know, 'cause I'm plus-sized.") Or is it simply an issue of finding peace with herself? Of Rutherford becoming comfortable in herself akin to the way that a starlet like Jennifer Hudson or a hip-hop mogul like Missy Elliott can have it all and keep those curves? Seeing her at ease within the familiar walls of Bravo Coney Island is a glimpse of a Melanie Rutherford at her most relaxed, and therefore most powerful. But the real revelation comes whenever she opens her mouth to sing that melody that just popped into her head, and everything else melts away before the completeness of her talent. She knows her gift is her refuge. "The only place I feel free at is onstage," she says. "That's the realest place."
As she continues writing her third solo album and makes trips to the studio with Black Milk for a collaborative EP they're cutting, Rutherford is mindful of destiny, soulfulness and of the utter necessity of using her gift. "God gives you the opportunity to do what he wants you to do," she concludes. "People get it so twisted, saying 'It's all about me.' It's not. But until God tells me, 'Melanie, I don't want you to write no more soul songs,' I'm gonna ride this muthafucka until the wheels fall off."Daniel Johnson is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]