Photo: Strangers In A Fire
Melody Thornton On How Her Comeback EP 'Lioness Eyes' Reshaped Her Musical Identity
What does one do after surviving the whirlwind of being in one of the world's biggest pop groups? Some artists may try to hold onto that success. But in the case of Melody Thornton, she left it all behind.
After joining The Pussycat Dolls in 2003, Thornton left the group in 2010, the year the ensemble disbanded, to figure out who she was as a solo artist. The singer independently released her debut mixtape, P.O.Y.B.L, in 2012, and after a winding road of one-off singles, she's now returned with Lioness Eyes, her first project in eight years.
Released earlier this month (Aug. 7), the seven-track EP is more of an emotional release: With each song, Thornton slowly rediscovers herself. Taking notes from brooding singers like Nancy Sinatra and Eartha Kitt, cinematic scores such as Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill and Thornton's own Arizona upbringing, Lioness Eyes is a self-reflective journey set to an Italian-Western-inspired soundtrack.
"This crossroad that I met won't conquer me," Thornton croons on the haunting opener "Pray For Me." The song and lyrics embody the EP's concept, where she takes risks without the constraints of a major label. (She's remained an independent artist since her departure from The Pussycat Dolls).
"It's just really nice that somebody understands what I've been trying to say, because it's been a long road. It's nobody's fault when you are introduced a certain way," Thornton tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom. She gets emotional for a moment, and it's clear the EP's process was a weight lifted. "But I started realizing how every great female artist in the '90s was associated with a film: Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Barbara Streisand, Bette Midler. That really resonated with me and how I wanted to have my own soundtrack."
GRAMMY.com spoke with Melody Thornton about the journey that led to the Lioness Eyes EP, how she drew inspiration from her Mexican and Southern Black heritage and how she regained her musical identity.
I'm going to get this out of the way now: Why did you decide to opt out of last year's Pussycat Dolls reunion?
My introduction to the industry just happened to be this mega-huge pop group, you know? It was really just a starting point [for my career]. I was 19 when I joined the group, but honestly, my maturity level was probably like 15 years old. I had no idea about the world and never left home before.
I don't think the label ever considered that we were only going to release two albums. So all throughout [that time], I just needed people to know that I sang. It didn't seem like a situation that was going to last forever. But it did leave me in limbo with respect to who I am as a vocalist and developing myself artistically. I don't know whether or not there were plans to extend the group and record more music. I think life is meant to be abundant, and you've got to keep moving forward.
So returning [to the group] wasn't the right thing for me. I do wish them all the best and hopefully they wish me the best because we come from the same place. It's recycled energy. But my focus is this music that I write. Look at this pandemic, you know? You just gotta live your life. You get to a certain point where you go where you are loved and where you can be successful.
You were thrown into stardom because the group was immediately successful. Was it difficult to re-establish yourself after leaving?
Yeah, it was challenging. There were so many elements, like, "How am I going to pay my bills?" The more people involved, the more money is being divided. The type of music that we made is not the kind of singer that I am. So there were a lot of unraveling layers. I didn't want to create another rabbit hole that I could not get out of. I just tried to stick to my guns, and I released a mixtape in 2012 [P.O.Y.B.L] that took really popular instruments from the '60s.
The mixtape had retro elements, but with a modern twist.
Yes! I made it a free project to get people thinking of me in a different way. Then after that, I needed to find normalcy. The industry is just wacky. When you're just chugging along to something that is not the common man's day-to-day, it's a little bit scary because it's almost like you're becoming more and more accustomed to dysfunction. I did not want that. I still want to be able to go to the hardware store with my dad and be present. So I actually did take a step back to say, "This is Hollywood. Don't get lost in that thing." Now I've come back with a clear mind.
We've known you for having such a particular sound for years with PCD, and then you moved away from that radio-friendly pop. How did you figure out your musical identity?
I love [The Pussycat Dolls' 2005 debut single] "Don't Cha." I didn't at first, but I understand why record labels liked it. Growing up in the '90s, Anita Baker didn't sound like Betty Wright. Paula Abdul didn't sound like Janet Jackson. Everybody had their own thing. It was a beautiful platter of all of these different vocalists who have a musical identity.
Fast-forward to the '00s when I got into the game alongside Napster and labels being like, "I want my money back." I realized that a lot of songs sounded the same. You saw it in the pop game where Christina Aguilera was obviously talented vocally, but she was pushed to compete with Britney Spears.
So to avoid that, it came down to me understanding that I have to fund myself if I want to carve my own path. It was really important for me to [ask myself], "Who are you? What do you want to say?" I'm giving up my house, my car. I'm putting everything in storage and going to live on tour. I'm gonna play Rachel Marron, Whitney Houston's character in The Bodyguard, for five months in mainland China. It took me years to do that, but it was a commitment that I was willing to make.
You've become this one-woman show: co-producing your songs, producing photoshoots and even doing your own hair. Is that more you wanting to make sure the vision is executed properly without different voices tainting it?
I'm always open to collaboration as long as someone understands what I'm trying to say 'cause that's how a lot of the writing process is with me. But when it comes to fashion, my mom came from Mexico when she was 15 and she taught me how to sew. She was always really big on doing things your way, no matter what there is out there. If you don't have the money for it, you can make it. Don't get me wrong, I look forward to a day where I don't have to do it all.
But I'm happy to put in that extra time for makeup. I come from a pop group. There was a long time where I was like, "Hi, I need a Black makeup artist. Don't make me look ashy please!" I remember one of my bandmates laughing with me when we were standing outside. I was like, "You see this gray pavement on the sidewalk? Look at my face. How's this any different?" I lost my hair at one point because [the label] was like, "Let's get her some Beyoncé-looking hair!" So they sent me to somebody and she bleached my head six times. All of that led to me being in a position to do all of these things for myself.
That explains why the Lioness Eyes rollout has been so consistent. The music, videos and promotional photos all have an Old Hollywood-inspired throughline. Were you inspired by any particular films?
I just love Kill Bill. I love the editing from the '70s with all the panning because they only had like two lenses. So they had to be more creative. There's actually this low-budget film called The Good Witch. The storyline is all over the place, but I loved the fashion. The lead actress really committed to this softer, Jackie O-inspired voice. I also love this documentary about Maria Callas. She was an opera singer in the '50s. She was not delicate at all—she was a real diva.
I'm actually glad you brought up Kill Bill. When I first heard "Love Will Return," it immediately reminded me of Quentin Tarantino's signature film scores.
If you listen to this body of music, it's a combination of cowboys and natives. My mom's mom was a phenomenal vocalist. She just passed away in March, and she's from Mexico. So the kind of music that she listened to actually sounds like [Tarantino's scores].
It's the Native American flute that stands out.
If you listen to José José, or I know my mom used to love Eydie Gormé, it's just this really romantic music. A lot of Tarantino's films use that Western sound because it is so cinematic.
Well speaking of cinematic, the EP is just that. It's a love story where the main character is falling deep, but learns she doesn't need a relationship. But it also reveals your personal story.
Yes, exactly. By the time you get to the final track, it's a whole new person. I think a lot of people can relate, and that's why I describe [the EP] as going from innocence to experience. From a woman's perspective, you do turn a corner somewhere where you're like, "I don't care. I'm not doing that." It's not because you're a b*tch or you're jaded. I need to now be very clear about where I'm going.
I do think it reflects in the eyes, hence the name. I know when I meet a woman, I can see it in her eyes that she's got it together. With "Phoenix Rise," it's about not hiding behind anyone and running towards your fear. You can bypass some of that pain, but experience builds character.
Shirley Bassey is a big one, especially with Goldfinger and all the other James Bond film soundtracks. The thing about Eartha Kitt that I love so much is that she was not concerned about being in a box. I love how those Black women really pushed against [the norm]. We should be able to do anything and have it be Black music.
The idea of Black artists being multifaceted still isn't the norm.
And let's not box ourselves in. From our ancestors who have molded us through evolution, we're good at taking something and making a whole meal out of it. So with Black music, I feel the same way. You know, at one point, they were calling Whitney Houston "Whitey Whitney." We cannot do that to each other. We should all be able to try [all genres]. I'm Black, so I'm making Black music.
You brought up the concept of seeing the light in a woman's eyes earlier. But as I'm looking through your own eyes right now, how do you want to be seen?
I spent a lot of time in my 20s getting past being concerned how anybody sees me. I trust myself. Even if others say, "Why would you do that?" I know what is best for me, and I'm committed to that. I'm not in any way a role model. But hopefully, people find strength and empowerment through the music.