Cape Town-born chanteuse is looking forward to the Big Apple
Melanie Scholtz is a homegrown jazz prodigy who has been commuting to Prague for five years; now New York, New York wants her
Cape Town born-and-bred chanteuse Melanie Scholtz has a voice to give nightingales envy. Not to mention, as is evident on her recent festive season whirl into town, truckloads of charm. Scholtz is now back in Prague where she’s been resident since 2015, finishing the recording of one of five albums with various ensembles. She’s also preparing for her move to New York in March, where she envisions remaining for at least five years: "I need to really focus on making a life there."
She is also focusing on her solo project, The Lone Looper, which features Scholtz on a TC-Helicon console for which she lays everything down vocally, including the bass line, all the harmonies and even a spot of beat boxing: "I really wanted to do something that was completely, organically just vocal, then add maybe some small instruments, such as music boxes, mbiras or kalimbas. This was just such a great departure, so different and very insular. It really is like being a DJ, but you’re making all the music as it happens."
The other albums she’s collaborating on involve much smaller ensembles than she’s traditionally worked with, in an effort to minimise overproduction and create intimacy, as she puts it. They include a tango album with an accordionist with whom she recorded while in Cape Town to headline the New Year’s Eve concert at Nederburg.
Scholtz, who is turning 38, grew up in Athlone and attended Wynberg Girls’ High School. She won the second time she entered the Old Mutual Jazz Encounters, in 2002; and in 2010 she was awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist for jazz. Her father was a professional musician playing saxophone and guitar before he met her mother. His world of 20th-century jazz greats collided with her mother’s religious and classical bent — and a lot of Kiri Te Kanawa. Listening to the jazz singers as they improvised over chords was something Scholtz realised she could do too: "It just felt so creative and so spontaneous, and so like my personality".
She started voice training at 16 with May Abrahamse in Athlone, and later auditioned for UCT on the piano (having played since age five), before she found out about the opera course. She now uses the piano to write a lot of her music. "That’s how many of my songs start: just me at the piano." Other times the lyrics will come from a poem, a movie, a piece of clothing or a relationship. "Most of my stuff is very personal. My dad always says to me, ‘We don’t need to see you all the time because when we listen to your music, we know exactly what’s happening in your life’. "
Under the tutelage of Virginia Davids at the UCT Opera School, Scholtz discovered she was more Maria from West Side Story than Mimi from La Bohème. "I loved the acting but I don’t think I had the nerves of steel required. I couldn’t handle the stress of all of my musicality and reputation hanging on one top C. With jazz, it’s really about the imperfections, the intuition and the improvisation."
After she completed her degree, her parents and sister moved to England. Scholtz joined them for six months then returned to take up a scholarship to complete her honours at UCT. During that time, she fell into a Sunday gig at Spier wine estate with André Petersen. Before that she hadn’t really sung jazz, so the two years they played together proved an education in the standards repertoire.
At one point in the conversation, Nina Simone comes on. Who of that generation of songstresses is her favourite? "I find them at different times of my life. When I was 17, it was Ella Fitzgerald. In the morning, in the evening, in the afternoon, it was Ella. When I got divorced, Nina Simone spoke the loudest to me."
Scholtz was divorced in 2013 from a Norwegian guitarist she met in SA and was married to for 10 years. He has played on most of her albums. After the divorce she moved to Joburg for a year.
"There are lots more like-minded, interesting, risk-taking people within the genre of jazz there. People you only would see in Grahamstown you get to work with on a regular basis, such as Marcus Wyatt or Siya Makuzeni. And to have The Orbit where people always gravitate. I lived close by and it was kind of my Cheers, where everybody knew my name."
Prague was a natural departure after Joburg; for the past five years she has been commuting back and forth on various multi-gig tours. "It still feels very temporary. I don’t speak the language. I’ve moved five times since I’ve lived there. It’s a great city from a historical point of view — it’s very much like Paris, but cheaper. The pace is somewhere between Cape Town and Joburg. So I’m really enjoying it, but all I do is work."
Exploring her family’s genealogy has become important. Her grandfather is the product of a Xhosa mother and an Irish father — "A whole heritage I don’t know anything about that I would love to discover." She and her younger sister uncovered a potential Jewish line in the family from their German surname. "When I say to my sister we could be a little bit Jewish, I’m always a bit thrilled because I love the sense of protection of culture that Jewish people have.
I feel that people in SA who are not white don’t have the ability to stand together and that’s why all the things that happen to us happen to us — because we’re not willing to support each other. I feel we’re not taught really to embrace all of our culture
"I feel that people in SA who are not white don’t have the ability to stand together and that’s why all the things that happen to us happen to us — because we’re not willing to support each other. I feel we’re not taught really to embrace all of our culture.
"I don’t consider myself coloured; I would say I’m black. And I still feel here like that is met with a lot of resistance, because I don’t speak Xhosa or Zulu fluently and maybe I don’t look typical Xhosa or typical Zulu. So I get looked on sometimes like, you’re not really black, you’re coloured."
Travelling light is another theme that was thrown into sharp relief when she settled into her first flat in Prague. "I’d gone from owning a house and filling it with so much, and suddenly I was in a foreign place with just my mattress."
So she wrote Loved: All I have is all I am / Travelling lighter than I ever have / Got my heart, got my soul / Love is my currency wherever I go / Postcards from the edge, no return address, two pieces of luggage and my favourite dress
"And yet I felt like I had everything I needed," she says, commenting on the lyrics. "That’s why, I think, I’m also attracted to New York, because people don’t have much. The city is like their possession."
To prepare for her move, Scholtz sent her CD to a number of people. An agent, who represents some big legends of jazz — Benny Golson, Carmen McRae, Horace Silver before he died, and the double bassist from the Miles Davis Quintet, Ron Carter — responded almost immediately. A lunch in New York followed shortly afterwards, then an outing to the famed Blue Note jazz club on a night Carter was headlining. The agent introduced Scholtz to Carter and his band as "an amazing singer from SA".
New York is the epicentre for jazz, so the prospect of Scholtz returning permanently to SA after her stint there is slim to zero. Could there ever be a viable scene here where talented singers — such as Scholtz, Vuyo Sotashe, and opera star Pretty Yende — don’t have to leave the country to further their careers?
"I feel that in our music scene, things are not based on merit except for the Standard Bank Young Artist awards, which are a nominated process based on merit, achievement and skill. Everything else doesn’t feel that way; everything else is political.
"I always call this land of the voice," she says of SA. "Jazz is indigenous to the US, but South Africans have indigenous music that’s part of their culture. We have a specific colour in our voice — whether you’re a black or white South African. When you look at myself or Judith Sephuma or Tutu Puoane or Tina Schouw or Emily Bruce or Siya Makuzeni or Zoe Modiga or Lana Crowster, it’s a very distinctive sound and I think people love hearing it in Europe and the US. It doesn’t sound like them."