written by Lisa Verrico
That half of Tailor’s debut album was written in a day is remarkable enough. That those songs spilt out of the Cape Town-based singer without any warning is as strange and striking as 'The Dark Horse' sounds.
After four years laying the groundwork for her first solo project, in February, Tailor travelled to her hometown of Johannesburg to record half a dozen demos. To her surprise, she finished the session with twice as much material and a new-found understanding of what inspires her songs.
“As Tailor, it was my first time in a proper studio with a producer,” recalls the singer, who was first signed with a band at the age of 15. “I took what I thought were my six best songs, written over a few years. Just as we finished laying down the last one, I began playing about on my guitar and singing lyrics that seemed to sail in to my head. I didn’t even realise I had written a song until the producer asked me to play it again because he hadn’t hit record.”
That song, the bewitching 'Wolf', is Tailor’s first single from 'The Dark Horse'. But it wasn’t a one-off.
“One by one, new tracks just flowed out of me,” says Tailor. “No one could believe I hadn’t prepared them. It was a bizarre, spiritual experience. I felt as though I had floated out of my body and was watching someone else. I learnt a lot about myself that day. I discovered a side to me I didn’t know was there.”
Discussing those songs now it is obvious to Tailor that all address her need to escape, to break free, to start her life over and be honest with herself. The lyrics, she admits, had probably long been floating about in her subconscious. They deal with family issues on which she won’t elaborate and childhood memories she tried to forget, but forced herself to face.
“The title, 'The Dark Horse', is significant,” says Tailor. “I felt like a dark horse that day. I felt as vulnerable as I did as a child. The songs aren’t about any particular childhood event, more that moment of clarity when you realise not everything your parents told you is true; when you discover your values are different and what you’ve grown up believing is not what you believe in at all.”
One of the songs Tailor dreamt up that day was 'My Faith', an operatic, cinematic, bile-soaked ballad built on broody piano and classical-style strings. As her vocals grow from a growl to a primal, passionate wail, Tailor bares her soul so openly listening feels like intruding. It’s a song she couldn’t have planned to write; if she had, she would have masked her emotions, exposed a lot less of herself.
The need to escape drives much of 'The Dark Horse'. It’s there in the gorgeous, spritely acoustic guitar-driven 'Ghosts' and in the sinister lyrics of the otherwise poppy 'Step Back', a song for a friend in an abusive relationship, now due to be married. It’s at the heart of the oblique 'Indian', a song Tailor wrote after watching the Fritzl horror unfold on TV. Even the album’s sunniest song, the glorious, handclap-backed 'Love Anthem', isn’t as happy-go-lucky as it sounds on first listen.
“I always write happy songs when I’m sad,” says Tailor. “And I was very sad when I wrote that. The song is about suspecting something’s not right in your relationship. Am I in a rut, or have I completely fallen out of love with you? It’s about someone questioning their relationship, whatever type of relationship that is.”
The lovely 'Lucky Lucy' is an ode to Tailor’s beloved grandmother, who died at the age of 88 on 3rd January this year. Lyrically, it’s the album’s most straightforward song – “Three days in and I’m already heartbroken”. Typically, those lyrics are put to the fore by a powerful, beguiling vocal performance.
Yet pinning Tailor down to a single style is impossible. Musically, the album flits from modern folk to blues-rock to pure pop and spooky soul. Songs can be rich and cinematic or simple and sparse. Vocally, Tailor is as versatile. You’ll hear hints of Patti Smith and PJ Harvey in her rockier songs, but also of Feist, Florence Welsh, Ellie Goulding and Kate Bush.
“I have several different voices,” says Tailor, “possibly because I’ve never been influenced by any particular singer. But I have listened to a lot of Kate Bush since I started recording. Of course I knew of her, but I didn’t really listen to her music until my producer played me 'Hounds Of Love'. I was struck by how similar our pronunciation is. She’s the first singer I’ve ever thought I sometimes sound like.”
Melanie La Roux (Tailor’s real name) has been singing since the age of 12. Growing up in Jo’burg, her dad played her everything from opera to soul, to rock and pop. She taught herself guitar, then piano, then drums, all of which she plays on 'The Dark Horse', as well as bass and percussion. In primary school, she wrote her first song – about lip gloss.
“I was obsessed with lip gloss, I wore it 24/7,” Tailor laughs. “I loved lip gloss so much I sometimes stole it from my friends. The song wasn’t brilliant, but what it taught me was I could write about anything. And when I sang it, I heard I could sing.”
Aged 14, Melanie woke up one morning and decided she would become a singer.
“It sounds insane,” she says, “but that’s how it happened – literally overnight, as though the idea had come to me in a dream.”
The following year, with no vocal training, she got label deal with her band Mel-function. Three years later, the band was dropped without ever releasing an album, although they did put out singles and go on tour.
“It was an awesome experience, to be thrown in to that situation at such a young age,” says Tailor. “I got to know who I was a writer and performer. The music was a bit nu-metal, a bit No Doubt and, on stage, I couldn’t stand still. I was an absolute power bunny.”
The band broke up in 2007 and Melanie moved to Cape Town, where she became Tailor, though only after quitting music for a while.
“When Mel-function split up, I hated music. The band ended on such bad terms that I packed away my guitar. I decided that if music made me feel so shit, it couldn’t be my calling. Then one day I sat down wrote a song and realised how much my writing ability had grown. I found a new sound, began playing gigs on my own for the first time and, eventually, became Tailor.”
At the start of this year, Tailor signed with Just Music, who brought her to Jo’burg to record her demos with Shadowclub producer Matthew Fink. On hearing her new songs, Fink encouraged Tailor to play all of the instruments on the album herself – the only other musicians are the string players and Fink, who helped out on drums.
In early April, Tailor returned to the studio in Jo’burg to record 'The Dark Horse', during two and a half hard weeks of 10 hours days. The album has been mastered in the States at Sterling Sound by Grammy Award-winner Ted Jensen (Coldplay, Paul Simon, Sigur Ros, Florence & The Machine, Muse, Rufus Wainwright).
For Tailor, 'The Dark Horse' marks the end of her escape and the start of a new chapter.
“I love the drama in the album because it sort of sums up my life - lots of ups and downs, like a rollercoaster ride. It’s odd, but it’s also in your face. It’s not just like me, it is me.”