First things first: Melissa Payne is a dynamite performer. The petite blonde musician with a wide smile is a firecracker on stage, climbing on her bandmates’ instruments for an acrobatic fiddle solo or bouncing around the stage with a guitar around her neck. Audiences have been falling in love with her since a young age, when she started playing barn parties in her hometown of Ennismore, through countless performances on Peterborough stages, and leading up to sets at large festivals like Boots and Hearts and the Havelock Country Jamboree.
But what really makes Melissa special is her openness. It’s present in her vocals, delivered in a sweet and raspy small-town Ontario drawl that seems to waver and crack with every emotional turn. And it’s present when you speak to her, too. Melissa speaks candidly about her struggles with relationships, with mental health, and with finding herself.
That openness comes to full light on her third album, Darker Than Your Dark, set for release this fall. On it, Melissa speaks candidly about her struggles and her journey of self-discovery, a journey aided by many supportive friends, family, fellow musicians, and bandmates. I sat down with Melissa to speak about her journey, about self-examination, and about healing.
Ennismore, where Melissa grew up, is a small town about 20 minutes outside of Peterborough of about 4,000 people. It’s wide and open, full of farmers’ fields, empty spaces, and quiet. But Melissa’s childhood was anything but. Melissa grew up among 48 first cousins, and her childhood was always full of music. “Mom was a stay-at-home mom, so we were pretty lucky to have her around, babysitting us and all our cousins. There wasn’t a day we didn’t listen to the record player growing up. That’s what we did: every day was a big cousin dance party.”
By age five, Melissa was walking around with a plastic toy guitar and a stick, pretending to play it and proudly proclaiming that she wanted to marry Charlie Daniels. Her parents bought her her first fiddle, and Melissa dove in intently. It just so happened that famed family folk band the Leahys were close family friends, and so, at a young age, Melissa was receiving lessons from some of the best fiddlers in the country.
She was soon performing regularly at local events and family get-togethers. Her cousins were a particularly tough audience, but “I would get on the table and play. Captivating a group of the biggest hecklers, and they were like my biggest fans. I can do this, this is great!”
Melissa’s mother was also very supportive of her daughter’s gifts. “I remember going to this party when I was really young. My mom kept me up. It was two in the morning, and there were probably a bunch of belligerently drunk people around, but there was music, and she’s like, ‘You’re going to remember this forever because of the music.’ I got up and played ‘Danny Boy’ and a bunch of the drunks cried, and she said, ‘That’s your greatest gift, making people cry, touching them with your music.’ I always remembered that.”
Melissa gave up music for some time as she entered her teenage years, but she picked up the guitar at 17 and taught herself how to play. Songwriting on the fiddle can be a challenge, as singing and playing at the same time almost always makes one sound out of tune, but the guitar gave Melissa the freedom to start writing music. “Once I got the guitar and could write, I never stopped after that.”
Melissa started playing in Peterborough as the local folk and roots scene was exploding. She came up at the same time as a number of artists, including Benj Rowland (of the Avenues, later Mayhemingways), Kayla Howran, Nick Ferrio, and Chris Altmann. She played solo and alongside her then-partner Dylan Ireland in his band, Express and Company.
“There was a scene,” Melissa recalls. “Maybe we were all a little younger and a little more inexperienced, but it was really happening for a while. People were excited. We were playing the Red Dog and selling out that room. We need that. We need to get some of that hype back, get some of those younger bands filling out a place every couple months to capacity.”
Much of the activity found a focal point in Seventh Fire Records, a new local record label founded by Tommy Street of the band the Spades. Tommy helped get the albums out, and bandmate James McKenty recorded them all. Seventh Fire released many debut albums by these young artists, including Melissa’s 2012 self-titled debut album.
James was also expanding his own recording business, and making contacts in the industry. It was through him that Melissa met Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor. James showed Greg some of Melissa’s songs, and he quickly took an interest. “Greg came over and listened to the tunes,” recalls Melissa. “And I was shitting my pants, because Greg Keelor is in my living room!”
Melissa’s second album was recorded at Greg’s Lost Cause Studios. Located at Greg’s home in the country about 40 minutes outside Peterborough, Melissa describes Lost Cause as more of an idyllic “retreat” than a traditional recording studio. Greg invites musicians into his home for days or weeks at a time. They live together, eat together, record together. “They come to Greg’s for seven days and we wine and dine them and record the album,” says Melissa. “It’s more of an experience.”
The result was 2014’s High and Dry, a collection of rootsy throwback folk songs. Channeling the energy of Lost Cause Studios, the album had a pleasing and laid-back vibe, full of sweetly melancholic yet optimistic songs. It was released to a good deal of critical acclaim, getting some radio play and earning Melissa spots at the Havelock Country Jamboree and Boots and Hearts.
Melissa returned to Lost Cause a few years later to record what would eventually become her new album, Darker Than Your Dark. But in the intervening years, things had changed on the scene, and in Melissa’s life.
The years of Melissa’s early success were also characterized by personal upheaval for the young musician. “I had a couple pretty dark relationships over the years,” she says, “and then jumped into a couple good ones, but I was still holding on. I would come home to my boyfriend at the time and play him the songs and he’d be like, ‘Are we ok?’ Like, I don’t know! This one’s about if you broke up with me and I had to move to the city, and then he broke up with me and I moved to the city.
“I think I’m always pressing a lot, and it comes out in the songs, and then I realize after, that it was falling apart, even before I was aware, but you can see it’s written down in the songs.”
In her last relationship, “I feel like I was trying to fit that norm of what’s been bred into me: get a good job, have kids, buy a house. We were kind of on our way, buying the house, but mentally I was fighting it—subconsciously, physically, just getting sick and rundown. I liked the idea: this is everything that I should want. I should want a guy that works a proper job, buys a house, has the truck, we can have kids… but obviously it wasn’t meant to be.”
Around the same time, personal tragedy struck, as Melissa’s four-year-old niece was diagnosed with cancer. This came shortly before a friend’s nine-year-old niece was also diagnosed with cancer, and another friend lost their son to the same disease. “My niece getting sick really opened up what’s important in life,” says Melissa. “Life is so short; why hold a grudge, or hold onto these negative relationships, and all the negative stuff in life? Once you see a little person that’s just full of life and wanting to be happy get sick, it opens up your mind a little bit.”
The past few years have seen Melissa take an emotional journey of self-examination. “I’ve really acknowledged that you can always pin it on relationships, but at some point you have to look at yourself. Why am I acting that way? Why does every relationship seem to crumble? What am I doing in my life?”
She proudly tells me that she’s been single for a year and a half. “I’m better on my own. It feels good. It feels like I’m at the right point in my life, just having that whole year to be good to myself. I’m owning who I am at this point in my life. I’m 32, and I’m getting closer to who I want to be, and not trying to be something else. I have mental health and relationship issues, but I’m also a fun-loving aunt. You get to own every part of yourself, freely.”
Throughout this process, music has served as a form of catharsis. “You really have to go to that dark place to write [the songs] out on paper, but singing them out felt really good, belting all those out on the studio floor. It’s kind of a healing process, this entire album. I feel like a different person coming out of the studio after. I got to let go of a lot of pent-up things I was holding onto.”
And she hopes her new album can help others to heal as well. “I think everyone has it; artists maybe just express themselves a little more. I know old farmers in Ennismore who would be helped by talking to a therapist, if they were open to it. It doesn’t pick one certain group of people. It can happen to any status, any type of person. It’s that mental state: people are taught that you don’t share your emotions like that. But it’s what I do for a living, is talk about how I’m feeling in song. It’s pretty freeing. I’m pretty lucky. I’m going to go home and write a song today.”
Darker Than Your Dark explores some dark places, but it closes with a song by James McKenty called “The Long Road.” Over an understated piano line, Melissa sings,
Where’s your heart? Where’s your soul?
Did this world take its toll?
Don’t you hide where no one goes,
Just to be on your own.
Down the long road,
We walk alone.
Melissa says James wrote the song about his family and about his own band, the Spades, who took an extended leave of absence after one member got sick; but she connected to it immediately. “The chorus goes, ‘We walk alone,’ but what it really means is, ‘We walk alone, together.’ All of us are walking alone together through this.”
Melissa has always been surrounded by people—by cousins, by friends, by a community of musicians—who have lent her support. Today, she is continuing that legacy. Melissa teaches guitar and fiddle, and tells me how she often tries to bring her young students up on stage with her at performances, to give them the same opportunity she got when she was young.
She is also taking on a mentor role with some of Peterborough’s younger performers. She’s talking about doing some co-writing with local singer-songwriters Mary-Kate Edwards and Evangeline Gentle, and has been passing on some of her knowledge about life as a touring musician to Whitney Hall of Paper Shakers. “Mary-Kate [Edwards] calls me grandma,” she says with a laugh and a bit of an eyeroll.
“The album always comes back to ‘The Long Road,’” she says. “Have people to walk with. As shitty as things seem sometimes, we always have each other.”
Photos by Bryan Reid
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