Interview: Melanie Martinez On ‘K-12’ & Stepping Into Her Power
Melanie Martinez’s K-12 arrives today (September 6) after a four-year gestation period. That might sound unnecessarily long, but it makes a lot more sense when you understand the scope of the project. This isn’t just an album or even a visual album. The 24-year-old has written, directed and starred in a feature length movie musical that brings the music, and all of its (timely and varied) themes, to life. The fact that the songs were written with scenes from the film in mind gives you some idea of the forethought and planning involved.
I had the chance to catch up with Melanie before the premiere of K-12 at the famed Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. The “Pity Party” hitmaker walked me through the lengthy process involved in bringing K-12 to movie theaters in more than 30 countries around the world, and opened up about some of the challenges she faced as a young, female director. Melanie also revealed that she doesn’t intend to release any singles from the album and gave some hints about Cry Baby’s future adventures. Find out more about the multi-hyphenate’s labor of love below.
We actually spoke about your second album when I interviewed you in 2015.
I started writing in 2015, so that makes sense.
Did you change direction along the way, or is K-12 the album you were talking about way back then?
It’s the same album. Yes, definitely. I started writing K-12 in 2015 after Cry Baby was released. I wrote some of the songs on tour. A lot of the songs are actually really old, like “Strawberry Shortcake,” “Lunchbox Friends” and “Class Fight”. I believe those were the oldest songs that I recall writing in late 2015 or early 2016. That’s how long I’ve been sitting on music. I’m like, “I need it to come out already!”
When did you start on the film?
I started writing the film in the summer of 2017. I handed in the film in early 2018 and then had to make revisions. They were like, “This is going to be an $11 million film.” and I was like, “I guess we can’t do that.” Also, it would have been a three-hour film. Honestly, it would have been way too long. I had to just cut all of my babies. It was really hard, because those scenes were so important to me, but I was still able to prioritize the scenes that I did want to keep in. I can’t even believe that it’s here now, it’s crazy.
So you finished the album and then started on the visual element?
Yeah, I finished the album entirely and then started writing the film. I had to make revisions. I made revisions for a couple of months and then started pre-production for a month in LA, and those days were really intense. It was like, “Go to the pre-production office at 9:00 AM, come back at 10:00 PM, work all night.” I wouldn’t even sleep. I was literally working all night on all the answers that I had to give people the next day.
Every day I had to do homework and I’m the type of person that if I need to make a decision on something, sometimes it will take me being alone to really think about what it is that I want to do. Sometimes I’m not good at being on the spot. Then I had a month of pre-production in Budapest and we actually shot the film in Budapest. It was a three-month process of pre-production and then it was a 31-day shoot.
Instead of rolling out one video at a time, you’re giving us everything at once.
Yes, the whole thing. It’s different than a visual album because it’s a real film. I think people would be surprised at how much more film there is than just music numbers. It’s not going to feel like a collection of music videos. This is a feature film, it’s much different than just a bunch of music videos strung along together. I’m excited to see people’s reaction to all the dialogue because this is my first time acting. I was really nervous but got into the groove.
What is the overarching theme of the film?
The main plot is, these two girls, Cry Baby and Angelita, get sent to a sleep-away school. It’s a very disturbing sleep-away school, because it looks beautiful. It has this gorgeous facade, but behind the scenes it is completely evil. They are conditioning the kids, they are drugging them and medicating them so that they can work harder and faster. It’s mostly about being in an environment that makes you feel like you can’t be your most authentic self. It’s about being stripped of your identity and making you feel like you can’t really fully be empowered.
There are a wide array of themes that I talk about in the film, from being bullied or trying to find friends who you resonate with or who aren’t just going to ditch you once three o’clock hits. There are also heavier subjects too. There’s a character who struggling with an eating disorder. There’s also a lot of double meaning and many layers to a lot of the songs and the story. In the film, for example, there’s a class fight, which is about Cry Baby and Kelly, another character.
Then there’s this boy, Brandon, who is Kelly’s boyfriend. Brandon starts flirting with Cry Baby. Cry Baby is like, “Oh, he’s cute.” She obviously doesn’t know he’s taken, you know what I mean? Her perspective is, “Oh, he’s flirting with me.” Then Kelly’s perspective is, “Who is this girl who is trying to take my man?” That idea of how we’re conditioned as women to just immediately be mad at the woman instead of being mad at the dude who’s doing the cheating. We end up so fixated on the other woman and then we get competitive.
It also has a double meaning for the music industry. It’s about how people pit women against each other. I show both perspectives, Kelly’s and Cry Baby’s. Both are totally valid. It’s just the conditioning of society that gets in the way and makes us feel like have to be competition for each other instead of a community.
It sounds eerily similar to the preview you gave me four years ago. You were talking about Cry Baby going to this strange place, but it wasn’t so much about her…
It’s about the world around her. Yes, exactly!
Where does all of this stuff come from?
I don’t know. [Laughs]. I just have such a strong, clear vision for what it is that I want to make. Sometimes I feel like I’m possessed when I’m writing music or video treatments. It’s like being possessed by this beautiful energy of just light and blissfulness. I’m so at peace in that moment and it’s very cathartic for me. It just pops into my head and I put it down. You know what I mean? I’m a very spiritual person. It’s almost like receiving a message from wherever, whatever you believe in.
Maybe it’s just from the universe. I’m receiving something and then putting it down onto paper, because my intention is always to create something that’s going to help people heal or that’s going to resonate on a deeper level. I want it to really go to the core. I want to help transform and heal people. It’s like therapy. Because that’s what music does for me, so that’s all I want to do with my music. I think that when you set that intention naturally, it’s going to keep flowing in that way.
Which film directors inspire you?
I haven’t really seen a lot of classic movies. I wish I had seen more, but the directors that make movies I constantly rewatch… I love Tim Burton movies. Obviously, like Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. They are fun and wacky, but also there’s always this darker, underlying theme or tone as well as very interesting visual imagery. I love that dichotomy. I think that is just part of who I am. I’m all about that duality. I love it, because I think that there’s good and bad in everything in life.
Why did you bring new characters into Cry Baby’s universe?
That was my main goal. How do I expand this world? I wanted to talk about other people’s stories as well, so that more people can resonate with it. If you don’t resonate with Cry Baby, then that person might resonate with this character or that character. I was even doing things like trying to figure out their astrology charts. [Laughs]. I was like, “What would their sun sign be and their rising sign?” Or just trying to figure out how all the characters work together and how they communicate. It was a whole process and it took many months.
I had to get over that initial fear. There is a sense of anxiety and fear when it comes to doing new things, stepping into the role of being a director on a feature film is different than stepping into the role of being a director on a music video. I was thinking about things on a much deeper level. It was a very intense process for me, but I think that eventually I stepped into my confidence more. As my confidence was growing, I was just becoming more in tune with the different roles that I was playing.
Is directing something you enjoy?
I think writing is my favorite. The creative process is by far my favorite, so anything that involves making something out of nothing. Just making something from scratch, that’s my favorite feeling. I think it’s such a beautiful feeling. Like I said, it literally feels like an out-of-body experience, but directing was something that took time for me really. As a young female director and an artist, I don’t think that I was really taken seriously during the process.
It was interesting because that’s what Cry Baby was dealing with too. She was in this environment where she had to overcome her fears and step into her true power, true confidence. I was dealing with the same exact thing while shooting it. There was so much masculine energy on set, and they look at you like, “Oh, you’re just a cute little girl, doesn’t know what you’re doing.” Then you show them you know exactly what you’re doing, you know exactly what you want, and they get intimidated by that. It’s a weird thing to stand up for yourself, to be strong in yourself and confident in yourself. It was definitely a learning process.
What was it like finally seeing the finished product?
Again, that was also a long process. I was in there with the editors. There were two editors. One would come in the day and then the other one would come in the night. I was just there the whole time. I’m very detail-oriented too, so I liked being very involved. That process was actually more fun than shooting. Shooting was way more stressful and watching all the VFX and stuff come to life, that was really exciting because there’s a lot of VFX in it. If I showed someone the version without VFX, they would be like, “So, what’s going to be happening here?”
The first time that I watched it after it was totally, totally finished, it felt like a huge weight off my shoulders. I was just so tense during the process. I was breaking out in acne. I never had acne before. I was just so stressed out, but then it all came together. I really do feel like the whole process in itself was destiny, because a lot of things just magically came together. They say it takes a miracle to make a movie, and I wholeheartedly believe that after making this film. There are a lot of moving pieces.
We have spoken about the visual side, but how has your music evolved on this album?
You can tell the amount of growth, sonically with the different instruments that we use. It’s very different from Cry Baby. We focused and I say “we” because it was me and Michael Keenan, he produced the entire album… we would literally just sit through a bunch of sounds and try to find sounds that related or at least triggered the visual of what it is that I’m saying in the story. There was a lot of sound design in the songs. For example, in “Show And Tell” there are these cranks.
I was already thinking about the film and the process of writing it. While I was doing, I was picking out all these sounds to try to build it out, so you could really hear it in a way that you could see it. It’s different in that there are so many more elements, so much more thought that went into every aspect of the record this time around. Also, it reflects my growth as a human. I think you can kind of naturally hear it.
On the first album, Cry Baby was really going through it.
Yes, a lot, a lot. Yes.
Is Cry Baby finally in a happier place?
I don’t know. I mean, yes. There are definitely so many moments of bliss and happiness, because she’s finding like-minded people. She’s finding people who she resonates with. I don’t know what else I can say here, because she does still go through a lot in the film. [Laughs]. Yeah, she’s still going through it. It will make more sense when you see the film tonight.
I can’t wait! Is this the end of Cry Baby’s story?
I have my next two albums and films planned out.
Yes! I haven’t written them yet, but I know exactly what they are. I love the idea of connecting my albums and my films in some way, shape or form. I think the best thing that I could say without spoiling anything for future projects is that Cry Baby is definitely going to evolve. It’s not going to be as literal as people think. “Oh, she goes to college and now she’s an adult.” It’s not going to be like that. She’s going to evolve and she’s going to transform. It’ll be a magical experience watching her growth is all I can say. It’s going to be very otherworldly.
Cry Baby was kind of your avatar on the first album. It was a way of processing a lot of childhood trauma. Does this album sum up a more recent period for you or are you still delving into the distant past?
I wrote the album during the Cry Baby cycle. A lot of it is about what I was experiencing, even songs like “Show & Tell” and “Detention.” “Detention,” I wrote when I was on tour. It’s about that feeling of being trapped. It’s a weird thing to say, because I love performing, I really do. It’s such a beautiful experience to connect with that many people in a room over music and art. It doesn’t get much better than that. But there are moments as a human where it just feels really intense and it feels like you’re almost being put on a pedestal.
That whole thing was so hard for me to deal with because I’m like, “I want people to see me as a human being.” You know what I mean? I want people to know me just as me and not at their perception of who I am. You know what I’m saying? That’s like anything in life. There are a lot of themes like that I expressed from that era that are within this album.
Your fans are pretty intense.
Yes, for sure. Yes, definitely.
Is it true that a fan once stole your purse?
Yes, early on. They stole my purse and it had my passport in it.
I’m sorry for laughing.
No, it’s fine. It’s funny looking back now! At that time, I was so upset. I was like, “I don’t know how they did it.” The security must have been so bad that night too, but yes. It’s funny. [Laughs]. But it’s also important to treat everybody with respect and care and love. That also goes for people who are in the spotlight. I don’t consider myself a celebrity and I hate it when people call me a celebrity. I’m an artist, I’m a writer, I’m a director. I’d rather be called those things.
Has that informed your approach to social media? You seem to have taken a step back.
Yes. I think it’s healthy to step back from social media. I think you could get lost. It’s like a vortex. You’re just constantly scrolling. It’s like when you go and recheck the fridge every five seconds. It’s the same food, nothing has changed. It gets boring. I like experiencing real life and being present. It’s really important to stay present.
You were so young when Cry Baby was released. How did you process having so much success at that age?
I think that every artist probably has a hard time seeing what impact they have. I don’t think I’ll ever really know. People are like, “This album has shaped my life.” It’s so hard to really understand that on their level, because everybody has such a personal experience with music and art. Every day, I just count my blessings and I’m just happy and grateful for all of the support that has come for Cry Baby and for this new era. The other day, I got a DM from someone who got a tattoo of K-12… and the music hasn’t even come out yet.
It’s really cool to see like how passionate and supportive people are of my work. As an artist, you just never think that it would be on that level. You’re just putting it out because you need to express it. It’s really amazing.
We’re getting the album all at once, but will there still be singles?
I think the hard thing about singles and the reason why I stayed away from putting out singles this time around was because I didn’t want people to view the project as, “Oh, this is the single.” I wanted it to be more like, “This is the film.” This is a story from beginning to end.” Even with Cry Baby, I had a rough time picking singles.
So you released all of them.
Yes! That’s why I wanted to make a music video for every song, because I thought it was really important to be able to show people the story in a more visual way each time around. I think it’s important for me to put the focus on the film, because I worked so hard on it and it was such an intense process creating it. I think that putting focus on singles just can distract from the true project that I’ve created. But if my fans want to push a song, if they all are like, “I love this song.” And it just happens naturally, that’s great. I’m just not doing any radio promo. I’m just not that type of gal, man. [Laughs].
Will we have to wait another four years for the next installment?
I don’t think so. It’s good that I know what I’m doing now. I have one film already out there in the world. It’s helpful for the next time around. I think that it will be faster next time around, because I won’t be going through the whole process of, “How do I do this?” I had so many learning curves, but now I’m at the point where I’m like, “Okay, I’ve done it. I can do it again.”
Thank you. I can’t wait to see K-12 tonight.
Thank you. I really hope you love it.