Stare too long at a New York street scene in a movie, or a Portland, Ore., skyline, and you might see the lights of Vancouver or an intersection in Toronto. Canadians may have felt a similar twinge of bittersweet recognition last month when Melanie Fiona won two Grammy Awards for her duet with Cee Lo, Fool for You.
It was Fiona's third year in a row being Grammy-nominated, but despite being born in Toronto to Guyanese parents, Canada has been slow to recognize her.
Now, with her second album, The MF Life, released on March 20, Melanie Fiona is standing squarely in the spotlight, and on close inspection, this reggae-loving, soul-belting, world-travelling pop star is no rootless cosmopolitan.
Filmmakers know that Canadian streets are easy to camouflage, and their music cognoscenti must have been thinking in a similar vein when they spirited Fiona away to Los Angeles before she had even graduated from Seneca College. (She did earn her diploma, studying accounting, business and finance.) On the phone from her adopted home in New York, Fiona says she was "living almost like a secret superhero life that nobody really knew.
"I would come in and do my classes and really focus on school. But if we had a two-week break, or reading week, a holiday, whatever, then I'd be out in L.A. working with major people in the music industry. It was quite an interesting time in my life."
Up to that point, her secret identity as Melanie Fiona Hallim, a normal Torontonian, was secure. As a teen, she would join the migration of kids fleeing their parents' houses – hers was in Vaughan, a suburb where she and her folks moved when she was 13 – to hit the mall. "We were typical girls, so we liked to shop," she says. "We'd go to Yorkdale, the Eaton Centre, ride the subway. That was always fun." By age 16, she was writing her own songs and soon began performing in a number of groups, one of which included future superstar (and future co-writer of a tune on The MF Life, I Been That Girl) Aubrey Graham, a.k.a. Drake.
After numerous trips to L.A., and evenings spent frequenting reggae parties like Redemption back in Toronto, Fiona started to get some traction. In 2006 she co-wrote an album track for Rihanna, and scored an opening spot for Kanye West's 2008 European tour. But her first taste of solo-recording success came that year in the form of Somebody Come Get Me, a roots-reggae track that landed on that year's edition of the hit compilation series Reggae Gold. With those three moves, Fiona had unwittingly set the template for her career: Whether it was pure pop, R&B or reggae, she proved that she could do whatever the industry required.
Even more than her 2010 debut, the largely retro-themed The Bridge, The MF Life embodies Fiona's versatility. At times the sole thread holding The MF Life together is Fiona's voice, which shifts easily from sassy to heartbroken to strident. And the songs do make radically different demands on her, from the more organic ballads cooked up by Amy Winehouse producer Salaam Remi to club jams like the T-Pain-assisted song 6 A.M. "If you want to have any sort of immediate or, hopefully, long-term success, you coin a sound as an artist or a producer, and that's your brand. My brand is not being one thing, not having any one particular sound."
But being a multifaceted artist can be a hard message to communicate. "[U.S. radio stations are]into classification, they're into demographics, they're into what the music is supposed to sound like," Fiona explains, "which kind of irks me, because I feel like music is just music. I've had producers and labels tell me, 'You have to add Auto-Tune to your voice. No radio station out here is going to play your voice, because it's just too soulful,'" Fiona says with a sigh. "Well, Adele just ruled that theory out! I've been fighting that fight for three years."
Focusing on how Fiona adapts to suit the demands of the market is deceptive. It draws attention away from her strengths as a singer, such as her ability to turn on a dime and let loose a cry or a shout without interrupting the mood of the song, or her way of letting a melody shine rather than adorning it with fluttering vocalese. ("The foundation for a lot of American R&B singers is church," she observes. "I didn't come from church.")
She's apparently willing to smooth out some aspects of her musical taste that might prove less marketable down south – she doesn't shout out the "T-Dot" or drop serious Caribbean patois – but like a Canadian street with a New York taxicab parked on it, somehow the telltale signs are still there.