Mélat’s secret to confidence is acceptance: She can’t change who she is and standing out is much more natural than trying to fit in.
Story and photos by Brianna Caleri
Mélat is made of contradictions, and she’s done trying to fight them. The Austin-born singer/songwriter often feels out of place: She is the first of her extended family to be born outside of Ethiopia. She performs rhythm and blues in the Live Music Capital of the World, where everyone seems to have a Telecaster and cowboy boots. She’s shy, but hopes people listen to her slower, more sultry songs in the bedroom. She has an old soul, a slender, wispy form, an explosion of blond ringlets and a stunning Instagram page. It’s hard to believe she once tried to go unnoticed.
Mélat is the Golden Millennial, growing up in a time where every star is a diva, starting her career on social media where image is everything and belongs to everyone. Everything about her seems meticulous, from her glowing rose-gold visual aesthetic to her strongly genre-referential R&B style—a smooth contemporary pastiche of slick trap percussion, funky guitar grooves and silky ‘90s backup vocals—but she shrugs it off. It’s just what comes naturally. Her secret to confidence is acceptance: learning what she can’t change about herself and realizing that for her, standing out is much more natural than trying to fit in.
Her hometown is known for live music, but the music doesn’t sound like hers; the musicians don’t look like her. Until college, Mélat spent most of her energy trying to figure out who she was supposed to be and how to best obey those expectations, hiding in the back of the class with long, straight black hair. Its natural curl brought too much attention and took up too much space. In her eyes, it made her body, another pain point for her self-esteem, look even smaller by contrast.
As a child, her parents kept her from school dances and sent her to piano lessons until she quit, deciding instead to take voice lessons and join choirs. Seeing her talent grow, her father once took her to a talent convention, where singers, actors and models competed for contracts. She was too overwhelmed by the attention to perform at her fullest.
“I always had this love for the stage,” Mélat says. “But I hated putting myself in that position.”
Unable to process the conflicting emotions, she would black out, walking away with no memory of the performance. She’d habitually ask friends after the show, “Did I do anything crazy?” It took years of getting comfortable with self-promotion for her to accept that rush as a love of performing and rewrite the self-preserving panic of putting herself in the spotlight. “It was all me,” she says, “to the point where I wasn’t even there.”
Mélat has learned to stay present during her most exposed moments. By the time her self-acceptance caught up with her dream of becoming a singer, her parents had become so accustomed to her insecurity, they worried about the pursuit they’d helped create. It’s a debate as old as Mozart and as uncomfortably relevant as Dance Moms: How can you fairly raise a child to pursue a talent they haven’t been allowed to naturally develop on their own?
The answer, at least in Mélat’s career, was slowly forcing herself out of her comfort zone and in front of others, instead of trying to melt into the clichéd comfort zones the mainstream offers. As she realized the role of nature in her uniqueness—her body type, her hair, her skin tone, her love of performing—she finally found a radical acceptance that changed everything.
“Once I changed my hair,” she says, echoing a common sentiment of black empowerment, “I felt a certain part of me had come alive.”
Retrospectively, it’s no surprise that the voice behind Mélat’s 2019 album After All: Episode One comes from an educated musician. Especially on the title track, her rich, throaty alto—lower than her teachers tried to develop—effortlessly floats between breathy and belting. Like many musicians, Mélat avoided learning theory, worried that learning too much about her craft would mean sacrificing her natural talent. She knows solfeggio and can sight read but has only heard secondhand that she makes “weird chords” and modulates often. It’s all on-brand for the girl who blacks out onstage.
When writing a song, Mélat has visions: people dancing in a song-length films with distinct plots and characters. When it comes time to make a real music video, recognizing the power of collaboration to bring new meaning out of art, she hands control over to someone less literal. For her last video for the song “AfterAll” she turned to B.B. Araya, an Eritrean and Ethiopian-American director, who helped capture Austin and the black female experience within it. The video (a montage of Mélat’s friends and family riding bikes and enjoying the arcade) sticks to positive, dreamy vibes and non-stereotypical innocent fun. Billboard confirms, “The summery visuals represents Austin to the core—but not in the way that most people would expect.” Mélat was delighted the writeup was by the black author Bianca Gracie. For the music video for her song “Weak,” released a month before “AfterAll,” she started with just a color and let black director Sanetra Longno bathe her in it and sunlight.
This kind of collaboration is what kept Mélat from the standard pilgrimage of a young singer/songwriter to Los Angeles or New York City. She explains that in its recent boom, Austin is in the middle of a creative renaissance with newer genres rising to the mainstream. With the arrival of the new Broadcast Music, Inc. office, Austin is in a unique new position with a wave of industry professionals and very few big musicians occupying them. Austin is Mélat’s home and pragmatically she’d love to stay at the forefront and dare it to accept change. She wants to see more people like herself onstage, no longer because she wants to hide among them, but because she wants them to be stars.
It could be Mélat’s love of jazz greats—Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole—that anchored her self-rebellion and now guides her instigation. She’s fascinated by the poise of her idols and the economy of the jazz standard, the way the public could listen to the same song countless times in different voices and always hear something different. A truly great singer could make the same record as anyone else yet make theirs legendary.
Musicians in the Austin scene have been playing blues standards for years and it’s a logical parallel considering the historical intertwinement of the two genres, the city’s fascination with musical provenance and the live, improvisational nature of both. Both in Austin and in improvisation, R&B singers have been the odd ones out. A healthy, changing live-music scene relies on musicians jamming together, but it doesn’t always have to happen in real time onstage. In the way that a revered Austin blues guitarist plays a vastly different solo every night, pushing his bandmates to match his energy, different types of pop artists around town can push the mainstream forward through collaboration in the studio or onscreen. The key to changing Austin is staying in Austin and supporting each other.
In the coming years, as R&B rises to an importance in the Live Music Capital proportional to the rest of the country, there will be more of a crowd to really stand out from. Mélat is ready to lead the way.