An artist searching for deeper communication, closer connection, and better expression.
For the past few years, Portland’s Sleuth (AKA Melissa Francis) has been earning herself a solid reputation for her mesmerising and sleek, jazz-driven vocals, layered over dark funk, soaring soul, and quirky pop vibes. Live she is all of this, but in the studio there’s even more depth to Sleuth, playing with sounds from quirky pop songs and electronica, to really dark and moody and almost operatic pieces, to full orchestral symphonies similar to The Greatest Showman. With a tonne of releases behind her, we sit down with Melissa.
Congratulations on the latest single! Can you give us a quick rundown on what has led to this since your last release, which got a great wrap in our pages not so long ago.
It’s been a pretty crazy Spring and Summer actually. Heaps of gigging, heaps of writing! I did a regional tour of eastern South Australia and South West Victoria from November to late-March, which was fantastic – over the 23 gigs I learnt what my strengths were as far as genre was concerned, and kept on writing to them, and also collaborating online at the same time with several other artists.
My electronica tracks like ‘Empty Room’ and ‘Knife Edge’ (from my first album Umbra Anima) and all three tracks from ‘alter ego’ did really well, and were really well received when I played live, so I steered myself in that direction a little more for the new material.
The result so far has been quite a few electronica and alt-pop tracks, such as ‘Hibernate’, ‘Abyss Of Your Heart’ and ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’, although I don’t think I’ll ever step fully away from my appreciation of jazz – I’ve recently written two tracks with roots firmly in jazz and nostalgia – ‘Breathe’ (a hip-hop collab with Adelaide wordsmith ‘Eskatology’) and also a trap-jazz style piano track called ‘Vinyl Scratch’ (currently unreleased) which will be on my next album ‘Lux’.
I also signed with label Noisehive, and distributing my music is now a whole lot easier. I’m excited to see how far that will take my music, particularly more locally in the Melbourne EDM scene.
Where do Sleuths boundaries lie? You have shown a more traditional side earlier on with your pop/jazz stylings, but hip hop and electronica found there way into your music, and this latest stuff has a particularly strong Electronic/Hard Pop feel. What where your influences growing up?
Funnily enough, my parents were right into all the crooner stuff that you hear on stations like Magic 693, Nat King Cole, Eddie Cantor, Frank Sinatra. And Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, of which I memorised every part. I spent my teens loving on Portishead, Faith No More, Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Jeff Buckley, and Tori Amos, and then developed a love of trance music and got right into Infected Mushroom, and Shpongle, and artists like that. I think I’ve always loved music across nearly every genre – if done well I can appreciate just about every type of music, from metal to jazz. I draw the line at country music. From a vocals perspective, I have been hugely influenced by artists like Aretha Franklin, Katie Noonan, Jeff Buckley, and Chris Cornell.
You will not let COVID stop you. You have another single, ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’, hot off the press. What can you tell us about the new track?
‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ is a really personal, yet also political piece of music for me. The song is inspired by a few different events and things; primarily the #MeToo movement and the attention that it got in the media. Having such a public and widespread acknowledgement of blatant sexism and chauvinism to the point of sexual and psychological abuse was definitely groundbreaking. Around the time that Harvey Weinstein’s trial was going on, I read a Nikita Gill poem which mocked the nursery rhymes that tell us that little girls should be ‘sugar and spice’, and that little boys are essentially tolerated when behaving poorly because of the subliminal expectation from early childhood that boys are just coarser, rougher and dirtier than girls and that’s the way it is. I remember thinking about the nursery rhyme ‘Georgie Porgie’ and realising that it makes light of a greedy little boy with loose hands taking whatever he wants, and making little girls cry in what is essentially a sexual assault. It shocked me retrospectively – I have a 9 year old daughter as well as two young sons, and that sort of latent message sickens me when I think of my kids and how I want them to think about the ways boys should act and girls should be treated.
Have you enjoyed playing the online shows? Do you feel they have benefited you in many ways? Where and when can we catch your next shows?
I’ve done quite a few live-streams during the first lockdown. I learnt a lot about sound, and also how much easier it was for me to perform my electronica tracks with some backing parts live instead of always relying on my loop pedal for everything I was doing. It made performances much more polished. The other exciting thing due to live-streaming was that the shows gave my hubby and I the impetus to FINALLY renovate our studio. It’s nearly finished, and is complete with a feature wall, custom lighting racks, and a million power points – all for jamming and writing and live-streaming. There will definitely be a special premiere livestream performance when it’s finished!
At the moment all my live shows from September and October are cancelled because of COVID, but I’m hoping to re-book my shows with Terang Live and Ararat Live, and I have a really good relationship with the interstate venues that I’d had booked for October, so I know they will have me back eventually when Victorians are allowed back over the border again.
I can see you continue to win fans over release by release, and have had a great reaction to your newest material. Congratulations for your recent nominations for some music awards! What exactly have you been nominated for, and do you have some stiff competition?
In November 2019 I was nominated for an AIR award for Best Electronica Album/EP, for ‘alter ego’ – I still have no idea who nominated me but that was a huge buzz and honour – and I also won the 2019 Roar Award for Best Musician/Creative Artist.
I didn’t make the finalist list for the AIR awards, and honestly didn’t even expect to, as most of the artists voting amongst ourselves would never have even heard of me. That’s one of the down sides of being so remote and regional – it makes playing gigs and increasing a live following really hard, unless you’re prepared to tour all the time. The biggest compliment was even just being nominated beside artists like Mansionair, Flume, and Slum Sociable. Someone lovely out there in radio/label-land obviously liked my EP – thank you kind stranger!
If you could only take three albums to a deserted island that happened to have a stereo and electricity, what would they be?
‘Iso’ is not a huge stretch from that anyway, is it?
Portishead – Dummy. I have such a nostalgic bond with this album, it’s an easy choice.
Tool – Fear Innoculum – I don’t think I’d ever get bored of this one, because the musical development within each track goes so very deep.
Finally, I’d probably choose Masego – Lady Lady … because he’s just so damn good. I think I’ve listened to his track Tadow at least 100 times since I first heard it.
Thanks for your time, all the best, we look forward to you playing some shows in a town near us ASAP!! Final words are yours…
Thanks so much, Forte, for the chat! Keep your eyes and ears out for ‘Lux’, due out by end of 2020, including already released tracks ‘Hibernate’, ‘Breathe’, ‘Abyss Of Your Heart’, and ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’. If you like what you’re hearing, hit me up for a show once COVID’s over! Stay safe til then x
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