Melanie Martinez on Her New Musical Film

Melanie Martinez is an artist in the truest sense of the word. Not only does the 24 year old singer write her own music, but for her newest album, she has written, directed, and stars in a feature length musical fantasy film titled K-12. The film follows the fictional character Cry Baby, who we first met in the music videos for Martinez’s debut album, as she heads off to a sadistic boarding school. Although the film is very much a fantasy (complete with a flying pink school bus) it addresses some very real issues facing kids today like bullying, body insecurity, and drug abuse. Melanie and I caught up about what advice she would give to her younger self, and what she hopes her young fans will take away from the film.  

Katie Couric:  You’ve said your goal is to create music that helps people heal, and that music is therapeutic. How does music motivate you, and how do you hope your music will motivate others?
Melanie Martinez: I have such a special connection with music. Ever since I was really young, music has always been the one thing that calms me down. I have really bad anxiety, so my whole life anytime that I was stressed out or upset or dealing with anything, I would just immediately put on music. I would lay down, listen, and sing. That in itself was just so healing for me. I really can’t explain the effect that music has on me – it calms my nerves like nothing else has been able to. So I am beyond grateful for music, and I just hope my music can do that for other people as well. 

You were only 16 when you competed on The Voice, which is how you really rose to fame. What did you learn from being on that show? What advice would you give to your 16 year old self now?
I look back now at those years of my life, and I wish that I could give myself a hug! I would let myself know I should be proud of who I am, and what I am capable of. I didn’t know at that time that I was capable of creating anything good, and I didn’t believe in myself as much as other people believed in me. To be at such a different point in my life now, where I can look back and say wow, I’ve grown so much in my confidence, will hopefully inspire other kids around that age who are dealing with self-confidence issues to love themselves. That’s really important to me. 

Your new musical film, K-12, is shot in beautiful pastels at this gorgeous location and aesthetically has this really whimsical, happy look to it. But it deals with some pretty dark themes — eating disorders, gender inequality, substance abuse, transphobia …. do you use the magical and dreamlike element to make these tough topics more accessible, particularly to your young audience?
That’s one way of looking at it! But really my first thought was, “How can I create a story or a piece of art, a piece of music, that can help people feel?” Ever since I started writing music when I was 14, my main goal was to make music and art that can help people, almost as a form of therapy. Because that’s what music did for me my whole life. In both my life and my art, I am very drawn to the idea of duality. You can’t have positivity without having some sort of “down” as well. Life is a roller coaster in that way, and we have to go through constant cycles, and I think it’s important to reflect that in my work, which is why I incorporate elements of both light and darkness. I also obviously show this  physically with my hair, which is two- toned. When I was 16 I dyed my hair half blonde, half black, because I loved that contrast between light and dark, so I think I’m always going to be displaying those themes in some form. With K-12 I outwardly highlight the light side with this grandiose and beautiful facade of costumes and sets. The school in the film is very ornate and detailed and pastel, and very light and pretty, but then behind that facade is a very scary, oppressive, controlling place.

Your character deals with a lot of bullying in the film- in one of the very first scenes a classmate calls her a “gap toothed b*itch.” How much of what your character endures is based in reality, and why did you decide to share this in your art?
I think a lot of the things that she deals with, I dealt with. I got made fun of for my tooth-gap a lot in school, and it’s my main insecurity. I think some people can almost smell out your insecurities, because they’re insecure as well. So then they almost project their insecurities onto you, and try to make you feel bad, because they feel bad. So in the film, even with the character who bullies me, I tried to show that she’s not just a b*tch, but that bullying is her defense mechanism. She has insecurities of her own that she’s struggling with, and the way she puts up her wall is by attacking others. 

It seems like a lot of your fans are in the pre-teen/ teen stage, which can be a really hard time for kids, and is also the age group that K-12 focuses on. What advice do you have for fans of yours who may feel like they’re struggling to fit in?
Music is a form of expression, and because I’m an introvert, I think my music may draw in a lot of fans who are introverts as well. Kids who are more shy, and who have had similar experiences that I’ve been through, like being bullied at school, and struggling to find yourself or to step into your confidence. These are things I’ve had to learn over time, and that I’m working on still. 

Learning to be confident has been so important for me, and it’s the message I’m trying to get across to my fans. My main goal is to show kids around the preteen and teen age is that if they step into their confidence, they can fulfill their goals and their dreams. They can do it, even if there is doubt or fear, because I did it. I had to deal with feelings of doubt even when making this movie. I never thought that I would get to be here today talking with Katie Couric about it! I just thought it was a dream that I would spend forever working on and stressing over, and at times it felt like a never- ending process, but I did it. So I think it’s important to share that with these kids, so they understand that things take time, patience, and hard work, and a lot of ups and downs. But if you keep pushing through and take that leap of faith and face your fears, you’ll be surprised by what you can achieve. 

This interview originally appeared in Wake-Up Call with Katie Couric. Subscribe here. Read more recent interviews with Busy Philipps, Emily Meade, and Candace Bushnell.