Exclusive: Melanie Fiona on Her New Album ‘Next Train’ and Adapting to the Streaming World

Around this time in 2012, Melanie Fiona was promoting the release of her sophomore album, The MF Life. The album would become well-received by fans and critics, debuting at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 and earning Fiona a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Wrong Side of a Love Song.”

It’s been six years since the Toronto native dropped The MF Life. Although the album is a timeless body of work, fans are ready to hear new material; Fiona is too. “I’m not going to let another year go by without the album coming out,” she tells Rated R&B. “I’m really anxious to get this music out.”

Fiona has been crafting her third album (originally titled Awake) for a few years now. In 2015, she dropped two tracks — the Caribbean flavored song “Bite the Bullet” and the socially conscious track “I Tried.” As the creative direction evolved, Fiona renamed the album to Next Train. “I feel like Awake has just become my lifestyle and not my album anymore,” she explains. “I didn’t want to kind of limit it to just one moment in time.”

Instead of focusing on a specific period of her life, which she doesn’t knock other artists who do it, she prefers to make her project more evergreen. “I’m still performing music from my 2012 album and my 2009 album,” she says. “I feel like it’s always about a classic, timeless conversation.”

Fiona’s current single “Remember U” hits home for anyone who has been in a relationship. The reggae-influenced song is about an ex-lover who tries to come back in someone’s life after doing them wrong the first time.

“I can’t, fall back in love again / You broke this simple heart / That used to beat for you my friend / And I say that you’ve got some nerve just to come back and say that you’re sorry,” she sings on the raw track.

Rated R&B caught up with Fiona about Next Train, how she is adapting to the streaming world, who she salutes for Women’s History Month and more.

Photo credit: Zigga Zagga Studio

Why did you change your album title from Awake to Next Train?

When I was putting the finishing touches on the album and started deciding what songs I wanted to put on the album, one of the last songs I recorded was a song called “Next Train.” I looked at all the songs I put on this album and I was like, “It doesn’t feel like ‘Awake’ anymore because now I feel woke [laughs].” “Next Train” was the last song I recorded for the album and that came with so much strength and so much power. It felt like a collection of songs that became about reflecting on where I’ve been to move forward to be where I am now. The songs are very truthful and it just felt right. Train…I think of steel, moving, progress and destination. It’s a journey and that just felt more present to who I am now.

You released a couple of songs in 2015, “Bite the Bullet” and “I Tried.” Did they make the album?

“Bite the Bullet” is on the album. “I Tried” is not on the album but it is out and people still love it and listen to it. I just felt like there were just so many other records that I have evolved from.

What was it like working with Top Dawg Entertainment artist SIR on your album?

Listen, that’s my brother. When I started working with Andre Harris, SIR was in the room of his house. He was just this quiet dude sitting on the couch. I sat down and we started rapping and we wrote “I Tried” right there on the very first night we met. I just remember feeling that I had found a new musical counterpart. This was before he had released his new album. I just have admired his work and his talent since 2013. He’s someone very special and just naturally gifted. He really helped bring out a different side of me in the writing process.

Who else did you work with on the album?

The features are still to be determined. On the album, I have worked with Sebastian Cole, Carmen Reese, Lil Eddie, Jerry Wonda, Jack Splash, Andrea Martin, etc.

Do you have a release date yet?

I don’t but I’m going to say this year, for sure. I’m really excited to reveal more elements of the album before it comes out.

Speaking of getting music out, how do you feel about Best Buy’s plans to stop selling CDs in its stores?

It’s interesting because historically a lot of my album sales are physical copies. I think that I attribute that to the demographics of people who do go out to buy CDs and who do buy tickets, which I’m so fortunate now. I think what’s happening is that quickly, since 2012 to now, there has been a huge shift in how people consume music. It’s very digital. I think that is something that will be missed — having a physical copy and signing CDs…having the artwork and people having something tangible. It’s something really special but time has changed.

Streaming has clearly taken over. Do you feel any pressure now to focus on streaming rather than physical sales?

It’s definitely become something that’s at the forefront of my mind for sure, especially in this time now and getting ready to release new music — seeing how instant your data is, your reach is and how instant the plays are. It’s crazy. I feel like there’s so much pressure. Everyone’s so judgmental based on this statical data. I try not to get caught up in that. I was even shocked to see how many people actually follow me on Spotify with no music out in six years. I’m looking forward to playing in this landscape. There’s an upside to it, you know? You can just upload it right away and get the music to your fans immediately. I love that instant correspondence with my fans. I don’t want this shit to stress me out, ever. I love this too much and I don’t ever want it to become a hindrance because things are changing.

“It Kills Me” has over 25 million views on YouTube…

They’re watching. They’re there. People have been discovering my music for so long and that’s the beautiful part about it. There was a time when you had to rely on the radio to hear a song. If your song came out in 2009, it lived and died by 2011. Now with streaming people can go back and find your whole catalog of music. I think there are so many songs people haven’t discovered because they were only focused on what radio exposed them to. [Streaming] gives all my fans and new fans the exposure to all the B side records because those are the joints. For me, the ones that never see radio are the ones I’m excited to perform and have people discover.

What are your top three non-singles to perform?

I don’t think it was a huge single but “A-yo” is one of my favorite records to perform off The Bridge. I love that record so much. “This Time” was a single but I wouldn’t put it up there with “It Kills Me” or  “4AM.” And then there’s a song called “What Am I To Do” and “Rock Paper Scissors” off The MF Life that are so fun to perform because those are fan faves.

Photo credit: Zigga Zagga Studio

Toronto is bringing a new wave of R&B acts like PARTYNEXTDOOR, Daniel Caesar, and Dvsn. How does it feel to see a new generation of Canadian singers making a mark in the U.S. market?

I am so proud because I know how it was when I was doing it and what that struggle was like; that struggle is not as heavy anymore. All of those people in which I know personally still live in Toronto, which is beautiful because that means that the world is coming to them and they don’t have to leave to go to the world anymore. Shout out to Drake, really, who changed the game because nobody was checking for us hard until he came along. That’s a longtime friend of mine and he broke the stigma.

How has motherhood changed you?

It’s kept me so busy [laughs] because now I have to think about what time I need to be back to put the baby to sleep — no longtime late night studio sessions. It’s a balancing act but it has enlightened and enriched my life so much more than I could’ve ever imagined. It just makes me feel complete and I want to continue to create so he can be inspired by that.

What else is on your mind right now?

I can talk about so many things [laughs]. I just think that the future is bright. Something that I’m really looking forward to is using my voice this year — not just musically — but socially, emotionally and consciously to inspire people on many levels. I’m really living the motto these days: “I have to live to give.” I just feel like we’re living in a world right now where people can be so consumed with self that they forget that you have a responsibility when you have a platform. It can’t just all be self-serving and so that’s kind of my motto and my approach to 2018… to live to give and to create and aspire to inspire.

With it being Women’s History Month, who is a woman who inspires you?

Lauryn Hill. I just identify with the lyrical content, the approach, the awareness, the level of artistry that she created by breaking boundaries and being like “No, I can do all this. I can rap, I can act [and] I can sing.” She was everything. Shout out to Lauryn Hill to leaving a legacy from one album that we’re still celebrating. It’s never been matched. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill educated a lot of people on what music is supposed to feel like.

I also got to give it to Whitney [Houston]. I was four years old singing love songs that I had no idea what they meant. She was singing about very adult content but I was moved to sing at the top of my lungs with that voice from a young age. It taught me the importance of vocal ability, emotion, and storytelling. She didn’t write many of her records but she could tell that story. That tone and that voice was a great teacher for me as a child because I identified with the emotional aspect of music.

Connect with Melanie Fiona
Instagram: @MelanieFiona
Twitter: @MelanieFiona

Keithan is the founder/editor-in-chief of Rated R&B

Exclusive: Harmony Samuels Talks Producing Janet Jackson’s New Single ‘Made For Now’

Harmony Samuels’ impressive production resume is constantly growing. After working with the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Destiny’s Child and Brandy, he adds music icon Janet Jackson to the list of his high-profile collaborations. The London native is the genius behind the production of Jackson’s new single “Made For Now” featuring Daddy Yankee.

How did you end up collaborating with Janet?

Janet’s A&R is a good friend of mine — [ Jareiq ‘JQ’ Kabara ]. He’s a good dude. I’ve known him for about 10 years. He called me and was like, “I want you to come meet Janet and talk to her about her next record.” I was really intrigued because I just couldn’t believe that I would be working with Janet. Long and behold, she was preparing to go on tour last year and I got to meet her. I was in her room and she so elegantly walks in and as she comes in, she’s like, “Hey! Whose birthday is May 16?” and I’m like, “Me” and she’s like, “We share the same birthday.” I was like, “Yes, connection!” I never knew that her birthday was the same day as mine, which was great. I was really excited that we had something in common.

Then she starts to explain what she wants from her album and her record. And basically, she expressed she wanted a record that brought people together. She wanted to bring the world together. She wanted to talk about love — her having a son now she appreciates life way differently. With all the devastation and so much destruction happening in the world, she wanted something to bring people together. She wanted to see people dance. She wanted to see people happy.

What was the process of creating “Made For Now”?

We held a writing camp for ten days with four or five writers all from different cultural backgrounds and different history. When we started writing the record, I kept thinking I had to do something Janet hadn’t done before but still makes her feel like Janet. It was a hard task because she’s done a lot (laughs) —  from Control to Velvet Rope to her last album [Unbreakable]. That’s a lot of music to try to find something that she’s never done before. So I’m sitting around and I was like, “What she hasn’t done? She hasn’t done anything Afrocentric. She hasn’t done anything with like Afrobeats.” So to make sure, I went and checked her song history and her number ones. I made a few records that have been successful in that world in the past— Destiny’s Child’s “Say Yes” was a huge example of that. So, I wanted to do that again. I wanted to bring the world together that way. And you know cultural stuff, when you go to carnivals and festivals, it always brings people together. There’s a colorless line that happens.

I was getting dressed one morning and the way the song starts, that exact line was playing in my head. I looked up like, “Jesus are you for real?” I put the melody on my phone and I rushed to the studio. Within an hour, I make the track and everybody is like, “Yo, this is crazy.” [Janet] and her brother Randy came to the studio and when they heard the record, they love it. They thought it was perfect. [Janet] went in the booth, added her own vibe and made the record hers.

We actually went into the studio to cut the record with another legendary producer Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. You can understand my excitement. Not only did I get to work with Janet but Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in the studio She turned around and she said to me, “I really love this record. I believe it’s special.”

When did Daddy Yankee get involved?

A few months later as the song was being developed, JQ calls me and says, “Hey man! I’m going to put Daddy Yankee on the record, what you think?” And I was like, “Hell yeah.” I thought it was perfect because it now brings another world. I was really excited. Just working with him at the shoot and watching him perform, was an awesome experience.

How many different versions of the record were created?

Well, it was over a span of six to nine months of getting it all together. There were at least nine versions. We just tried so many different versions but this version felt like it kept everybody engaged. We were really, really proud of the outcome.

There’s also an EP in the works. What can you say about that?

I worked on most of the EP. Each song has a different feel. Each song has a different style. She bodies it! She does her thing.

Is there anything you discovered about yourself throughout the process of working with a legend?

Patience (laughs) and staying calm. When you’re working with icons, you move when it’s time to move. I felt like she was always willing to try different things. My patience allowed me to try different versions and try different things regardless if I felt like it was right or if I didn’t like the idea. It was just awesome to experiment and open yourself up for change and trials. And just being around someone who is so iconic, yet so humble. She’s so humble and so genuine.

Follow Harmony Samuels on Instagram @HarmonySamuels.

Exclusive: Sade Bandmate Says New Album is in the Works

Sade is one of the few artists who can take a lengthy hiatus, drop an album, steal the show and take another break. The singer started her first disappearing act after she took eight years to release a follow-up to 1992’s Love Deluxe. After releasing her album Lovers Rock in 2000, Sade wasn’t heard again until 2010’s Soldier of Love.

It’s been eight years now, and Sade still hasn’t fully emerged from her music slumber to bless us with a new full-length album. She did, however, tease us with an original song (“Flowers in the Universe“) contribution to Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time soundtrack. Although, official solo music could be coming soon.

Sade’s longtime collaborator and famed British musician Stuart Matthewman — who is an original member of the band — exclusively tells Rated R&B, “We’re working on a new album.”

Matthewman says Sade and their creative team currently have “a bunch of songs,” that eager fans will hear once they’re satisfied with the final product. “When we’re happy, then we’ll let everyone else hear it.”

Like his comment in a previous interview with Rated R&B, “It might sound funny but we write and do music to please ourselves and just hope that [we] have good taste and other people will like it.”

Matthewman says Sade’s label home, Epic Records, respects her artistry and doesn’t pressure the release of new music. “The record company knows there’s no point in nagging us or giving us deadlines. It doesn’t really help the process,” he says.

While other artists are content with releasing music more frequently to remain in the limelight, Matthewman says, “[Sade’s] not interested in the fame or any of that [other] stuff. She likes to put out art. So when it’s ready, it will come out.”

Matthewman tells a funny, yet relevant story that perfectly sums up the expected time frame for Sade to drop new music. “Years ago, I think it was when ‘By Your Side,’ the song came out, and big posters were stuck around New York. Someone sprayed or wrote on top of it, ‘Bitch sings when she wants to.’ Sade loved it.”

Interview: Sia Amun on New Music, Songwriting and Fashion Influences

Singer-songwriter Elese Russell, better known as Sia Amun, had a free ride in the music industry. Shortly after moving in with her dad, at 16, the daughter of Steve Russell Hart of R&B group Troop and original member of The Underdogs was performing at The Staples Center for The Los Angeles Sparks game. Then, they began working on her album, which seemed all too fast for Amun.

“I grew up watching [MTV’s] Making the Band, thinking I have to go through artist development,” she tells Rated R&B. “I guess when you’re signed to a label but in real life, it’s like, ‘Game time.’”

Amun’s ride into the music business, though, came to a stretching halt when her father learned she was involved in a relationship. “It was all she wrote when he found out,” she says. “He’s like, ‘I’m trying to build a career and you want to focus on having a boyfriend?’ So, my project got put on on hold.”

After getting a pep talk from her grandmother, who Amun considers her best friend, she took charge of her music career. She started working behind the scenes, hosting showcases for local artists who proved themselves in front of top A&R’s. She even performed songs recorded during her sessions with her dad. Soon, she was following in her father’s footsteps as a songwriter after one of her demo tapes landed in the hands of legendary musician Teddy Riley.

As a result, AMUN provided background vocals on Lady Gaga’s song “Teeth,” which was featured on her 2009 album The Fame Monster. She went on to co-pen hits for major artists such as Trey Songz (“All We Do”) and Mary J. Blige (“Indestructible”).

In 2017, AMUN released an EP The Blue Dream Project. The 6-track project, which includes her funky single “Flowers,” is laced with feel-good vibes about love, life and marijuana.

As she gets adjusted to her new home (and the culture) in Atlanta, AMUN puts her feelings on wax with her latest track “Single AF,” which is based on her current love life.

“I’ve been single for almost two years,” she reveals. “Before that I was in a relationship for like six years. So it’s really new to me.”

Rated R&B caught up with Amun at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen in Atlanta. We chatted about her new single “Single AF,” her forthcoming project, ingredients on writing a successful song and more.

How’s your experience been in Atlanta so far?

I love it here. I’ve been here for like two months, and today is my first day moving around and really being able to experience the culture. When I first got here I was really just focusing more on my personal self … getting my mind right. This is like my first time really moving away and feeling like, “I don’t know when I’m coming back.” So, since I’m going to be here, let me take my time. I didn’t hop back into working. I just got to a point where I am trusting more. I know that God sent me here so I’m going to take it day by day. I used to be like, “I have to plan this out. I have to write this down. This has to happen.” I don’t do that anymore. I’m really at a place where I’m more spiritually driven in my career more than ever. But overall, they really support each other here. I love the music. They have their own sound.

Growing up on the West Coast, how did it help mold your overall sound as a songwriter and an artist?

If I could be 100 percent honest, I never focused on the sound of the West Coast per se. I think that my influences, like, Brandy, India.Arie, Beyonce and Fleetwood Mac, who my grandma introduced me to very young, is what helped shaped my sound.

Before transitioning into your stage name Sia Amun, the artist, you were Elese Russell, the songwriter. If you could do it all over again, what would you choose to do first? Or would you keep it the same?

I understand that I am on a journey and it’s already mapped out. So, I definitely wouldn’t change anything or do anything different. I think we are where we’re supposed to be at this exact moment because if it wasn’t meant to be, then why are we here? Why does it happen if it wasn’t meant to happen? You know….

Besides your father, who else in the songwriting industry inspired you to write music?

James Fauntleroy was a big inspiration. Just watching him from the beginning stages of his career – writing songs for Tyrese and a couple of other [artists] – to where he’s at now is more fuel for me. Stevie Wonder is one of my favorite songwriters in the world. Stacy Barthe is amazing. And a lot of my friends too …. like Candice Wakefield.

If you had to create a recipe for writing a successful song, what would be the three main ingredients?

Melody … concept … and … relevant.

Why do you say relevant?

Music is about connecting. If I can connect to you, then we have a connection. You’re going to love this song. So, whatever I’m talking about has to have some relevance to you … and the next person … and the next person. It has to have relevance to your target … who you’re selling this song to and who you’re trying to reach. And just relevance of what’s going on in R&B today.

Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?

The first song I ever wrote was with my little brother. We were sitting outside of the studio in my dad’s car and it was a remix to “‘I’m ‘N Luv (with a Stripper)” by T-Pain and another song. It was the very first time where I had my Mac computer and we recorded a song that I personally wrote. Of course, growing up, I was writing songs in my diary when I was like 9. I’ve been keeping a diary since I could write (laughs) and I still do.

Is that where you write most of your songs at today? Or do you write them in your phone?

Umm .. both but everything ends up in my diary. All my thoughts. Whatever I’m feeling. Whatever happened in my day, everything is in there. So, I’ll remember if I’m at the studio, like, “Oh, this is what I was feeling.” And pull from there for sure. But I write my notes in my phone too (laughs).

You recently released “Single AF,” your first single since 2017’s The Blue Dream Project. What’s the story behind the record? Is it inspired by your life or someone else’s?

It’s definitely a true story. I was in the studio with my guys Ryan Toby and Ali [Prawl]. And Ryan’s like, “So, wassup? Where are you? What we talking about? What’s going on?” And the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “Well I’m single as fuck.” And I held it out like really long and everybody started laughing. And it was right away we were like, “That’s a song.” It was like writing in my diary, this is how I feel right now. Life is great. I’m not single and having a pity party. I’m single and happy but I don’t want to be. It’s not what I’m used to but I’m not about to settle just because. So it’s just really where I am in life.

Is there a full-length project attached to the new single?

I’m working on it. I’m excited about it. No date, no name. I’m honestly just taking it day by day.

Is there anyone you want to work with on this project? And is there anyone you’ve been working with on this project consistently?

Right now, as far as writing, I’m doing it solely just myself. With “Single AF,” I co-wrote it with Ryan Toby, who’s one of my inspirations as a writer. I’ve admired him as a writer for a longtime. I talked to him all the time, like, “Bro, we gotta finish this project.” So, he’s someone I plan to finish this project with. But right now, I’m just getting my ideas out. I’m still feeling out for the vibe so that it makes sense and that I got it right.

Your previous EP The Blue Dream Project was filled with positive vibes on life and love that sometimes marijuana helped create. What is the driving theme behind this upcoming project?

Life is the driving force. This project is more personal. It’s more of this is who I am. My experiences … where I’m at … I’m maturing. My wants are changing. My interests are changing. My conversation is changing. My taste in foods are changing. I’m really a woman now. So, this project is definitely where I’m at today. It’s still a vibe for sure (laughs).

Your style is unique and different. Who are some of your style influences?

I really love Rihanna. I love Louis Vuitton. I love the brand Gucci. It’s more than just the clothes for Gucci. I like to get deep, going past the surface. I’m looking at the movement. Their business strategies. My brother PUTYAHEARTINIT is one of my style influences too. He’s always been a fashion guy growing up. His opinion is one I definitely respect. I go to him and be like, “Is this fly or nah?” (laughs). But for the most part, I just do my own thing. I don’t really care what no one thinks. It’s whatever I feel like today.

You’ve been in plenty recording sessions with major artists including Lady Gaga and Trey Songz. Is there any session in particular that stands out or means the most?

I’ve been in a lot of sessions. As a songwriter, the session that changed my life was with Mary J. Blige. I was at a crossroad in my life. I learned so much from her in those sessions. From her sureness and knowing exactly who she was to what her fans wanted and what she wanted to talk about, like, it was what it was. A lot of the questions that we were asking her to be able to write these songs, I couldn’t answer those questions. Like, “What’s up with me? Why don’t I feel the same way about this? Why does it feel like work?” Then, I was in the studio like two weeks after with Brandy. Two days after, I just stopped going. I couldn’t write for anybody else. I needed to figure things out. I took a break and went to London and put [The Blue Dream Project] out. And things have been what they’ve been since then. Now I know that I’m good now.

So, you restored yourself?

Yes, definitely. That’s what “Private Reserve” was about … the whole concept of that video was like a snake shedding its skin and being reborn. Being renewed.

Follow Sia Amun on Instagram at @siaamun.

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