25 in 2009: Melanie Fiona

Born: 07/14/84 In:Toronto, ON Is: Musician

You don't have to know Melanie Fiona to love "Give It to Me Right," because whether you know her or not you're still going to love the song. What begins as the instantly recognizable "boom-boom-boomp-tuh-AHHH!" of the Zombies' "Time of the Season" soon reveals itself to be an attitude-and-estrogen (not necessarily in that order) reclamation of the "Who's your daddy?" dick-swagger of the original: "On time, on time, I expect you to be," as the Guyanese-Canadian soulstress sings. It's so script-flippingly dope it's like Narcotics Synonymous.

This mix of playfulness and confidence reverberates through Fiona's debut album, The Bridge. Working with multigenerational, multigenre producers -- from SWV/En Vogue collaborator Andrea Martin to Questlove from the Roots, and even reggae icon Supa Dups -- Fiona says she's made an album that reflects her "very traditional" West Indian heritage that can still be all things to all people: enough chewy, vintage goodness to satisfy the tastes of modern soul, but with the something-for-everybody song styles and mind-blowing pipes to make her more the next Mary J. than, say, the next Beyoncé. Add the management of Jay-Z's Roc Nation and a hand-picked opening spot on Kanye West's European tour last summer (before she even had a record out), and it's clear the music biz is as big a fan as any listener will be. "It's like [the industry] saying, 'Hey, this is a quality product," Fiona offers. "But this is something people can expect from me. I'm not trying to cut corners."

It was while on tour with West, she says, that her live show sprouted wings. "He taught me how to be a better performer by being able to watch night after night how he puts on a production that entertains ten to twenty thousand people without having twenty guys onstage," Fiona offers. "He told me, 'Whatever you need to do so people remember you, don't be afraid to do it.'" Fiona took these bon mots to heart and promptly dropped her memorably heartfelt cover of West's "Heartless," which she then re-versioned to make even more dubby and defiant on the Questlove mixtape WQST Presents Melanie Fiona Meets Illadelphics (A Live Remix Jam Session of The Bridge). Originally envisioned as a chance to spin some edits of upcoming album tracks, the mixtape became anything but a mix or a tape. "That was absolutely organic -- I showed up on a Sunday night expecting it to be me and Quest with our laptops, and he had a whole room full of musicians," she says. "What you hear is totally freestyle."

Covers are as dear to Fiona ("I'd love to do a cover of a Bob Marley song one day") as they are to her fans. Jenny McKay, a Swiss singer, was so inspired after seeing Fiona perform in Zürich last July, she posted her own version of "Monday Morning" on YouTube. "She has a voice she can blow your head off with, but it's very natural and down to earth, which is kind of rare in a mainstream singer," McKay says of Fiona. On top of that, McKay continues, "My mother understands the songs as much as I do." Her mother went with her to the show, a fact that thrilled Fiona. "When I was recording this, I'd have my three-year-old niece dancing to it, and a sixty-eight-year-old woman being like, 'I love this,'" she says, adding that, like her versions of her favorite artists' songs, it's a huge compliment that her own songs are being covered by fans. "It means people are really feeling the music and making it their own. That's what The Bridge is all about."
Hobey Echlin

Wears: a dress by Alexander McQueen, shoes by Christian Louboutin, bracelet by Tom Binns and earrings by DAMA

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