Considered by many (including us) to be a rising star, it’s only fitting that singer-songwriter Melissa Payne is one of two local musicians to be featured at Peterborough Musicfest this season. She’ll be performing at 8 p.m. on Saturday, July 4th at Del Crary Park in downtown Peterborough.
Melissa has been steeped in music from an early age. Growing up just north of Peterborough in Ennismore, she received her first fiddle when she was four years old. Melissa’s family are friends of the Leahys, Lakefield’s acclaimed musical family, and within a few years she was taking fiddle lessons from Doug Leahy.
While Melissa became proficient on the fiddle, she didn’t perform much publicly when she was young. Then, in high school, she got her first guitar, taught herself to play, and soon began writing her own songs.
While she loved music, Melissa wasn’t planning on a musical career. After she graduated from high school, she went to Fleming College and earned a diploma in Early Childhood Education. Ironically, that led to her going on tour for around two years with husband-and-wife musical powerhouse Donnell Leahy and Natalie MacMaster. But she wasn’t performing with them — she was babysitting their kids.
However, that experience showed Melissa the discipline and perseverance required to be a professional musician. When she returned from the road, she decided to demo her early songs and in 2009 self-released Take My Heart, produced by James McKenty of The Spades. Shortly afterwards, she returned to her musical roots and began playing fiddle in Dylan Ireland’s band Express and Company.
“Bring Me Back” – Melissa Payne
Around the same time, Tommy Street of The Spades had founded a new record company called Pirate Radio Records (now Seventh Fire Records), where McKenty is head engineer. As it turns out, both Melissa and Express and Company were among the first artists to sign with the label.
In 2012, Seventh Fire released Melissa’s self-titled debut. This was followed by Express and Company’s debut Ontario in 2013, whose single “Carry Me Along” — featuring Melissa on fiddle — spent 14 weeks on CBC Radio 2’s Top 20 list.
Having achieved some musical success and having grown as a songwriter, Melissa returned to the studio in 2013 to record her second album — the aforementioned studio being the farm of Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo. Greg’s farm (in Kendal, northeast of Bowmanville) is where many classic Blue Rodeo albums were recorded, along with albums by The Sadies, Matt Barber, and many more.
“High and Dry” – Melissa Payne
“Working with Greg was amazing,” Melissa says. “I’ll carry the memories of recording this album with Greg for life. Every night he cooked meals and really treated us like we were family.”
Co-produced by Greg along with James McKenty, High and Dry is a collection of songs about growing up as part of the Millennial generation. Melissa explores themes like insecurity, career pressures, and the struggle for acceptance.
“Greg and James really made these tunes shine and took them to a whole other level I wasn’t expecting,” she says.
“Cold Out There” – Melissa Payne
It seems like the critics agree. High and Dry was released last year to much acclaim.
New Canadian Music calls it “superb” with “versatile vocals and well-crafted writing”. No Depression writes that Melissa’s “soft sensitive voice … will leave listeners weak at the knees”. Exclaim describes Melissa’s singing as “part velvet, part gravel and bursting at the seams”.
FolkWords writes “the first thing that strikes you about Melissa Payne is the piercingly beautiful quality of her vocals” and calls the album “an anthology of rootsy folk Canadiana suffused with rock-infused energy.”
Melissa continues to tour this summer, including an appearance at the Boots and Hearts Country Music Festival on August 9th, so make sure you come to Del Crary Park on Saturday night to see her perform. You’ll be able to say “I saw her when …”.