Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Out and About in the East Village, Part 1

In this weekly feature, East Village-based photographer James Maher provides us with a quick snapshot of someone who lives and/or works in the East Village.

By James Maher
Name: Melissa Elledge
Occupation: Musician, Subway Performer
Location: East 9th Street and 1st Avenue
Date: Friday, July 25 at 5 pm.

I grew up in very rural North Carolina, in the middle of nowhere. Where I grew up was called Rockfish. My address was a route number and a box number. It was a 45-minute bus ride to school each day. I left North Carolina when I was 13, when my mom and I moved to Nashville, and then I moved to New Orleans for six years. It’ll be 10 years next month in New York.

I grew up really, really poor. Nobody in my family went to college, much less grad school. My mom worked in the service industry her whole life in hotels and restaurants and my dad was a machinist in a slaughterhouse. My mom used to pick cotton actually. This was the South, man. You can say hi to her for me because she’s proud of everything I do and loves me.

I started playing music when I was 5. I started with piano lessons and I went to undergrad in New Orleans. I came to New York in 2004 to get my Master’s in classical piano at NYU. I got out in 2006 and I wasn’t doing a lot of gigs. The whole classical piano world is pretty competitive and I always felt mediocre at it. I’ve been playing piano since I was 5 and I’m 34 now and I never felt that good at it even though I had a Master’s degree.

Classical music is such a competitive field, and the piano especially. I could have gone on to get a doctorate and done various things like teaching at the university level and research, but the money, you know. I already took out so much in loans and it was kind of a lost cause. Eventually you get to the point where you can’t take out any more loans, and I’m at that point, so I couldn’t do that if I wanted to.

I lived on campus my first year and I hated it so much. I had the most boring roommate in the world. It was the opposite of what I thought I would have. When I moved here I had all those grand ideas about having that crazy New York roommate, the transvestite doing drugs off of a midget's ass in the bathroom or something. I was like, ‘Oh man I can’t wait for that, a real New York roommate experience,’ and I didn’t have that. I had this sad roommate. She never left the dorm and just watched reality TV shows constantly. I don’t know why that annoyed me, but even though I could have stayed on campus for another year I had to get out of there and I moved to the East Village.

When I was going to NYU I would hang out in some really, really awful places around there. I had a lot of law student friends, who were awesome, but they went to these various, terrible places, so I kind of went out on my own and discovered the East Village and the Lower East Side and it reminded me a lot of where I used to hang out in New Orleans. I wanted to live here because I thought I would be less homesick.

When I first got my Master’s it was pretty depressing. I wasn’t playing a lot. I was teaching adults who didn’t care about playing. I was getting some random gigs but I was also doing anything to pay the bills. I started doing nude figure modeling and I still do that part-time.

I have a tiny apartment. It’s on the fourth floor of a walkup and I don’t have room for a piano. I do work with a theater company occasionally and I get some light musical theatre gigs playing the piano, but I hate playing keyboard in a band. I was always kind of a piano snob. Playing the keyboard is not cool. Frank Zappa said a long time ago, ‘The guy that plays keyboard in a band does it because he doesn’t know how to do anything else.’ I just always hated how it looked. I know that’s really snobbish but, like, ‘Oh I’m going to stand here and hit this one key.’ That doesn’t do it for me. The accordion is a lot more physical and involved and it feels like I’m actually working.

I didn’t start playing accordion until about seven years ago. I don’t know exactly how it happened. People ask that, but I still don’t know how I got started. I asked my mom for one for Christmas in 2002, just as a joke really, but she got it for me. I didn’t know what to do with it. I had no idea how to play it. I didn’t touch it for like five years. And then it was like, ‘Oh I have this accordion, maybe I should try and play it.’ Suddenly I felt like a musician for the first time in my life.

I’ve only been playing for six or seven years, but I think there’s something psychological about having your instrument on your back all the time. A piano, you never have it with you. You have to rely on the pianos at concert halls or wherever and you just hope that they will be in tune. If you go to somebody’s house and they’re all like, let’s all jam, you don’t have anything with you. Having your instrument and being able to carry it around all the time, it’s weird but I just felt like I got it for the first time. It took me two decades to figure that out.

I do what I call non-traditional music on a traditional instrument. Probably 95 percent are my own arrangements of things that you wouldn’t expect to hear on an accordion. I don’t do the traditional Polkas or French or Italian music because I’m not Polish, French or Italian. I’m just an American redneck who grew up in the ‘90s. I do covers of Gangster’s Paradise or Radiohead or Johnny Cash. I do everything from Beethoven to Ginuwine.

I started busking in 2009 — out of necessity. I thought about doing it but I never had the balls to do it and definitely not solo. Then one day I needed to pay the rent in a few days and I said, ‘I’m just going to try this now.’ I was terrified. I didn’t even have music memorized. I knew about four songs solo because I played with a lot of bands to begin with. I just kind of played them over and over again. I had my little music stand. I played like two hours and made like 25 bucks, which wasn’t that bad.

I started out playing at Union Square in the mezzanine because that’s where I saw people playing, but then the cops told me to leave after five minutes. It took me a few years to get confident enough for the platforms. After the cops said I couldn’t play there, I went to another station and I’m glad I did because that’s how I’ve handled cop situations ever since. It was good money and it got better once I got more confident. The more music I learned and the more confident I became. Once I stopped using a music stand my money doubled probably because you don’t have that barrier between you and the people. It makes a difference.

I just love it. I thought it was illegal when I started to do it. Sometimes the cops would tell me to leave and I would leave but then I learned one day that it’s not illegal. You can look it up online. It’s section 1050.6C. Playing in the subway is permitted, there are just certain rules you have to follow. You can’t use an amplifier on the platform; you can’t play on a train; you can’t sell CDs; you can’t play within 25 feet of a turnstile. Of course you see a lot of those rules being broken multiple times, but I try not to.

Next week, Melissa discusses finishing her solo CD and getting robbed while busking.

James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.


Anonymous said...

Frank Zappa is wrong about keyboard players, although what he says is probably true about the tambourine.

10:02 a.m. said...

Back when NYU was filled with artists, visionaries, bohemians, revolutionaries etc., and when it was worth going to NYU to pursue the NYC dream. Melissa may be one of the last of that batch. 2003 is the first year of John Sexton's reign, that's when the purple eaters started eating up The Villages --- East, West, Greenwich, The -- and the rest of the world all for profit. Now, most of the students there are like her former roommate. And oh hai, Melissa. Looking forward to part 2.

DrGecko said...

No Frank Zappa was right about keyboard players. I know because I'm a keyboard player.

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy seeing Melissa when I get off the 2nd Ave. stop. She gives it serious texture. Great to hear her story.

Anonymous said...

Never give up kid!

It's a challenge but we're (artists) a dime a dozen unless you separate yourself from the pack. Be different and you'll be rewarded

Anonymous said...

I've seen her play many times on the F train, 2nd Ave stop platform. Always nice to hear her, and so kind to my son, who loves music, and to ask musicians questions about what they are playing.

Utherben said...

Hang on, she has the nerve to diss keyboardists? Hasn't she heard of Bernie Worrell, Jon Lord, or Booker T. Jones? How about Christine McVie, Elton John or Stevie Wonder? Or maybe Steve Nieve, Kate Bush or Jools Holland? Leon Russell? Benmont Tench? Nicky Hopkins? She went to college in New Orleans...perhaps she's aware of Art Neville? This also says a lot about the idea of spending ANY money on a masters degree in music at NYU.

Anonymous said...

What about Glenn Gould? Beethoven? Hmmm?

Anonymous said...

I like her story. All the best to you!

Anonymous said...

Not everyone in the world has to think that playing the keyboard is cool, or any other instrument. In fact, accordion is probably the most uncool in many people's opinions, but they are opinions and we can do what we want, musically. Keep it up Melissa, you sound great!

Anonymous said...

I like her. Her story is interesting and she is pretty.

RyanAvenueA said...

I remember the first time i heard her playing Radiohead in the 2nd ave subway and I fished around for a dollar. Definitely better than the guy who never stops yelling about how awful women are. I'd like to hit him with her accordion.

4:00 p.m. said...

P.S. Since most is focused on the keyboard comment, what about synthpop, man? Most New Wave bands wouldn't have made it without synthpop? Try playing New Wave tunes non-traditionally on a music on a traditional Casio synthesizer at the subway platforms/streets and see how that goes. Also, CHVRCHES, Arcade fire, The Killers, etc. have revived it this century. And don't forget Lady Gaga gettin' physical with the keyboards. Besides, Lewis and Gilbert rocked it and won the Greek games for the tiri-Lambs.

Anonymous said...

Heehee thank you 3:29, I was waiting for someone to pick up on the irony of an accordionist "having the nerve" to have an opinion on the subjective matter of an instrument's relative "coolness." Every week probably, I get a tip from a dude who says "I don't like accordions, but you're hot." But almost every day I get a tip from someone who says "I thought I didn't like the accordion until I heard you!" So maybe I just have a sense of humor about the matter, that others don't. I've played keyboard in bands, and on recordings and I hated it. So...yeah ;)

Thanks for interviewing me, Grieve and James, look forward to next week's installment! What instrument will I shun next!? Stay tuned! ME

Eden Bee said...

I have always hated the penny whistle.

Anonymous said...

Fuck the police

john penley said...

Melissa should come on down and return to NC for a visit. My hometown, Asheville NC, has become quite the music and busking stage for all kinds of music. I was just downtown today and spent the afternoon walking around hearing different bands and groups of musicians on the streets.

Anonymous said...

Great interview! Looking forward to the next one. And I, also a piano player, never enjoyed playing keyboards in bands either! It's just not the same!

Les Pawlak said...

See ya on F platform... : )

Anonymous said...

She reminds me of Amy Lee the singer from Evanescence.