“Knowledge is my power and I want to feed that knowledge to my community, the only way I know how, and that’s with a microphone at my lips and a Fender Strat in my hand.” — Chicago blues/rock artist Melody Angel
Melody Angel knows only one way to make music — with a guitar and an honesty that cuts right to the listener’s soul. When she lets loose a riff or a lyric, she’s not so much playing a guitar or singing a song, as she’s revealing a truth.
“My mom’s side of family, almost everybody sings,” Angel says on a quiet afternoon at the Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre, a few hours before she hits the stage in “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3).” Her role as The Musician in the critically acclaimed production directed by Niegel Smith, marks her professional stage debut. But she’s been an entertainer for as long as she can remember.
“[My mom] did commercial jingles from when I was a baby till a teenager,” Angel says, in a voice as lush as the gentle guitar strains she plays while conversing. “That was my first experience seeing anybody in a recording studio. She sang at church, but I didn’t. I wasn’t in the choir. I just sang on my own. I was intimidated when I was younger because everybody would ask if I sounded like my mom. And I didn’t think I was that good, so I would always say, no, I don’t sound like her. And then one day my mom told me that I sounded beautiful. And when she told me that, it changed my whole life. Instantly I had confidence in myself, and I never stopped singing.”
Review: ‘Father Comes Home From the Wars’ a masterpiece of theater, storytelling
Growing up, Angel and her family (she has one brother) lived in various neighborhoods across Chicago’s South Side.
“We moved around a lot,” Angel continues, her guitar now resting gently on her lap. “We started out at 86th and Cottage Grove and then we moved to Calumet City. Then we moved to Chicago Heights. … She pulls no punches about it on her website: “Growing up in Chicago is really hard on a young black kid. I had to deal with so much injustice and flat out racism, that I thought that was all the world would ever show me.”
“I started doing shows when I was about 12,” she recounts, including picnics, birthdays, a wedding or two. Anywhere she could sing. Music was in her blood. (She would come to discover years later that blues legend Otis Rush is a relative on her mother’s side of the family.)
“I got my guitar when I was 14 or 15 [her mom bought it at a pawn shop] and I started a band even though I didn’t know what I was doing immediately.” They were called Melody and the Angels.
“I learned three chords — the C, A and G — and you can play a lot of songs with two or three chords,” she says chuckling. “I started to listen to stuff and just taught myself by ear. I’d listen to a song and then would try to find it on the guitar. I kept doing that and I started doing little shows with my band, and going to open mikes and auditions. Just listening to a song and then finding it on the guitar.”
After attending Rich Central High School and Columbia College, Angel pursued her professional music career in earnest. She played the Chicago Blue Festival in 2016, opened for Buddy Guy at Legends in 2017, followed that same year by a performance at Australia’s Byron Bay Bluesfest. She’s a regular at the iconic Rosa’s Lounge in Chicago and she returned to the Chicago Blues Festival earlier this month where she delivered a Jimi Hendrix-inspired National Anthem.
“Well, I’ll say doing The Anthem that day was pretty big. [Festival organizers] called me up and said, we want you [to play the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ at the festival]. And I was like OK, [but] I can do it any way I want to? … And they said any way you want. And I know that people feel a certain kind of way about the Anthem. And I looked into it and I looked at how Jimi did it back in the day [at Woodstock]. And [people] looked at it as a negative thing because of how he played it. But he was playing with emotion. Just like Prince. All the great guitarists do. And for me that’s what I really wanted to do. I wanted to do it from pure emotion, just like they did. ”
Along with the aforementioned Prince, Angel cites Michael Jackson (“he greatest entertainer that ever lived”) and James Brown as the three most influential musicians in her life. Prince was the reason she wanted a guitar more than anything. “Prince really opened my eyes to funk and rock. … I saw ‘Purple Rain’ for the first time when I was seven years old and I had no idea what the movie was about. But he made me cry at the end when he did his solo. … He played honestly. That’s what Iearned from him.”
As for her Goodman role, Angel said one read of the script convinced her she had to do the part. “I always felt like, well, if I had the opportunity to tell a story about an enslaved person that’s from my ancestry line then I need to do that because these stories are important. Their stories are important not just to our community but for the world to see and to know. And if you get the opportunity to be a part of that you need to jump at that. … These were real human beings that went through something unimaginably horrible. And every story that we are able to tell in any kind of honest way is vital. The truth is a vital thing. It helps us make better choices with other people, with people who don’t look like you or are not from where you’re from.”
While Angel contemplates her next theatrical move (“I’m definitely going to keep my mind open because this has been a really wonderful experience”), she remains steadfast in her commitment to making music, the only way she knows how.
“I am who I am and I plan on staying that way, no matter what.”