Born in San Ramon, California, Melissa Ratley's family relocated to Dallas-Ft. Worth two months later. After completing her degree at the University of North Texas Melissa spent years pursuing radio, but ultimately her passion for playing guitar and writing songs called her to pursue music behind a different microphone. In January she released her album A Lonely View and it's current single "The Outside" is already garnering significant buzz. Melissa graciously took the time to speak about her roots, music and more.
You first performed at a talent show when you were six years old. Was that when you started playing guitar and singing?
Around age six I performed in the talent show where I strummed my Sears Harmony [guitar]. I’m sure I didn’t play any chords and had no rhythm whatsoever; I think people just thought it was cool I had a guitar and I was hacking at it (laughing). My older brother, who played classical guitar, tried to teach me the chords to Travis Tritt’s “Here’s A Quarter.” I hated it, my fingers hurt and I cried! From then on, I was pretty much self-taught. I would pick the guitar up here and there finding a song I liked and learning the chords and figuring out little riffs. I’m by no means a guitar player, I am more of a rhythm person which is probably what I will always be, but I’m always looking to be better and learn new things.
I never performed in middle school. I always thought there were more talented people around me and I didn’t necessarily want to steal their thunder or say “hey I’m a singer too, you should listen to me.” I was well aware my friends were talented, so I kept quiet and studied with Loretta, Tammy and Dolly at home. After graduation, I came out more as a singer songwriter and people were like, "why didn’t you tell me?" I did a worship band in college, but after a while I found the divide of being in a worship band and singing about drinking and cheating in a country band was too great for me, so I stuck with one medium and just went with it.
What influenced your decision to play country music? Is that what you grew up listening to?
I was always drawn to country. My mom let me watch country music videos for hours! She listened to The Judds, Diamond Rio, Shania and Alan Jackson, while my dad was a fan of Vince Gill, Hal Ketchum, and Roy Orbison. I grew up listening to all of those artists and that blend was what basically became my musical foundation. My sound is also influenced by people like Keith Whitley and Reba and I love the older guys like Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams Sr., and Buck Owens. When I listened, it was always a learning process. I looked to see how they were influenced, how they came to be drawn to the music, how they honed their craft and how they chose to do what they did.
You learned from some of the best! But before you did music full time you worked in radio, was this initially what you wanted to do?
Radio was a complete and total accident. It was 2009 when the economy wasn’t in such great shape and I couldn’t find a job for five months. I applied anywhere and everywhere and one day I got a call for two jobs, one for a call center and one for Rebel Radio. I was drawn to music, so I read a script for my audition and got the radio job. I produced a show, did remotes and realized then, while I was killing myself studying micro and macro-economics, that maybe radio could take me further in a career. I thought maybe journalism might work out for me so I eventually went into radio full time. I became a program director, which is a job I still have so much respect for because it requires a 60-80 hour week and is a lot of work. When I went full time into radio though, I hit pause on music and did not write or touch my guitar, which was collecting dust, for two years. Finally, it got to me that I could go back to radio anytime because radio was not going anywhere, but I knew that I had a certain amount of time to take a shot at being a musician. So I put radio aside and started to do music full time.
How does the writing process work for you? Are you constantly writing or is it something you have to set aside time for?
Writing is like a muscle exercise-you have to work it to strengthen it. I started writing probably in my senior year in high school, when songs would be easy to write. When I was working at radio and stopped writing, I found that, coming back to it, it took much longer because my focus was on other things.
The busier I get the more I learn that writing is something that I have to set aside time for. I sometimes take a writing trip to where my writing partner, Caroline Schmitz, lives. We turn the phones off, start combining lines and hashing it out. Or I will tell people I am going dark for twenty four hours to just work on a song. I don’t have the luxury to take six months off to write, but I have my 200 thoughts written down on my iPhone to come back to later.
Your current single is one that you wrote with Caroline, titled “The Outside.” What is the story behind that song, which is one that just connects with people on so many levels?
I am firm believer that as songwriters we have been given the pen of inspiration to use wisely to inspire people with things from our lives, our friends lives and day to day life. We can take things that people may say, but may not think twice about, and use it for a song, like “The Outside.” I wrote “The Outside” as part of a writing trip with Caroline. At the time a lot of things were coming down hard on me. I had issues with my work, who wanted me there 7-7, with my band and with personal friendships that were being manipulated. I was not in a good place at all and so when I got away to write for few days it was like that song came out of thin air. I had this riff and saw some of Caroline’s notes on her song. I like what she had written, tried the riff on it and got most of the first verse or chorus written. Then, we finished the rest of the song. It’s a song that is a lot bigger than the both of us, which we especially knew when we got into the studio where the song really took on a life of its own. The ultimate message of the song is this: We all fight battles every day that no one sees. We all have issues that may hold us back from what we ultimately want to do, but once we learn to break down those barriers of what keeps us from what we want to do or say, it gets better.
That song is on your album, A Lonely View, which was released in January. Being a truly independent artist, how is the process of releasing an album and getting songs to radio?
Well, along with being the artist, I am also the social media, marketing and PR person for Melissa Ratley. The album was released on Evia Music label and the press was done by a lot of word of mouth. We built up a reputation in Denton as a solid band that would play wherever and whenever we could. With the first single “Say You’ll Stay” people got a taste of the music and knew this was the real deal country music. People knew who we were and knew it was going to be a solid album and release show. In fact, we only had three weeks to promote the album release show and it turned out to be at capacity, which was pretty cool. Since then, people have been coming to shows, buying merch and “liking” us on Facebook.
Country music in general kind of stays behind pop and rock in that we still believe in the power of an album, which I think is a good thing. We’re still album dependent which allows us to continue to tour on the basis of an album and get results in terms of making a living and earning a fan base. Six to nine months after the release of A Lonely View, people are still interested in the album and I’m really happy with that.
In terms of getting songs to radio, with “Say You’ll Stay,” that was just me. I complied a master list of radio stations and I would just email them…and get rejected. It’s a beating for sure, but coming from radio, I had the advantage of having a template for how I should go about things, yet still do it my way. I wish the single did better, but you can’t expect every song to go to number one.
With “The Outside” it is still too early to tell, but it has been getting good feedback and doing well in test markets. It’s tough to get a song in a rotation at radio; it’s constant emailing and asking to be added. I have a lot of respect for radio, but to me, the power of a song is what should carry country radio, if the listeners like it then it should be played, but I know from working behind the scenes it is not as simple as that. The personal element of a song really helps connect with the listener and I think that if any song is going to do that, “The Outside” will be the one. It’s the last song I do at my shows and people really seem to connect with it.
Speaking of the live shows, where can someone catch you perform?
We try and spread from Dallas to Denton to Fort Worth and Houston. We try and go as far and wide as we can. I send emails to venues and 97% of the time I get nothing back, so I try to call or ask somebody I know to throw me on a bill to support them. I have opened for folks like Zane Williams, Bri Bagwell and Micky and the Motorcars, so now people know me a bit which makes it easier to stick with me. Of course it’s nice when venues book me to because that means they think of me in a sportive way too
I think the camaraderie among the artists is the bonus of being in the Texas scene. It’s not staged at all; they really hang out with each other because they’re friends and most of the year they are on the road and do not get the time to hang out, create bonds and just chill. I have known Zane since he was starting to be promoted at radio, and that’s the same with Bri, Micky and Deryl Dodd. They’re always super nice, stay to see our show and applaud because they know we are doing the same for them.
At the end of last year, you were chosen as one of “Five Dallas Country Bands to Watch in 2015” by the Dallas Observer. That’s a good way to kick off the year.
It’s really cool when someone reaches out to you and says “hey what are you up to?” I had no idea what he was going to write about, I thought it was going to be about the new album, but then boom! I found my name on a list of ones to watch. That helped a lot in terms of booking and having people know who you are. The foundation of a good first impression is really all you need.
The video for "The Outside" will premiere in July.
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