This interview first appeared in Attitude issue 277, December 2016.

Interview by Joe Stone

It’s two decades since the Spice Girls stormed the charts — and five years since Melanie C released an album of original material. The two facts aren’t unconnected. Melanie explains: “I’d been working on songs for a couple of years and I was ready to start recording, but then the Spice Girls 20-year reunion was looming and I was in limbo because I didn’t know whether I’d be working with the girls and what kind of time frame it would be. “When I realised I wasn’t happy with the way that reunion plans were moving forward, I thought: well, I can just get on with my own thing now.’’

The new album, her seventh counting her covers on Stages — sees Melanie reuniting with Rick Nowels (who co-wrote her singles ‘Northern Star’ and ‘I Turn to You’ before going on to work with Adele and Lana Del Rey) as well as recording with new producers including Sons Of Sonix. Version of Me is more experimental than 2011’s The Sea, and is deeply personal, touching on the breakdown of Melanie’s 10-year relationship with Thomas Starr, and hinting at the darker dynamics at play within the Spice Girls. Having admitting to suffering from eating disorders and depression at the height of her fame, Melanie, 42, now seems comfortable in her own skin…

This album feels like quite a progression — I can’t imagine a song like ‘Numb’ on any other Mel C album — what inspired you to step outside your comfort zone?

I was writing in LA and I found myself frustrated. I’d done a whole spiel saying I’m a more mature artist and I can’t compete with Rihanna and Katy Perry, but collaborators were still leaning towards those sounds. I’d been listening to Massive Attack, Portishead, Zero 7 and newer artists such as Major Lazer. Then I was in a yoga class when I thought: I’ve always wanted to do an electronic record, something quite atmospheric, but I’ve never had the courage. I’m a pop artist, but I made the decision to marry those two sounds.

Who have been your favourite new collaborators? 

All of them! I do gravitate towards a lot of the same people because they’re my friends now and I feel safe in their hands. Sometimes writing can make you feel quite vulnerable when you’re bearing your soul, so it’s nice to be with someone you know you can trust. But in the past few years I’ve worked with Olly [Knights] and Gale [Paridjanian] from Turin Brakes, who are wonderful, Tom Wilding and Nick Atkinson, Richard Judge and, of course, Sons of Sonix. It’s just been so wonderful because they’ve all really brought something new to the record.

You’ve had five years away from music — your longest gap between albums.  Why did you take so long?

The time just flew by. I’ve been busy doing other things — TV and theatre — and I think that’s been really good for me. In the past, I’ve often started an album and that’s been my complete focus for two years. There are times when you feel as if you’re repeating yourself or you’re frustrated with the monotony of session after session, and this one just kept really fresh and felt really alive. I’ve always written from personal experience and a lot has happened in the past five years. I think it’s made for a better album.

It’s a very personal record. Obviously you’ve been through a big break-up, how much did that inspire you?

It’s funny talking about “a break-up” because it feels bigger than that. He was the father of my child. We might not have been married, but it still felt kind of like a divorce. It was a huge influence in that it turned my world upside down. The breakdown of a 10-year relationship is catastrophic.

The title track includes the lyrics: This is not your playground/preying on my weakness/I’m hiding in the corner/ the wounded kid I was/like it was yesterday. What personal experience were you drawing on there?

Version of Me is about being bullied, about being in a situation as a young adult where I felt bullied and how that has affected me, and moulded me in a way. Unfortunately, being bullied can really damage people and even when you are stronger and over it, it can still be in the background — undermining you. I hope people will identify with that track.

So this was during the Spice Girls?

Yes. I’m not going to name names, but yes.

Did you talk it through with the parties involved? Were they apologetic?

Yes it’s been addressed, they were aware of what they’d done. They apologised.

If you could go back to the height of the Spice Girls fame, is there anything you’d do differently?

Now I’m older, I’m a lot more confident and I will not be shat upon. But when I was younger I let people shit on me. What’s done is done but I’d have liked to have been a bit stronger. When we were kids we were so hard on each other and so determined to succeed that if anybody fell out of line they were quickly brought back in. That was quite a lot of pressure to live under.

Image: Marlene Marino

You’ve said that sometimes you watch old footage of yourself and it’s like you “don’t know that person” and that when you look at some press clippings it’s as if you are reading about a stranger. Was it difficult to find your identity away from the band?

It was really tough and I don’t think I did a good job of it, to be honest. We all handled it differently. The sad thing about it is that it was a dream come true. I spent all of my childhood wanting to be a famous pop star, travelling the world — and it bloody well happened! But the reality, as brilliant and exciting and amazing as it was, is there was a flipside: the exhaustion and the vulnerability and having to deal with people having an opinion of you. That didn’t factor into the fantasy. We were taken away from reality and we lived in a bubble, and then you’re plonked back into the real world and it’s like: what the fuck? I had to be integrated back into society. That was the difficult bit. It was a total head fuck. You get there eventually but it was a journey.

What advice would you give someone like Zayn, who has admitted to struggling with anxiety after leaving One Direction?

I think he probably needs to take a back seat for a while and get his head straight. I can imagine he’s really struggling. Fame on that scale is a massive thing to come terms with and to get your head around. He probably needs some professional help to learn how to deal with it, that’s what I did.

This is your fourth release on your own Red Girl Records, do you ever miss having the input of a major label?

I do when it comes to marketing but too many cooks spoil the broth. I’ve been lucky because I’ve always co-written and had a strong idea of what I wanted as singles. Every now and then there’s a dispute with the label, which usually ends with you getting dropped!

Are you talking about your second album?

Yes, I always wanted ‘Reason’ to be a single but ‘On the Horizon’ was seen as “radio friendly.” That’s the one thing I’d change. I’ve learnt to do it myself, you have to make the decisions you want to make. I spent a lot of my youth thinking other people knew better. With situations in my career that haven’t gone well, if it’s my decision it hurts less than if it’s someone else’s mistake.

You recently turned down joining Geri, Emma and Mel B for a second Spice Girls reunion. Was that a difficult decision?

The hardest thing for me was letting the girls down. Turning down the money was hard, too! But everything I’ve done, I feel like I’ve done it with integrity, and I’ve put my heart and soul into it. I couldn’t change that now. For me, I’m so proud of the Spice Girls, I love them dearly, but it was a moment in time. It was magical, and I don’t want to tarnish it.

Would you be more keen to take part in a reunion if Victoria signed on?

Yes, I’d probably do it if Victoria was doing it. For me, the Spice Girls is a five-piece. When we did the tour in 2007 and the Olympics it was befitting of the Spice Girls and the legacy.

Image: Marlene Marino

How have fans reacted to your decision?

After the piece I wrote explaining my decision not to join the reunion, I had the most positive response to anything I’ve ever done in my career. There were some haters on Twitter — as there always are.

How about the other girls, has it affected your friendship?

It is difficult because obviously they’d rather I did it. I probably haven’t spoken to Geri or Melanie for a few months. My relationship with Emma has always been the strongest, and at the moment we’re not seeing each other as much as we usually would.

You’ve had number ones in the group and as a solo artist, toured the world and won awards. How do you define success now?

With this record: I love it, I’m so happy with it, I’m so excited by it. To feel like I’ve made a record now which is better than ones I’ve made in the past, that desire to be better is what drives me.

‘Version of Me’ is out now.

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