When the first lady of Woodstock, Melanie Safka, passed away at 76 on January 23, 2024, her three children asked fans to light a candle in her memory. It was fitting given that Melanie’s set at Woodstock is said to be the first time that an audience held up flames at a concert. The perspective from the stage would inspire her to write the 1970 hit, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).” 

The following interview, completed in December 2023 , was planned for social media use by The Museum at Bethel Woods, located on the site of the festival where Melanie burst from obscurity into fame. She returned to the historic site a few more times, including the 1998 Woodstock commemoration A Day in the Garden. This conversation, however, was a phone call from her Nashville home. Early in the talk, Melanie mentioned having annual Christmas magic moments. And the facts bear that out: although she didn’t bring up this fantastic holiday moment then, her song “Brand New Key” first reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on Christmas Day, 1971.

From there, conversation ranged from being an outsider to reclaiming her recorded legacy and a retelling of her harrowing Woodstock backstage wait. In an hour-long discussion, Melanie exhibited a live-and-let-live congeniality, an artist’s facility for connection, and a strength to match the belt of her voice - from that 22-year-old introvert facing a half-a-million crowd to starting over from the deep end of life.

Written by Colleen Kane

Tell me about The Christmas Twister album. What was the original plan?
We were recording an online show, and then the lights went out. I used that opportunity to go into my room and refresh my makeup. Next thing I know [my son Beau] came running into my room. He pushed me onto the floor. I had about three inches [under the bed], he’s trying to push me under the bed, and I said, “This isn’t gonna happen.”

Sure enough the tornado went right past, it must’ve been just a few feet from my bedroom. It just went through like a freight train right past my window. Any closer, whether I was under the bed or not, I don't think it would’ve mattered. We were left with a big mess. [Afterward, Beau] saw what he could salvage [of the video], he wasn’t able to put that out, but the audio he was able to restore and make it sound beautiful.

I love Christmas. I’m just a Christmas sucker. I always look forward to a Christmas moment. And The Christmas Twister to me is like a miracle because it survived, we survived. That was my moment that year.

We lived to tell about it and there were some people who weren’t so lucky right down the street from me. It’s really odd; I grew up in New York, so tornadoes aren’t real. They’re things that happen in the Wizard of Oz. Now I have a tornado shelter. A person who really loves my music and credits me for saving their life, donated a tornado shelter to me.

Is your son Beau your usual musical collaborator?Melanie quotes.JPG
Yeah, he’s been my musical director, he’s amazing, he’s an absolute virtuoso guitarist and other virtuosos have said the same...He sounds a lot like me, sometimes on backing vocals, he can do a mean Melanie belt. It’s really a great counterpoint, when you’re a songwriter. Because the counter melody brings a depth and perception to the music...when Beau does it, it’s truly adding another full dimension.


You know, to me, so much in every art has to do with space. Even in visual art, when you look at a painting, if it’s just flat, that’s what makes it “eh, that’s nice,” you know? [laughter] But when but when you can see behind the tree and there’s that space, that’s what gives it life, that’s what gives it a place for you and your thoughts to go. To me, that’s real art. It’s the same thing, it’s space, it’s all about the space.


You can have a great band, and they’re all playing, and it’s just one big flat whoosh and it’s great. When it’s live...nobody cares if there’s no space. But recording art is a whole different thing than live performance. That’s why when we do the live online shows, we try to capture that. I put a bunch of my old stuffed animals in front of me. [laughter] They usually like it, you know? They’re great.


It sounds like your original plan became something else... and you went with it, and that became your twist on a Christmas album.



You posted on social media that the recording now has audio artifacts, and an almost eerie sound. Does that make it kind of experimental?

Everything I guess if you’re doing it for the first time is an experiment [laughter]. I don’t know if it could be repeated.


There was something in the atmosphere. Animals are very attuned to weather and what's going to happen. My cats were slinking around. They know. I think the general atmosphere was charged. I sense it in the recording. I think both Beau and I were picking up on something and probably it was that, it was really big. A few hundred miles down the road hundreds of people died. It was really devastating in Nashville; they got a big brunt of it. I’m out in Johnny Cash land and ours wasn’t as bad, but it was badwhen people die it’s bad.


I agree...sorry, I’m just typing along in case something goes wrong with my recording, or a twister comes through.

That’s great. There’s an old saying, “Man makes a plan, God laughs...”


But again, I’m a real Christmas person. It seems to open up a place in people that doesn’t exist other times in the year. I think that Christmas is magic. It speaks of things people don’t talk about most other times of year, whether you’re religious or you’re not. It’s a time that people imagine or visualize some sort of eternity that exists for mankind. I think Christmas opens that place up in people, a continuum that goes on and on forever.


And you’d never know it by the way some people act; they don’t get it...


It’s probably the same for them year-round.

Probably, yeah.


Do you have any favorite Christmas memories?

Aww! Actually, I have one right at the tip of my tongue. I write all the time. I don't even know what it becomes. I wrote a whole bunch of things about going to the lake in the summer. I’m going to put that out as a little book. But I was looking through some of my older storiesI remember one particular Christmas, I lived in a big old apartment in New York. My uncle lived there, my mother and father, my grandmother, and me. I guess they thought maybe I was getting to the age where I wouldn't believe in Santa Claus. My mother was one of those war babies that [felt] the child was gonna have everything. She grew up in the Depression, and the child (me) was going to have the best Christmas. We weren’t going to have to struggle.


So my uncle dressed up as Santa Claus. I came out of my room and there was my uncle dressed up like Santa Clauswhich was the absolute moment I knew [laughs] that this is all playacting. But I thought that it was such fun. So I was playing the game too, like, “Oh Santa Claus!” I thought, what fun. It was that knowing. They cared so much, and they were so full of love. I just thought it was a great game. I don’t ever remember thinking, Oh they were fooling me all this time. People think too much. Let it be magic. Even though I knew it was my Uncle George, I never stopped believing. I still look up at the sky at midnight on Christmas, and I don’t know what I’m looking for, you know? But I look up.


Even when you’re playing along it’s a fun game...I never told my children there wasn’t a Santa Claus. Never! And I don’t think they hate me for it, either. We still leave a sandwich, we leave the carrots, a glass of milk, a cookie, and somehow magically it all gets chomped on by one of us.

Melanie by Lisa Law 2019.jpg
Melanie image courtesy of Lisa Law. Portrait is from 2019 and is new release from Lisa Law’s collection for this interview


That’s great. What else have you been up to lately? Do you perform around Nashville?

A lot of things. I’m making a new album withit’s not a signed deal yet. There’s a record label, and I’m going to have representation. For one thing, I probably wouldn’t have gotten in touch with you but for Dave Thompson, who has taken over as my manager. I have some representation because I was totally independent.


My husband [Peter Schekeryk] passed away about 10 years ago or maybe a little more. He handled everything from the very beginning, and he was not only the manager, the producer, agent, everything in between and I knew nothing. It was all fine and good until he passed away and didn't tell me anything [laughter].


I had to start off from the very beginning. It must be some sort of survival mechanism that kicks in when you’re in deep grief. But I wasn’t in a cushy position. I had to deal with…I didn’t even have a bank account. I didn’t have a phone. I just took his phone. This phone is his number, that I kept passing through. People would call me and [offer] condolences and...even how to deal with a funeral, I didn’t know how to do that, Peter would always be the one to do things like that. My whole life was completely turned upside down.


But survival kicks in, and people would say would you do this [performance], would you do that... I would always say yes even though I had no idea even how much do I ask? I was at a big disadvantage in that way, and people would tell me, “No, no, no, Melanie, you can’t do that.” And so I started saying no. But it was a learning process...my son is helping a great deal.


It’s a hard time to be learning how to navigate from the deep end of the pool. But I’m doing it. It’s a deal we make. I don’t remember liking this deal [laughter]. You’ve gotta live, live, live. My father used to say, “People are here, there — They’re busy busy busy and then they die.” [laughter] I used to say, “Yeah, I get what you mean. It’s kind of a bad deal.” But a deal is made somewhere along the line and everybody knows we have to honor the deal. And we have to get through it to the very end. So, that’s what I’m doing.


Do you have any plans lined up or projects you want to do in the upcoming year?

If you live long enough you skip over the silliness of the music industry. Because I’m not going to be competing with Beyonce; that’s not my market. I actually don’t know if there is a market. Everything has been so manipulated and created and forced. But there’s a lot of interest in me all of a sudden. I guess because I was so much of an introvert, whatever popularity and in-your-face-ness there was, Peter did it. My inclination is, if I go to a cocktail party or a press party, I head for the nearest corner and take a seat and no one would know I was even there until Peter would run up and introduce me to Mick Jagger or somebody and have a photo moment. But I was always really bad at that. At the end of a show, I would always go out and sign things but I’d never sit at a table and sell anything. I thought that’s really crass. [laughter] But again it’s become something I’m good at now. [laughter] Anyway, who wants to go home after you have a great night and people have really gotten your music and you’re so high on the experience and then to go home? I can’t even imagine it. So I’d always hang out as much as I could with the people who got the music and that makes it much more bearable than to have to go to an empty hotel room after having an exhilarating experience.


This man Carlton has put out an orange version [of a Melanie song] on vinyl, it looks like something you could eat like a jelly bean or a gummy bear. That’s just a teaser, he’s putting out a box set of some of my well-known things and restored things.


My stuff is all over the place, it was stolen, bootlegged. [She references the initially uncredited, heavy use of “People in the Front Row” in the Australian hip-hop hit “Nosebleed Section” and the original Melanie song being used in a 2023 Black Mirror episode.] Half the stuff online I don’t get a penny for. So it’d be nice to make it right...at least part of it. There’s some things that were done so unscrupulously that it’ll take Paul McCartney’s lawyer to right that. But things happen the way they do. I think this is a good first step: Cleopatra Records are putting together some of my older products, and they’re taking it down from illegitimate sites and helping me get it all in one place and helping me get it right.


Will we see you in these parts any time soon?

I hope so. I’m still singing. Now that I have a manager there’ll be tours, probably. I’ll tell you the truth, when were locked down, at first I didn’t know what to do. I was devastated, I had a packed suitcase for about a year. [laughter] I kept thinking, oh this is crazy. Of course they’re going to start up again.


I was supposed to [perform at] this great place in Seattle...and I was going to go on a West Coast tour of record stores, I had a vinyl that had just come out, and dump! It was closed down, I was nonessential. I was waiting for somebody to say “Ok, we’re back to our senses.” But it kept going.


So we had to figure out ways to connect with audiences. That’s when Beau became the crew [for online shows]. So things are coming into place. I have enjoyed being able to go from my bedroom across the house into the studio and be able to do a show. And it’s true that the stuffed animals aren’t a thorough replacement for people, but I do get a lot of feedback, and we do sometimes have people in the room so there is that live feeling. Of course it probably won’t ever replace Madison Square Garden with John Lennon, you know. Fortunately I did those things, and I have them in my memory and I have them to write about. So I’m still okay that way. But yes, I tour. [laughter]


2024 melanie insert vertical 2 v1.JPGI’m sure David will be presenting me with things to do, but it’s difficult when you can do things from your home. I mean half of the misery of touring is you get to a hotel and somebody forgot to book a room or “oh that was for tomorrow,” or somebody at the theater thought you were coming for a meet and greet and you had never agreed to it, and all these little things that happen and people [say] “Oh, she was late” No, I was on time, look my paper says 8:00“No, she was supposed to be there at 7.”


As an artist I never believe anything when they say, this person did this, that person did that. Yeah well, you be in their shoes for a little bit and you tell me all about it. Even this thing with Buffy Sainte-Marie...[people are saying] is Buffy Sainte-Marie a real Indian? I really feel bad for her. Maybe there were a little bit of inconsistencies [to her origin story] but to me she is an educated leave her alone! [laughter] Leave that lady alone. She did what she did, she sang what she sang, we liked her, leave it alone. Who needs to know what somebody did or who somebody slept with or.... I just never enjoy the tell-all about Thomas Jefferson. [laughter] He lived down the street from me, that could be part of it. But I always liked Thomas Jefferson. So there are things you find out [and some people say] “They were really very bad.” I don’t knowI like the good that was left. George Washington told his father he chopped down the cherry tree. You know, that’s great. I believe it. I like it. Let’s give people something to be hopeful about. [laughter]


So you like to focus on the positive.

At least. There are so many different agendas afoot. You really don't know who’s controlling what. I tend to go with the people and what makes people respond the best. Most people are really good and they really want to believe the good things. And so, unless it can hurt someone, I go with what makes people feel the most hopeful and most able. I think you’re disabled if you’re in fear. You’re totally disabled. They can do anything they want with us if we’re afraid. So I go with the things that make us unafraid.


What was it like being a woman in the music business when you entered it?

It’s a funny thing, I was one of two. There weren’t that many women in pop music. There were only a few and...people never asked the question, do you think it’s unfair? I thought of it: this is the canvas. This is what it is. Never really thought it’s not fair. Everything was all male, and I look back on that now. You had to be as good as you can be. They only played I think one woman an hour. It’s not easy at that point to be a woman in the music industry and everything, everything was male. But I didn’t sit there and worry or think about it at all. It’s just that was the canvas and I just decided to become the best that I could be.


And it’s pretty odd that I became a celebrity of any kind at all because I was such an introvert. I’m still an introvert, but I can handle it. I can walk into a room and not race to a corner or the restroom. I’ll just look at people right in the eyeballs and see what they want from me, and I’m much better at it now but I didn’t think I was cut out for that sort of thing. In fact, before I went up to do Woodstock, I was working on a movie score [for] All the Right Noises and I was very happy being behind the scenes. I felt secure and comfortable not being a target. I hated being the target. So [when the Woodstock offer came] Peter and I thought about, should I do this thing? I pictured it like a pastoral picnic in the park. Somewhere, you know, in Woodstock...and we decided I should go, I should be there.


My mother picked me up and took me to the festival site. I had no idea that there was any trouble or anything. And now [it was] “We’re not going to that place, we’re going to this other place in Bethel”, and there’s traffic, and I’m thinking, there must be an accident ahead...it’s normal to have traffic but this is a little ridiculous. Finally we get to the hotel and there’s media trucks surrounding this little strip motel.


The Holiday Inn — it’s still there.

I walk to the door and my mother’s there with me, and I’m thinking, I don’t know if I should be here. And I saw Sly Stone walk by. I’d never even met a famous person yet. I mean, I met Rod Stewart but he was still in a group called the Faces, so he wasn’t Rod Stewart. So I’m there, and then there’s Janis Joplin surrounded by microphones and she’s slugging Southern Comfort in the lobby. And I’m thinking, I’ve gotta get out of here. I don’t think I should be here. It was just me and my guitar. I didn’t have a bass player, I didn’t have a roadie, I didn’t have any of the things that people had who were doing Woodstock.  There I was and I’m literally thinking of walking back out the door and going home. And my mother is right there with me and I’m saying [whispers] “I don’t know what to do” And somebody said, “Melanie! Melanie! Let’s go to the helicopter!” Helicopter? What are you talking about? I don’t like helicopters. I’ve never been on one and I don’t want to be onwhy can’t we just go by car? And he says, “Impossible to get there.” So we’re running towards the helicopter and he goes, “Who’s she?” I said, “My mother.” “No mothers just performers, managers, and bands.” And I said goodbye to my mother. [laughter] I didn’t have the savvy to say “Oh, she’s my roadie.” 


Was she out in the audience watching you?

I don’t know. And she’s passed away. I’ve heard so many accounts of who was there and who didn’t come.


From the helicopter, I looked down at this sea of little colored things, and I asked the pilot, “What is that?” And he said, “People.” I said, “No, no, I mean the stuff right underneath us.” He said, “People” [whispers] “people” and I’m looking likea mile in the distance and it’s still the same crop [laughs] and he points at this thing that’s like a football field, and said, “That’s the stage.”


And I said, “Oh my God, I have to get out of here. How am I gonna get out of here?”


I had one guitar, me; I’m armed with three chords. I implied a lot with those chords, but it was just that. Nobody with me. We land, and they lead me to this tent with a dirt floor and a box. And that is where I spent the day. I think Tim Hardin was right across from me. I think we were sort of the folky lower echelon. And there was this big tent in the distance.


Later onI was so nervous, and nervous isn’t even the wordI was sure this was the end. This was where it ends. When I landed, Richie Havens was in his, like, 40th minute of “Freedom,” [laughter] which was an offshoot of “Motherless Child,” and I could hear Richie Havens not well. He was a legend already in Greenwich Village, and he was in this state and I knew that he was freaking. He kept going and kept going and I assumed that as soon as he finished, I would be rushed onto the stage. And now it’s daylight. The sun is shining and I’m getting nauseous, about to throw up, and I’m thinking they’re gonna come and get me. And after he was finished it wasn’t me, and nobody came for me. And then sometimes someone would come and say, “You’re on next!” and then I wasn’t. Then they would say, “Never mind,” or sometimes they didn’t bother to say, “Never mind.” I’d just hear somebody else singing, you know. It wasn’t me.


It sounds like a nightmare!

It was terrible. People think it must’ve been greathanging out with Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin...I mean, are you kidding me! I was in terror for the entire day. But little by little I figured, maybe they’ll forget that I’m here. And there kept being rumorsBob Dylan is coming! The Beatles! And I had developed this deep bronchial cough. Like demons were coming out of me. [laughter] It was really loud, I guess. And apparently Joan Baez heard me from the upper echelon tent, and sent over an assistant, I remember she had flowers in her hair, and she said “Melanie...?” I said “Yes?” “Joan heard you coughing and thought you might like this.” And [she gave me] a pot of tea with lemon and honey, and that was my [garbled word] Woodstock moment.  


I had wandered a little too far from my tent at one point, and if I really wanted to leave that could’ve been my exit. [A] security guy [asked], “What are you doing here?” I didn’t have a backstage pass, and I said, “I-I’m supposed to sing.” and he said “Oh yeah, right. What do you sing?” I said, “I have one song that’s being played on WNEW-FM,” it was called “Beautiful People.” He believed me and let me go back to the tent, but that was my moment, I could have escaped into the crowd and nobody would have ever heard me. But that was not what was to happen.


I’m glad it wasn’t.

Yeah, huh? Who knew. You know, I had no idea that it would become a part of music history. It was a festival! I had done a lot of festivals, ones in England andthere were all kinds of music things going on.


No idea what it was going to be, and rightly so. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration, because there is something when that many people come together. It felt like there was a mission statement. And it was an unspoken one. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll doesn't sum it up. Not at all. It really had more to do with, let’s bring some sanity to the next generation. Let’s not repeat war. Let’s not repeat the atrocities that man does to man. Let’s not do that anymore.


And that was the mission statement. It was a strong sense of community throughout the whole audience. That might have been the birth of the Libertarian party. I might be wrong, but I was approached many years later and they told me that.


It was definitely a pilgrimage of some kind, like in that movie of Richard Dreyfuss’, Close Encounters, where he gets a sign, he feels like he’s supposed to do something and be somewhere, and he follows that. Well, it was kind of like that with me [laughter]. There was something in me that wanted to resist, and there was something in me that I had to be there. 


How did you feel once your performance was over?

I became my same old self. In one of the clips, you see me running off the stage. [laughter] It was over, the magic spell had been broken, the coach had turned back into a pumpkin. I don’t even remember how I got back home. I mean, what was magic was that I was actually so terrified that I had an out-of-body experience, and I was not a drug user.  Isn’t that odd? [laughter] I just drank water and the tea. The next day I was supposed to go back to England and I was contacted by TV shows and panel discussions with anthropologists, discussing the social significance of such things. Again, I was not well equipped; I wasn’t a veteran performer, I could hardly articulate.


But I did leave my body, I went on that stage and as I started to sing, I came back to myself. It was almost like somebody had thrown something at me. And I was back and I always thought some part of the phenomenon of me and why I’m even talking to people about it now is that 500,000 or however many the real count was got to see me have this paranormal experience [laughter] and actually got to see me come back. There was something so disarming about having that experience in front of all those people, that I was completely myself, I was completely as authentic as I could ever be. I didn’t think, what should I do? In fact, I didn’t have a set list. I just did whatever came to my head. I did a song called “Birthday of the Sun” that I hadn’t even recorded yet because it was raining and I thought, well this will be a good song to do [laughter] so I just pulled songs out of my experience up until that point. But imagine going in front of that many people without having any preconceived idea what you’re gonna do.


I cannot imagine that.

It was crazy, absolutely crazy. It was something phenomenal about what happened to me and what happened in front of all those people that I never ever discount. It changed me forever. Because I know that it didn’t really matter how many people were sitting in front of you. It had to do with communicating that part of yourself that makes you valuable as a creator. And an ability to share your very little, small universe that you live in with a lot of people. I think most for my authentic self over the years. I really kind of removed myself from the business end of it but it’s very easy to become what someone thinks will sell records. I just think, “What would Melanie do?”


Have you ever had another out-of-body experience?

Yes, it was when we had a car accident. We turned over multiple times and everything went quiet and I was hovering above myself. But that was certainly not musical...or magical...


Were you injured?

No, amazingly enough. On the top of our car we had two giant Christmas trees. I think that must have helped buffer the impact or something, we just went round and round, it got all quiet, I was not in my body, and everything was slow. Everything was slow. But that was the only other time.


It was like Christmas saved you!

Yeah, huh? [laughter]


If you could go back to the 22-year-old you in 1969, knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself?

Good questionuh, go back! [laughter] There’s positive things that have happened in my life that I feel like it was worth it, and things I wish I could’ve been able to enjoy what other people enjoy. But there was always this pressure and always this focus that came from outside. Pressure to be the best, pressure to not look silly...“whatever you do, don’t look silly.” 


I guess I would probably say, “Don’t be so hard on yourself, if it’s at all possible. Don’t judge yourself so harshly.” Because I think I was always very hard on myself. And if I heard something on a recording that I didn’t like, I would be mortified. But I wasn’t one of those people who hung around the studio and listened over and over and over again. I just didn’t have the heart for that. I partially produced the records that we recorded most of my career but the tedious part, I just had no heart for it. In fact, my husband would tell the story that I wrote “Look What They’ve Done to my Song, Ma” in the vocal booth while I was just sitting there by myself after having recorded something. There’s always a disconnect between the moment when you create something and then you put it out there and then the people do things with it, those would be the difficult moments like the band would have their way or Peter would have his way with the final recording and so many times my creative self was in disagreement and it would cause such hardship and it was really kind of silly.


That’s what I would tell her: Don’t be so hard on yourself and worry about small things because those things have so little meaning in the big picture. It’s difficult when you’re at the shallow end of the pool to be able to see a big picture. To just go like a bird's-eye view and say, “Oh, that’s really silly.” Or to worry about that you’ve had an outbreak of acne. [laugher] You know, the things that you worry about, like “Oh my God, I got my period.” [laughter] So crazy, it’s part of life. So many of those things, you’re trying to hide stuff. You have a pimple, and you put something over it, but the whole interview all I’m thinking about is that pimple. [laughter] And when I see the interview, I go, Oh my God, I see the pimple. [laughter] Nobody else saw that. It’s only me, sitting in my room, being absolutely ridiculous.


I need to tell myself that.

Yeah. I had a boyfriend who used to say, “We’ll laugh about this in 50 years.” And it’s so true. We will. We will all laugh.


And really and truly for a while I was almost written out of the history of Woodstock. And it’s an odd thing but... maybe [it was] the powers that be, maybe there was something going on that I didn’t know about. [laughter] I think a lot of things happen that the person who’s adversely affected doesn’t know about, but...I think somewhere along the line I got politically put in a bad place, I don’t mean politics-politics, I mean political of the system but again, I’m happy to be living long enough to make everything right.