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Interview with Melissa Lawson, Winner of Nashville Star



With the sound of her children chattering in the background, Melissa Lawson insists to me that she’s just a regular person. And even though she currently has the hottest country song on iTunes (she knows this because she’s checked the charts herself), the John Rich-produced “What If It All Goes Right,” on this day, her first day home in Texas after claiming top honors on Monday night’s Nashville Star finale, the now-famous mother of five is preparing to do something regular for the first time in a long time: go shopping at Target.

Before Lawson was whisked away to perform on the hit NBC series, few people knew her name and she had all but given up on her dream of country music stardom. But the five million viewers who weighed in on the show’s final ballot had other plans, and this strong and passionate woman, who will leave soon to perform at the Olympic Games in Beijing, stands on the brink of a career she not long ago thought impossible.

Jim Malec: First of all, congratulations to you for winning the highest rated season of Nashville Star ever. Has that hit home yet, or is it still a surreal feeling?

Melissa Lawson
: It is finally starting to sink in. I had a couple of moments yesterday that really made that happen. One is that when I was over at Warner Brothers, they showed me the video for the single. And so, while I’m watching the video that’s getting ready to go out to CMT, in the middle of it they show me winning. And of course I hadn’t seen a replay yet of the moment. So I was like, ‘oh my gosh, I did actually win’. And also just the single going on all the radio stations everywhere, and I’ve been having all my friends calling me and going, ‘I just heard you on the radio.’ So it’s starting to hit.

JM: I haven’t seen the video yet.

ML: It’s got basically little clips of my journey on the show, and also of me in the sound studio recording the single. And in the end it shows the winning moment.

JM: I understand they kept the contestants very insulated while participating in the show. You weren’t allowed any phone or internet access?

ML: Right. we didn’t have anything at all. No email, no internet.

JM: So you were very insulated from the buzz. I’m curious, then, whether or not you were you prepared for all the attention you’d be receiving once the show was over? These past two and half days must have been crazy for you. Have you experienced a moment of realization where it suddenly hit you that now millions of people know your name? That’s a pretty big change from when you first went in for the show.

ML: Oh definitely! I’ve still been fairly insulated from it. I just got home late last night around 8:30–that was pretty crazy getting off the plane, there was a couple hundred people there waiting for me, which was very exciting.

I’m getting ready to go to Target in a little while, so that will be an interesting trip. My husband’s like, ‘you’re going by yourself?’ It’ll be fun though, I don’t mind [the attention] at all.

JM: What was the most difficult challenge you faced during your time on the show?

ML: Just being away from the kids and not having any contact at all. It’d be one thing if I could talk to them on the phone and stuff, but without being able to talk to them at all, that’s been the hardest.

JM: Did you go the entire duration of the show without talking to them?

ML: It was about six weeks. And then I had just a few minutes with them, and then it was another five weeks or so.

JM: It seems like there has been more discussion about your backstory–your weight, your family, etc.–than about your voice or your music. Tell me: who is Melissa Lawson, the artist?

ML: Gosh, you know…I’m just me. I’m just a person. And I just love music and I love to perform. I’ve had a really great time because I feel most comfortable when I’m on stage. And it’s been a great experience to have fans out there supporting me. And I think, too, that having an opportunity to move forward and having the single out, which is just going gangbusters on iTunes–yesterday when I checked it was #13 on iTunes most downloaded songs in all genres, so not just country music, it’s #1 on the country music side….that’s very, very exciting. I think you’ll find that the music to come will be influenced by early Trisha, Martina McBride, anything that’s vocally challenging but at the same time still appeals to the fans.

JM: When you go into the studio with John Rich, what kind of album do you hope to make?

ML: I think people have voted because they not only like that I can sing and perform, but also because they like me as a person–and I want to make sure I’m staying true to that. I’m not gonna be going out and singing songs about cheating and stuff like that. It’s just not who I am. And I want to stay true to who I am as a mom, and as a family-goer, and as a church-goer. So, I think all those things will come into play when we put the album together.

JM: Do you think that approach meshes well with country music, which has a history of cheatin’ songs, drinkin’ songs, and generally gritty lyrics?

ML: Absolutely. I’m not sayin’ I wont do anything about troubled times, because families go through troubled times all the time. I’m just sayin’ that I want to make sure it stays true to who I am in my heart.

JM: What’s the best country album you’ve ever heard?

ML: Wow. You know what, it’d have to be the Trisha [Yearwood] album that has “The Song Remembers When” on it, and also “On A Bus To Saint Cloud.” That’s my favorite Trisha album of all time, anyway.

JM: That’s a great answer. I hate to put you on the spot there. I actually think that’s two different albums though. “On a Bus To St. Cloud” comes from Thinkin’ About You, and “The Song Remembers When” is…is it on “Hearts in Armor?” No, it’s on its own album, if I recall.

ML: Maybe it’s the Greatest Hits one that I’m thinking of. I love all of her stuff. You give me any of her albums and I am just in love. [laughter] I love her to death.

JM: You talked once on the show–I think it was on the first episode–about there “not being a lot of time.” Why did you feel that way? Why do you think you had previously struggled to break into the industry as an artist?

ML: For sure, it had a lot to do with my weight. That would be the number one thing. And number two, I had a family. And those are really big things in this industry for someone that’s just walking in to any record label sayin’ ‘hey, give me a record deal’.

JM: Do you believe Nashville Star was your last chance? Do you think you would still be where you are now if you hadn’t made it on the show?

ML: No. Not at all. Nashville Star really was my last chance. I put all my eggs in that basket, and I’m just very grateful it turned out. And I’m grateful that the fans supported me because I realize that even though I can work as hard as I can work on any given day, if I didn’t have the fans supporting me I’d still just be a mom at home.

JM: In an article that appeared in Monday’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Matthew Clark, who is a colleague of mine here at The 9513, was quoted as saying that, “I just can’t imagine Melissa Lawson sliding into a CMT video rotation next to Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift.” He was talking about your image and how it will play in the country music world.

Do you think you’ll be the exception to the Nashville rule that says you have to look a certain way and appeal to a certain demographic in order to be successful?

ML: Gosh it’s funny that someone would actually take the time to say something like that. That always blows me away, especially when there were over five million votes cast towards the winner of Nashville Star. That’s a lot of people voting, that’s a lot of people supporting me. And I think that really speaks for itself. You know, I feel like I can compete in this industry vocally and performance wise. I don’t feel like I ever will need to make an excuse for myself or for who I am. I just am who I am, and the fans say that that’s good enough. And I think because I represent most of America…you have the population of overweight people is at a rocket high, and I’ve lost seventy pounds since January on my own–not because of the show. You know, I had already started that journey before Nashville Star even came along, and I plan on losing more, for myself. I’m not in any race. I’m going at my own pace. So, if it has to do with the physicality of it, I don’t understand that when that’s most of America.

JM: I appreciate your candor and your openness about that subject. I know you must get tired of talking about that–

ML: –I actually don’t. I enjoy battling for every mom out there, because, you know, and I say this with the utmost respect to Carrie Underwood and every other artist out there that does fit the industry idea of what you should be–it just happens to be that I don’t, and it just happens to be that most of America doesn’t either. And they voted. They’re the ones that chose the winner, and I’m really, really grateful that they chose me.

JM: What are you most excited about moving forward?

ML: Cutting the new album, and being able to have something that the fans can sink their teeth in to. John Rich said to me, when the single came out, ‘this is where the rubber meets the road, this is where reality TV ends.’

We released [the single] in the morning, and by two o’clock it was the number one most downloaded song in country music on iTunes. That’s just a crazy, crazy number. You know, so quickly–that just doesn’t happen. And it’s not because of me, it’s because the fans are supporting me. And I’m looking forward to giving them something so that I can have a long-term career. I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. I’m here for the long haul, and I’m gonna work my tail-end off to make sure that I stay around.

JM: Does John Rich wear that black cowboy hat while he’s in the studio?

ML: [Laughter] No, he does wear a ball-cap though. Generally it’s a cammo ball-cap with a Tennessee “T” on it.

JM: What is country music?

ML: Country music is one of the loves of my life. It’s a foundation for people to relate and become one. Music is the universal language that brings everybody together and country music for sure is that foundation to me.

Correction: It was initially reported in this article that John Rich is the songwriter of “What if All Goes Right.” That is incorrect. The song was written by Tania Hancheroff, Tammy Hyler, and Shaye Smith.

Jim Malec is a journalist whose work has appeared in American Songwriter, Country Weekly, Denver Westword, Slant and others. He is the founder of American Noise and former Managing Editor of The 9513.

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