Melanie Wagner will do more than simply celebrate the release of her second album on September 12 at the Strand Center for the Arts in Lakewood. The Ocean County native is also celebrating her birthday and the first public showing of her artwork. As a recent graduate from Montclair State University with a degree in Art, this is a night she’s waited for all of her life.
“I’ve never had an art show before,” said Wagner. “This is a big deal.”
Wagner’s artwork and musical career are very much intertwined. Her signature style revolves around portraits of musicians created through the use of song titles. The style evolved from a period she called “365 Days of Art/Music,” which was inspired by a book designed to offer ideas for artists.
“I did an art project of the day for a year and got creative with everything,” she explained. “I even made Bob Dylan’s face out of sugar and a frying pan! It was a year of art and music, so every day there would be a lyric tied into the piece of art and that’s how I combined the two. Now it’s mostly what I do.”
Wagner, who has always been an artist, first picked up the guitar 10 years ago and has been playing professionally for the last five. When veteran musician Sonny Prewitt left his band and asked Wagner to be part of a duo with
him, she was literally thrown into the fire with 16 shows in their first month.
“That’s what made me a better player,” said Wagner. “Being ‘thrown under the bus’ as he likes to call it. It’s been like going to school. I feel I’ve gotten pretty good in the last 5 years because you want to play up to your partner.”
Prewitt moved from Tennessee to New Jersey in 1974 to join The Southern Cross Band, a group that opened for major acts like The Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He has been playing throughout the tri-state area ever since, along with teaching guitar and vocals. As a duo, Melanie and Sonny perform everywhere from restaurants to bars to house concerts and festivals. Prewitt not only plays on Wagner’s new album, but produced the record as well.
Her second release is called “Break Ups and Break Downs.” While her debut was rather eclectic, this record is more focused within the folk/country realm. Songs like “Back to You” have a haunting folk sound, while tracks like “15 Years” combine pop music with bouncy bluegrass, a style of music that Wagner is very familiar with.
“I grew up going to bluegrass festivals with my family,” she explained. “Everyone would bring their instruments. You’d see them perform onstage and then you’d go back to the camp site where everybody would jam. So, I grew up listening to that kind of music and when we played The Strand last year, we had a banjo and upright bass. I loved it so much that I asked them (Tommy Stevenson on banjo and Chuck Ricca on bass) if they would record on the new album.”
Stevenson, Ricca and Prewitt will all accompany Wagner on stage during the record release party. The show is part of The Strand’s “Backstage Pass” series, which places both the audience and the performers on the stage together. The effect turns the performing arts center into a much more intimate room — a house concert of sorts.
“When you are playing at a bar, there are times when you sort of become the radio,” admits Wagner. “It’s not always like that, but when people pay to see you play songs that you wrote, it’s the best experience. That’s when you really feel appreciated and are making a difference.”
Wagner wrote songs on the new album with several collaborators including Prewitt, her mother and her fiancée, who has played in several punk bands.
“That was fun,” said Wagner. “He has a very different approach to songwriting than I do, which is cool. I love writing with everyone and I love the song we wrote together. He says he can hear Green Day doing it and it’s total country to me! I think that’s what is so great about blending the styles — anybody can hear different bands playing a song and using it for them. I want to be a songwriter, so I’m trying to make songs that anybody could want regardless of genre.”
Wagner’s record release show takes place on Saturday, September 12. Doors open at 5 p.m., with the show starting at 6 p.m. Each ticket sold will come with a copy of Wagner’s new album. Due to the Backstage Pass setting, only a limited number of on-stage seats are available. The Strand Center for the Arts is located at 400 Clifton Avenue in Lakewood, NJ. Wagner’s artwork will stay on display as the Featured Artist for the Strand’s Gala on September 29. For more information visit www.Strand.org
Wagner’s artwork can be found on her Etsy site: https://www.etsy.com/shop/ThePrintsOfPop.