Meghan Trainor on being more than a one hit wonder

Singer-songwriter Meghan Trainor. Picture: Contributed
Singer-songwriter Meghan Trainor. Picture: Contributed
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HER everygirl appeal and bright melodies have catapulted 21-year-old singer Meghan Trainor into the limelight. Can she stay there, asks Joe Coscarelli

Meghan Trainor doesn’t really dance.

Onstage at New York’s Madison Square Garden for her allotted four minutes at the iHeartRadio Jingle Ball last December, she fluttered her jazz hands and feinted at some hip swings, but a quartet of backup dancers in leather miniskirts did most of the moving. Trainor relied instead on her widening theatre-kid eyes and high notes, keeping up with her steps deliberately, if not smoothly. She’s still new at this.

“You ready for the bass?” she soon asked the crowd, transitioning into her big hit to cheers of recognition.

Trainor started the year as a behind-the-scenes songwriter but ended it as something of an accidental sensation thanks to All About That Bass, a song originally recorded on a whim for someone else – Beyoncé, maybe? – to perform. When labels baulked at the demo, telling her they did not have the right delivery vehicle for the song’s mix of ’50s-inspired novelty doo-wop and bubblegum hip-hop – “Yeah it’s pretty clear, I ain’t no size two,” she half-raps, “but I can shake it, shake it like I’m supposed to do” – Trainor herself turned it into a body-positivity smash. (“That bass” refers to her lower end.)

The song quickly became a cultural phenomenon, the kind of catchy tune parents and children alike mouthed the words to, while critics considered the complications of its body politics.

At the Jingle Ball, the Super Bowl of US Top 40 radio, her newness was apparent next to performances by 2014’s other pop titans, like the sneakily self-assured Ariana Grande, the unsinkable Iggy Azalea and, of course, Taylor Swift, the reigning queen of them all. But Trainor was formidable company on paper, with All About That Bass having spent eight weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart and earning a Grammy nomination for record of the year and song of the year. The video has been viewed more than 450 million times on YouTube. Lips Are Movin’, a follow-up with a similarly playful sound (and a reference to “this bass”), reached No 4 on the charts before the release of her major-label debut, Title, out from Epic.

Now comes the really hard part, as Trainor attempts to transform one megahit into a performing career – one not entirely dependent on the very young fan base she’s attracted thus far with her everygirl demeanor and bright melodies. Combining the retro sound and technical proficiency of Adele and Amy Winehouse (if they wore more pastels), with the relatively safe, singsong rhymes of Azalea (sans the rap music signifiers), Trainor is a musical chameleon, fluent in many styles from her time as a hired gun writing for others.

She also recently turned 21 and won’t pretend otherwise. “I didn’t want to be a Disney girl or put in that category,” Trainor says over sushi at her downtown hotel the day before her brief arena showcase. “We didn’t know little girls would gravitate so much to The Bass.” Beyoncé recently told the singer that Blue Ivy, her 3-year-old daughter, is a big fan.

“Another famous girl tweeted me the other day: ‘Caught my son singin’ the song – too bad I didn’t catch him before the swear,’” says Trainor, who often drops her Gs and sprinkles swear words befitting her age in song and conversation. “I said, ‘Sorry, boo, didn’t know the babies would love it.’”

Title has the same innocent sound – rich throwback harmonies and hand claps, ukulele and rollicking acoustic bass – but also dips further into more ribald themes on songs like Bang Dem Sticks. “I ain’t talkin’ dirty,” she promises self-consciously, before revealing that her “drummer” can “play all night.” Other album cuts include 3am, about late-night texts, and Walkashame, which Trainor says is based on a true story that includes an awkward 6am phone call to her father. (“He was like, ‘What are you doing up so early?’” she says.)

In addition to spicing up the subject matter to better reflect her reality, Trainor was also wary of resting too comfortably on the sweet sounds of doo-wop. “I do reggae and I rap,” she says, adding that her uncle is a Trinidadian soca musician.

“I’ve been listening to soca, like I’ve been listening to Top 40, since I was seven,” she says. “I have really good rhythm.”

When the label asked for a cleaner version of All About That Bass to play on Radio Disney, Trainor and Kevin Kadish, who collaborated with her on that song and six others on Title, agreed but only on the condition that it be relegated to the kid station and never put up for sale. “We didn’t want to water down what we had created,” says Kadish, who has previously written for Miley Cyrus.

“She’s got a lot of responsibility right now,” he adds. Thanks to the love-yourself-as-you-are message of her hit, “she’s a role model,” he says. “She’s just authentic.”

Still, even All About That Bass came with some controversy for its politics, which some took to be as retro as the sound – it is still, ultimately, about appealing to men and jokingly disses “skinny bitches” – and its racial appropriation. “I want to warn you that the entire song is sung by a white girl using a faux African-American vernacular accent,” author Jenny Trout wrote on her blog. “As a feminist, I’m no longer content to watch women of colour treated as props to further an appropriation of beauty standards that white women boast about and black women are oppressed by.”

As for the assertion that she’s “bringing booty back,” Trainor says, “I didn’t know it was a racial thing.”

The idea was never to make a political statement. “It was just a three-minute song, and the goal was to help me get more confident with my body,” she says. “It was just my personal experiences.”

Trainor was brought up on the small Massachusetts island of Nantucket, where her parents own a jewellery shop. The middle child with two brothers, she was writing songs by the age of 11, and before the end of high school had signed a publishing deal as a songwriter.

Instead of attending the Berklee College of Music, where she’d been accepted, Trainor moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and found some success penning tunes for others. “There’s nothing country about her,” says Carla Wallace, who discovered Trainor as a teenager and signed her to Big Yellow Dog Music, a local publisher. “She was just so versatile.”

Confident, too. “She came to my office with her mother and said, ‘I’m adorable, right?’” Wallace recalls. “I’m like, gosh, you are.”

But despite placing two songs with Rascal Flatts, the popular country group, Trainor was left frustrated. “I loved it, but it was country,” she says. “I always thought, ‘This can’t be it – there’s got to be more.’ ”

She found it with Kadish, a songwriter who shared Trainor’s affinity for pop music from the ’50s and ’60s. In their first session together, they wrote All About That Bass. “It was like a blind date,” says Kadish. “Our writing chemistry turned out to be really strong.”

Selling the demo, however, was tougher than making it. Recalling the pitch to labels, Trainor says: “You don’t have a new artist who maybe doesn’t write songs and happens to not be a size two and sings and raps? It’s a very specific category.”

Eventually, after hearing the track in the office of Epic Records, LA Reid, the label’s chairman and chief executive, requested Trainor come and audition herself. “I’d never performed it, and all I had was my ukulele,” she says.

Within days, Epic offered her a recording contract on the strength of All About That Bass alone. “All I knew is that I had one in my hand,” Reid says. “I didn’t even think about what would come behind it.”

When it came time to make a full album, “I was pleasantly surprised,” he says, comparing her to a “modern day Holland-Dozier-Holland,” the Motown songwriting team. “She could have written Stop! In the Name of Love – that’s how she writes,” he says. As a performer, Reid adds, she is a “work in progress.”

Trainor, who has the easy charm of someone popular across social strata, had already self-released two solo albums. “I always was an artist in my head,” she says.

As a teenager, she had even put the fantasy to music, rhyming presciently in Who I Want to Be:

“I could go to the Grammys/Holding hands with Adele and the family/But I gotta get the one hit song/And you can come along.”

“It was always the dream, and you could hear it in my music – girl just wants to be a pop star,” she says. “But my insecurities – I didn’t think I could sing, dance and play the part.”

Those fears disappeared when All About That Bass hit No 1, and they haven’t returned, Trainor insists. “Everyone asks me, ‘Are you scared to be a one-hit wonder?’ ” she said. “No – I’m a songwriter. That’s not even my best one.”

Meghan Trainor plays the O2 ABC, Glasgow on 10 April,

© NYT 2015


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