It’s staggering to think that it was 21 years ago that Melissa Tkautz first burst onto the Australian music landscape via her debut single ‘Read My Lips’. It’s equally as staggering to note that 21 years on, the track that launched the fresh-faced actress from ‘E Street’ into the No.1 spot on the singles chart is still held in such high regard by Aussie audiences.
In celebration of the 21st anniversary, Melissa recently unleashed a collection of tracks from throughout her career, so we felt it our duty to pop down for a natter with the songstress and chat about her hits… and more.
“My background basically is that I always knew I was going to be some kind of entertainer,” Melissa tells us of the early days of her career. “I studied drama, dance, singing – you name it, I studied it. So I started off modelling and doing commercials and then when I realised that it was fun but I wanted to do something else, I started auditioning. I got myself an agent, I did ‘Richmond Hill’ and then I had the huge audition for ‘E Street’.
“I got the part. One minute I was watching it on TV with my family and the next minute I was sitting in the green room facing these people. It was surreal,” she tells us.
It was through the smash TV show that Melissa got her start as a pop performer. And true to the soap’s often bizarre plotlines, it was brought about in the most unlikely way.
“They wanted to do a dream sequence and they had this song,” she recalls. “They actually asked the daughter of producer Forrest Redlich who she thought they should get to release this song. And she chose me. That’s literally how it came about. That all sounded crazy to me, but it’s exactly how it all panned out. And no-one knew that ‘Read My Lips’ was going to be a huge success,” she says.
The single shot to No.1 on the Aussie singles chart, catapulting Melissa into a pop music career. It was a career that, despite seeing Kylie launch a successful pop career off the back of ‘Neighbours’, she had never envisaged for herself.
“I was so happy to be acting and to be on such a successful show that it didn’t even enter my mind. I just thought I was always going to be an actress. Even though I knew how to sing and I’d trained in singing, that’s just how it happened.
“So I did ‘Read My Lips’, I did ‘Sexy (Is The Word)’, ‘Skin To Skin’ and then my record company fell apart,” Melissa tells us.
Following on from the release of her debut album ‘Fresh’ and subsequent singles ‘My House’ and ‘Is It?’, Melissa took a long break from music. Years of non-stop performing had left her exhausted.
“I was the girl next door,” she says. “I hadn’t been allowed to do anything because my parents were very strict. All of a sudden, I went from that to working ridiculous 14 hour days, getting on a two seater plane and flying to the other end of Australia to do a gig and then flying back home to be on set at six o’clock in the morning. It was ridiculous. So it got the point where I just needed a break. I needed to find myself and step away from it all.”
The break didn’t last long, but she decided to put her music career on hold for a while. Melissa moved back into acting, taking up parts in TV soaps ‘Paradise Beach’, ‘Echo Point’ and later ‘Pacific Drive’, in which she played the first HIV positive character on Australian television. The role won her acclaim.
“It was a challenging role for me as an actress because I wanted to make sure that I portrayed the character properly and that I knew what was actually happening to my body as the actress. I wanted to know first hand what these kids were experiencing when they were told they had HIV. My character got told on the show and I had to know how to react to that. I didn’t think I was going to be able to do the role justice unless I actually went and spoke to HIV positive people. Back then, nobody knew much about it,” she says.
Fast-forward to 2005 and Melissa exploded back onto the music charts with ‘The Glamorous Life’ – a cover of the 1984 Sheila E track. Despite some tough competition, the track peaked at No.31 on the ARIA singles chart. But, Melissa tells us, her biggest chart hit in 13 years almost didn’t happen.
“I almost didn’t do ‘Glamorous Life’ because when (then manager) Penny Clifford came to me and said that I just had to do this song, I listened to it and said ‘I don’t like it’,” she admits. “The version I heard was the original version and it wasn’t dancey enough for me. We gave it to a producer who started working on it and that night I called and said ‘I’m not feeling it. I’m really not feeling it’. And he said ‘I wasn’t either, but you’ll be really surprised how it’s sounding. Sleep on it, come into the studio and have a listen to it’. I went in the next day and it was like it was a completely different song and I said, ‘Oh. My. God.’. Now it’s one of my favourite songs to perform.”
But as if the challenges of launching a ‘comeback’ single weren’t difficult enough, Melissa found herself fighting to be heard at Australian radio, with Aussie dance’s favourite son at the time, Mr.Timothy, teaming up with US diva Inaya Day to release his own version of ‘The Glamorous Life’.
“Inaya Day was devastated,” Melissa says, telling us how the ‘other’ version came to be. “Word got out that I was doing ‘Glamorous Life’ and that it was being remixed to be released as a single. Somebody else found this out, jumped on board and released theirs before mine. Inaya Day didn’t know all this, but when she found out, she was actually really upset about it.
“Mister Timothy was such a well known name at the time and he got a lot of support. And because I was the pop ex-soap star… Look at the end of the day, I thought mine was better. But that’s my personal opinion,” she laughs.
Since ‘The Glamorous Life’, Melissa has released further singles including ‘All I Want’, ‘Easily Affected’ and a cover of Transvision Vamp’s ‘I Want Your Love’ with Nick Skitz. We ask her what her favourite part of her most recent chapter has been.
“I have a lot of favourite parts of my career,” Melissa tells us. “I think the great thing is that I’m still able to be relevant in Australia, I’m still able to bring out albums, I’m still able to perform in front of fans and that they’re still there. I’ve got amazing, amazing people behind me who have supported me from day one. That’s why I’m able to do what I do.
“There’s no point going in and recording and doing all the things I’m doing if nobody else loves it. And I’m so grateful for that. That’s why we did this (she points to the ‘Hits And More’ album)… It was for the fans. The amount of tweets and the amount of emails we get saying that people couldn’t get a hold of certain songs… I just think to put it all on one album was such a great idea,” she says.
Though the retrospective brings together all of Melissa’s hits for the first time, two songs that were originally destined for the unreleased ‘Glamorous Life’ album have also finally seen the light of day. Both ‘Fake It Good’ and ‘Not Enough’ were penned by Melbourne’s Nervo twins, who most famously collaborated with David Guetta and Kelly Rowland on the smash ‘When Love Takes Over’. Melissa tells us how the songs came to land in her possession.
“It was when I joined Central Station Records that they teed it up. We listened to a whole heap of demos and they were the two that I really liked and they just both happened to be from the same writers,” she tells us.
“I never got to meet those girls, but I get a lot of feedback about ‘Not Enough’, so I’m glad that it’s finally on an album.”
‘Not Enough’ and ‘Fake It Good’ aren’t the only new tracks on the album, however. There’s a brand new recording called ‘Take Me Away’ that’s so fresh, it almost didn’t make the tracklist.
“It was recorded a couple of months ago,” exclaims Melissa. The fabulous Roberto Merlini, who works with a lot of Australian artists, had this song that when we listened to it, we fell in love with it, so I recorded it with him. It almost didn’t make the album because it wasn’t going to be ready. So we just got it in there.
As for what comes next in the extraordinary career of Melissa Tkautz at this stage is unclear, but she tells us that music will still play a part in her life well into the future.
“As long as people are still willing to hear it, I’ll still be wanting to record,” she says. “It’s what I love doing. I love being able to get up in front of a live audience and sing. I’m just a performer – I don’t know how to do anything else. As long as there’s the market there for me and the fans who want to hear new music, I will be there on that stage.”
Melissa has enjoyed a career longevity in the Australian entertainment industry that is the envy of many. With the support of her fans across the country, she’s still able to release music, still able to perform and is still able to remain relevant in today’s pop market. The secret to that longevity?
“I think it’s hard work, never giving up,” Melissa muses. “And I think you’ve got to (and I’m working on it because I really didn’t for a long time), you’ve really got to believe in yourself. You need to have amazing people around you and I think I’m at this point now in my career because I do have good people around me. I honesty believe that in my heart.”
Melissa’s retrospective collection ‘The Hits And More’ is available digitally now.