MELANIE C interview – Evening Standard, 24 April 2020

Never let it be said that this was a time in which humankind was lacking content. There are now three different ways to watch a video for Melanie C’s new single, Who I Am. From a month ago, there’s a clip the way we used to make them, in which crowds of people wander around an art gallery where the artist formerly known as Sporty Spice is the only exhibit. Then, on Instagram, she made her own lockdown video, a fast-cut montage of her singing the song while homeschooling her daughter and stepdaughter, emptying the dishwasher and (very on-brand) doing lots of exercise. And this week, she did it live on James Corden’s US chat show, barefoot in her spare room while her band dialled in on separate screens.

The singer, 46, was booked to perform on Corden’s show in person last month, but had to drop the plan and rush home instead. “I’d done my international promo in Australia and just arrived in LA, where it was starting to get a bit weird – lots of masks in the airport,” she says. “Then Tom Hanks said he had the virus, and one by one everything started shutting down.”

Today, video chatting from her sofa in north London, she’s stoic about trying to make a musical comeback at a time when nobody else is in motion. A new album, her eighth solo release, is on the way but not quite finished and now on hold. With the single, the mechanics in place to release and promote it were already too far along to be stopped. “So we just decided to embrace it,” she says. “It didn’t feel appropriate for me to try to sell something right now, but the fans have been waiting for a song for ages and I love it. I’m so proud of it. I’m so excited about my new music and don’t want it to disappear without a trace, which it could very well do in this situation.”

Those fans are a passionate, international bunch. When we speak, she’s just off the phone to Mexico. Though other, louder Spice Girls may loom larger in your memory banks, Melanie Chisholm is the most successful as a solo act. Her debut album, Northern Star from 1999, sold around four million copies worldwide and produced two number one singles in the UK.

They can’t see her in person right now, so she’s been making herself available for a series of live Q&As on YouTube – one about the Spice Girls, naturally, to which a glitchy Mel B dialled in, but another about wellbeing. The latest is themed around “lockdown growth and development”.

“It’s taken me out of my comfort zone, because I’m not a huge fan of social media,” she admits. “But I felt compelled to reach out to the fans when things are pretty hideous.”

It’s heartwarming that these days she feels qualified to dispense advice, given that she has spoken about suffering from depression and anorexia during the pressure cooker days of the girl group. Those nicknames, imposed on them by Top of the Pops magazine rather than chosen themselves, and personalities that seemed boiled down to a single trait – the pouty one, the cute one, the one who sticks her tongue out, the backflipping one, etc – helped them to translate internationally but also made them superstars ridiculously quickly. There was one year and 11 months between the release of the debut single Wannabe and the departure of Geri Halliwell from the group, with two albums and Spice World: The Movie in between.

“When you’re young, if you’re lucky enough to have that level of success, the workload is insane. You don’t know your arse from your elbow. It is literally survival mode,” she says. “It wasn’t about not enjoying the work, but it was more difficult behind the scenes, dealing with being in the public eye and the dynamic of the band.”

The official video for the new song sees a succession of gallery goers giving close perusal to photos and statues of her from throughout her career – with cropped blonde hair from her early solo days, tracksuit bottoms and a high ponytail as Sporty and so on. It looks uncomfortable being inspected so closely. “I found it quite difficult,” she says of going back to those old looks. “Obviously I’ve had an incredible career but there have been challenges along the way. When you face those things very starkly it’s like looking at that person again, and it is hard.”

Her last album, in 2016, was called Version of Me. Today she sounds like she’s no longer playing a role. “I’m ready to drop my armour/It’ll make me stronger,” she sings over atmospheric synths. She’s been making big changes behind the scenes, building a new team from management to label to publicist, and writing the new songs with talented younger women including Nadia Rose, Shura and Rae Morris. “I wanted it to be more danceable than the last record. We were referencing Mark Ronson’s latest album and Robyn – danceability but with really heartfelt lyrics.”

However, it was the donning of her Adidas again for a Spice Girls reunion tour that helped her to have the confidence to present her true self to the world this time around. A 13-date stadium tour last summer finished with three nights at Wembley, a triumph even without the involvement of Victoria Beckham. It was the first time the Girls had sung together since the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. A previous reunion tour ended in 2008.

“Those shows were an opportunity to revisit who I was in that world. I finally came full circle and realised that I have to accept every aspect of myself,” she says. “I actually love being Sporty Spice. It’s not just an act, it’s a huge part of me.”

She saw Odd One Out, last year’s BBC documentary about the abuse Jesy Nelson suffered after she was chosen to be in Little Mix, and identified but also appreciated the fact that the Spice Girls were at the peak of their fame at an earlier time. “I truly believe that being in a band in that situation is better than being a solo artist. There are egos, jealousy, comparisons, all of that, but on the whole, having people to share it with makes it a lot easier. I really feel for younger artists because social media has put so much pressure on people. I was never comfortable with how much of yourself you have to give away with social media. Where do you draw the line?”

Today she’s found a more comfortable level, with a smaller but still fiercely devoted fanbase, and ongoing opportunities to perform to major crowds. Last year, armed with a fabulous standalone single, High Heels, made in collaboration with the LGBTQ club collective Sink the Pink, she toured the world’s Pride events. “To work really closely with drag queens and non-binary people was such an education for me. It felt like another level of self-acceptance, and really affected me in ways I never expected,” she says. “It cemented what this record is about and where I am right now.”

It also offered a thrill you can’t even get with the Spice Girls. “I was in Sao Paulo on a float, with over three million people in the streets. It was beyond incredible. I’ve got goosebumps thinking about it. I looked out over this sea of people as far as the eye could see and thought, yep, this is on a par with Wembley Stadium!”

Who I Am is out now on Red Girl Media