Melissa Nicole Johnston sits at the back of Pavement Coffeehouse around the corner from Berklee College of Music. She’s engrossed in her laptop, not even raising her head until I set my coat down. She wears minimalistic rings and her necklace jingles when she turns, offering her undivided attention.
“I knew I wanted to do music, and I found out that [Berklee] is the number one contemporary music school in the world,” says Johnston, a 21-year-old junior who has attended Berklee since September 2012. Before Berklee, there was only Bethel University. But that was a different chapter of her life, containing Germanic Anglo-Saxon history and devout Christian faith. She admits to having a stick up her ass all through middle and high schools but Johnston and Jesus stand on different levels now.
Jesus aside, Johnston studies song writing at Berklee. She wanted to fall into vocal performance, but a large majority of students wanted that as well, heightening the competition. As a kid, Johnston wrote melodies for a small piano, but never created a tangible thing. So after a few song-writing classes, the floodgates opened and torrents of ideas poured out; Johnston just needed a little kick-start.
Johnston has a soulful, versatile voice (Check out “Walk Like a Lady”) and uses it to reach unfathomable high and low notes. She normally has a serious demeanor in her music videos, but it’s the kind that demands attention. In “Hollow,” her voice is nothing but powerful and awe-inspiring.
She sings of good things, bad things, other people, herself, or observations. Some inspiration will come from those who surround her. She takes tidbits of things people say and marinates it in her mind for a few weeks or months, focusing on the context, the definition, and how to put it into a song. Or she may take a MBTA passenger’s book title, or a clip of a song heard in passing. “I usually spark up a few ideas a day just by keeping my eyes and ears open,” says Johnston.
The important thing is that she’s no longer writing songs in her parents’ basement back in Brandon, South Dakota, just two minutes outside of Sioux Falls. The city life is much different than ‘living in a corn field.’ She enjoys the melting pot aspect of Boston and how easy it is to meet persons of different cultures or different loves. “Music opportunities were seldom but Sioux Falls has started to really grow in music,” says Johnston. “So I wouldn’t be surprised if there will be more in the future.” While her parents were supportive, paying for piano lessons and marching band, they weren’t fond of Johnston living as a starving artist in the world. Johnston describes her parents as completely different than herself. Her mother works as a lunch lady at the local middle school and her father is a train dispatcher and neither of them attended school. Johnston notes that they’re perfectly content with the simple life of Brandon.
“They raised me on good freakin’ music. That’s the takeaway,” says Johnston. Although, Johnston isn’t related to her family at all. She was adopted from South Korea at six months old and her younger brother, Ryan, was adopted soon after her. They’re only one year apart in age, while their sister, Rachel, is four years apart and biologically related to their parents. Johnston was much closer with Ryan growing up because of the minimal age difference.
On family trips, her parents would play Pat Benatar, Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, or Melissa Etheridge. Johnston wasn’t exposed to a heavy amount of mainstream music as a child, and instead still listens to those classic artists today. She also indulges in Tori Amos, Frank Ocean, Sara Bareilles, and John Mayer. But if you see her walking the streets, she’s most likely listening to Jillian Michaels, Music and the Brain, or Bethel University’s “Christianity and Western Culture.”
Johnston deferred her fall ’13 semester to actively fund her music image. She works at Anthropologie on Newbury, and has since created a chill environment among her coworkers. When she’s not working, she produces video blogs and music videos on her Youtube channel.
I think it’s super important that every musician has an online image,” says Johnston. “Think about how many artists have made it through social media? Justin Bieber, Lights, Tori Kelly, Karmin, Betty Who… Berklee really is good about emphasizing the importance of social media.”
Johnston occupies multiple social media platforms, primarily promoting her music and her health blog, Longevity. On her blog, she discusses relevant college topics such as the healthy college diet, treating yourself once in awhile, and tips and tricks to avoid seasonal sickness. She also promotes her online business Juice Plus+, a multivitamin inspired by juicing.
As far as her music is concerned, Johnston typically hires someone to help her record covers and original singles. However, she recorded her video blog posts and singles “Safe and Sound” and “You’re Too Good For That” by herself. After this semester off, she plans to return to Berklee and make more connections.
“It’s all about networking,” says Johnston. “Your professor has three Grammys, and you can learn something from them no matter how pompous they are.” But the ultimate goal in the music industry continues to be proving oneself on a bigger scale, not just to peers and teachers but also to the entire industry.
“So many of us do the same damn thing,” says Johnston, exaggerating each word. “You’re surrounded by people do the same stuff. We all listen to the same fucking people. It ignites a new breed of competition. We all come here to try to find ourselves. I’m gonna be honest, musicians are just lost souls with a lot of fucking passion.”