When singer and songwriter Mel Ross’ first serious relationship ended, the young artist, who was in his late teens, found it hard to let go.
The pain lingered, even during the past eight years living in Los Angeles, where the Corrales, New-Mexico-native moved soon after graduating from high school.
“I was always writing songs,” says Ross, 24, whose first album, the independently produced EP New Mexico, was released on Sunday, May 1 (choose music service and listen here). “But when I moved out here, it took me awhile to really find my flow as an artist and figure out who I am. That’s what this album is about ... a homecoming to myself, and the stories that made me who I am.”
The plaintive tone of Ross’ emotive voice on “Bloodbath,” the opening track of the six-track EP, feels personal. It starts with an amorphous sonic ebb and flow of electronic music that builds and builds until it resolves into a steady beat.
I was thinking I was born to die
September came and I had lost my mind
So on fire, you were cool as ice
You were standing by
The song swells, breaking into a catchy, full-on pop number when Ross launches into the chorus, singing “Baby this is a bloodbath/Baby this insane.”
Pursuing a career in music was Ross’ intention in moving to L.A. He was attending the Los Angeles-based Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising and studying visual design.
“A lot of that had to do with graphics, music video, set design, things like that. So it all fit together,” says Ross, who grew up taking piano lessons, performing in music theater, and playing in the band in high school. But he was raised in a religious family and taught to believe that homosexuality was wrong. At the end of his first gay relationship, which planted the seed for his debut album, it wasn’t just his failure to hold on to a lover but his self-hatred of the most fundamental aspects of self.
“It was a really formative relationship for me,” he says. “It was really intense, but everything is really intense when you’re young. It ended abruptly and really poorly. It left me feeling embarrassed about who I was. It was this tumultuous time, so I just came to California. I was writing songs, but I couldn’t get over this feeling of ‘Why do I not like myself?’”
When COVID-19 started and people began self-isolating, Ross took the opportunity to reflect on the root causes of his malaise.
“The first song I wrote was ‘Cry,’” he says of the fourth song on the EP in which he sings “I break myself to pieces every time that you break too/I think I’ll hate myself forever for the way that I love you.” The country-infused track is a slow number that anchors the album with a varied and leisurely drum beat.
“As a songwriter, a lot of times the songs just come out,” he says. “They sort of write themselves. What struck me about that line was that it was about the hatred that I had for myself. But what I came to realize was that it wasn’t about this one thing or this one person. A lot of it was about not being good enough because I’m queer.”
Ross spent most of 2021 working on the album. He wrote the songs and determined the melodies and then, with fellow musician and the album’s co-producer, Tejas Leier Heyden, took it to Heyden’s studio in Ashland, Oregon, to lay down the tracks.
“Tejas wrote a lot of the instrumental parts,” he says. “We did the crux of it in 10 days and worked on it throughout the year.”
Ross strived to make all six tracks on New Mexico sonically and stylistically diverse while still hanging together well as a pop album.
“I was trying to do a lot in a limited number of songs. We were really into The Strokes for ‘Bloodbath.’ ‘Baby Blue’ is a trip-hop type of thing. ‘Cry’ is a country ballad in my mind. I grew up listening to country music, and I feel like it will always be a part of me.”
New Mexico, for Ross, is autobiographical, but it isn’t really so much about who he was growing up here but about seeing himself from where he is now.
“I needed to become something else,” he says. “I needed to get away from what I was and where I had been because I was blowing right past all the things that made me a unique individual. That’s why I call this project a homecoming to myself. It’s about all of the things that made me me. It’s my origin story.” ◀