CHICAGO — Melisa Young — better known in the pop world as Kid Sister — has just gotten off a plane and stepped inside her North Side apartment for the first time in weeks.
“It’s nice to be home,” Young says with a laugh as she picks up the phone to start this interview, her last bit of business before she goes to sleep. She says her apartment is cold, so the interview is done under the covers of her bed with her coat on.
She’s just completed an exhausting month of promoting her debut album, “Ultraviolet” (Downtown/ Universal), one of the most talkedabout albums of the year with its cutting-edge merger of hip-hop, dance music and pop.
“Last night I had dinner with Questlove of the Roots, and he played a little DJ set in the meatpacking district (in New York),” she says. “It was very yuppie, but a lot of fun. I danced around in my underwear.”
For some performers, an underwear dance might connote something provocative. But Young makes it sound anything but, more like a bunch of girlfriends enjoying themselves at a slumber party. “I am a nerd,” she says. “I’m not a celebrity.
“Being a celebrity is an attitude, but Chicago is way more low-key about that. People don’t grow up here thinking they’re going to be the next big star.”
Yet in the last few years she’s become one of the brightest new faces in club music. She’s collaborated with artists such as Kanye West, Pharrell Williams and Gnarls Barkley’s Cee-Lo Green, all of whom requested to work with her. She made her first network TV appearance a few weeks ago on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” showing not a hint of stage fright as she frolicked in the audience while performing an energetic version of her single “Right Hand Hi.” Already a veteran of main-stage appearances at festivals such as Coachella in California and Lollapalooza in Chicago, she is now preparing for a new year of heavy touring worldwide.
Through it all, Young remains unfazed, a budding pop star who still remembers very well where she came from: a blue-collar upbringing in suburban Markham, Ill., and years of trying to squeeze music making between shifts clerking at retail stores. At one point she was holding down three jobs and catching catnaps on breaks while fending off warning notices from utility companies because she couldn’t keep up with her bill payments.
“I don’t think I realized this was my full-time job until about nine months ago,” says Young, 29, of her music career. “I was going to release my album last year, and then I took it back to work on it some more because it wasn’t exactly the way I wanted it. That’s when it sunk in: This is what I do. It took a long time. I’d always played it off as, ‘These are my little songs; it’s not a big deal. It’s just a hobby.’”
Young was born in 1980 to parents of different races: her mother of Irish and German descent, and her father African-American. Her brother Josh was born three years later. Both parents worked various day jobs and kept the family fed and sheltered but could afford few frills.
A relative of Young’s mother made sure the kids were exposed to the arts.
“Our parents instilled a work ethic in us,” Josh Young says, “and our Aunt Rose, my mother’s aunt, was a big supporter of us going to plays and concerts and paid for Melisa to attend Piven Theatre workshops” in Evanston, Ill.
Melisa Young played a number of lead roles in high school musicals, and she briefly lived out her childhood dream of becoming a performer. Those plans were deferred as she studied film while attending Columbia College in Chicago.
She worked behind the scenes on a couple of Hollywood movies, doing everything from fetching coffee for Sigourney Weaver to building props. She didn’t have enough money to move to New York to find steady work, and she found the movie industry even less lucrative in Chicago. A “tedious and repetitive” stint as an assistant on an ill-fated reality TV show for $100 a day convinced her she was in the wrong business.
Meanwhile, her brother was ripping it up on the DJ and dance scene in Chicago with his friend Curt Cameruci. Their inventive mashups of hip-hop, pop, rock and electronic music brought a measure of underground fame in the duo Flosstradamus. Melisa Young started tagging along to their parties, bringing her friends to dance the night away.
“I was broke, and my brother was making money doing music, doing something fun,” Young says. “I took notice of that.”
“She was always the artist in the family,” her brother says, “whereas I was more the jock, the kid who played sports in school. She took piano lessons, she sung in the school plays, she took voice lessons, and when she was in college, she would always send me mix tapes that got me started into the style of DJ-ing I’m doing now, so for her to start writing her own songs, it wasn’t out of the blue. She always had it in her, but being around people she knew who were actually doing it made her want to take the next step.”
Melisa Young started rapping and became a regular presence at Flosstradamus shows. In 2006 she met one of her brother’s friends in the business, Alain Macklovitch, aka A-Trak, who was the DJ for rising star Kanye West. “I was working on some new sounds, moving from hip-hop productions to messing around with a lot more clubby, up-tempo tracks with synths and electronic influences,” Macklovitch says.
“She was just starting out, but that was her background: house and hip-hop. She had an understanding of new sounds bubbling up in club music that a lot of rappers were not aware of. But she also had the potential to be a real rapper, not just someone who raps over tracks just to make her friends laugh, so it was cool to test out my stuff with a new artist who didn’t have any preconceptions about what this could be. She just did it naturally.”
Macklovitch launched his record label, Fool’s Gold, with Kid Sister’s debut single, “Damn Girl.” The follow-up, “Control,” began to establish her sound and persona. In her lyrics Young used her girl-next-door upbringing as inspiration rather than mimicking the extravagant fantasies and boasts of mainstream hiphop.
“When my old friends hear my lyrics, they say, ‘Girl, that sounds just like you,’” she says. “That’s because those lyrics come from conversations I’ve had or little phrases I’d use in everyday life.”
Her 2007 breakthrough hit, the sassy, instantly catchy “Pro Nails,” was homemade too. “A-Trak made that beat in my kitchen that smelled of hot dogs when I was living with six people,” Josh Young says with a laugh.
The hot-dog-flavored beat — even Melisa Young found it “a little weird at first” — was a turning point, especially when Kanye West paid it the ultimate compliment.
“Kanye heard it on the tour bus, and he really liked that hook and the chord progression,” Macklovitch says. “He was really into the idea of the indie club scene and electronic music before anyone else in hip-hop, and he saw the potential. He’d go to my parties while we were on tour, and he’d see the kids reacting to this music, and he’d say, ‘I need in on this.’”
West added a rap verse to “Pro Nails” and participated in the low-budget video shoot. The song, launched off Young’s MySpace site, became an Internet hit, and the video aired on MTV. Pretty soon Melisa Young was fielding calls from recordlabel executives offering deals. She eventually signed with New York-based Downtown Records, home of Gnarls Barkley, Santigold and Mos Def.
An album, “Dream Date,” was pieced together for release in 2008, but Melisa Young and A-Trak, the executive producer, decided against releasing it.
“No one could agree on a single; that was a sign that it wasn’t ready,” Macklovitch says. “We started questioning how well-rounded the album was. We took out three hip-hop-sounding songs and added five that felt more like Kid Sister songs: clubby, futuristic. We wanted something more conceptual, a listening experience. The album as a way of promoting music is almost outdated, but the albums that do work in recent years are more focused and conceptual; they’re not just a collection of songs. If even Beyonce is now making concept albums, we should be at the cutting edge; we should be making the album with more of a vision, more depth.”
“I wanted to put my stamp on this movement,” she says, “one that we helped start with ‘Pro Nails.’”
That almost passes for bravado in Young’s world. For a performer who was shy about making music a couple of years ago, her determination is proof she has no doubts now.
“I’ve always been different, sometimes for good and sometimes for not so good,” she says. “You can be glittery, and you can also be a regular person. I wear sequined underwear and cover myself in glitter because it’s fun, a part of my personality. But you don’t have to be a total freak; you can be down to earth and approachable. I want to be the girl who makes it who’s not a jerk, who still goes bowling and drinks PBRs. I’ll prove it to everyone — and I’ll do it in high heels.”