This time last year, Mel C was bouncing around the UK’s football stadiums, bringing the Spice Girls back to life for a celebratory run through their biggest hits and craziest outfits.
Then, as soon as she stepped off the stage with Geri, Emma and Mel B at Wembley, she jetted off on a global tour of Pride events with LGBTQ collective Sink The Pink.
And once that wrapped up, she went straight into the studio to work on her eighth solo album, and kept going until lockdown hit.
“If you compare my 2019 to my 2020, you couldn’t get more different,” she says.
“You know, I was travelling all over the world, I was playing stadiums with the Spice Girls, and now I’m barely ever out of my pyjamas.”
Today isn’t one of those days. The singer joins us from her home in Hampstead, North London, surrounded by scatter cushions, hair scraped back to reveal her earbuds, and wearing a chic, marble-effect t-shirt.
“It’s another day in Zoom-land,” she sighs. “Oh my God, I’m so over it.”
Her Zoom ID, incidentally, isn’t Sporty Spice or Mel C or Melanie Jayne Chisholm. It isn’t even Melanie C, as she styles herself these days. Instead she’s stuck with Scarlett, her 11-year-old daughter’s name.
“Agh! I have to change it back every time I do something,” she laughs. “I don’t know how you get it to stick.”
Like many families, they’ve struggled with home school during the quarantine. Chisholm confesses they’ve managed “the bare minimum”.
“I hate it,” she says. “My little girl’s pretty smart but she just can’t be bothered.
“And you know, someone said quite early on in this whole thing: ‘Think about how difficult it is, as an adult to motivate yourself at home – so imagine being a kid.’
“After that I thought, ‘OK, that’s good. As long as she’s doing something, it’s better than nothing.'”
It was only when school resumed on a limited basis at the end of June that Chisholm fully understood how lockdown had affected her daughter.
“She got so moody and uninspired. It was hard even to motivate her to go and have a walk, which is so out of character,” she says.
“When they had the opportunity to go back… having a routine, socialising with her friends, I got my little girl back.”
‘Plain one at the back’
It might seem like a trite comparison, but rediscovering yourself after a period in the emotional wilderness is the theme of Chisholm’s new album.
The 46-year-old has always sung about her issues with self-acceptance, from the title track of her 1999 solo debut Northern Star to her 2017 album Version Of Me. This time, though, there’s a newfound strength and resolve.
“When I look in the mirror, I finally like who I see,” she declares on the opening track, Who I Am. Over the next 35 minutes, she sings about letting go of old hang-ups, having nothing left to hide and refusing to conform to expectations. “I don’t want to be your acceptable version of me,” goes the refrain of roller-disco jam Overload.
Her struggles with depression and eating disorders are well-documented. They began in the midst of the Spice Girls’ mind-boggling run of chart and media dominance in the late 90s. The band sold 31 million records, scored nine number one singles and upended music industry conventions about the viability of girl bands.
Liverpool-born Chisholm was the best dancer and strongest singer, but she was caricatured in the tabloid press as “the plain one at the back, who doesn’t really do much”.
She didn’t recognise the person who was being portrayed in the media, amplifying her feelings of inadequacy.
“Because I had this tomboy image and I loved my football, people thought I was a bit mouthy, a bit loud, part of that ladette culture.
“And, you know, I’m really quite quiet, and I’m really gentle. That was hard for me for a few years. I found it really confusing.”
Her road to recovery began with therapy for clinical depression in the early 2000s. The arrival of her daughter in 2009 also marked a turning point.
“Being a mum was so liberating because for the first time in my adult life, it wasn’t all about me,” she says. “It made me not only realise I had a huge responsibility to her but I have a huge responsibility to myself. In being her teacher, I had to treat myself better.”
But the care-free positivity of the new album can really be attributed to re-connecting with the Spice Girls last year. Although the band had reunited before, in 2007, Chisholm had to be convinced to do it. This time around, everything felt different.
“Being on stage with the girls made me feel so buoyant and so positive. We didn’t really get the whole legacy and the impact until last year.
“And then doing Pride all over the world, it was such a joyous year of finding the self-acceptance I’d always been searching for.
“I spent many years having so much regret about the personal issues I had with depression and eating disorders and I just thought, do you know what? Rather than being ashamed of that time and seeing it as a failure, I think it’s time say: ‘I was there and I got myself through it and here I am to tell the tale’.”
Chisholm’s new-found confidence also rekindled her ambition. She says she’s been inspired to “go bigger” with this album, embracing the pop sensibility that she’d been “a little bit embarrassed” about in her 20s and 30s.
“Working with the girls last year reminded me of this whole world,” she says. “We were so fortunate to have this international appeal and I’d love to tour all those places again.”
She’s chosen her collaborators carefully, working predominantly with female artists on the cool, credible fringes of British pop – the likes of Shura, Rae Morris and grime star Nadia Rose.
All of them are young enough to have been first-wave Spice Girls fans, which caused a few awkward moments in the studio.
“There was quite a lot of, ‘Let me just get my fangirling out of the way and then we can get down to business,'” the singer smiles, stressing that she gets “nervous all the time,” too.
Working with Rose was a highlight. They hooked up after one of Chisholm’s DJ sets and came up with the concept for their duet, Fearless, on a car journey.
“We started talking about being a woman in the music industry, pursuing your dreams, and how petrifying so many things are, whether it’s turning up to somebody’s house you’ve never met to do a writing session, or going out on stage in front of thousands of people.
“And I said, ‘You know, you have to be fearless,’ and we just felt like that was such a beautiful thing – to try and empower [our fans] to do, because we’d both found the strength to be fearless at times.”
For her part, Rose can’t quite believe the song exists.
“As a massive Spice Girls fan, like a huge Spice Girls fan, that will never actually register as real to me,” she says, “as much as it has happened, and it is real.”
“But it was an incredible experience and she is so cool.”
Another Spice Girls tour?
Release plans for the album were thrown off-course by the lockdown – but Chisholm announced the record’s completion last week with the release of In And Out Of Love, a lightwave beam of pure disco.
The video was shot in a deserted Alexandra Palace three weeks ago, with the star sharing a socially-distanced dancefloor with some of the crew from the Spice Girls tour.
It was a relief, she says, to be doing something outside the house.
“I hate videos sometimes. They’re so bloody boring and exhausting. But this one was quite magical, I think maybe because it wasn’t in my living room on Zoom.”
Attentive listeners will hear nods to Rozalla’s 90s dance classic Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good) as well as Dua Lipa’s retro-pop anthem Don’t Start Now – but Chisholm knows it’ll be hard to compete in the current pop landscape.
“Obviously, I’m making a pop-dance record and I’m a mature artist, so I have to accept that some radio stations are not going to be playing me anymore. That’s something to overcome.
“But I want people to enjoy this album, I want people to dance to it, I want people to be empowered by it. And when coronavirus has finally done one, I want to get out there and perform it live.”
She’s also open to another Spice Girls tour, saying the band are “talking about it constantly”, although fans shouldn’t hold their breath.
“Trust me, it’s a miracle we ever do anything, because we’re impossible,” she says, “but when we do, it’s like the stars align and magic happens”.
There are good reasons to put the band back together, too. Not least because Five became Four for last year’s shows.
“Not having Victoria on stage last year, you know, it was bittersweet,” she says. “The shows were phenomenal but there was someone missing.”
Besides, the band realised too late they should have filmed the 2019 tour for posterity.
“We shied away from having a DVD, because people came from all over the world and they saved and they spent all this money to see us, so there’s part of you that wants it to be a unique experience, this magical moment in time.
“But so many people have been upset about it – and we are too, actually, because it’d be lovely just to look back and enjoy it all over again.
“So hopefully, if we get our act together, we’ll make another time to get up there and get it recorded properly.”
Melanie C’s self-titled album is out on 2 October.