Rainbow Kitten Wonder and the Energy of Love

Rainbow Kitten Surprise and the Power of Love
Rainbow Kitten Surprise and the Power of Love

Rainbow Kitten Surprise are in their adopted hometown of Nashville, Zooming in from three different locations. Drummer Jess Haney is missing, but guitarist Ethan Goodpaster is present and serious, his comments measured. Guitarist Darrick “Bozzy” Keller is quiet, only speaking when directly asked a question. Ela Melo, their figurehead, chain-smokes cigarettes, leaving red lipstick marks on the filters and no doubt getting some smoke into her platinum wig. She’s guarded—and considering what she’s been through, it’s understandable that she might feel protective of herself. This doesn’t last long, as Melo slips into vulnerability, revealing painful experiences that are tough to hear. 

The North Carolina-bred Rainbow Kitten Surprise have recently released Love Hate Music Box, their first album in six years. In the time between 2018’s How to: Friend, Love, Freefall and now, Melo’s mental health struggles reached an alarming pinnacle prior to her bipolar diagnosis. In addition, Melo came out as a trans woman two years ago, just past age 30. It was quite a combination of challenges for not only Melo, but also her bandmates, to navigate.

They’ve come out the other side with Love Hate Music Box’s 22 songs, some of which came out of the high-bar exercise of writing a song a day for a year. In the producer’s seat once again was Konrad Snyder, whose studio has become home base for Rainbow Kitten Surprise. The band also enlisted Daniel Tashian (Kacey Musgraves) as producer and songwriter.

Endlessly patient and compassionate from the start, Rainbow Kitten Surprise’s fans have remained steadfast. “I’m lucky enough to get a lot of love,” acknowledges Melo. “The fans have been awesome, and my bandmates have been awesome, all of them.”

Melo, Goodpaster, and Keller are awesome in their generosity, sharing their difficult experiences with SPIN, their warm Southern accents making the intensity of their statements that much easier to hear.

Was there a difference in your writing process on Love Hate Music Box compared to previous albums?

ELA MELO: For me personally, it was a huge difference for a number of reasons. First of all, I noticed I wasn’t getting much sleep in my mid-20s. I was tossing and turning and getting up and making the best of my time. Now I know some of the contributing factors for that. I was used to writing, coming out with a record every two to three years. But I wasn’t necessarily sober. I was self-medicating with a number of substances. That was true for some of the writing process of How to: Friend, Love Freefall. There were good days and bad days. I remember Jess being like, “Can we just…cool it, like, going into this [album]? We don’t really want to play that game here.” It contributed to a different atmosphere than what we have going on now, which is a little more sober.

Every album process has been different in how we create and how we perform what’s been created. Things were a little bit different from a sobriety standpoint and from a diagnosis standpoint. I was not, at that point, diagnosed bipolar, which I have come to be. That took 31 years. There’s a lot that comes with that that’s complicated. It was obviously impacting my life, and it definitely impacted things around me. We’re a pretty chill group of people, all other things considered. I can get worked up and I can get intense, especially around music and stuff close to the heart for me.

Ela Melo of Rainbow Kitten Surprise performs during the Tiny Music Box Tour at ACL Live on May 23, 2024 in Austin. (Credit: Rick Kern/Getty Images)

ETHAN GOODPASTER: We were all raised in the South, so there’s a stigma against dealing with mental health or even acknowledging mental health in the first place. Over the course of the last 10 years, growing up and maturing and learning how to deal with mental health and take care of each other, we take the necessary time to figure stuff out if it’s necessary. We’ve all grown a lot in that aspect. This whole camp is more equipped to deal with that. When you take care of stuff like that, it shows in the product you make.

How did self-medicating affect your productivity?

Melo: I was very unproductive. When it really started peaking, I flat-out started seeing things or experiencing things that maybe weren’t there or were not connected to base reality. It was very hard to be productive. I’ll be the first to admit that there are times where I’ve written a song a day, but there’s also times when it’s taken me three months to write a song, and I’ve had 90 projects that are just nonsense. The biggest one was I’d get so hung up on things, like trying to say a certain line of a song right, that there’s nine-minute versions of me repeating almost the same words over and over again. That’s mania.

In the How to era, I can remember nights that I stayed up all night writing that record. That was significant. Post that, I couldn’t count how many nights I stayed up all night. It got bad enough to where it was days without sleep. I would just expect that I would be able to fall asleep every couple of days. I try to stay productive because if I’m not productive during these times, then I’m just spinning internally because the rest won’t come. Then started getting on sleeping meds to deal with that. But it’s almost like a false rest if your mind is still not ready to shut down. I came on and off of those for years because I didn’t really like how they made me feel. Ultimately, I opted back to sleeping-every-couple-of-days things. The other thing, I didn’t like it. It made me a different person.

(Credit: Jimmy Fontaine)

What was it like for you, Ethan and Bozzy, both as friends of Ela’s and also as bandmates whose livelihood is tied up with her well-being?

DARRICK “BOZZY” KELLER: Like Ela was talking about, there’s an inclination with self-medication. In the moment, we were all just trying to handle things and keep it together. That can sometimes work for a long time even, but after a while, cracks start to form. Like Ethan said, once we realized that was what we needed, getting on a recovery plan and sticking to it and spending that time, I feel like we’re a totally new band now.

Goodpaster: It was tough watching your friend, your co-worker, someone you love to create with and spend time with, have a hard time and really struggle. You just got to try to be as supportive as you can. We definitely reached points where we were like, “Okay, well, maybe, maybe the band won’t be a thing anymore,” but I don’t think any of us really ever gave up. With a lot of hard work from everybody, we were able to make it through that toughest chapter. Mental health isn’t really something you ever could just fix. It’s something that you have to always be working on. But as of now, it feels like we’ve gone to a really good place to be able to continue doing this.

Once you got over the most difficult parts, was the creativity just flowing, or was it not as simple as that?

Melo: The creativity was flowing even before things really hit rock-bottom, which was confusing because it felt validating to the self-medication aspect. It was like, “Oh, we just need more of this, and we’re good. That was the problem this whole time.” But no, it wasn’t. I find, to a certain degree, it’s the timing of everything. Sometimes you just got to wait for rain, and it’s just going to rain when it’s going to rain.

As far as how easy it got, it got way easier after the diagnosis and medication and treatment. That’s where that whole song-a-day thing comes from. I didn’t do that necessarily for a whole year. For at least two months, I would try and do it every day. Some days it was on. Some days it wasn’t. But the general mantra is: This is a fun way for me to start my day, see if I can do this. And then every Saturday, I would go into the studio, because we were still working on Love Hate Music Box, and try to lay down either something that I’ve been working on or something that came fresh. We got several songs off this record from that process. But I was still actively in treatment at the time. It definitely got a lot more simple to do it after I got medicated for bipolar for a number of reasons. I don’t know exactly the ways my brain works, but it was helpful.

Do you feel not living your truth contributed to your challenges?

Melo: Yeah. It took me 30 years to come to terms with it and understand what was going on. A lot of things did clear up in my life. I like to say, my life before transition and post transition is like black and white versus not just in color, but HD. Everything is high-resolution. The way I feel, the way I connect, the way I love, the way I show up for people, everything is better. It’s more real. Everything before that doesn’t feel so real, especially in the way I connect with folks. Then you add on the music making side of it, I may not be as sad or torn up about it as much anymore, but with the transition that’s something I’ve adopted in my life as well. If I’m confronted by something I don’t understand or can’t get down with, it’s just like, “Okay, whatever.”

Everybody’s got their own journey and their own perspectives. As much as some of those might not be great for me and my identity, I’m very grateful to not require the validation of everything and everyone around me. There’s a certain point in transitioning where you really want it. Maybe it’s offensive to say you grow out of it. You just got to be tough as nails, man—you really do, to keep your head on your shoulders and your soul intact. I think about it as me plus everybody who is down with my identity versus the world.

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