Ela Melo talks Rainbow Kitten Surprise’s new era, comeback album: ‘I was a tortured soul before being openly trans’

Published On June 18, 2024 » By »



North Carolina indie-pop band Rainbow Kitten Surprise have not released a full album since 2018’s How To: Friend, Love, Freefall, and in the years since, lead singer Ela Melo has experienced some major life changes, revealing that she is trans and finally receiving a proper diagnosis and treatment for bipolar disorder. And she and her supportive bandmates have come out on the other side with a total triumph of an album that’s been well worth the wait: the 22-track, double-disc opus Love Hate Music Box.

In her interview about the record’s sometimes fraught but ultimately fulfilling creative process, Melo is as bold, fearless, and fascinating as she is onstage and on record — opening up about transitioning, treatment, sobriety, writer’s block, gender roles, people-pleasing, Taylor Swift, surprising her fellow patients with some RKS karaoke, and what’s next for RKS in their own new era. She is a true  “Superstar,” as the band’s latest single declares.

I’m excited to speak with you, because it’s been a minute since Rainbow Kitten Surprise released a record. And there’s obviously a lot to unpack. Much has happened in the world and in your life since the last album came out, and Love Hate Music Box seems to mark a new era for the group. Do you agree?

I do feel that way. … I definitely was trying to write this record for a long time, and it just over the last two years bubbled into reality.

I understand you were suffering from writer’s block for a while, and that some of the stuff that’s on this album is stuff was stored away in a drive and you un-archived it. I’m curious about that whole process.

Yeah, there’s songs on there that date back to 2018, just little acoustic kind of ditties. We are doing this thing now where we’re going through demos and plan to release them, to give some context to the album. … I just actually had a meeting yesterday where we were going through and looking at all of those archives and stuff. It came in waves, as writing often does for me. It came in 20 different iterations of this stuff, and now it’s here and it’s awesome to have it out of out of my system, or something.

“Out of your system” is an interesting way to word it. What was causing your writer’s block, and what unblocked it?

Well, it’s not that I couldn’t write, it’s that I couldn’t write coherently. I couldn’t finish a song. This kind of delves into something that we’ll probably get to a little bit later, but it was just like, yeah, I couldn’t finish. I would have tracks where I would just repeat the same chorus or the same verse over and over, just trying to get the phrasing and trying to get the tone and the right words. … It was kind of an obsessive cycle of, “No, that’s not quite it, that’s not quite it.” I couldn’t just finish a freakin’ song! It wasn’t that nothing was coming out, it was just that I felt self-conscious, or I felt just like it wasn’t quite good enough or it wasn’t right — for so long.

Was that unusual for you?

I mean, I definitely do kind of obsess over what the right words are to start a song and then what the right words are for the chorus and each part of it, but normally I would’ve just been like, “OK, that’s good enough for now.” But there was a certain part of me that was driving me to be like, “That’s not good enough,” and that’s where I got hung up.

You came out as trans in 2021, relatively recently, and you were also dealing with some mental health issues and getting a proper diagnosis for that. It sounds like maybe you’re in a freer place now where it’s easier to write and create.

So, the journey of writing to where things were coming out coherently is a couple of things. It really started in 2022, when we started digging into this record with Daniel Tashian and Konrad Snyder, and Daniel was super-helpful in the getting me back into [mindset] of like, “Nah, dude, just write the song. … It’s not as complicated as you’re making it.” … But there was a lot of also getting my system regulated for the rest of it to be able to come out. I had a little writer’s spurt or growth happen in January 2022 and stuff came out and we got about eight tracks off of the record in that time, but then things really kind of fell apart that year. And so, I had to go on this whole wellness journey so that I could come back and do it for real again.

What did that wellness journey entail?

Treatment, frankly. A lot of therapy, a lot of life coaching, just a lot of resources — an “all hands on deck” kind of thing. We tried to do a show in May [2023] in Orlando and I had a total mental breakdown. I mean, we call it psychosis, when you’re seeing things. And I was actively seeing things that weren’t there. This was during soundcheck before the show, and I asked my stage manager, I was like, “OK, I have this little screen on this keyboard and all the things are moving and changing colors. Is that actually for real?” And he’s like, “No.” I was like, “Um, we got a problem.” It continued to spiral throughout the day. And I was just like, “I can’t do this show.” I mean, I wasn’t actually even in a position to say, “I can’t do it.” I was melted. I was crying and just being like, “I can’t trust anything. I can’t trust my reality. Things are happening that aren’t.” That was when we really pulled the plug on stuff and it’s like, “This person needs help. This person needs stuff to get them right and regulated and ready to go. We cannot continue like this.” Which is a fair assessment. And my band really was the one that made that call.

It sounds like they were supportive and had your back.

Well, when you see somebody like that, that’s struggling to manage reality in such a way, I mean, yeah — they were very concerned and just like, “We can’t put any additional pressure on this person to continue to perform or do anything until this gets resolved.” It was a scary thing. Scary for everybody.

I’m getting the impression that it took a while for you to get a proper diagnosis. It probably felt like a puzzle piece falling into place once that happened.

It did. I just thought, “Hey, I’m just going to have to live my life like this. I guess this is my normal.” Because my symptoms for the bipolar and stuff didn’t really kick in until I was 29 or 30. It was like post-pandemic, really. Right at the end of 2020 is when things started to get kind of crazy for me. This May show in Orlando and what happened there is why I got a diagnosis in the first place. I think people suspected that there was [something wrong], but they didn’t have proof for sure. And I kind of downplayed my symptoms. … So, it was just kind like, “I guess this is my life.” But it was that Orlando show — that’s when I was full-on psychosis and actively seeing things, believing in false realities or thinking that things were trying to communicate with me, aliens or spirits or whatever. Which, by the way, I’m not going to say that stuff isn’t true for those people who experience that, but there’s a limit, there’s a line. I’m very open to spiritual realities, but when they start controlling your life versus what the rest of reality is, then you might have a problem or things can get hairy. I ended up in what I call a “grippy-socks” facility, the kind where they cut the cords on your pants and take off all your shoelaces and don’t give you anything that you have to shave with, somebody watching you, that kind of thing — an impatient facility. And that’s where I got diagnosed and treated. And the doctor, Dr. Chen, he gets a shout-out. He was just like, “Yeah, I saw you and I diagnosed you in 30 seconds. I knew what was going on.”

What happened next?

Then they put me on meds for it. … They had me on meds for two days and I was like, “Do not take me off of this. This is so much easier. This is making life so much simpler for me.” And that’s where [the album] kicked into gear. That’s where we started. It was like, “Heck yeah, let’s go!” We got me on this right cocktail and then I came out of that facility after, I don’t know, I was probably in there for somewhere in between 11 to 14 days. They just let me simmer a little bit on that stuff and saw how much better I was getting. Everybody saw it. By the time when I was getting ready to leave, I was helping, even talking [other patients] through it.

It’s amazing that you were finally diagnosed, but also that the change was so immediate.

Yeah, and that’s not everybody’s story. I wish it was. I wish meds were that simple or diagnosis was that simple for everybody. But for me, it just worked like a charm. And I’m just so grateful, every day in my life, for that.



There’s an ongoing belief that artists make their best art when they’re depressed or in a dark place, or that drug experimentation or even mental illness can lead to great art. I would love your thoughts on that. I think that’s actually a fallacy.

“Self-medicate” I think is a good term for that, because for me, and I assume especially for artists, people with mental health struggles are numbing something. Frankly, I can’t speak to whether or not it creates art, but I can tell you that I was self-medicating in 2022, in January, during that first wave of eight songs or whatever. I was self-medicating and I was convinced at the time, when I started delving into things that I hadn’t delved into in a long time: “Oh, this is helping!” It coincided with all this [music] coming out, so I was like, “Look at this. Can you argue that this is helping?” My producer was honestly like, “Ela is coming out with this shit, but also she’s getting less and less productive.” … He’s like, “Hey, I’m noticing that this is escalating. I’m hearing it in your voice. Quit playing with [drugs]. … It’s making you not as good.” And I’m like, “But I need it, though! It’s clear that I need it, because nothing had come out for years before this, and now we’re making tracks that we love!” He was on his own kind of sober journey, and it got to the point where he was ready to quit the project because of it. He’s like, “I love doing this and I love what we’re getting, but I don’t know if I can stay around this anymore.” And those were the last sessions we had for almost until August or something, because then all the treatment stuff happened, when things fell apart in Orlando. So, whether or not it creates art, do I believe that drugs or mental illness is responsible for the creation of anything that you or I or anybody else loves to listen to and experience? No. Hell no. Absolutely not.

I hear a lot of lightness and joy on Love Hate Music Box as well as darkness.

Oh, I can write the darkness. I was just trying to write the light. … There’s still darkness, honey. We all experience that. We all feel that. … But I don’t know, I don’t want to dig there anymore. If it comes out naturally, then that’s fine. But I just know whatever the price is that you pay to get that kind of material, it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it. Way too many people have died at 27. We should know better. It’s not worth it. I feel like I can still go to those places, but they don’t haunt me. They don’t hurt me. They used to. But that being said, I don’t judge anybody who self-medicates, for real. If you are doing that, then there’s pain that’s unaddressed, and that’s unavoidable. That’s just you figuring out how to make it, day to day. Even when people throw around the word “addict” or “addiction” or whatever, I’m just like, “They’re trying to numb something.” I just have so much compassion for that. But do I believe it makes you a better artist? I don’t.

As I mentioned, you also came out as trans since the last album. I actually read that you were concerned that transitioning would maybe change your singing voice.

So, HRT estrogen does not affect the voice. Testosterone does — it lowers it, and for a while you kind of go through that puberty thing of it cracking. But estrogen does not. And the only thing that would affect my voice would be surgery. There’s surgery to make your voice a higher register and sound more like feminine, but I always knew that that was probably off the table for me, because it would literally mean that there would be certain songs in the RKS catalog that I couldn’t sing anymore. Plus, there’s just the riskiness of the procedure. …  When I became open about being trans — and I like that [wording] a little bit better than “came out,” by the way.

Oh, I’m sorry.

No, it’s the same thing. It’s just like, I have been a trans woman my whole life, and then I figured out how to express that. You know what I’m saying? … We’re always trying to figure out better ways to say things. … It’s just a good way to talk about stuff. It can be a delicate thing, especially for some folks. It’s like, the more years you spend out in the open, the more I feel like you get hardened to certain things. I wish it didn’t have to be that way. You always need support, and you always need people to affirm that. And you may or may not get that. I wish everybody got as much love and support as I have gotten, because it just makes me feel so good. It’s just cool. But, yeah… I feel like that was a tangent, and now I have no idea what we were talking about. [laughs]

It’s OK — it was a good tangent! We were discussing your voice…

Oh yeah. I did an interview on NPR and [the interviewer] was like, “I hear you kind of playing around with different parts of your register, almost like you’re trying to push the limits of what you can do and trying to find what your voice is now, being an openly trans person.” And I was like, “That is exactly it.” When I first got out in the open, with my voice, there’s a part of me that hates hearing it. And then there’s the part of me that loves my voice and is very happy that it is mine. And the more I’ve gone on, the more kind of comfortable I become with it. Sometimes when it comes on a record or over the speakers on a demo, I’m just like, “Whoa, who’s that?” Because in my head, it’s different. But I can dig it. I can get down with this lower thing.

How else did your experience transitioning affect the new music’s creation?

As far as transness and the record and the writing, I do think I was a tortured soul before being openly trans. There’s a lot of things, from sexuality to how I present to all of this stuff, that was almost like I was people-pleasing before. And I think I was doing that to some degree in the music and with my voice, I was like, “Ooh, they want to hear this baritone.” Which I’m not — I’m a tenor — but I do have a couple of notes down there. “They want to hear this. They want to hear this more masc thing.” And now I don’t really care. How I want to sing is how I’m going to sing. I’m not people-pleasing anymore in my music, and I try not to in my life. That can get a little toxic, especially if that’s not what you really want to be doing. It was like some childhood thing has you put in this position and now you want to make other people happy instead of making yourself happy first. Not that there’s anything bad about making people happy, but as long as that’s making you happy too.

You mentioned that your fans’ reaction to your transition has been very positive. That seems to be the case with your bandmates as well. Was there any band discussion about how the news was going to be announced? And how did you tell them?

I was open with them about it. I guess in 2021, we got together to do the recording sessions and I basically walked in. I had some makeup on and I was dressed more femme and stuff, and I was just like, “Hey guys, I’m Ela now.” And they were like, “Ela. Cool. What are we doing today?” It was cool. No problem.

Were they surprised? It sounds so nonchalant that maybe they already knew…

It was so nonchalant! [laughs] It’s like when I came out at what I thought was gay at the time [in 2018], they were very nonchalant with that as well. But I was kind of nervous [to tell them I am trans] and they’re just like, “That’s great. So happy for you. All right, so what are we working on?” And that’s kind of the reaction the fans gave as well. It was just like, “Oh, cool. Awesome. We love that you’re happy.” And so, with the Instagram [announcement in 2022], the reason we waited to do it at all was so that I could get some stuff sorted personally with hair and stuff, and just make sure that I was looking how I would want to look in the public eye. My management team was very sensitive to that. They’re like, “Hey, let’s make sure you are good to go with this before we share this, and let’s do a photo shoot just to make sure you look good and everybody looks good for this. Let’s just make sure that this is how you want it to be.”

I think a lot of fans, maybe in hindsight, watch the video Rainbow Kitten Surprise did in 2018 for “Hide,” chronicling the lives of drag queens and queer people in the South, as maybe hinting about your gender identity, dropping clues about your own story.

I mean, I feel like I’ve been dropping little hints my whole life! Like, when I was in college, I had an “Appalachian Mom” shirt, if that tells you anything. The guys got it for me for my birthday. And I liked being called “Mom” with a big ol’ beard and all of that! It really made me happy. And I liked cooking… not that that has anything to do with being a woman, I know plenty of women and men who cook, but at the time for me, the joy of cooking, I think that came from my mother. … Now, when I was first becoming open, if I’m honest, the idea of a man holding the door for me, just because he perceives me presenting as a woman or as femme, was hot to me. There are moments where I’m just kind like, “Oh, that does feel nice.” Almost like the old-school thing. I know we’re moving away from all that stuff, but there’s still some 1950s in me — and 1950s for me would have been a fucking nightmare! [laughs]

There are some people who want to go back to the ‘50s — in all the bad ways.

Well, we won’t even talk about them, because times are changing! And if you think that they’re not, wait. Just you watch.

I’d love to ask you about the song on the album “Best Man,” because I understand that Taylor Swift’s “The Man” partially inspired it.

I went and saw her on the Eras tour in May. … I just loved it, but I don’t know, I just found myself thinking, “I don’t know if I get to take part in this.” I’m going to be honest with you. Because there was a time when people would’ve called me “the man.” And I hope they never do again! But that being said, I resonate with [Swift’s] attitude of like, “Yeah, I’m out here. I’m doing it despite folks who might want to break me down.” I just found it inspiring. The idea of it, it’s just words that sounded good and came out: “You better put your best man on it.” I feel like, “You better put Taylor on it.” I might as well have said that! You better put the man on it, and right now, Taylor is the man. No one could question that.

It’s interesting that you say there was a time when you would’ve been called “the man,” because you presented to people who didn’t know any better as a straight white male…

Well, “white” is up for debate. But yeah, I hear you. … Not to make it about complexion or anything, but when you said, “This is how you would be perceived,” I’m like, “Well, not everybody perceives me that way.” I am mixed. I am Latina. But also, I do hear you that there are some people who miss that part, and I don’t think that that’s a huge deal or anything. For the record, my dad’s Dominican. … Some people see it immediately. “They’re like, ‘Oh, shit, are you Latina?’ It’s just the amount of times in my life that I’m tried to pass as white, and people will be like, “Where are you really from? No, I mean before that.” In rural America, honey, I’m probably not white. And then about being perceived, that’s a whole other thing. I just get these waves of, I’m just trying to be totally honest and transparent, but I just have this image of me with my shirt off with a beard, and I’m just like, ‘Holy…’ Until this moment, maybe, I didn’t know how hard that was.

Oh, wow. I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t upset you.

No, no. If you’re not making me dig, then you’re not doing your job! And that’s how I feel. I just want to give you the truth of what I’m feeling and thinking in the moment, how I believe people ought to communicate. And there’s room for tact and room for figuring out how you want to say something, but I still think you should say it. I don’t even remember your question exactly, but I remember it was just like, “This is how you would’ve been perceived,” and I’m just so grateful that I’m not perceived that way [anymore].

Does it bother you that photos and videos of the band before you were open are out there in the universe? Obviously there’s a big digital footprint of your old life.

I don’t see it very much though, to be honest. Maybe it’s just because I don’t go and look up those videos or stuff. It was interesting. I was just — to be frank — in treatment, and there’s not a whole lot to do in treatment. There’s a couple TVs around and everybody passes around the remote and usually just plays YouTube videos or music, and that’s just kind of how you pass the time. And I was in treatment and people were playing Rainbow Kitten Surprise, and nobody recognized me! I think I was in there for a week and nobody put two and two together. But it finally came out. I’m like, “I’m about to drop a bomb!” So, they’re playing it, and I’m like, “Y’all know this is my band, right?” And they’re just like, “Wait, what?” I’m just like, “That’s me!” And they’re like, “Whoa.” And so, it takes about a day and it spreads through the whole facility. And I ended up at some point singing karaoke to my own music for these people.

That’s awesome!

Right? That’s amazing. This is wild.

It seems like you’re in a really good place now — professionally, artistically, and personally. What’s next in this journey for you and the band?

For me, as soon as I finish a record, as soon as it hits the public ear, I’m on to the next thing that I’m writing. So right now, we’re trying to get a spot together where we can all write together and have everything set up and ready to go to when the inspiration hits. We haven’t had that in years, like a collective house. Basically, we’re going to keep making music. We’re going to keep playing music. I mean, what else do you do? We’re a band.

So, it’s not going to be another six years before we get a full album? 

I certainly hope not. But if it takes six years, I promise it’ll be worth it.

This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity. Watch Ela Melo’s full conversation in the split-screen video above.

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