MELISSA McCLELLAND with the Ladybird Sideshow and David Celia at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Friday (April 30). $10. 416-777-1777.
We're at the hipster-approved Shanghai Cowgirl diner on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and Melissa McClelland orders a grilled cheese sandwich, "with processed cheese, please." It's a totally appropriate comfort food order for a girl who's just moved back to her parents' house in the Burlington boonies and for a pop singer/songwriter with a new album called Stranded In Suburbia.
McClelland, who's lived in Toronto off and on since high school, admits the move is economically motivated but appreciates the irony of hauling ass back to her folks' basement right as she's about to launch a record about the seedy underbelly of the burbs.
"My sister and I put my parents through hell," she laughs. "We've always had a really loving, close family, but we did go a little crazy. I have hilarious memories from that time, but there were major consequences, an underlying darkness that I always felt."
Stranded In Suburbia, her debut for the upstart label Orange (home to Jim Bryson and Lindy), is packed with sparkling pop hooks that wouldn't sound out of place beside mainstream radio darlings like Michelle Branch or Vanessa Carlton.
But beneath the shiny, happy Leave It To Beaver sheen of the songs, there's a Lynchian knife edge of suicides and drug addiction, pretty white lines of powder on rec-room coffee tables, screwed-up relationships and an urgent need to be anywhere else but there, all told with a precocious, world-weary spin. One thing about McClelland - she's got a lyrical knack for detailed, unflinching portraits with an aching sense of time and place.
And although Luke Doucet's production and technically brilliant guitar riffs add a gritty edge, McClelland's working squarely within pop convention, which makes it all the more unsettlingly creepy to hear her coo so prettily about fucking without kissing and whores in the next room. That's the way she likes it.
She attributes the study in contrasts to her earliest influences.
"Take the Police. All the songs on Outlandos D'Amour are happy, but then you realize Sting's really talking about how he wants to die," insists the Suzuki-trained violinist. "When I was seven or eight, I was also really into the Beautiful South, and they have a similar mix of really pretty melodies and uncomfortable lyrics.
"Sometimes I don't know which way I'm going - on the one hand, there's the whole radio/my image/put it out on MuchMusic thing, and I can work that way. Then there's the other side."
That would be the side that appreciates the monthly bent raunch-fest rawk party Vazaleen, where McClelland triumphed last Halloween, blowing away all other costume contest competitors with her 80s white jeans/menstrual disaster ensemble. She proudly shows off photos of her white-pants-period win during our interview.
It's also the side that's fascinated by great dive bars and seedy joints, one of which is immortalized in the Stranded In Suburbia tune Glimpse Into Hell. In it, McClelland describes the Bloor and Lansdowne landmark that's half strip club, half church, where, she claims, good godly folk can catch an eyeful through a crack in the wall while they pee.
She's a fan of the sinful side.
"On the last day of recording, we went to Club Paradise, one of those dirty, dirty bars where the girls are rejects from everywhere else. We got so drunk, and one of the strippers ended up pulling me onstage to the pole and we both slid down on it, all nasty. It was insane. I even got to hang out with her in the strippers' locker room afterwards.
"It was such a perfect way to celebrate the ending of the recording session."