The Return of June Divided.
Melissa Menago appears so sweet and tiny, standing on the wide stage in a black dress with her faded fuchsia-colored hair.
There is a drum set behind her and a keyboard to her right, as well as several microphone stands and loads of other gear ready for the evening’s headliner who will follow her performance. But she’s alone up there right now, demurely smiling while holding her little ukulele.
“Are any of you in love?” she asks the crowd of a few hundred people gathered in this secluded dell in suburban New Jersey. “Are you here with your loved ones? Some of us hate you.”
There is an uncertainty to the laughter that momentarily ensues.
“I don’t write happy songs,” Menago continues. “This next one is for anyone who has ever had their heart broken.”
And she breaks into a new song, “Eye to Eye,” which she has slated for a solo album in the future.
“I wanna love you, wanna hate you, I want everything you are,” she croons in a tone that would strike fear into a romantic partner who feels guilty about, well, anything. “And what you are is gasoline when it hits a spark.”
As her strumming stops, her passionate performance is rewarded by a burst of applause.
Again, Menago appears small, her head tilted down as she furtively peers up into the crowd. She allows a brief but brilliant smile, and then she plays one last song – a hauntingly slowed-down version of the Kenny Loggins classic “Danger Zone.”
It’s strange to see her on stage alone and so calm.
For the past five years or so, Menago has been the front person for the pop rock/alternative band June Divided, for whom she bounces all over the stage, leaps off drums and generally excites the crowd with her energetic stage presence.
They had massive success as soon as the band began releasing music. They performed on the Warped Tour in 2012 and toured extensively on their own afterward. In 2014, they opened for Rise Against in Milwaukee, playing in front of a crowd of 11,000 people.
“We got thrust into it,” Menago says of the band’s early experiences, “and we didn’t really have a lot of time to ask ourselves, ‘What do we want to be as artists?’”
So the bandmates, – including Chris Kissel on guitar, Lenny Sasso on bass and Keith Gill on drums – decided to take some time to slow down and craft new material. They wrote an album’s worth of music and then scrapped it and started all over again. The time away from the stage allowed their style to grow from that alt rock sound into a more mature, Mutemath-inspired, indie rock kind of sound.
“We could lose fans by making music that wasn’t up to our standards or we could lose fans by not putting out new stuff all the time,” says Kissel, who launched the band with Menago while they were both students in the Music Industry Program at Drexel University. “We decided to slow down and make the music we wanted to make.”
It’s been four years since June Divided’s last album dropped and the band hasn’t had a big Philly show since 2013.
“We kind of took our sweet time,” Menago says with a laugh.
They began recording their third album about one year ago but the process has been long and tortured. They wrapped up recording in February and they’ve been waiting for the process to finish ever since. They expect to release the six-song EP (with a bonus hidden track on the CD) in October.
“Melissa writes so many songs and some don’t fit June Divided,” says Kissel. “It’s cool she has another outlet for them.”
The 12-track ukulele album, little crimes, drops in July. Kissel and Gill will take the stage with her for the release show at World Café Live.
“I’m really happy they’ll be with me,” Menago says. “I get lonely on stage by myself.”
“It’s still kind of a June Divided show,” Gill says.
After her solo performance in New Jersey, Menago finds all of her bandmates – including their former bass player, Rich Mancinelli, who have been sitting in the audience, listening with delight.
Menago seems spent but she lights up when she catches up with her colleagues. After a moment of congratulations, the evening’s headliner, Vacationer, takes the stage and the June Divided crew sits down together and starts swaying to the chillwave coming from the stage.
Even after their heavy touring ceased at the end of 2014, the June Divided crew continued spending several days per week together – writing, experimenting, recording, drinking, laughing and supporting one another.
“After a few years of making music,” Kissel says, “and a few years of not making music, we’re all still actually friends.”
While they’ve all settled into jobs, they remain flexible and ready to hit the road if needed. Menago teaches music and does voiceover work. Kissel works at an audio/visual firm. Gill is a plumber in the family business. Sasso does lighting at Union Transfer and the TLA, among other venues. Last year, he spent more than four months on the road doing lighting for Atreyu, a metal band from California.
“I spend almost every day of my life in a music venue,” says Sasso, who also serves as the manager for June Divided.
The time away from tour vans has done them good, Menago believes.
“Had we not taken time for ourselves, we probably wouldn’t be a band right now,” she says. “We would have cracked.”
Vacationer closes out the night and the audience disperses. The June Divided bandmates wander over to the merch table where Menago has CDs and tickets to her release show. A few new fans come over to say hello but it’s really just the four bandmates – and Mancinelli – standing around, joking with one another.
After Gill, whose handiwork goes beyond plumbing, shows off pictures of his new drum kit with copper accenting, he says, “Now I just need copper drumsticks with lights.”
“If anybody could make them, it’d be you,” says Mancinelli, who booked tonight’s show.
Inevitably, the conversation turns to their new music – or more precisely, the lack thereof.
“Somebody just asked me is June Divided was done,” Mancinelli says.
“I can’t wait for this album to finally come out,” Menago says, followed by a frustrated grunt. “I’ll be so happy.”