Rainbow Kitten Surprise: Through the Ringer and Then Reborn

We caught up with the Carolina rock ensemble’s bandleader Ela Melo about working with Kacey Musgraves, how a bipolar diagnosis saved her life, and the band’s new comeback album, Love Hate Music Box.

Music Features Rainbow Kitten Surprise
Rainbow Kitten Surprise: Through the Ringer and Then Reborn

Rainbow Kitten Surprise have been making music for over a decade. Ela Melo and Darrick Keller began writing music together at Appalachian State University, forming the band shortly after with Ethan Goodpaster, Jess Haney and now-departed band member Charlie Holt. In those 10 years, they have been through the wringer—faced with near-breakups, mental health crises and a slew of creative differences. Through all those challenges, though, they still managed to release three great albums—especially 2018’s How To: Friend, Love, Freefall—and grow from their adversity. Now, after frontwoman Ela Melo took time away from the band to work through her mental health issues and figure out how to create again in a way that feels authentic to her, Rainbow Kitten Surprise has been resurrected from their potential demise on Love Hate Music Box.

This new era of Rainbow Kitten Surprise is all about rebirth. One of the first new experiences the band delved into was featuring another artist on a track—over a decade in, the alt-rockers have stayed insular in their work until a chance run-in with Kacey Musgraves. When they bumped into each other, Melo was headed to the studio to work with Love Hate Music Box producers Daniel Tashian and Konrad Snyder, and she was in awe that Musgraves even knew who she was. Musgraves suggested that the pair collaborate in the future, little did Melo know that the future would come so quickly and that they would share vocal duties with the Grammy-winning country star.

“A few months after we met, and while we were deep into the recording process, I reached out, and she had an opening to lay down the verse,” Melo explains, recalling her conversation with Musgraves about “Overtime.” “I would have loved to have gotten her as a songwriter on the track, but the timeline was too tight. She changed part of the verse because I sent her what I recorded, and she thought I said ‘light rock.’ She said, ‘I didn’t know what you were saying; I just sang it. If I hadn’t met her, I wouldn’t have included a feature on this album. It’s kind of serendipitous.”

After taking time away from her band following a challenging tour in early 2023 that significantly strained Melo’s mental health, the whole ensemble returned with, “LOL”—the first single off Love Hate Music Box, which brought on mixed reactions from longtime fans who were initially critical of the band’s new, synthy direction that combines the guitar-centric melodies of their past work with a brighter, poppier tone. “I thought ‘LOL’ would be the song that bridged the gap,” Melo explains about using the track as their comeback song. “It’s one of the chronologically older ideas on the record, so I decided to start with some of the earlier stuff. The ‘Hello operator’ bit is from 2018. Although it has taken various forms before its final shape, it is still from the era people are clamoring for. There’s more shock around that song and the sound than I had anticipated.”

The irony in the adverse reactions is that Rainbow Kitten Surprise have continuously operated in a genre-bending sphere, so an evolution in sound—especially since it has been six years since their last full-length album—seems like a natural progression. “I wasn’t nervous about dropping singles until we dropped the first one. And then it was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, are we going to get a reaction every time?’” Melo recalls. “I mean, that’s what you want. I always say people have opinions about the music. If people don’t have strong opinions about it, then it’s not unique enough. I would hate it if people said nothing, so I guess this is better. We just had our nose to the grindstone, so to speak, doing our thing. It’s bad to say that it goes unnoticed because it doesn’t, but I try to focus on things I can control and not worry so much about what I can’t.”

Throwing a little dirt the band’s way isn’t going to phase Melo after the journey she took to get control of her mental health. In May 2023, she fully stepped away from the band following on-stage episodes and tour cancellations—soon entering intensive treatment and receiving a proper diagnosis of bipolar disorder. “Getting on bipolar meds changed my life,” Melo explains. During treatment, the only time she had to herself was in the mornings, and she took that time to write. “I’d wake up at three, four o’clock in the morning and just try to get a song nailed down. Throughout my time in treatment, I wrote about 60 projects. I would just write every day, and a couple of those became songs on this record,” she continues. “There wasn’t much communication between me and the band. People would check on me through various channels, but I wrote almost in isolation. I was showing my life coach what I wrote each day, but for the most part, it was just me and my little world that I was creating.”

Another thing Melo was fighting before treatment was severe writer’s block. She was also working to better understand her gender identity and discover her authentic self—which led to her transition, which she first announced publicly in early 2022—while also juggling her deteriorating mental health. “Every day that passes, it gets a little harder and scarier to do,” Melo confesses about feeling burdened by the need to create when she couldn’t get her feelings on paper. “It’s cathartic for me to write, period. But there was a time when nothing was coming. I know what it’s like to be coming up with nothing and trying hard to.”

The years of feeling stuck are etched on every inch of Love Hate Music Box, the 22-track epic detailing Melo’s darkest years. She has always written in an intimate way, but allowing us into this part of her life is a brave, beautiful piece of art. “There are a lot of struggles that the band and I have gone through, collectively, over the past six years that show up in this record. A friend told me, ‘They’re gonna feel your pain in this record.’ While there is pain, there is also the joy of life and finding new, exciting ways to live it, which has really happened to me in the last six years—a lot has changed, and I want people to see that journey,” Melo says. “I also don’t want to forget about the journey, how hard it was and how much it cost to get here. I’m not worried that things will fall back into disarray—anything could happen—but I think I learned a lot growing as a human being. I’ve got a better handle on what’s important to me now. “

There is no shortage of vulnerability on the album. Though Melo has never held back in writing raw lyrics, the pain in Love Hate Music Box cuts even deeper, knowing what it took for her to be okay again. “Who’s in charge?” Melo questions on “Sickset,” a callout to the conflicting feelings she has as someone with bipolar disorder. She builds upon this idea of a dual self impacting her relationships and her feelings about herself in “Code Blue” when she sings, “Danger at the door / Stranger in the mirror.” The internal struggle with dealing with such a stigmatized mental illness is then laid out plainly in “Ghoul,” which Melo wrote during one of her darkest points. “It’s something wicked / I brought it with me / If it possesses me, will I levitate gently? / Will you find me repulsive,” she asks, in a desperate cry to see if people will stick by her as she fights her demons.

“I’m definitely not nervous about being vulnerable. I think vulnerability is brave and the best way to connect with people. I’ve never shared a song or project without somebody saying, ‘What a relief to hear you say that because I feel similarly,’” Melo says. “That’s been something that I’ve learned over the last six years: instead of trying to hide your vulnerabilities or insecurities just by airing them. If you’re feeling something, chances are somebody else in the room is feeling something similar. I always express my truest feelings through music. I don’t think you can help it. It just has the power to draw that from you. I will say it’s wild being vulnerable and then having people not receive what you’re saying. That’s brutal.”

The process to finish the record was long and somewhat strenuous, with Melo bringing 60 demos in different stages of completion to her band once she was discharged from treatment. “I remember, as a group, we had this whiteboard where we were putting songs that were finished or close to being finished. Between the six people, we couldn’t cut it down,” she says. Rainbow Kitten Surprise’s last three albums were succinct—the longest being 13 tracks—but with all of the material Melo had created during this chapter of her life, all of those ideas felt necessary for the record. The number they decided on came from Melo’s notion about creating a tangible keepsake from the process. “I had a lyric from a track that didn’t make it on the record that went ‘We can change things / If we’re meant to / Burn a blank disc / With 22 songs on it / Labeled: Play at the end of the world.’ It was that idea that you could only fit 22 songs on a blank disc—for my above 30 fans,” Melo laughs. “Then, it became the idea of every album cycle being like a world unto itself. And what is the CD that we get to play at the end of this world?”

Melo has spent so much time with this record, not only writing it but also living through the experiences she needed to expel in order to make it in the first place. “I’ve been trying to write this for so long, and it feels so good to be past it,” she says. “I usually don’t like to listen to an album after it’s [sent for mastering]. I usually just move on but pick it up years later. But with Love Hate Music Box, I’ve been hanging out. I don’t want to go so fast that I forget what it was like to make this record or how it feels to have it done. And [I] just count that as a win. When you’re writing, it’s always like a little bit of a fight for your life. I feel relieved and proud to do something that really represents what’s gone on in the past six years. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed the process. It’s been hard. But that being said, I’m happy to have gotten it all out.”

Olivia Abercrombie is Paste‘s Associate Music Editor, reporting from Austin, Texas. To hear her chat more about her favorite music, gush about old horror films, or rant about Survivor, you can follow her on Twitter @o_abercrombie.

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