Melinda Colaizzi went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, and spent some time in Los Angeles — but ultimately, the Forest Hills native ended up returning to Pittsburgh, because her gritty brand of blues-rock just seemed to fit here.
"The music scene in L.A., it was not what I'd expected it to be," Colaizzi explains. "And for someone doing this gritty, bluesy rock thing, it just — I wasn't feeling it."
In 2011, Colaizzi and her longtime collaborator, Kristian Habenicht, moved to Pittsburgh. (Habenicht grew up in California, near San Jose; they met at Berklee, where he studied music synthesis and guitar, and she studied music business and vocal performance.) The two recorded an EP in L.A., but had been working since then to put together a full-length — Witness, which they release this weekend with a show at the Pittsburgh Winery.
Powerful, gutsy vocals are Colaizzi's forte — she wails with the best of them throughout the album. But singing wasn't her first musical talent.
"I started playing guitar as a kid," she says. "I took lessons at Swissvale Music. I totally dug guitar, but it limited me in terms of performances. So I thought if I could sing, I could start doing some coffeeshop stuff with my acoustic guitar. Then the singing component of it kind of took over."
Nowadays, Colaizzi still plays guitar some, and often writes on an acoustic, but Habenicht takes up much of fretwork live and on record while Colaizzi concentrates on vocals. They write together; often, Colaizzi explains, the songs develop from a basic guitar part and a name.
"I always like starting with a title," she says. "Then I have to hear that riff. For me, I'm always doing the melody and the lyrics last."
On Witness, larger themes range from the title track (which harkens to the traditional refrain from testimony in churches, which has made its way through pop-music history) to "Leave Your Key," a once-and-for-all breakup anthem.
"I think sometimes it's autobiographical," says Habenicht. "But other times it's purely fictional. Just an idea for the sake of itself, kind of exploring it as a storytelling device."
The sounds on the album tend to have a hard edge to them — blues riffs often underlie the songs, but there's a bombastic hard-rock quality as well. Colaizzi could find her musical ancestors in the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Melissa Etheridge and Susan Tedeschi. Her vocals have such depth, they recall Aretha Franklin at times.
"It took me a long time to become comfortable making the kind of music I like," Colaizzi says. "When I was at Berklee, I was thrown into one of these really polished, slick all-girl rock bands that was produced by this big-time guy. It got us a developmental deal with Epic, and I kind of had a lot of that industry mentality hanging over me — everyone telling me this kind of music was dead. I think I'm finally at a point where I just don't care."
Coming back to Pittsburgh, though, didn't necessarily land Colaizzi and Habenicht in a hotbed of music just like their own.
"It's hard to find a place," Colaizzi notes. When the band plays blues-oriented events, "it's always, ‘You guys are too rock!' I wish that those kinds of things could be broken down. That was something I liked about Los Angeles: There was so much freedom and acceptance. And it's kind of really closed here."
"We're not traditional, straightforward blues," adds Habenicht. "So if you're a fan of traditional, straightforward blues only, that's that. But we're also not a regular rock band, we're not an indie-rock band, we're not a metal band, we're not a classic-rock band.
"It's funny, because when you think of what makes up American music, it's those acts that combine country, soul, blues, R&B, all of those things that are quintessentially American. But then when it comes time to find new acts, people wrap themselves up in one genre, and it gets really specific. Sometimes it makes it tough for bands that overlap a little bit."
While it's only Colaizzi's name on the record (and in fact, it's just her first name — she's long gone by just "Melinda" as a singer, but is slowly transitioning to using her full name), Habenicht is an important part of the formula that makes the band.
"I think in writing, I can sometimes be too close to the writing," Colaizzi says. "So I need to collaborate, to have someone to keep me going, say it's OK to be outside of the box on an idea, tell me, ‘you're on track with this idea.' I don't really enjoy writing solo."
With a full-length finally recorded — mostly at Mr. Smalls in Pittsburgh, but also in Minneapolis and L.A. — Colaizzi and Habenicht are ready to take it where they can, considering label options and already working on another record. It's something neither can imagine straying from.
"No matter what, if we were playing together or not, we would both be playing music," says Habenicht. "Once you play music, you never don't play music. Whether we get to grow our careers as musicians or life's got other plans in store, you just don't stop playing music. You can't help it."
"I just really love rock 'n' roll!" Colaizzi says with a laugh. "I just caught the bug when I was 13 and I just loved everything about it."