By Collin Kelley
As a longtime musician and mayor pro-tem for the tiny Pine Lake municipality in DeKalb County, Melanie Hammett has always been interested in the intersection of art, activism and giving back.
Hammett has performed and worked with some of the biggest names in the local music scene, including Indigo Girls, Sugarland’s Kristian Bush and DeDe Vogt, and created scores for theatre productions in collaboration with Majorie Kellogg and Kenny Leon.
Her latest project, Life Sentence, came from volunteering with the Georgia Innocence Project, the nonprofit that helps to free those wrongly prosecuted through DNA tests and educate about wrongful convictions.
“I’d wanted to volunteer with the Innocence Project for a long time, but they mostly wanted lawyers,” Hammett said. “I called and told them I would come in and make coffee, vacuum, whatever they needed. I feel that strongly about their mission.”
So, that’s exactly what Hammett did. While volunteering, she was introduced to Clarence Harrison, who was wrongly convicted of kidnapping, rape and robbery of a Decatur woman in 1987 and spent nearly 20 years behind bars until he became the first person exonerated by the Georgia Innocence Project.
“I met with Clarence thinking I could write a song that the Project could use for fundraising or awareness, but Clarence’s story is so mind-blowing that I realized it wasn’t just one, but an entire album.”
Hammett enlisted fellow musician Ben Holst and started an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the 11-song album. She also received an Idea Capital grant to host a series of “listen-ins,” small concerts featuring the songs and Harrison himself telling his remarkable story.
So far, $15,000 has been raised to create the album. A downloadable EP featuring five “unplugged” versions of the songs is expected to appear in August at lifesentencealbum.com, where you can also make a donation toward the project. A more fully produced album is in the works, and Hammett is hoping to enlist “local luminaries” to add their voices to Life Sentence.
“I didn’t write the songs with the intention of me singing them,” Hammett said. “They are first person songs in Clarence’s voice and I don’t think I’m the right voice to interpret them. Others have a better capacity to sing these songs; I’ll do some background vocals.”
This kind of modesty is often rare in the music business where egos can run rampant, but after creating a dozen albums, Hammett said she’s found a niche in the local scene where her desire to give back and create music reside comfortably.
A few years ago, she created an album called Edifice Complex, a suite of songs about urban planning inspired by her work as an elected official in Pine Lake. She’s currently “pecking away” at another album called Quantum Civics, about how communities thrive.
“Music is such an effective form of communication, and it’s bipartisan,” Hammett said. “It’s also a teaching tool for me to help me learn more about people and the world around me.”
For more about Melanie Hammett, visit melaniehammet.com.