In 1991, Melissa Auf Der Maur went to a gig in Montreal that changed her life. She had just seen the larger-than-life Billy Corgan and his band Smashing Pumpkins, then in the early stages of their career. "I had never known a band sound so huge, so grandiose," Auf Der Maur exclaims with palpable excitement. "I was used to sloppy punk rock stuff, so this was like nothing I'd heard. Unfortunately, my friend Bruce, who was there with me, hated it. He threw a bottle at the stage and he and the band got into a fistfight. I went to talk to Billy after the show and apologised on behalf of the city. I told him he was officially my hero and the Pumpkins were my new favourite band. After that we became pen pals."
Auf Der Maur was studying to become a photographer, but the show inspired her to abandon her college course and concentrate on playing bass. Three years after they met, Corgan put her name forward to fill a vacancy in one of America's most famous rock bands.
"He called me and said: 'I have great news. How would you like to join my friend Courtney's band?''' she recalls. "I already had my own group - Tinker - at that stage and my first reaction was: 'Why would I want to join some stranger's band?' Billy said: 'OK, but are you sure you don't want to be in one of the biggest female rock groups and tour the world?'"
Auf Der Maur had every reason to be cautious. Hole were going through troubled times - not long after the suicide of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, the husband of Hole's singer, Courtney Love, they had lost their bass-player, Kristen Pfaff, to a heroin overdose. Oddly, it was Auf Der Maur's father who persuaded her to take the job. "He convinced me that it was a big opportunity, so after a week I called and said I'd changed my mind. Next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Seattle to meet Courtney." Less than a month after her initial audition in 1994, she played her first gig with Hole at the Reading Festival in front of 60,000 people.
Tall, pale-skinned and with long red hair, Auf Der Maur, 31, cuts a striking figure. She has the energy and fearlessness of a musician half her age and experience: 10 years into her career, she says she "still can't get enough of meeting people and experiencing other worlds, other cultures".
Auf Der Maur spent five years with Hole, a period she describes as "wild, unpredictable and amazing". After that, Corgan briefly recruited her for Smashing Pumpkins' farewell tour. Finally, in 2000, she decided to take some time off. With no fixed address, she checked into the Chelsea Hotel in New York and worked on her photography. The job offers kept on coming - among the more ludicrous were proposals from Shakira and Pink. Eventually realising that she wanted to make her own record, she decided to move back to Montreal, where she was born and raised.
Auf Der Maur already had a stockpile of songs, many of them written while she was with Hole. When she began recording, she had no manager, no record company and no expectations. "I didn't even need to do anything with the record other than make it," she says. "It wasn't like there was a goal; it was more to do with living out my dream as a music fan and reminding myself why I took this path in the first place."
Six years of playing with two of America's premier rock bands has clearly had an effect. The finished album, simply titled Auf Der Maur, comes with a starry set of collaborators including Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri from Queens of the Stone Age, Hole's Eric Erlandson and Smashing Pumpkins' James Iha. A collection of big choruses and even bigger riffs, it's a captivating, often exhilarating debut that showcases Auf Der Maur's formidable vocal talents.
Why did it take her so long? She shrugs. "I'm a patient person, and in terms of doing something as significant and profound as my first record, I was never in a rush," she replies. "When I was in Hole I wasn't thinking, 'I can't wait for my solo album.' I was happy acting in a supporting role to someone else's vision. I was living in the moment, becoming a better musician, seeing the world and getting an idea of what I wanted to do with my life. It was never obvious to me that this was what I would end up doing."
Auf Der Maur's mother, Linda Gaboriau, split from her father soon after she was born. She cuts a formidable figure: an award-winning translator and rock journalist who famously had a fling with The Band's Robbie Robertson. Melissa's father, Nick, a radio journalist-turned-politician in Montreal, died of cancer in 1997. He spent much of his professional life in the public eye, and, as a child, Melissa would accompany him to parties thrown by the Canadian Prime Minister. He became the mouthpiece of the English-speaking minority in Montreal and wrote columns detailing what he and his daughter did at the weekend. He attained such status that his funeral was broadcast on national television.
Auf Der Maur feels that the years spent living in her father's shadow have informed many of the decisions she has made in her adult life. "Growing up, I was always known as Nick's daughter. Then, when I went out into the world, I was Hole's bass player. I've always been the one lurking in the wings and I guess I got comfortable there."
She cautiously notes how the experience of living a childhood stripped of privacy in some way prepared her for the crazed existence of rock's most notorious widow. "It was a reality that I'd accepted as a non-reality," she says. "I grew up in a very eclectic environment where some of my mother's friends were schizophrenic transsexuals, so I knew all about strong, eccentric characters. And being in a band is like being part of someone's family. No matter how wild the environment is - and some of it was obviously very eccentric and strange - you just don't question it."
Diplomatic about her five years in Hole, Auf Der Maur concedes that Love's lifestyle is not one she would choose. "Hell, no!" she cries. "I'm just happy hanging out with my friends and making music to the best of my ability. All the other stuff? It just isn't important."
'Auf Der Maur' is out on 1 March on EMIReuse content