May Erlewine: an Interview

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May Erlewine is one of my favorite musicians. Not only is her music really, really great; she is also brave, kind, and stylish. Recently, I had the pleasure to sit down with May and ask her a few questions about her process, her upcoming projects, and of course, her clothes.

Abby: My first question for you, May, is: I hope you know that you are a fashion icon...

May: (chuckling) I am?

A: So I wanted to ask you, who or what inspires your choice in clothing? 

M: I like a lot of vintage stuff. I’m always trying to find things that are between the ‘40’s and ‘70s eras. I’m always looking at vintage clothing and getting ideas from what people used to wear, and then I mix that with the now trendy stuff. I like looking at the new clothes that people are making, to see what young people are wearing. I end up doing some weird combo of what people used to do, and what people are doing now. It's fun! I love colors, and thinking about putting looks together. I don’t really have a main influence, though. I think [my style] mostly just comes from really liking clothes.

A: Where are a few of your favorite places to get clothes from?

M: I like to thrift. That’s my favorite thing to do, and vintage shops, that’s where I go mostly. I also love going to Yana Dee, of course! It is really rad to see what you are doing here, because it is so ethical and the fabrics are so beautiful. And [Yana Dee] was one of the first people I knew that did the re-fab stuff, with vintage fabrics and newer styles, which I’ve always admired. I shop on Etsy, I go to Goodwill. I like getting the deals. The bigger, the weirder, the better! For example, Salvation Army or St. V. De P. in the big cities is my favorite. I’ll just go look through the old ladies’ stuff, and see what I find. You know somewhere in these hundreds of old lady collared shirts, there’s a cool one….

A: You are wearing one right now, aren’t you?

M: Yea! This [vintage floral button-up] was a total score at a Salvation Army. That is the best thing! It's just so satisfying, when you can get a really good deal, and spend $3 on a shirt that is one of a kind. That’s the fun stuff.

A: Three years ago, real life sisters Yana and Abby starred in the music video you directed for your song “Sister Says.” How has your approach or attitude towards making music videos changed since then?

M: Oh cool! I have gotten way into it. I love it, almost as much as writing songs and playing music. I like to focus on deeper intention with the videos. The ones I am working on now are very much about what’s happening in this country. Music videos are so short; you have this very limited amount of time to convey something. With imagery, you can convey so much more than just music can by itself. That combination to me is this ultimate emotional experience in, you know, 5 minutes or less. It’s really a challenge to see how much you can get in there, and what will pull on people's emotions. I love bringing life to what the song is saying visually. I’m getting more used to doing it, and directing it.

I’m learning how to do it, and I’m learning that I really like it, and also trusting myself as a director that I do have a clear vision, and that we are making meaningful art...  I’m geeking out about it and I love it.

When I did [the music video for] “Never One Thing”, that was a huge leap of faith. Like, nobody really understood exactly what I was trying to do, and it was pretty elaborate on a very low budget. I was trying to make a really pro video on the lowest budget possible. So it meant, just, insanity. Me, driving around in my car with dozens and dozens and dozens of roses, trying to figure out how to keep them from dying before we get to them and into peoples hair. While the ladies were sitting in the shoot, roses were flying out of their heads and falling to the ground. It was just so funny. I’m learning how to do it, and I’m learning that I really like it, and also trusting myself as a director that I do have a clear vision, and that we are making meaningful art. I am really grateful that I get to work with John Hanson, and Josh Skinner right now on these videos, because they are just so good at the film aspect. Getting the shots, making sure that they are colored properly, and helping to convey the ideas that I have in a way that translates to their art form, which is film. I’m geeking out about it and I love it.

A: So, are you actively working on new music videos now?

M: Yes! There are two that I am working on, one will be out in September and one in October.

A: Many times, I have watched you stand up in front of diverse crowds and speak your mind about issues that are important to you, for example, gun violence. Talking about that in rural Michigan is brave! How do you make a plan to stand up and speak for what you believe in, and how do you get yourself to follow through on that plan?

M: That's really, yeah, that’s hard. I think about what I am going to say when I am approaching these topics a lot. I’ll write it out ahead of time. I don’t memorize it like a speech, but I write out the sentiments that I want to convey, and then I try and strip it down to as little as possible. If I can remove anything that will trigger somebody to react defensively, that I try to do that. After that distillation process, I am usually left with a pretty good way of trying to talk about something that is as respectful as possible, while still addressing the thing. It is scary sometimes, sometimes I can feel people getting uncomfortable, and I question whether it’s worth making anyone uncomfortable ever, you know? Especially right now, with the president we have, and the way that he is just blatantly disrespectful. I made a decision awhile ago, that I couldn’t live with myself later, being silent now. That it was important to use the platform I have, and the voice that I have, to speak out against these things. I do try and put a lot of intention behind it. I don’t necessarily expect everyone to agree all the time. My hope is that it makes people think, and be thoughtful people together in community, and have different opinions, but not fight, or dislike each other because of those things. I think that is the really tragic thing that happens, and I am actively trying to not contribute to that polarizing, hate-speak stuff, or disrespect.

I just made a decision that I couldn’t live with myself later, being silent now. And that it was just important to use the little place I have, and the voice that I have, to speak out against these things. 

So, it’s hard, and it’s scary. Sometimes, I do wuss out. Where I’m like, “okay, I wanted to talk about this today, but I can tell that this audience is going to be really divided by it, and they are going to react really defensively, and it is going to make them less connected to each other, instead of more,” and sometimes I make the decision to just connect people, and not do the "rub." Sometimes I feel like I’m wussing out, sometimes it feels like it was a good decision. It’s always vulnerable and hard. Every time I speak out on stage I get nervous, and I get worried about how people will take it, or whether I’m going to articulate it in the best possible way for the people that it’s impacting the most. You know, I’m just one person, trying, so it’s a challenge, but I think it is a worthy one. I learn a lot, even when people are upset. I learn a lot about why that is, and what they are upset about, and it helps craft the next draft.

A: “Never One Thing” found an instant cult following. Everybody was singing it. Do you ever know when you write a song that is really going to resonate with audiences?

M: I don’t ever know, but I can usually tell quickly by the audience’s reaction. A song either connects immediately, the first time I play it, or it needs more work to resonate with people. There are some songs that feel like they fall out of the sky, and it’s my job to bring them out to the world. I don’t know really where they come from, and I don’t know really whats going on. They’re there, and I do my job to wrote them down, and it feels like it is more just a transmission, and I am the vehicle it's going through. Those ones, I can feel that there is something special about them. They aren’t always everybody’s favorite ones, but there’s a few of them that just have that special thing about them that feels beyond “me.” And they do move beyond me, and they become something greater than anything I could do. So it’s really cool. 

There are some songs that feel like they just fall out of the sky, and it’s my job to just bring them out to the world. And I don’t know really where they come from, and I don’t know really whats going on...  it feels like it is more just a transmission.

That song [Never One Thing] in particular is really great to hear so many people singing. It is such a cry for being able to be an individual, and to be strong, and to be all that we are as complex humans. We all need that sort of acknowledgement and permission to be who we are. So to see three-year-olds belting it out... that is one of the greatest joys in my life, I mean that’s empowering! What they are feeling right now is empowering me." It’s like, "yes, that’s what we need." So, it’s been a really big gift in my life, to see how the songs travel through people.

A: What, albums, tours, or other projects are you promoting right now? 

M:  Well, I’m finishing my record Second Sight right now. All the show tours start in October, all over Michigan. Then I’m going on an East Coast tour in November, Colorado in December. The album will be out digitally everywhere in November. So, that’s kinda my big push right now. In December, [May and] the Motivations are doing their Holiday Dance Parties, as usual, so that will be fun too. The Sweet Water Warblers are working on a  full length record to be released next Summer, fingers crossed. So that’s all… I’m releasing an EP in the Spring too, produced by Woody Goss, so I’m busy! I do want everyone to know about the concerts with Rachel and Anna! I feel super lucky, these two women that I admire so much are going to be here in Michigan for a very short time, and we are doing a small handful of intimate shows. One of them is the house concert [hosted by Yana Dee] in Traverse City, at one of the most beautiful places that I can imagine. [Rachel and Anna] are amazing songwriters, amazing musicians, they are just really powerful women in the music industry. So, I’m excited for more people to hear their music, and it's a special treat because they live in LA and usually only come once a year. I think it will be really fun.

Get your August 28 house concert tickets here

For more info about May Erlewine's albums and tour dates, check out her website.
For a healthy dose of motivation and cuteness, make sure to follow May on Instagram.

Studio portraits by Michael Poehlman, courtesy of May. 

 


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