Pic: Ed Fetahovic
There is simply not enough time in the world of Abbe May at this juncture of her life, but the beloved WA singer/songwriter is embracing her time-poorness and it appears she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I have never, ever been this busy before,” she says, quite happily. “I’m prepping for rehearsals today for the national tour and I’m moving house.” These at-odds tasks both come at a point – and a week – in her career where May has just released her fifth album, Fruit, itself a labour of love and life and change.
“It took five years, so I do feel like I’ve achieved a level of delivery with an album that I haven’t prior to this. It certainly feels like bringing on collaborators such as (producer) Matt Gio and my brother, KT Rumble (Doug May), who’s been far more involved in the process than with other records. So I have these great co-writers and I think it’s really opened up the scope and intensity of the work. It’s like having these two other brains to work off, it’s been a real revelation.”
If it were possibly to describe Fruit, the album, in one word, that word would be ‘complete’.
“It feels like we’ve created something very cohesive,” May ponders, “but at the same time we’ve taken quite a few risks with it and that’s what makes it feel, to me, like a pretty whole album. We got to a point where I haven’t gotten before on my own.”
It’s a post-seizure-depression-coming-out-coming-of-age-coming-home-to-roost and altogether self-reflexive album, to be sure. From the three-parts of the titular track, with spoken word intros that illuminate and/or ruminate upon the themes within, to the closing song, Freedom, which incorporates snatches from previous tracks (and single releases) Are We Flirting? and Seventeen, giving the whole excursion a feeling of resolution that, if you follow it closely enough, leaves you lying back in bed, head back on a pillow, smoking a metaphorical cigarette.
“I think it’s because I did just blow off all deadlines,” May laughs, before revealing a more serious scenario at the centre.
“We were supposed to be finished in April or May of 2016 and my nephew got sick and had to spend a month in hospital. I was like, ‘we just have to cancel the recording; I can’t do this’. So instead of putting the album at the centre of my life it just became a part of my life that was a really great way to get catharsis, but also because it wasn’t at the centre of my life, it worked out in a more genuine and I guess, complete fashion. It’s funny to say to a journalist, but I think deadlines, while they can be fairly handy, I think you have to be able to fuck them off as well.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done that before; I’ve always just put the record out. But this was very considered and we made sure that we had absolutely exhausted our creative direction for this. We have about five other songs that were left off the record because the flow of it all was a really big consideration too. At the end of it we realised that there’s two sides to it, the more traditional soul music and the more sort of pop/R&B and I thought we should just put it together like a record, Side A and Side B.”
The spoken word parts are revealing and of their time yet have aged well with the passing of it. They are insightful invitations to the heart of May.
“They were probably the most confronting element for me and my co-writers because they’re so personal,” she says. “It was quite hard to sit in the studio and reveal these things…
“It was a real risk, you know? You put these ideas in front of people and they can laugh you out of the studio. But I was really interested in going with that intuition, that the record did need these personal moments in order to be that final version, before it could come out. Pun intended!
“That was probably the hardest bit, pushing and saying that I wanted to do these three spoken word interludes. They’re pretty intimate moments, but ultimately I’m glad I trusted my co-writers enough to do it in front of them. It’s a strange thing, being like that is not that easy.”
Last year May penned a retrospective review on Around The Sound of her 2009 album, Hoodoo You Do (www.aroundthesound.com.au/content/retroperspective-%E2%80%93-abbe-may) that was very open about not only her music but her life at the time and since. In interviews going back with this writer and even on social media in more recent years May has seemed effortlessly frank.
“The thing is it’s not easy to do,” she asserts, “and I get a lot of catharsis out of writing. Particularly I like to write short stories and I like to write of what’s been going on in my life. I really believe that’s the only way, if you’re going to have any kind of impact on anybody, including yourself, is that you’ve got to be truthful. Just because I do it all the time doesn’t mean I’m not constantly confronted by my own truth. It is confronting and it’s a great catharsis for me. It keeps me sane.”
For the longest time Bitchcraft was the working-title for this album, but her management and publisher pointed out the difficulties in trying to market an LP of saddled with that particular portmanteau overseas. Given that a previous era of self-management had caused May stress to the point of seizure, she was happy to listen to the advice she now pays for. Fruit it was, and is…
“I cold see value in not being too abrasive,” she says. “and limiting the reach of the music. The music is meant to be about a gay visibility message, that we need to stand up and show there’s nothing wrong with us. That we’re just like everybody else; we come in all different shapes and sizes and colours and creeds and political affiliations.
“It was important for me to not get in my own way with regards to the reach of the music. And Fruit is a much better title for a very, very gay record.”
It’s also a swingingly rhythmic record, which May credits to producer Gio’s “slinky-hipped drumming style.” It also harbours many facets that make up this complex individual – confident, sassy, vulnerable, smart-alec, bold and sincere. It’s an album that seems to say, ‘look I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve dealt with all the questions’…
“(Laughs) Well I’ve been through a lot in the last five years and I’ve come out of it liking who I am and liking where I am,” May states. “I kind of look at all the hard shit and scary stuff – a seizure, depression, my nephew’s brush with serious illness (he’s okay now – Ed.) and my best mate’s cancer, which has been especially hard for her and very difficult to watch. You can either choose to be bitchy and scared or go, ‘well, life gets a bit tricky sometimes’.
“So I don’t have answers really, but I think you can make a choice to be self-destructive or you can be creative. I’ve had lots of battles over the last five years with alcohol. I would label some of my drinking habits of the past five years as alcoholic. It’s a terrible crutch, but sometimes you get destructive.
“That’s one of the things about the album, that I didn’t choose to place it at the centre of my life at times, especially when my nephew was sick. It was ultimately a way to be creative in the face of all that trauma. When I look at it now what I’m most proud of is that I didn’t self-destruct in this time although I tried to at various points. I think that’s give me a great deal of confidence in myself.
“Yeah (pauses)… it gives you the confidence that you can basically get through it and you’re not a victim, you’re just like everybody else. Sometimes you have a hard time and you can make a choice: to kill yourself or make a record, I guess. Gosh that was very dramatic!”
It’s a relatable everyday drama, however, and within that is the role that family plays out for any of us. With all of Fruit’s adventures, revelations and reckonings, a beautiful insight comes with the song Seventeen and the video clip that now accompanies it. Shot in high contrast black-and-white, May runs seemingly miles across a salt flat; running away, or to nowhere… but ultimately running into the wide-open-arms of her own mother.
“It’s honouring the family connection,” May says. “You can see in the clip that I’m running in footsteps that have preceded my path… and ultimately following in the footsteps of this incredible woman. It’s kind of a return to the source; the mother is such a powerful symbol. It’s a relinquishing of control to turn back to a sanctuary that I’ve been lucky to have.
“I know that some people don’t have that particular relationship with their mother that I do, but in a personal and universal way it’s the relinquishing of control and the return to a nurturing state of the place that you’re really loved.”
The song references the birth of May’s niece, (Sophia, now aged 7) the first and eldest of a new May generation.
“She really started a chain reaction in our family in terms of where our priorities were,” May reveals. “We were always really close, but we refocussed on each other and it also gave me a bit of a purpose in that I don’t really matter that much to myself anymore in terms of self-centred pursuits and things. I still really enjoy life and I get a little bit self-indulgent at times with drink and women, but nothing comes before my niece and nephews.
“I can only imagine what it’s like to have your own children; I don’t think I will, but these kids have definitely changed my life. So Seventeen is really about family and that unconditional love. I don’t really believe that romantic love is unconditional; there’s always conditions. The love that a family has for the children in their care is pretty profound. It’s an incredibly freeing situation not to place your self at the centre of your life anymore. (Speaking the lyrics) ‘I love you, even though it kills me to’. There’s the death of an ego there. It’s a profound gift that she’s given me.
“She fuckin’ cool, too,” May adds, breaking into laughter. “She’s an absolutely nutbar. She pulls funny faces in family photos. It’s great to see the May family goofball lineage continue.”
With many loving footsteps clearly still to follow.
Abbe May launches Fruit at the Chevron Festival Gardens on Wednesday, February 14, with Clamjam – a mini-festival celebrating women in music with an all-star Australian line-up. Full details at www.perthfestival.com.au/event/abbe-may-clam-jam
National tour dates at www.abbemay.com/#tourdates