For beloved Perth singer/songwriter, Abbe May, the release early this year of her latest album, Fruit, represented a labour of love and life that took some five years to create.
An initial national tour accompanied the release of Fruit and has been followed by months of headline shows, mini-tours and Parlour gigs. And in this time May has not only witnessed what her music means to those audiences, but also what it truly means to her.
“I’m frequently surprised by how much I enjoy performing the songs from the record,” she says, “especially after so long writing and producing them with Matt Gio and Doug (May). It was such considered, involved work and it did take up so much of my life, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. That’s really how it should be. Anything else is half-arsed and non-committal. Music is my life’s work, so, I love to sing them, still. I love hearing the audiences sing the lyrics as it means the songs are theirs now.
“I enjoy placing them alongside songs from all five of my albums. A song like A Blackout In Your Town (Howl & Moan 2008) – which I wrote about the grief I have in the wake of my grandmother’s death – has been around for 10 years and, during performances, I still often feel the grief I was trying to express at the time of writing. It’s not unusual for me to get upset during some of these songs. Seventeen often fells me. It’s sadness for sure, but also a kind of relief that I could find a way to express pain without hurting myself too much.”
May feels that touring the album has made her realise how her work consistently centres around the muses of sex, death and grief. Fruit, she says, is a continuation of that but a newer theme of familial love has emerged.
“Familial love is what started me on the course of songwriting,” she notes. “I struggled with grief and existential crisis for many years in the aftermath of my grandmother’s death and besides songwriting, I did look for comfort in some pretty destructive places. I had two distinct relationships with women who were very narcissistic – it must be said I also had some relationships with truly great women. I drank heavily, I became self-involved and nihilistic. I was really very fortunate that my brothers had children because the way I feel for their kids is much the same as the indestructible love I had with my Grandma. You can’t kill this kind of love. Why else would I still feel it 15 years after I last saw her? It never dies. It is not fallible like romantic love so often is.
“And that there is my anchor in all the chaos. Fruit really is the maturation of my fascination with sex and death. I really think it wouldn’t work if my fascination with the inescapable weight of those subjects were manufactured. You know, who would believe me, let alone be moved by my work if I were trying on creativity as an identity rather than allowing myself to be a conduit for whatever it is that births inspiration and expression? I guess for me it is depth of emotion: I am genuinely still grappling with the loss of my grandmother, a trauma that began nearly 15 years ago and sent me into an existential crisis. I still cry for her. It has been a blessing of hard-learnt wisdom though, missing her amongst all the insanity and seemingly indefinable purpose of this often-miserable existence has meant I can’t make much sense of life besides knowing that to love and be loved seems to me to be the only real point of any of this. She taught me that.
“So I look for this connection everywhere. This is why I enjoy touring Fruit so much. It’s my most honest and open album and people seem to be connecting with it on a level that no other previous album of mine has allowed. There’s a lot of love connected to the work. It is marvelous to see it affect the audience and to share the songs live with these people. I don’t see the point of much else.”
In 2018 Fruit has taken May all around the country. However, there’s been plenty more roads that it led to beyond the geographical sense.
“It’s brought myself and my brother closer together which was really important in the aftermath of (2013 LP) Kiss My Apocalypse. Shit got so fucked up during that era that he left the band and I had a seizure from stress while on tour. About a year after all of that we started working on getting me back on stage – I was in a real state – and Doug really was and remains the driving force behind my survival as a live artist. I’m lucky to have him!
“Working with him on demoing the album before taking it to Gio really solidified our trust and friendship. He’s such a non-political animal. He has no agenda… and if he does it’s about hilarious stuff on tour like the best way to pack a car. He sometimes has to be ‘right’ over me in daft situations, but it’s fair enough. He’s my big brother and, in the band, I am the boss. That wouldn’t be easy for any man, but he and what he calls his ‘male ego’ handle it with tremendous grace and humour. We certainly have a little sibling rivalry, but only over tour van Tetris level shit. The important stuff is never in question with my brother.
“Fruit also arrived at a really crucial time in my life. It was released in early February and at a time in which I was rapidly self-destructing with alcohol. I was in a dark place and I think Fruit was a form of divine intervention in my life. It really cracked through all the shit to remind me of the abundance I have. I am not sure where or what I would be today if it hadn’t been released when it was. It gave me my power back.”
In some ways such an important album, which took such time and care would seem difficult to contemplate how to follow it up. Yet it seems that May is well into the headspace and direction of her next LP. She seems both in the moment and relishing the road ahead all at once.
“Making music is cathartic,” May says. “I will always need this catharsis, or I could become so low and lost I might drink myself to death. So, I’ll be making records for the next six decades, I know it. I am excited about the next record because Fruit really changed the way I think about my creations. I had so much pressure on me before to get the work done and packaged and released just in time for X,Y, Z… that all got thrown out the window with Fruit. I had the good fortune to have dropped off the industry’s radar after the seizure took me out of action, which generally means your career is over. But I just never cared about whether I could be a big, famous star.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love to sing live, and I know how to work the big stages and audiences probably better than I do other performance spaces. I sense a growing audience is on the cards for me if I want it and I relish those moments and opportunities to connect with more people, but I just always need to make music above all else, it’s a true and life-saving catharsis for me. So, even though no one seemed to care, I kept going and realised the album would be ready when it was ready. It was an odd experience sometimes in that even if I tried to do things in a rushed way, some obstacle would always present itself to ensure I really could not work any faster than I was. Time started to mean nothing – what even is time anyway? – so I have learnt to completely tune out industry and ego pressures completely and just focus on the work.
“So, I never stopped after Fruit was finished. Catharsis through music… it’s not something I can just put down and then go surfing or whatever. This is what I do. This is how I evolve. I’m now writing the new album with the intent to focus on narcissism. Currently the work is called Red Flag.
And how’s Red Flag sounding in your head?
“It’s all being written on my Gibson Eagle, which means it’s currently all country music,” May laughs. “But I’m not sure I want to release a country record so when I go into the studio Gio and I will apply some more soul grooves and melodies and RnB beats to it. I think this record will more of be an evolution of the production on Fruit than a complete departure from it.”
May’s live shows aren’t just a singer playing songs onstage and more what this writer would describe as a performative experience. How does May feel she has evolved as a performer?
“It’s funny – I feel I am less performative these days,” she counters. “Performative sounds like a defence mechanism to me and I am much more open to being vulnerable in the wake of Fruit. I am less defensive, if at all these days, which is an unusual but welcome evolution for me as I have spent a great deal of my life recovering from some pretty horrifying side effects of dealing with an overtly narcissistic teacher when I was a child. Subsequently, as an adult, I now realise I chose deeply damaging relationships with an overt narcissist and later a covert narcissist. Being aware of it means I have been able to put an end to it. It all went down a while ago, and the patterns have been repeating since I was nine. Once I saw the pattern I became determined to never repeat it again.
“It has taken time to get through it and get strong and present like I feel I am today, and this has all massively affected how I walk through life along with my work as a ‘performer’. I know that in the face of it, all that time ago, I developed the survival tactic of shrinking myself down into a tiny version of myself to avoid displeasing these narcissists, I was always walking on eggshells and was so anxious all the time, by the end of it, by the time I had escaped each of them, I could barely recognise myself in the mirror. In my final recovery this year, I had to really get sober on every level and sit in the emotional flashbacks, confront the pain, analyse the sources, analyse why I chose these lessons, analyse why I ignored the multitude of red flags and then accept and release that self-inflicted trauma. I got free and now I am very much integrated with both my on and off stage persona. In many ways, there’s no difference between me on stage and off – I am me always and I do not beg for approval – I now give myself approval both in public life and privately. It’s still me whether I am the extrovert on stage or the introvert off stage. Both are different but equal expressions of the same woman.
“This recovery has affected my performance style massively to the point where I no longer feel like a performer. I’m just me on stage as I am off stage. Because the recovery from narcissistic abuse forced me to face demons I had been carrying since childhood, I ended up really knowing and trusting myself in a way I haven’t before. I ended up being really comfortable in my own vulnerability. I feel quite assured in the knowledge that I really now have my own back. To get to me, you have to satisfy my very clear vision. You have be real and have empathy or I do not wanna know. I make choices that bring love into my life, not abuse. It was as if I got in touch with my 9-year-old self and made a promise to her to never mindfully put her in harm’s way again.
“Stuff that had happened to me at that age seems to have had a lasting impact on my social choices. It seems I unconsciously felt I did not deserve to be loved because a teacher had done his best to really drill that into me as a child. This all has to come out or I won’t be able to continue to heal and evolve. If I don’t heal it, I will continue to unconsciously hurt myself and others. So, it all has to be written out, sung, released and ‘performed’. I sense Red Flag will be very powerful work because there is a unity and a calmness in me now that has not previously existed. I will never again shrink to avoid upsetting someone, be it a primary school teacher, the music industry or a so called ‘lover’. I won’t allow myself to be abused again.
“So, in all that power of choice, I am much more free than ever. It’s been a profound change for me. It means I can walk away from toxic relationships, personal or professional, consciously eradicate my own internal toxicities and I now feel confident enough to say to an audience ‘I’m nervous’ instead of keeping a lid on it and bluffing through performance with bravado. That vulnerability has meant people can get closer to me. It means Red Flag and my live deliveries will be my most powerful work as I draw strength through my vulnerability rather than hiding it. If I hadn’t met these narcissists I wouldn’t be in this incredible artistic and personal position. I’m grateful for the lessons. I’m even more grateful I have truly learnt them because fuck going there again!”
May is often very frank and open on social media about her life, in all its aspects. She says she hasn’t always been so open about her personal thoughts and processes. The experience of sharing these thoughts with an ever-growing following has been an experience in itself.
“I haven’t always been like this, but I’ve always felt like my work is more in line with the expression of an artist like Tracey Emin, rather than another who might cloak their own experience with metaphor. Both are powerful; I’d just rather show myself and my experiences more completely, as I feel like the purpose of art, while being firmly rooted in making the personal universal, is to express some kind of truth in catharsis so that an artist may heal and audience may connect. Facade gets in the way of this for me. I’d rather take off all the make up and get right into the guts of it. I don’t have anything to hide, I’m a human in all of its filthy beauty. No one is perfect, though I really like who I have become, especially this year. The choices I make are sound and ethical. I’m soft when I trust you and have become a real force of nature if you attempt to bully me. If you are toxic, if I think you’re an asshole you will get nothing from me but a cold, hard indifference. I block people now and not just in a social media sense. I am not afraid of public awkwardness and I am now very difficult to trigger into a reactive state. I am now much more of an observer and because I have this really iron clad, solid as fuck sense of myself. I know who I am. I know my worth. I know why I am here. I know that if you focus on love without ever being a doormat for it, if you really, truly have your own back and make choices accordingly, life just flows beautifully.
“I don’t hoard my experience, I want to share it openly as it has made me immeasurably happy. Why wouldn’t I be open if it assists others to feel less alone? I’ve discovered the key is letting go of any notion that we have control. We have to let go, once you master this, life is so beautiful. Once you stop placing yourself at the centre of the universe, well, it is so surprising the level of freedom that brings and I want everyone to feel like this, if they are open to it. So I don’t hide for fear of coming across as too earnest or uncool. Man, I could not give less of a fuck about that stuff. I have actively removed all of my desires because they were all attached to my ego, and this has freed me up to experience real bounty in that I am never disappointed, never yearning, I just ‘am’.
“You know, just navigating it all, it’s a strange life! Being human is a weird existence and art keeps people from feeling as if they are alone. Hiding doesn’t marry well with my natural expression. My mum always said, ‘If you’re hiding something, lying about something, somewhere in there you know you’re probably doing the wrong thing’. I feel a responsibility to share, because I am so fortunate to be an artist, I am so fortunate in that the only thing that really threatens my freedom and peace is myself. Knowing this, I see I am such an incredibly privileged person. So I feel I should pay this forward and as such I’m open about my discoveries. I am not ashamed of who I am or what I have done. I stand up for myself both against bullies and against my own self-destructive tendencies. I am accountable to myself now. So, I just let it all hang out. I want to share what I know because I feel inspired to flip the coin from misery to peace. I know what both feel like.
“I’m not afraid to be open because I don’t care what anyone thinks of me. I like me. People can take it or leave it – they’re gonna think whatever the hell they want anyway.”
May is performing at the Rosemount Hotel’s Plug Into 2019 New Year’s Eve show. It’ll provide a moment to contemplate a year of “personal phoenixing” and a year ahead of reveling in the experience gained.
“I went from a very dark place at the start of 2018 to evolve into a supremely happy yet realistic, balanced, dynamic and empowered person,” she asserts. “It was the year in which I really saw the abundance of love and wealth that I have across every area of my life. I fucked off the toxicity, both internally and externally, and because of this, I have thrived beyond measure.
“I expect 2019 to deliver many chances to really act on the lessons I’ve learnt. I don’t really do anything in the same way anymore. This includes the way I write, produce and release music. Fruit taught me to go with the flow and that is what I will be doing. I sleep well now. It is a relief to no longer be the insomniac drunk that entered 2018!”
Abbe May performs alongside The Southern River Band and other guests on December 29, at the Prince of Wales, Bunbury; December 30 at Settlers Tavern Margaret River, and at the Rosemount Hotel’s Plug Into 2019 New Year’s Eve show on December 31. Details for the latter via www.facebook.com/events/763199737356875/. You can also catch her with The Preatures (unplugged) at Chevron Festival Gardens on February 17, bookings via www.perthfestival.com.au/event/preatures