BY HEATHER SMITH
When Alison May, a multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter from Texas took a leap of faith and relocated to Oakland, California, in 2012, the change of scenery helped her focus more on her craft. With this improved focus came a decidedly more complex, layered sound, which is showcased on her sophomore release, “Loved/Dark.”
With “Loved/Dark,” May has left us with a collection of intricate and beautiful folk songs that are often times about loss, separation and regret. Profoundly sad, but also subtle and delicate.
I took some time to ask May about how her sound has transformed, her influences and the new album, “Loved/Dark”, which is out now.
Why the move from Texas to Oakland?
My decision to relocate was centered around my need to be somewhere that I felt would help me focus on my music. Austin had a way of making me too comfortable. I wasn’t writing, recording or performing enough. Instead, I was allowing myself to be too cozy waiting tables and partying. I knew that if I stayed in Austin, I would never be adequately serious about my music.
What drew you to the Bay Area?
My producer and engineer Jeff Price was residing in Oakland at the time that I decided to get out of Texas. I felt that if we were closer together, I would feel more encouraged to pursue my music aggressively. Besides that, I was acting on a hunch. I’m not sure why the thought of Oakland felt so right to me. Having never even visited California, I was making a risky move. Choosing to move to the Bay Area is one of the best decisions I have made. Somehow, it made me pull my act together.
What are some of the main differences between the music scenes in Texas and the Bay Area?
I feel as though the audiences in the Bay Area really listen. They generally feel more engaged and present. However, there is something to be said about the energy that the Austin crowd always brings. As I play more there, they are becoming more drawn into my performance, while maintaining their fiery spirit. I love the Bay crowd for their eye contact. I love the Austin crowd for their hooting, hollering, shot-providing spirit. Austin folks are the only folks that get that amped over such sad music.
You’re a multi instrumentalist. What was your first instrument? What’s your favorite?
Piano was my first instrument. I played for about 10 years until I couldn’t handle the competitions and recitals anymore. I found love with the drums when I was 12. They’ll always be my favorite. I always have and always will get a taste of stage fright when I have to play guitar or piano. For some reason, I never feel afraid when I’m behind the drums.
Who are your main influences?
I almost always write from my own experiences with family, lovers, dreams, mental states, etc. I have never found my fictional songs to be on par with the biographic. Musically, I feel mostly influenced by songwriters like Nick Drake, Deb Talan and Duncan Browne. I love that Nick Drake’s guitar melodies are equally memorable as his vocals, if not more. Deb Talan’s lyric and vocal melody abilities slay me. Duncan Browne’s early work is all around some of the best songwriting I will ever hear. I will never be on any of their levels, but I appreciate what I have learned from each of them.
What is your creative process?
Usually, step one is to get real sad. Step two is to slump over my guitar and try to express said sadness. To be more specific, I usually find it best to start with the guitar part. This always helps me find the vibe that I’m looking for on the given day. Then, I sing lots of blah blah blahs until I find words that feel good. Explaining my creative process always feels ridiculous. There’s nothing romantic about it. Basically, I hole up in my room for a few hours, make lots of weird noises, mumble a lot, maybe cry a little, then bang on my roommate’s door to see if she likes it. Usually, her answer is “Aw, buddy…”.
How does “Loved/Dark” differ from your debut album?
In addition to feeling as though I’ve grown as an instrumentalist and writer, I felt more confident with experimenting. Also, I urged myself to be patient, meticulous and focused. I think “Loved/Dark” is a more diverse album in terms of genre, instrumentation and subject matter. I think we’ve taken a step forward from “Earnest Keep.”
What’s your favorite song on “Loved/Dark”?
I get down to “My Own Good.” I think that song is my longest step outside of my comfort zone. I’m glad it worked out.
What overall tone were you striving for on “Loved/Dark?”
First and foremost, I wanted diversity. But, I wanted a thin thread of psych to run throughout. I had a very specific story I wanted to tell, and I think we accomplished that. To know what that story is, you’ll probably have to read the lyric sheet.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?
I don’t think about that often. But, in this moment, let’s say chef.
What distracts you while you’re on stage?
I used to be heavily distracted by performance anxiety. I couldn’t stop thinking about whether or not I was good enough for the crowd. Honestly, I don’t feel very distracted during shows these days. The more I perform, the more I relax into playing. Being on stage doesn’t feel like concentration, but I do feel as though I should give the music all of my attention. This sounds incredibly ridiculous, but, when you’re spending time with a friend you don’t see often, or a great date, you just want to milk those moments and it’s hard to think about anything else. Playing music is kind of like that for me.
What’s in store for the remainder of 2014?
I’m about to head to Colorado for a month full of playing shows and to record a follow up EP. Beginning in September, I’ll be spending the rest of the year touring. I’m a lucky duck.
For more information about Alison May, visit her Facebook page.
Heather Smith is the creator and producer of Rubyfruit Radio, a podcast featuring the best in female artists.