Five questions with Waterford singer-songwriter Anna May
There's no uniform gestation period on the birth of music. Now, though, it seems there are daily new downloads, EPs and albums arriving because of (or inspired by) the unique parameters and disquiet of the coronavirus.
For Waterford singer-songwriter Anna May, 27, her latest project, a four-tune EP called "Kites," was barely in progress when the world effectively shut down in early March of last year. She had just entered Stable Sound Studio in Portsmouth, R.I., to start laying down material with producer/engineer Steve Rizzo. The goal was to record a complete album with full-band arrangements.
"We rushed to get through four basic tracks with just my voice and acoustic guitar," May says by phone earlier this week in Waterford, where she's staying with her parents during the pandemic. "It was strange because, as we were recording, the situation got worse quickly. It was when people were just starting to rush to grocery stores and stock up on things because no one knew what was going on."
May figured she would ride it out and then return to the studio to finish the four tracks with backing musicians, then add additional new tunes. Obviously, that has yet to become possible and, over the summer and into the fall and winter, as May listened to the original tracks, she began to release them one by one as downloadable singles. Now, she's officially releasing all four — in their sparse arrangements — as the "Kites" EP. Life in COVID has changed her perspective on the work.
In addition to the title song, the tunes include "Careless," "Come Down, Dreamer" and Beside Me." Each is languorous, pretty and sad — almost like ambient hymns — with ghostly acoustic guitar and May's wounded but yearning voice spinning beyond any melodies that might be suggested by the chordal roadmap. This is candlelight or falling-leaf music, and the lyrical mix of metaphor, imagery and confessional detail is perfect for empathy and/or speculation.
Prior to "Kites," she had released three other EPs: "Hey Houdini," "Flimsy Diatribe" and "I'm Still Thinking of You." May grew up in East Lyme and Waterford. She's performed extensively on the local scene as a solo artist, in a variety of folk groups, and with her father Vince Thompson, the veteran Americana artist and leader of roots group The Next Fun Thing.May has also spent time absorbing the rhythms, sounds and cultures in New Orleans and Buenos Aires. May answered five questions about "Kites" and her career.
1. There's a sonic and thematic quality to the EP that suggests the material was inspired by the pandemic. But they were already written. What was the inspiration for the songs, and why do they dovetail so perfectly with the melancholy of isolation?
A. I had experienced a series of short romantic relationships that didn't work, and there was a lot of confusion and pain and, I guess, newly acquired wisdom. I felt like the only way to go was inward and deeper, and that became sort of a spiritual journey.
At the same time, I was observing how people my age, millennials, had grown up in a very different world. So I'd also been trying for commentary that's bigger than just writing about myself. For a long time, I've observed so much cold and hostile judgment in people, vast consumerism and materialism. And so a lot of all these elements came out in these songs.
2. In a strange way, then, given the meditative and lulling quality of the work, it's almost as though you were writing perfect soundtrack music for a pandemic before the pandemic actually hit.
A. Yes! Because the songs were about isolation BEFORE the pandemic. Originally, I was going to do a concept album about what I've been going through emotionally. The love of my life had broken up with me on New Year's Eve, and then suddenly the virus was here. I looked at the songs and how cohesive they sounded and how I'd blended certain metaphors and lyrics in what I call spiritual dreamscapes. And the music I've been working on since the pandemic hit has refined this. It sounds odd to say it, but quarantine for me has been an experience of limitless creativity and allowed me to go inside myself and nature to discover something purer in the face of doubt and anxiety.
3. Going back a bit: a lot of musicians get into songwriting or the profession for a lot of different reasons and maybe the motives changes with experience. Does that apply to your work?
A. Again, music for me is very spiritual, but, yes, maybe it wasn't that way at the start. When I first started playing music, it was more about being onstage and the performance aspect, but as time went on, I felt scattered and empty in that context. When you concentrate on writing, that's therapy, and sometimes I think, "That's not me writing that; that's a higher power," and it's very humbling. Or maybe it's just subconscious, but either way it's reassuring that those magical moments happen.
4. Originally, you'd planned on fleshing out the songs on "Kites" with full-band arrangements. Is that still an option? They're extremely moving and effective in this stripped-down format.
A. For a while, I kept thinking of the songs as unfinished — at least in terms of the album I heard in my mind. But the more I lived with them as they are, the more I liked them, and I finally decided that was OK. I realized maybe they're supposed to exist like this — that they very much work the way they are.
5. Whatever happens with the pandemic and the work you're doing, music is still a business and you'd still like to make a living with it. Have you also used the downtime to try an advance your career in that fashion?
A. Yes, actually. Through a wonderful songwriter named Zoe Bookbinder, I've made a connection with a management group called Tiny Human in Seattle. Their clients include Zoe, Sixto Rodriguez, Death Cab for Cutie, and Laura Viers. I've been learning a lot about how to use social media and other tools. That's another silver lining about living in isolation. I've had time to do a lot of things I knew I NEEDED to do from a business angle but never had the time.
Who: Anna May
What: "Kites" EP
Where: Annamaybandcamp.com, Spotify, annamaymusic.com
How much: $4