After releasing a brand new holiday EP, the beloved northern Michigan songbird opens up about musical life during the pandemic in this relaxed, revealing interview with Local Spins writer Ricky Olmos.
The first time I speak with May Erlewine via Zoom, she’s framed by a black upright piano, sitting on the bench with her back to the keys.
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We venture into an effortless conversation with plenty of laughter, tour stories and honest reflections about the holiday season.
A day later, my tired 2010 MacBook slipped quietly into the next life along with the only record of our dialogue — forever lost to the ether of time and space, drifting somewhere in the vast cosmos.
After unsuccessful attempts to immediately revive the computer, cursing the known universe with a closed fist to the sky, and a late-night call to my editor, I reschedule another virtual interview with May and we roll with the punches like 2020 has taught us to do so well.
When we meet again on a Sunday afternoon, she’s joined by her 6-year-old daughter, Iris, and her 4-month-old puppy, Wilbur. They’ve just returned from frolicking in a fresh snow that’s blanketed Traverse City, where they reside. She sits once more in front of the piano, her coat still bundled and a black knitted hat embracing spirals of mahogany hair.
During 2020, Erlewine has adapted like many artists in the age of COVID-19. She’s performed plenty of virtual shows, written an abundance of new music, released two full-length recordings — one with the harmony-laden super-group Sweet Water Warblers and the other with Vulfpeck’s Woody Goss — and in early December, unfurled a peaceful, subdued seven-song holiday EP, “A Simple Phrase.” (Scroll down to listen to tracks from that EP.)
Erlewine is warmly engaging on social media and has long made a ritual of sharing her morning coffee routine on Instagram. With a Chemex on the counter in front of her, Erlewine offers an almost meditative good morning welcome to viewers.
Sometimes she stretches, or dances, graceful and ever-smiling while her coffee drips into the beaker like an hourglass. With a global pandemic and widespread isolation underway, the morning live-streams fill a void of human connection, both for fans and Erlewine herself.
Ricky: Your fans seem to really cherish your morning Instagram streams. What do you personally glean from it?
May: I grew up with my parents making pour-over coffee, so it was a tradition and a ritual I grew up appreciating. There’s this moment where you let the coffee bloom and it takes 30-40 seconds, and so I just started doing a little video with a song while I’m waiting for my coffee. I know some people are probably like, “What the hell is she doing?” But others have told me that it helps them get out of bed, or it helps them feel motivated in the morning, and I never would have expected that. It’s just a silly little dance party in the morning in my pajamas. It makes me happy. It’s interesting how isolated people feel in general, even though we’re supremely connected on social media. People are always thirsty for meaningful connections.
Ricky: Your parents sound super hip, making pour-over and all. What’s your brewing method? Any roasts you tend towards?
May: I use a Chemex at home. I like working with glass and the way that it holds the heat is really interesting. I usually enjoy dynamic medium to light roasts. I like when it has some character. I do drink coffee with cream, which I know is sacrilegious. (Erlewine has collaborated with Higher Grounds on the sweet, mellow coffee blend, “Shine On,” with $1 from each bag sold donated to Title Track, an organization supporting racial justice and work to build resilient social-ecological systems for clean water, racial equity and youth empowerment.)
Ricky: What other acts of self-care have you tried to maintain during 2020?
May: I think being with nature and being active have been two life-saving things for me. I’ve always been a runner, so I run most days. But this summer I started getting into road biking, and that’s a huge trend up here in Traverse City. I love being out there alone on these beautiful country roads. For me, being in my body helps my anxious mind calm down. So any way I do that is helpful. My daughter is so playful and likes to be active so she reminds me of that every day. And my puppy, too.
Ricky: What do you miss about pre-pandemic life?
May: My bandmates are like my family and I get so much nourishment just from spending time with them and arranging songs with them. It’s one of the ultimate highs in my life. I miss that so much. My social habits were very fluid and based on where I was. I was sort of this floating friend. I was moving around, having these really beautiful connections and deep conversations. I was really nourished by that. The spontaneity created a lot of magic and inspiration in my being. So I miss that a lot.
Ricky: Do you find it easier or more difficult to be creative during quarantine?
May: I’m usually prolific, but I feel way more able to put my ideas down right now because I have time. So my connection with my creative self, or muse, or whatever you want to call it is very solid right now. I don’t know what the hell I would do with all this time if I didn’t have this outlet of art and music.
Ricky: You’re absolutely allowed to swear during this interview, by the way.
May: Oh good. My mouth has definitely gotten worse being home all the time. I’ve been swearing a lot lately.
Ricky: Me too! It’s been freeing.
May: F–k yeah! I feel like swearing is a really personal thing, because if you’re doing it outside of your own comfort zone, then it can become very awkward. It’s gotta be when you really feel it. I work with kids a lot, so I need to have a pretty good switch. And I swear in front of my daughter, like we’re cool, she understands. Honestly, I’ve just started swearing more in the past five years than ever before, and it wasn’t a conscious choice, I think life just got that f–ked up, that I was like ‘alright motherf–kers, some swearing is going to happen now.’ It feels good. It feels authentic.
Ricky: What’s your favorite swear word?
May: Oh man, I don’t know, because they’re each different to me for different reasons.
Ricky: What about for 2020?
May: F–k! It feels appropriate for so many reasons.
Ricky: Does it ever make it into your music?
May: No, not really. That feels very inauthentic to the musical space I’m in. I’ve only sworn on stage a handful of times, and it always felt really intense, probably just to me. It didn’t feel very natural. I remember one time, it was about Donald Trump or something and I was pissed, and I said ‘shit’ or maybe I said ‘asshole,’ and my guitar player looked at me and said: ‘May, you swore on stage…and people cheered!” I’ve never written a song with a swear word in it. But maybe this is the impetus. Maybe I’ll write a big swearing song.
Ricky: Perhaps for the next holiday album.
May: People would probably love that.
Ricky: In a 2019 interview, you mentioned that clothes and personal fashion is something you enjoy experimenting with. Why do you think that is?
May: Fashion’s just fun. And I think it’s beautiful to see the way people express themselves through their clothes and what feels good. And on stage it’s super fun to play. Because people look at you for an hour and a half or whatever, and it’s fun to make it an interesting palette to look at.
Ricky: Have you ever worn anything on stage that you now find embarrassing looking back?
May: Not embarrassing stylistically. I mean I’m sure there’s some horrible shit that I’ve worn! But I don’t care. That’s my evolution. But I have had … some vintage costume wardrobe failures. Some of these dresses are these very old, beautiful things, and sometimes they were not meant to be worn on stage. So I’ve seriously had gigs where my dress was disintegrating right before I went on and I had to run to the car and change or pin myself together. Or times where things were see-through and I didn’t realize it. Or too short. Or maybe don’t play the drums with that skirt on.
Ricky: Any treasured fashion finds from the road?
May: Yes! We played at this old theater in the U.P., and in the basement, before the show we had a lot of time, and they had a whole wardrobe of costumes for different productions. I was messing around, having a glass of wine, and I put this coat on. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was this long, black-sequined show coat, and I had my hat on and I was taking all these pictures, and I fell in love with it. At the end of the night the whole team from the show presented it to me and told me it was mine. I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of it.
Ricky: Believe it or not, I actually have a sparkly jacket story too. (The band I was in) played this festival in rural Illinois, which is like most of it, except Chicago. I was wandering through a field and this hippie woman with grey hair was walking towards me, wearing this long, glimmering jacket with disco ball tiles on it. Someone had given it to her at another festival. We met in the middle of this field, had a short conversation … and by the end of it she looked me in the eyes, took one of my hands and said ‘I think this jacket belongs to you now.’
May: That’s amazing! Everyone should have a sparkly jacket story. They make life a little better.
Listen: May Erlewine, “Silver Bells”
Ricky: Why did you decide to make a holiday record this year?
May: Well I didn’t really want to, and wouldn’t have planned on doing it. But I asked my fans during a live-stream if I should either make a holiday record or some super chill May songs for this time of year. And people were just so excited about a holiday record. It’s a very chill little record. It’s some slow-ass Christmas music.
Ricky: What’s the worst holiday food?
May: I wish any sort of Jell-O thing just didn’t happen.
Ricky: What immediately comes to mind when you reflect on this time of year?
May: The longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve realized that holiday times tend to be really triggering times for a lot of people, whether they realize it or not. As I’ve grown I’ve noticed that they’re really not very easy for a lot of people. I lost my best friend in December, and it made me realize even more how this time of year can feel different for everybody. And I went through my own life transitions not long after that. It just made it all feel very different. Winter is a time of reflection and moving inward, and we bloom out in the spring.
Ricky: What does the world need more of?
May: Healing and reparation.
Ricky: What keeps you going as an artist?
May: I don’t know what else I would do. I mean, I could do anything, but I just don’t know what else I could do that would fulfill my heart as much. I could get into pottery and that’d be fun, but would these mugs I made be helping people to come out of depression, or go through their divorce, or deal with cancer, or reconnect with their estranged family? These are big, emotional things that music helps us to get through.
It isn’t easy, and sometimes I’m like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’… I think the life of an artist involves some ego struggle where you ask yourself if it’s worth it or if you’re any good. And all those things are just blasted apart when someone says that a song saved their life. Holy shit. Then I’m like ‘ego, you can go cry in the corner, and I’m just going to keep doing the work.’ I trust the path of my life and if that feeling changes and I need to find another way to be useful, then I will.
Sometimes I’ll think: ‘Do I want to be a waitress at the pancake house? Would that make me feel better today?’ I mean I would love it. I’ve done all kinds of work. And maybe I’ll be down at the pancake house someday. But for now, I’ll keep writing songs.
Listen: May Erlewine, “The Christmas Song”
Copyright 2020, Spins on Music LLC