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Abbe May – A Process of Necessity [interview]

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[This interview was originally published on Mood of Monk.]

Abbe May is cooler than me. She is the rock chick I always wanted to be – sexy, talented, intense, with guitar playing prowess. Her new album, Design Desire, is making all sorts of waves in the musical realm and I was hooked after the first four songs. It is a huge, 70s-vibed epic, and it is Abbe’s vocals that really stand out – alternating between ethereal, almost heavenly, and deep and growling.

On the album Abbe is an other-worldly creature of fierce strength and sexuality and it interests me to find out what is behind that persona. The first thing I notice is her surprisingly polite and softly-spoken manner as she talks from her home in Western Australia. I assume growing up on that side of the country would have had an impact on her chosen profession and Abbe confirms this.

“I think your environment always affects what you do, whether it’s creative or not. I grew up in a surfing town, where you’re either a surfer or a skater or a musician. I was too pale to surf and too clumsy to skate, but I always had an affinity with singing and playing guitar so that became a natural path.”

It appears that music is something firmly ingrained in Abbe’s life. She’s certainly got a natural talent and the type of magnetic personality that gets her noticed. I ask her where it all started, if she remembers the first piece of music she was really passionate about.

“It was Hello Baby by Big Bopper. I was about 5 or 6, and my parents used to put 50s rock and roll on in the lounge room, we used to race around dancing – I now realise that was less about musical education and more about them trying to wear us out! But it is a sassy, sexy song with beautiful baritone vocals. I remember really responding to it.”

It’s a long stretch from the fun, upbeat, often cheesy world of 50s rock to the intense emotional ride of Design Desire. Abbe takes me through the process that produced her own style of rock on the album.

“I’m planning a more collaborative process for the next album, but for this one it was like cramming. I had several songs ready to record and as you try to record you realise some don’t work, so I had less songs than I needed.

I recorded the song Mammalian Locomotion on the first day and I actually wrote it the morning before, after months of playing around with it in one form or another. I wrote it as it appears on the album just before I went into the studio. In some ways it’s a good way to do it, the pressure of a time limit is quite productive – if you have months in which to write you can procrastinate!

I did 14 days in row for the first block of recoding. I would finish in the early hours of the morning, then go to sleep and wake up and write the rest of the song. I live in a small apartment and because of those hours I had to play at very low levels so as not to disturb my neighbours. I’d be huddled over an amp with the volume turned up just to half, using an old drum machine and, because of the volume restrictions, I would sing quite softly. This resulted in me writing riffs that were heavy and fast and the vocals married quite well with the heavy music underneath, so I decided to keep the soft, ethereal vocals. Basically the process of necessity made this album.”

Sex is a theme that dominates the album. The lyrics deal with all aspects of human relationships, but sexuality is at the top of the list.

“The album theme is sex, love and death and the mysteries and miseries that accompany those things,” Abbe says. “I think that’s a common muse for most writers. There’s a sexuality to the record, we were using rhythms and tyring to create sounds that had a pulsating sexuality about it. That’s what we were aiming for.”

The title track, Design Desire, is a standout that definitely lives up to the aimed-for pulsation. It is strong and unapologetic, in the same way Abbe is when she describes its meaning. She is obviously someone who thinks a lot about society and our roles in it, and especially how the modern world has changed the way we relate to others and ourselves.

“The song is about premeditated seduction, about pre-chase attraction. We’re generally not like wild animals anymore, we have ways of making ourselves more appealing, we buy perfume and the right clothes and jewellery, which we’re told by media to wear because it makes you sexier. We construct our appeal, we take measurements of attractiveness and whether we’d be suited with someone. The advent of the Internet has made the process different than in the past, we can find out on Facebook what people are like before even meeting them, and a lot of socialisation is done like that these days. In that way we are all guilty of premeditated seduction.

I chose Design Desire to be the title track because a lot of my songs touch on voyeuristic appeal and attraction, about seeing someone before knowing them and finding them appealing, and also the misery that comes from it.”

One of the main things I notice about the album is that, while it is highly sexual, it is done in a very raw and very genuine way that you don’t often find in today’s extremely manufactured music industry. Most of the depictions of female sexuality are paint-by-numbers and rarely represent the reality of being a woman.

“I think it’s a little horrific,” Abbe agrees. “A lot of commercial music like Katy Perry, who I have a particular distaste for, involves the selling of sex to girls who aren’t even teenagers yet, and I find it’s lacking in social conscience. It disgusts me, because it’s aimed at young girls and is quite dangerous.

On the other hand you have someone like Beyonce who is incredible, with a strong, powerful, fierce sexuality about her which is really empowering for women and men to see. So it can be done really well. Female musicians in the commercial arena can use what they’ve got in a way that’s empowering, but more often than not it’s a despicable display of sexuality aimed at pleasing men and telling other women they have to live up to that sort of plastic, Katy Perry bullshit.”

One thing Abbe is not, is plastic. Her soul-bearing style of music is real and personal and, as I tell her at the end of our interview, I would be surprised if it didn’t do very big things in the near future.