Seeing Clearly: Singer-songwriter May Erlewine's new album, "Second Sight," is filled with political fire
The much-loved singer-songwriter May Erlewine begins a fall tour this week in support of her powerful and poignant new album, Second Sight, and one of the first shows she has scheduled is on Friday, October 4 at The Ark.
Interviewed by phone last week for Pulp, the Michigan native was already psyched about coming back to Ann Arbor's premier venue for acoustic music. "Oh my gosh, The Ark is my favorite!" Erlewine said. "It feels the most like a homecoming show and I did spend time living in Ann Arbor a lot of my life so there’s truth to that. Every time I play there I put so much intention and thought into it because it’s a big deal to me. It’s just one of the best venues in the whole country."
Erlewine will be bringing a five-piece band and two backup singers to The Ark, with one set devoted to the entire Second Sight album and another set to other songs. "It’s a reflective time but we’re also infusing it with a lot of catharsis and levity," said Erlewine. "I want people to reengage and to feel connected to their home and their community and their heart."
May Erlewine's music truly has a special way of touching the listener's heart and soul with its message of hope and unity, and positivity is something we can never get enough of these days.
Q: How did your new album Second Sight come together?
A: The album was recorded three times and it became what it is over the course of some failures and learning experiences. This version of it was recorded with Tyler Duncan at his studio The Barber Shop in Ann Arbor. Tyler really was a pivotal part of the record but he encouraged me to self-produce it; he played piano on it and engineered it and he co-wrote a few of the tunes as well. He produced Mother Lion, my last record, and worked with me the whole way through that one. That was a pretty in-depth process and so I just love working with him and kind of feel that when I can work him I definitely want to.
Q: Were all these songs written after Mother Lion came out in 2017?
A: A lot of the songs on Second Sight were written in the wake of the election of the current president. The first track, "Here We Are," was written around the same time that the Mother Lion tunes were written, but all the rest are themed in what it means to live in this country right now and try to cope and understand the process of what to do and how to feel about it and how to continue to connect with our home even though it feels so messy.
Q: How did the results of the 2016 election make you feel?
A: I just couldn’t really believe it. It really drained me of my own wellspring of relentless optimism; I kind of felt like giving up. Then I slowly noticed that I wasn’t the only person feeling that way. It felt so very personal somehow, so wounding, especially being a woman with a young daughter; the disrespect to women really felt personal. Then I thought, “Well, I’m a white woman -- imagine people who have far less than I do or who are in a far more precarious situation. If I’m feeling this devastated, I can’t really imagine all the other outrage and feelings that have been going on." I decided in order to get myself out of this funk I had to make a choice of whether I was going to remain silent or really dig into it. I thought about it very intensely for a long time and I just realized I couldn’t live with myself in the future being silent. I’ve been speaking more about it than I ever have in my whole career and it’s been really delicate. I’m not one who wants to alienate people and I’m just trying to walk this precarious line, not in a political way but in a way that’s honoring all the people that live in this country, and decency and respect as sort of rudimentary things that we would want from any leader, no matter what our political beliefs are. I’ve gotten a lot of shit for it -- a lot of people have told me I should just make people feel good with my music and that I’m creating more harm. But I’ve decided it was important to use my voice in the way I can, and I do believe in the legacy of the folk musician being for people and being a service-oriented job. So that’s where I’m at!
Q: Could you talk about the song "That’s My Home" from your new album? That one contains some particularly compelling lyrics.
A: "That’s My Home" was the first song that I wrote coming out of that funk I mentioned, and it’s a direct letter to the president. I wrote it almost like a love letter; I was feeling like it was so personal to my heart. I kept writing and writing and was angry and so upset -- it was more like writing to a friend or lover that was wounding me than some political person I don’t know. Out of that process, the song showed up and it’s sort of a cry asking the president to take some responsibility for the damage that’s being done by his actions and also just addressing the amount of hate-speak and fear that’s being projected onto minorities in this country.
Q: A lot of songwriters I've talked to over the years mention tunes that came to them in a flash, seemingly from an outside or spiritual source of inspiration. Did that happen to you on this new album?
A: The one that came from elsewhere is “Afraid,” and it’s sort of like a prayer, this very slow ballad, almost like a gospel ballad about not giving into fear. One of the lines goes, “I won’t be afraid, afraid to fall / I’d rather be broken and give it my all.” We can't be led by fear; we have to live, encourage and love and keep going. The album ends with that song and it came from another place, a higher place. It was a gift to me in a moment when I needed to hear that message. I’ve performed that one for a few years and it’s been really powerful to see how much people need that message right now. The song is a plea and a prayer to live and love and act in strength.
Martin Bandyke has been the morning drive host on Ann Arbor’s 107one, WQKL-FM, since January 2006. Besides playing cool tunes on the air from 6-10 am Monday through Friday, he also hosts the freeform program Fine Tuning on 107one every Sunday from 4-6 pm.
May Erlewine's "Second Sight" album release show is Friday, October 4 at The Ark, 316 S. Main Street, Ann Arbor. Doors 7:30 pm, show 8 pm. $20. Tickets & info: theark.org.