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FEATURE: We chat to the extraordinary Abbe May

Writing by Molly Mckew // The very talented and very fruity Abbe May has come a long way since she was 18 and playing in her fantastically named first band, ‘Fox Mulder’, alongside her brother. In the lead up to her fifth studio album FRUIT, I pick Abbe’s brain about songwriting and love, and in one paragraph the singer gives us all the life advice we will ever need. 

Writing by Molly McKew

34 year-old Abbe has been performing solo since 2010, after graduating the small stages of W.A. She has since has gathered a reputation for ballsy and seductive performances, and it’s clear she has been given the double whammy of sexual appeal and intelligence – any interview with Abbe will reveal a philosophically minded sensibility that toes so perfectly that line between realism and creative recklessness.

We talk on the phone on a hot Friday arvo, and I catch Abbe in a good mood, pre-afternoon coffee. She has just released her new single, ‘Love Decline’ (video here!), a groovin’ tune that showcases Abbe’s ever sexy and agile vocals. Her fifth album FRUIT is to be released on February 2nd in Australia, and May plans to do an Australian tour of the album before heading overseas to charm the rest. The singer has recently opened up about her sexuality, coming out as “ 90 per cent lesbian” with “the other 10 percent reserved especially for Raury and Tom Hiddleston. She says of her new record “I hope it helps other gay people feel less alone”.

Abbe has lots to say about a lot of things – we chat about the perils of cynicism, the importance of throwing yourself into life even when you come up bruises, and all types of love. Abbe also gives Ramona readers the best ream of advice I have read in years (“being fearless may well be a good way to get yourself killed, it’s also a great way to live” almost made me cry and it is now my new years resolution).


M: Abbe! What do you love about touring? Do you love touring?

A: Touring is hard work so I try to make sure I go to places that make sense for me to travel to. I love hotel rooms, and loathe early morning flights after late night shows. I love to connect with fans and build new audiences via touring. But, on the down side, touring has made it very hard to maintain long term relationships if the balance of personalities isn’t right. There are a lot of sacrifices to be made if you want to work as a musician!

M: Also, performing is tiring because of the build up of nerves then the release of performance! Do you get nerves? How do you deal with them?

A: I don’t get nervous anymore. I used to be very anxious and worried I would forget lyrics or a cue if I’m playing guitar for someone else, but now I just think “no-one is dead. It’s only rock n roll.”

M: I am loving the new track. What was the inspo behind ‘Love Decline’?

A: Well, it’s about a kind of malaise I had been feeling in romantic relationships for a while. Years ago, I heard a man say no one really falls in love after a certain age. At the time, I was worried he was right… perhaps I burnt out all my receptors in my 20’s? I dunno. I do look at love differently at the age of 34.  Recently, I was less inclined to believe a person’s character is real if I had a strong physical attraction to them. I thought I’d  go blind and my intuition would shut off. I have found that my particular “love goggles” might occasionally need a bloody good wipe because I see jack shit beyond what I want to see when I fall for someone.

M: And what about now? It sounds like you’ve had to become a bit hardened!

A: I’m learning not to be such a fool in romance – but I still know from experience that my heart is made of stuff strong enough to withstand tremendous trauma… so  I’m willing to be fearless and experience the pain – it goes hand in hand with the most rewarding romances of my life.

M: I guess everybody’s perceptions on love and romance changes with experience, and age! Are you a romantic at heart, or more of a cynic?

A: Alas, perhaps against my better judgement, I remain a romantic (I almost said “hopeless” before “romantic” but I think the romantic is the person who has hope at the centre of their trajectory). I think it’s a beautiful way to live.  I jump in the deep end and if I get eaten alive… well,  I’d rather be in pain than bored. I’m bored by people who play it safe and keep themselves guarded. They never seem to make anything good of their lives, they just seem to sit there, alone, despising the earnest pursuit of happiness and passion. I’d rather be open and earnest than someone who cares about preserving their cool.  I live for the fire, and if I get burnt – I always find my way back. Being fearless may well be a good way to get yourself killed, it’s also a great way to live.

M: Perhaps I don’t need to ask – as we all know the passions and heartbreak of romance can result in the best art. But, anyway, how do you find song-writing inspiration?

A: Well I used to say – I fall in love, I get hurt. Rinse and repeat. But, in the past few years, existentialism has been a massive inspiration. I’ve had a seizure on tour in 2013, NEARLY lost my infant nephew to illness and my best mate got incurable cancer… These experiences tend to both pull you away from sex, drugs and rock n roll. I have come to believe that happiness and pleasure are not the main reasons to be alive – they are the cherries on top of living a free life. I found the discovery of purpose in this crisis to be the great saviour of my life and ‘sanity’.  In this time I found purpose in the role of Aunty to my niece and nephews. I have to be a good and strong woman who speaks out against injustice when I have a platform, so that they know they can rely on me, but also so that they can see goodness exists in what is increasingly becoming a very fucked up world. I love them more than I have ever loved anyone. I would die for them. It’s a perfect love because unlike romantic love, it doesn’t require reciprocation. These kids don’t have to like me – they just need to know I love them and am reliable. It inspires me to evolve rather than devolve, and I have begun writing more about the love I have for them. My song “17” is a letter to my niece telling her “I remember when I was 17..21..28.. all the stupid things I did in those times..” I love her for freeing me from my self centredness, simply by existing.

M: Wow – it sounds like a humbling experience in a way, it’s nice to be drawn away from personal dramas sometimes and think about broader things.

A: Yeah –  I don’t care if this sounds earnest – I genuinely do not give a shit about cool. It’s a transient and shallow concept anyway! I now sometimes write about political issues because I am concerned about the world they will inherit from me. I want them to know I at least tried to help. I still sing about sex and love, still plenty of that in my life. I’m lucky because I have purpose AND happiness and pleasure in my life now.

M: You’re a super honest and open songwriter, which is so important in a world of lyrical cliche! How do you navigate singing about real life stuff like being cynical about love while still pursuing romantic relationships with people who hear those songs? Do you ever get self-conscious about lyrics and people you know interpreting them?

A: I refuse to be cynical. I had a patch where I was and I wrote the song in that time but now I just think… stuff it – I’m a romantic. Yes, it’s difficult to navigate the effect on muses and I never want to hurt anyone. Actually, there is a song on my new album which I considered not including because I knew the woman I was singing about would be potentially hurt/annoyed and I have so much love for her, even though it didn’t work out and we aren’t on speaking terms. I am grateful to her for loving me for several years and during some of my most difficult mental health periods – I was a nightmare and she was very good to me.

M: Would you ever censor or exclude a song for those reasons?

A: I don’t want to hurt her (or anyone, for that matter)  but it’s the best song on the album. I thought about censoring it but I realised she probably won’t care by now – I actually think she will laugh!  I’m definitely not flattering myself in the song so I think it will be OK.  Generally, when faced with such dilemma, I sometimes consider sending the song to the subject and beg for permission to release it. I don’t always though.

M: Tell us about your first forays into songwriting – when did you start to write your own stuff and start performing?

A: I joined my brothers band when I was 18 and he let me finish lyrics for his songs and taught me over a few years about song structures. I eventually started writing my own songs after i got my heartbroken by a boy (yes, I know. A boy.) Also my grandmother, who was my best friend, died. It was such a sad and confusing time for me. I needed to write for catharsis. Catharsis through songwriting and singing  is still my main source of relief.

M: What was it like growing up as a muso in W.A? Were there lots of opportunities and support available for young women? (The only venue near me when I was young was E.V’s youth centre, which was so full of suburban rock gods I scooted my diamante studded face out of there as soon as I could!)

A: Haha! WA has always been incredible. We had lots of venues to play in and a big, thriving scene. PLUS we have organisations like WAM and the Department Of Culture and the Arts which are incredibly supportive with funding and initiatives to stimulate the music scene.  This just keeps getting stronger and stronger.

M: Wow it sounds like a great place for a creatively driven person to be… what would you say to young girls wanting to take a musical path like yours?  

A:  Respect yourself. Find yourself. Be grateful for living a free life if you do! Don’t complain about that which you have the power to change. Negativity is boring and breeds only negativity. Cynicism is not cool.

Be direct. Be upfront. Don’t be a person who only texts. Speak and engage with your community face to face. Sit by the ocean or in the bush at least once a week.

Get off the internet. Get on the internet. Read books! Watch movies! Embrace your world. Ask questions. Consider your effect on others. Watch the sunset as often as you can. Watch it come up too.

Don’t watch reality TV. It will suck the life right out of you. I know because I’ve done it. You should know more about Sophie Scholl than you do about Sophie Monk. No offence Sophie, you seem nice.

Compliment strangers. If a stranger puts his hand up your skirt at a crowded bar, strangle him like I did. Don’t be afraid to make a scene. Fight for your rights.

Touch your toes every day. Exercise for good mental health. When you look in the mirror, stop calling yourself fat, ugly, stupid, too think, too old, too black, too white, too whatever, the patriarchy tells you to call yourself. Don’t support gossip magazines. Don’t cry nice-white-lady tears.

Listen to your sisters from other walks of life. Assist them in the fashion in which they ask you. Be a good and patient teacher. Be a good and dedicated student.

Don’t waste one second longer than you have to on people who don’t love you. Don’t feel unlovable because someone couldn’t love you. That’s their shit. Write songs about it. Move on to the next muse. Try not to hurt people who love you. Try not to hurt people who don’t love you.

Look at people’s actions never at their words. True character and intent is shown through actions. Don’t try to appear as if you are something you are not. Just be you by spending your life finding your center and purpose. Know that finding purpose is more important in life than finding happiness and pursuing pleasure, though happiness and pleasure are some of the best cherries atop a truly free life.

Believe in soul. Create as much as you can. Don’t do it for money or fame. Do it purely to develop your talent and craft. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to say fuck off.

Help other artists. Help the elderly! Help the disadvantaged! Use your platform for good! Find your muses and mentors. Be a mentor. Be sober. Be drunk.

Don’t keep your knowledge from other artists. Don’t follow trend. Don’t bitch, just know. Be brave, it’s a feeding frenzy out there.

M: I LOVE THIS AND AM GOING TO PUT IT ON A POSTER!!!! On this note – taking a creative path can be totally consuming and involves a lot of strength, and commitment. Do you feel you missed out on anything/scarified, throwing yourself into music so young?

A: Yes, I may never own a house, I may never settle down, I may never have children. I may never have a pet dog. Music is my main comfort in an increasingly disturbing world and level of consciousness. I’d rather have nothing at the end of my life than have all of those things if it meant I had to take a less true path. Can’t take the home with me when I die. I am not sacrificing my life for that ‘dream’.

M: If you could go back in time, what would you tell your 14-year-old self?

A: You are a good kid and please, for the love of all that is holy – STOP OVER PLUCKING YOUR EYEBROWS. Also – everyone knows when you try to lie.

M: Moving on to more important things, like food. I’m coming over for dinner tonight! What are you making?

A: I’m the worst cook. Let’s go out !

M: If you were tone deaf and had never picked up an instrument, what do you think you would be doing with yourself now?

A: I might be a teacher! My whole family are teachers. It’s a very noble profession and I think everyone has at least one teacher who changed their lives. Mine was Kathy Muir who found me as a very bullied 10 year old and taught me to sing. (I was bullied by a teacher – the kids were awesome)

M: The most important question – dogs or cats?

A: Can I have ALL of the dogs and cats?

Molly Mckew

Molly Mckew is a writer and musician from Melbourne. In 2019 she completed a history PhD on the countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s in Melbourne and she has been published in Overland, The Conversation, and Archer magazines.

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