Interview: May Cheung
I believe I first saw May Cheung about four years ago at an open-mic at the Sidewalk Cafe, if I remember correctly doing a live version of the song “A Thousand Years”, which is on her forthcoming record, The Departure. Since then I’ve only seen her around about a handful of times – more a testament to the vast and expansive nature of the New York City underground than anything else, but I still remember that first performance.
May – who will be performing at Rockwood Music Hall (Stage 2) this Sunday – was willing to share an early sneak-peek at the record, which was a nice treat. We talk about the record and we also talk about jazz.
Andy: The Departure – You named the album after the first track, “The Departure”. Does the song have a particularly special meaning to you that made you want to highlight the track? Is there a particular moment in your life that the song serves as the focal point for?
May: “The Departure” was written after a significant breakup, which marked the beginning of independence and utter freedom. Having been in monogamous relationships for a little over a third of my life, I felt that the action of departing from a past framed my feelings and emotions succinctly. The whole album was written in light of inner transition. A metamorphosis, if you will. Thus, ‘The Departure’ seemed like a well-suited title for the album.
Andy: The record has a lot of nice orchestration and production touches to it, which I think really complement your voice and writing. How was the orchestration and production done?
May: I attribute the orchestration and multiple layers of lush sound to the creative force that is my co-producer Nir Felder. We wanted to make these layers as clean as possible so Nir would come into the studio with 7 axes or so: acoustic, electric, baritone guitar, mandolin, etc. Most of the time, he had a very clear idea of what he wanted the sonic vibe to be. When inspiration struck, he would grab the instrument that spoke most to him and lay that down next, adding textures, weaving them in and out of the melody.
Luckily, our engineer for these sessions is also an incredible pianist name Jesse Fischer. So we’d ask him to sit in and add a few lines here and there on the piano, Korg or Hammond B-3 (even celeste!). The process takes longer when you want a cleaner outcome but the end result is worth it.
Andy: You studied jazz voice in college at McGill, is that correct? I think when you look at the New York City songwriter scene, a jazz vocal background or maybe any formal vocal training in general is relatively rare. Do you think it’s provided you with a lot of advantages in terms of your writing? I mean, it gives you more range and flexibility in terms of what you write I imagine.
May: Yes, I studied Jazz Voice Performance at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Having this background has definitely given me some leverage in terms of composing songs. I would concur that a majority of the singer-songwriters in the folk scene are not musically-trained. Although I don’t fully condone studying music for the purpose of becoming a lifelong performer, I feel that it did provide me with a lot of tools in terms of thinking outside of the box when it came to writing songs in regards to form, structure and harmony. In terms of writing lyrics though, I had to find my own voice through words, which was a welcomed challenge to me.
Andy: What brought on the transition from jazz to the singer-songwriter format? I used to do a good bit of jazz singing, but then moved on because I found the traditional jazz format a little restricting, at least for writing. Was it something like that? Or more the allure of pop song structure? What was the motivation?
May: After spending a handful of my early years dabbling in the jazz scene here in NY, I felt that it wasn’t the right medium for me. At least for this portion of my life. Don’t get me wrong, I love all kinds of music – old country music included. I’ve had my share of writing cerebral jazz music and standard-like songs. Something about accompanying yourself on the guitar was very alluring to me. All of a sudden, I was left only to my voice, my words and my guitar. I have memories of growing up listening to Simon and Garfunkle, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Crosby Stills and Nash, Joan Baez, the Beatles; and I just couldn’t help but to think, “I love folk music, I love songwriting, I love the sound of guitars…why not try it out?” And so here we are.
Andy: I always found it a challenge to write songs that were about a city, and I know it took me more than a few tries to write a song about New York City. I guess maybe it’s that cities can carry such history and meaning to so many people, it can be hard to do them justice. How did you go about writing the song “Montreal” and did you feel similar reservations when writing it?
May: With “Montreal”, I envisioned a stroll in the city through the eyes of my past. I spent my formative years there; its charm has never left me. I made some great friends while at McGill and we were up to some shenanigans, which is what this song depicts. It’s definitely tough to write a song about a city. But then you think of Bon Iver’s album ‘Bon Iver’ and almost all of the song titles are places.
I think cities encapsulate emotions and thoughts for the observer – in this case, the composer. To write explicitly about a city and its people can seem hoaky or tacky, which is what I struggled a lot with. But this song really comes down to my personal experience with Montreal; I lived there for seven years, which was enough time for me to really imbibe the culture, the language (dialect, really), and its philosophies.
Andy: In “Where I Want to Be” you switch up your lyrical rhythm patterns in a way that I thought was nice – a little unexpected. Where do you find your lyrical inspiration from? I take it lyrics weren’t really part of your jazz voice training? I mean, when you sing jazz vocals you’re oftentimes dealing with the songs of others – but it must’ve been an interesting move because lyrics from jazz standards are very different from modern lyricism. You read a jazz standard – “How much do I love you? How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky?”. I think modern singer-songwriters can’t really write that anymore.
May: My lyrical inspirations come from having listened to a lot of the great aforementioned artists. In high school, I got into Emily Dickinson and took a liking to her writing style. In university, we had to write lyrics to instrumental scat solos because it was a way for vocalists to recognize themselves as instrumentalists, not a disparate entity from horn players, for example.
When jazz music was in its glory days, it was the popular music of the western world so sure, it is definitely interesting singing lyrics that were written as early as the 1920’s. They can still convey the same emotions as we feel today, despite the differences in colloquial expressions from different eras. Modern singer-songwriters may have difficulty writing this way because let’s face it- we don’t speak that way anymore, with such formality and convention.
Andy: You’ve been living in New York City now for a number of years, and playing shows and writing and recording and workshopping. Are there lessons that you’ve learned from that experience that you think are important for any singer-songwriter to know when coming to NYC?
May: Always be prepared for success.