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ABBE MAY A Clam Jam for your Valentine

Abbe May’s new album Fruit launches at the latest instalment of her custom-curated festival celebrating women in music, Clam Jam, at Chevron Gardens tonight, Valentine’s Day, February 14, also featuring Sex Panther, Thelma Plum and more. SHANE PINNEGAR reports.

A bold and catchy album full of proud, loving proclamations of self-identity from the former Bunbury girl, Fruit is May’s first release since coming out last year, and, she says, to fully tell the story of the record we have to go back a few years to 2013.

“It was four days after the ARIAs – we were nominated for Best Female Artist [for the Kiss My Apocalypse album],” May explains. “We had a great time – it’d been several years of really hard work, and ultimately, I was very, very stressed and I had a seizure.

“It just stopped me dead in my tracks for several years. Mentally, I had a lot of imbalance in my brain chemistry after that, and my actual nervous system was really not in great shape – I had to work some things out, but it ultimately was a really great blessing because if it hadn’t have happened, I think I would have been carrying on the way that I was for a long time.

“I’m also really grateful to the trip I’ve had afterwards, in order to really figure out what I actually like and I’ve ended up in a place where I like, and I like who I am. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t had that absolutely life-altering seizure.

“I think I would call it a near-death experience,” she adds, “and I think it’s definitely changed me for the better. Life is a lot less shallow these days.”

Fruit’s honesty is, according to her press release, May’s “way of showing my face with out shame” with its honest exploration of sexuality and self. Is it daunting to leave oneself so exposed?

“No, I feel emboldened by it,” she declares. “In 2016 a teenager in Queensland killed himself after homophobic bullying, and I felt like, what’s the fucking point of doing this if I’m not standing up and being strong for people who haven’t got the support and strength that I currently have. I wanted to stand up and be myself, and hopefully that will prevent people from feeling so alone and isolated – even if it’s only one person.

“Since the seizure, there’s been a lot of contemplation and therapy, and a need to find purpose because there was massive amounts of anxiety and depression, and some suicidal thoughts. I think one of the things I learnt through this process of recovery, is that life is not just about the pursuit of happiness and pleasure. They’re really wonderful cherries atop a wonderful tree, [but] the most important thing is finding purpose. And I found purpose through the role of auntie to my brother’s children, [and] the work, which is to actually stand up and be authentic so that other people know that they can, too.

“Any kind of self-harm or suicide is awful. I feel like it’s really important to be bold, and to be you, so that people who aren’t as supported can feel a little safer.”

May’s positivity has long run through her work, as has her subtle – often dark – sense of humour.

“Not all people realise that I’m a comedian,” she jokes quietly. “[The humour is] quite frequently overlooked. I have a fairly dark image – I can come across as fairly intense, but I actually find most things really funny, and I’m primarily able to laugh at myself a great deal. I find myself really funny because I’m a silly human.

“I’m just like everybody else – I’ve got vanity, I’ve got frailty and fragility. It’s quite a hilarious thing to be a human. We’re really fucking stupid, at the same time we’re capable of tremendous feats of compassion and wonderful feats of technology. We’re quite an amazing species, but we’re also basically a self-interested parasite.

“I think primarily my humour comes from laughing at myself, and my own flaws… in the end, if you don’t laugh, like they say, you’re going to cry. I like to inject a bit of humour into things. But you know, a lot of the humour is stuff that is really for me, so that’s probably why a lot of people don’t quite realise that I’m making a joke. But, I’m delighted that you’ve noticed.”

May’s musical journey has taken her from the stoner rock of early band The Fuzz, through Voodoo blues, doom pop and singer-songwriter earnestness, while Fruit combines her rock attitude with electro leanings and a soulful heart. It’s obvious she feels able to head in any musical direction that takes her fancy and have her die-hard fan base follow.

“Well… they don’t necessarily follow,” she corrects me with an audible shrug. “The thing is, I just basically cannot make the same album twice. I work with different artists, different collaborators, I read different books, I’m influenced by different relationships. All of these influences do not remain static. If you think about yourself over the past 10 years, is there any point during that past 10 years in which you identify with the person you were, in a complete and whole way, with regard to who you are now? It’s not possible to remain the same. And if you do, there’s something wrong.”

At the heart of being an artist is following your own muse.

“I think it’s commercially much more viable to make the same style of music over and over and over again, but I don’t give a fuck,” she says. “I have explorations of music and styles that I want to achieve, and my audience either follows or they don’t. I’ve found, actually, now I’ve done five albums of very different material, people are just expecting me to do something different each time. So there’s no surprise anymore, which is great. That means that people have shown tremendous respect, especially in the past two years, with regard to whatever I choose to do. It’s been a bit of a shit fight at times – say, after the success of my rock and roll recording on Desire, I decided to do an electronic recording, and some fans weren’t happy. But I feel like that’s totally their prerogative, but I have my own and I’ll continue to do that.

“I’m not driven by money. I just really want to explore music. And I’m really lucky that I get to do that, and that I have this wonderful audience that seems to grow and stay steady, and continue to come along with it.”

The concept of May’s Clam Jam events was born in 2016, and she relishes curating these celebrations.

“Yeah, in 2016 I decided I wanted to transform my shows into female dominated arenas,” she says. “It’s meant that we’ve created the antithesis to a ‘sausage fest’!  Every artist who’s gone on Clam Jam doesn’t get there as a handout or anything: these are incredible artists, and what I like the most is how much people are absolutely blown away by the epic talent of these bands rather than their gender.

“Ultimately, underneath it is actually a drive to place female artists in the spotlight where they belong, rather than the tendency to place men on, and then [a couple of] girls as sort of a token chick band.

“Now Perth Festival has picked it up, and that’s where we’re launching the album, and we’re also in talks with other festivals to do a curated Clam Jam around the country. So, it’s really quite an honour that [it] has become a place where we can empower other artists, so we can celebrate each other.’

And well overdue, I would think.

“I fucking think so!” she confirms.

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