May Erlewine photos by Michael Poehlman
May Erlewine On The Realities Of Human Love In Tiny Beautiful Things (Tone City Music)
May Erlewine found Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny Beautiful Things life-changing in its true snapshots of human connections and the reflections on human love that it prompted for her. Crafting a song titled “Tiny Beautiful Things” helped her expand on an idea for a new album bringing together a collection of songs that explored the often-unspoken avenues of connection and the many threads that make up the full human experience of love. This would definitely not be the “fluffy” approach that modern culture tends to feed us, but one that spoke to her experiences far more directly.
Putting together a wide-ranging collection of ideas was just the start for Erlewine, who like so many artists, then faced the challenge of remote recording despite her real passion for being in the same room with collaborators during arrangement sessions. Co-producing the album with Joe Hettinga, they devised a way to create song structures that could be filled in, like pieces of a puzzle, in order to reach their goals and it became an enlightening process in its own way. The result is a powerhouse of a collection, arriving on May 13th from Tone City Music, that speaks as significantly in its gentler moments as when it roars with emotion. We talked with May Erlewine about the journey into the songs and the collection, and the ways it speaks to lived human experience.
Americana Highways: Do you have an established rhythm for songwriting and creating albums, or do you follow the songwriting and work more with when the time feels right?
May Erlewine: I’m really an active writer and I love recording and making records and the collaboration that entails. I’m constantly finding ways to do it because it’s part of my creative process that I really enjoy. It’s a little bit of both in that the songs ask for collaboration, but I’m also looking for excuses to get into the studio. A lot of this album was written and recorded remotely, and that was really unique for me.
Part of what I love is being in a room with other musicians and having that exchange, so this was really different. We did it mostly over Zoom and through this plugin called “Listento” where we could hear what the other person was doing. That means that it was made all over the country. I feel really happy that we could do it, but it definitely took a lot more patience from everyone involved to get what we ended up with.
AH: I know that involves a lot more steps and small parts being put together.
ME: I agree, and also to try things is that much riskier. In a room, you can ask, “What if we do this?” And that leads you down a trail and an arrangement in a room. That’s my preferred way to arrange compositions. But when you’re far away and there’s a delay, it’s very different to explore things.
AH: When you look at this collection, do you think there are things that grew out of this unique approach?
ME: I think there were definitely arrangement and production choices that were influenced by the limitations that we had. It’s not that they were based on limitations, but that they opened up a way of listening that was very different. In some ways, we had to create skeletons of songs in order to record the overdubs. So it was a little bit like building a sandcastle of a song and then tearing it down to build the real version.
We’d have to create fake piano to get the drums or fake drums so that we could get the bass. In that process we learned a lot about what we liked or didn’t like. We learned a lot through trying out sounds ahead of time. Sometimes we liked the stand-in sound and kept it. My co-producer Joe Hettinga was really patient and willing to try things, as well as willing to let go of things we tried. He made a big difference in how this record felt due to his endless patience.
AH: Do you think of this album as something created to be a group of love songs, or is it more a collection of songs that fit well together?
ME: This one is a collection, inspired by the book Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, which is itself a collection of letters. These letters were written to her under a pseudonym and she responded to these major life dilemmas in a very eloquent and human way. I found the book at a difficult time and for some reason it made me feel less isolated.
So there’s this thread of connection and the idea that if you can find a thread of connection in life, difficult things become more meaningful and also easier to traverse. This collection of songs is about love, but in a very human sense since love has a lot of incarnations in the way that it shows up. We have the pain of losing love, we have love for our children, there’s the gooey puppy love, there’s the love that stands the test of time. There’s even love in the way that we move through struggle.
I wanted to talk about that with this record, so it is an intentional collection of love songs, but it’s not just a happy, love-based record in the way someone might think. I wanted to send out the message that love is always there, no matter what we’re going through. That made sense with the book, but what I didn’t really anticipate was that while I was making this record during the pandemic, we were all deepening our experience of connection through being less connected. That caused us to really reflect on how being together makes us feel more human.
AH: In a few discussions lately, the idea has come up that we need to broaden the way that love and relationships are presented in music. The idea that a love song is purely romantic is limiting, and it could help people to expand the idea of love songs to reflect on the wider human experience.
ME: I agree with you, and I think it is really important to open that up. It is limiting to the experience otherwise. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had love be about one simple thing. There may be moments that you can distill into simplicity, and that can be beautiful, but we are complex, feeling, human beings, and allowing love to move through sadness, anger, beauty, or lust, feels so much more real to me.
When I experience love in my body, it feels big. It’s not just a fluffy thing. The real love that we carry around through a lifetime has strong legs, partly because you’ve been through many different kinds of love. That’s not to say that it always has to be hard, but it’s not easy to compartmentalize. I think a lot of emotional problems can arise if we do. I certainly was spoon-fed the American dream of romance as a kid through movies, and it was a real awakening to find, “Oh, that’s not all that love is.” I wish it had been more fairly portrayed earlier!
AH: Was it daunting to set yourself the goal of writing songs that would fit under this umbrella?
ME: I had a couple of songs that were written already, but most of them were written under this umbrella. I was thinking about the book and the time that we were in, trying to reflect on the different ways that love moves through our lives. I try to be gentle with my creative self, because I don’t react well to being limited. I tend to rebel a lot. It was more allowing it to be a possibility, but the more I went into it, the more it belonged.
I wrote the title track, “Tiny Beautiful Things,” and shared it on Twitter. Then Cheryl Strayed saw it and liked it. That was as I was working on the record, and that made it feel okay. I wondered if it would be okay to name an album after a book, but the book meant that much to me, and to a lot of my friends. The book is humans being real, and I feel like we all need that right now.
AH: It’s really impressive that “Tiny Beautiful Things” was the first song in the collection that you wrote and put out, since it’s a very detailed song. The lyrics are really specific. Of the songs on this album, it possibly covers the most territory.
ME: At the time, I just put a video out of me in my house singing it, and the emotion was there. I was really feeling it, so I just put it onto the internet, thinking that other people might need to feel this, too. The opening lines of it are actually from Anne of Green Gables, when someone is assessing her personality. Her response is that she acknowledges that maybe she is not normal, but that her truth is “hot.” I had a mentor who said, “I don’t want to be cool. I want to be red hot!”
I love that idea. I don’t want to be cool, I want to be a warm, loving human. That’s where the opening of the song comes from. We are who we are, and sometimes the thing that’s uncomfortable and burning hot in us is the essence of what makes us valuable in the world. I felt like everyone needed this reminder right now, that we’re beautiful and needed. People have resonated with it a lot. It was a dream come true moment when one of my heroes, Cheryl Strayed, heard it and liked it.
AH: In retrospect, it really pulls together the other songs on the collection, so makes a great title track.
ME: I was hopeful that it would feel sort of like a container, or a roadmap, for the record.
AH: The song “Easy” is also a really interesting one, and the live play video really brings that out, too. When I first hear the song, I was struck by some of the things we’ve been talking about, that this was not a fluffy love song, but a reflective one with difficult emotions, even though it has a very gentle sound.
ME: That’s a very painful song, and it’s about acceptance of imperfection. In a relationship, that’s one of the hardest hurdles to overcome. When we are really deeply in love with someone, whether it’s romantic love, or family love, if we don’t have the ability to accept our mistakes or the flaws that we have, then the ego really starts to rule the relationship. It’s terrifying to realize that you’ve hurt somebody you love, intentionally or unintentionally. If we can’t hold onto that feeling, then we are in trouble. The song is all about the question, “How do we hold onto that feeling?” It’s uncomfortable and there are some stubborn tantrum-like lines in there.
AH: That may be the one time in life when we can really face accountability and experience it. If we care about someone and have to face up to hurting them, then we might actually learn something.
ME: That’s the experience I’ve had. When I’m able to do that, it’s an emotional evolution in life. I think you should acknowledge mistakes when you really care. But it’s also what tears people apart a lot, that inability to hold the space for difficult emotions. It’s something I talk to my daughter about a lot, whether it’s shame, or embarrassment, or the feeling of having done something wrong.
Sometimes those feelings can take over so much that we can’t even be present with the person who we hurt. I think it’s a symptom in society, when we think about bigger issues, that it’s hard to show up for the pain of the person who has been harmed because we are so preoccupied by our shame.
AH: One of the songs with a lot of layers and energy on the album is “Worlds Apart.” It has a forceful build up to it with piano and layered vocals, and even electric guitar solos. Was that one you always planned to have a bigger sound?
ME: That song is about the loss of our loved ones, so it’s a grieving song. I lost one of my friends many years ago, and one of his favorite songs was Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” It’s a ballad that hits pretty hard. So when we were producing the record, I kept saying, “When the chorus comes in, I want it to hit really hard!” I had to really push for that. We had to record the drums for the song three times because I wanted them to sound more aggressive. So that was very intentional.
Theo [Katzman] had done the electric guitar on “Easy” and I really wanted that palette on this song, so I asked him to also do the guitar here. I think those two songs are two of the most emotionally charged songs on the album in terms of difficult emotions, so it was cool to have the electric guitar voice. It has a lot of emotion to it and I think that’s because of that nostalgia and sense of loss to the song. That was intentional as we could make it.
Thank you for speaking with us, May Erlewine!
Find more about May Erlewine and her music, here: https://www.mayerlewine.com