Best of What's Next: Audra Mae
Audra Mae is the grand-niece of Judy Garland and wrote “Who I Was Born to Be,” the only original song on I Dreamed a Dream_, the first album from infamous Britain’s Got Talent_ contestant Susan Boyle. But with a guitar slung around her neck, Mae is an artist on her own terms; the 25-year-old singer/songwriter has a knack for blending penetrating melodies with rich vocals and lyrics that unravel soulful stories. After spending some time navigating the Los Angeles club scene, scoring a songwriting deal with Warner Chappell and releasing her Haunt EP last year, Mae released her debut album The Happiest Lamb in May. Drawing on her vaudeville roots, she dishes out magnetic live acoustic performances, and on her first LP, her stage presence carries over to the recordings of tracks like “Bandida” and “The Fable.” Before setting out on a six-week tour, Mae recently chatted with _Paste _about turning stories into songs, her earliest foray into music and living in sin.
Paste: How did you get your start in music?
Audra Mae: I started in music theatre. I was on stage starting when I was about four, being in plays and musicals and I couldn’t get enough of it. I’d go home after school and in my room and sing and sing and sing and I’d tape songs on the radio, like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. I wanted to sit there and analyze it, and try to hit every note.
Paste: When did you start singing professionally?
Mae: I moved to L.A. in 2004. I got a publishing deal in 2006 or 2007, which helped because I could go write songs for different people—it helped me a lot with my writing. I was doing shows before I got the deal. It took me about a year after I moved to L.A. to actually start to go out to do shows. I was terrified. You’d go see all these shows, where, honestly, [the performers] were like, total crap, and all their friends after the shows would say, “Oh you were amazing!” So I started thinking, “Maybe everyone’s trying to be nice.” So I started really craving doing shows in places where no one knew who I was, which I’m still scared of—it still gives me anxiety. So I’ve been doing this for four or five years. It’s not bad I guess.
Paste: When I saw you at a recent show, it was very stripped down, just you and your guitar and you seemed very at home. How do you feel when you’re on stage?
Mae: I was nervous before the show, but I’m very comfortable on stage and I love live performance so much, because if you can be comfortable it affects people a lot more than listening to a CD. It’s like it goes deeper—they’re in the room with you and you’re talking to them and it’s not so much like something everyone can experience together too. It’s a group activity and we don’t really do a lot of that in our culture, so it’s something that people are kind of coming together of the right mind to enjoy music and it’s a lot more fun. It’s also a lot of fun to go in the studio and be a mad scientist. Every time I go see people, they’re like, “You should do it like you do it live,” and I’m like, “It will never come across the same way.”
Paste: What was the process of putting together your debut album like?
Mae: I got signed in June 2009 to SideOneDummy Records and so when we were putting the record together we kind of just—I began to do some meetings with producer Ted Hutt and [he] really honestly showed me how to record things and where to spend the money and how to focus the sound—because a lot of my stuff is really all over the place, so we had to pick songs that sounded like an album together and then write more in that vein and so it was a really great time. I surprised myself creatively. I’m able to kind of make up a story and put it to music which made me more confident in my writing because then I didn’t feel like something had to be happening in my life to inspire me to do something. It puts a lot of pressure—everywhere you go you know people are like, “You should write a song about that,” and you know you should, you know there’s inspiration everywhere and you should be lapping it up and being totally like Mozart about it, but if you’re all output and no input then your music really starts sucking. I think everyone does it at a different pace and for me, this being my first record, I’m so proud of it.
Paste: What is the inspiration and meaning behind the title, The Happiest Lamb?
Mae: I have a friend whose boss calls him “lamb” and I always thought that was really sweet. I really liked that, so he kind of inspired the song, but I wanted to kind of find a way to say that you don’t need to make someone else rich to be successful, you don’t need to work for a company to always feel like maybe you’ll be the manager, and you’re stuck there forever and you’re not happy. I kept thinking about shepherds and if these sheep or cattle weren’t herded—if all these animals could see that we really honestly have no power over them then maybe they wouldn’t be so easily swayed and if you put it into life, it’s like, you’re the one who is growing that wool, it’s your natural power, it’s something you do, you can’t help it, you don’t need somebody to put you in a pen and shave your fleece every day to make money off of it. I wanted to get that message across without sounding preachy, so I thought I’d do it with a little story.
Paste: Your album seems to contain animals as a running theme—there’s the “Happiest Lamb,” as well as “The Fable,” which is about wolves. Was that intentional?
Mae: Growing up in Oklahoma we were always around nature and also there is this big Native American influence and in Native American culture animals represent certain parts of your spirit and they taught fables, and told stories. The way “The Fable” came out was just that I wanted to write a song where the chorus didn’t have words, it was just howling like a wolf and I thought, “Why don’t I just make it about wolves?” But yeah, that’s funny, I never really thought about it—I guess, yeah, there’s a lot of animal themes. I kind of attached certain attributes to certain animals and they become characters.
Paste: Each song on your album tells a story—there’s the title track which we talked about, and also “Sullivan’s Letter,” based on Civil War general Sullivan Ballou. Where do you draw inspiration from?
Mae: This album was different because before it was just like what was happening in my day to day life, but for this I had to start making up stories. There’s certain songs, like “Lightning in a Bottle,” you know, that was more influenced by my fear of losing everything I’ve worked for and I was imagining this woman sort of looking out of a window of her house and seeing this really beautiful teenager girl sunbathing, trying to tan and texting on her phone—she’s, like, so bored, and I thought, “What would she say to her? What would she say to me? What would cause me to screw this up. How could I avoid it?” So I sort of wrote it so that when I sing, I’ll remember to not screw it up. Some of the songs, like “Snake Bite”—that was just my friend who called me one day and said, “I had this weird dream about you—you were standing on this catwalk with this giant python around your neck and you were singing about snakes.” And I was like, “Dude, that’s the best song ever,” so I just kind of wrote it up. I wanted to make it a like the venom was almost like the anti-love potion number nine.
Paste: Your album flows well from one song to the next and the tracks are all pretty unified. “Bandida,” however—the last song on the album—sounds different than the rest. It has a very different feel to it. Why?
Mae: My friend came over one day and I asked her if she wanted to write a song and she said “Yeah,” so she came over and I played her the mandolin part [of the song] and I told her, “Every time I listen to this I hear, like, a war cry,” and she told me she wrote this poem once about a woman whose husband who goes off to war, so she decides to go fight by his side and kind of goes crazy and I was like, “What! Where is it?” So we went into the studio right then and wrote the song and it was just too cool to not put on the record and I also felt that it needed something. At that point towards the end of the record, I was really finding out who I was as a musician, as a writer and performer and I think that song inspired me for the next record because it’s my favorite song—it feels the most alive to me. It’s got a fire in it and I would love to do a whole album with that kind of fire, so I couldn’t not put it on the record. It came so naturally. I love it and I think it’s beautiful.
Paste: What is that process of songwriting like for you?
Mae: Well, it depends. Each song its different. Sometimes you can sit there, plucking around on guitar and you play a little riff and you inspire a little melody to come out of you and all of a sudden a phrase gets attached and you’re kind of like, “We’re on the train, we’re going, we’re going.” And sometimes you hear a phrase and you keep repeating it over and over and you’re like, “What is that? I love the way that sounds.” Lately I’ve been thinking about how, in Oklahoma, if you’re doing something wrong, people say you’re living in sin. And I can’t stop thinking about that. For two weeks I keep thinking about “living in sin.” So eventually that will probably become something. It’s just different for each song. When you do co-writing it helps a lot because other people’s ideas inspire your ideas. Once you’re done it’s the best feeling on the planet.
Paste: What upcoming plans do you have in store for your album and beyond?
Mae: Well, we’re doing this tour for six weeks, hoping to go Oklahoma for 4th of July and then we go back in September for about a week and maybe, just maybe, they’ll let me have time in L.A. to just chill out. This one’s going to be a fun one—we’re in van and we’re just going all over the U.S. I really love Chicago and New Orleans and Austin, which we’re not going to unfortunately, but I’m excited to go back to Florida. I really like those people down there. I like those swamp people. It’s like a whole other world.