Interview with Louise Le May

Louise Le May (photographed by Christopher Simmons)

Louise Le May (photographed by Christopher Simmons)

Imagine a world in which Kate Bush had arrived as a fully-fledged grown-up. Okay, very much said in context, that. I mean, without all the embarrassing spandex clad hippy dance moves and a tad less of the middle-class twirly-girl precocity. Just the imaginative sweep, the melodic sensibility and the wonderful compositional talent, instead. Well, that world is here, brought to you courtesy of Louise Le May’s out-of-the-blue debut album A Tale Untold; a classically structured, genre-spurning, sensitively arranged work, possessed of first class songwriting and exceptionally captivating vocalese. Moreover; no case of emotively overwrought therapy-drenched stylings, here (yes, Little Earthquakes, I’m looking at you), or the pseudo-mature tropes of earth mother kookyness. Within A Tale Untold lies a combination of Jacques Brel-influenced existential angst, prime mid-60s McCartney hooks, Henry Jamesesque ghost-story lyricism and character-filled tales of suburban limbo and longing worthy of Ray Davies at his lofty height. Pieces combining emotional complexity and expressive simplicity. What’s not to like?

Louise Le May? Who she?

You’ve just released your full debut album at the age of 40-whatever and, thus far, it’s making a bit of a splash. The obvious question is; where have you been?

Yes, I am in my late-40s. Where do I start? I’ve been working since the early-nineties on my voice and my songwriting, whilst at the same time working in nine-to-five jobs, so it’s all taken some time, balancing money, time and energy. But I’ve been developing the songwriting and singing all this time. Various collaborations have come and gone …

This is where I am now. It’s the furthest I’ve got, in terms of having something finished I’m proud of, having a record company, the songwriting having arrived at a place I’m happy with, and the voice having arrived at a place I’m (almost) happy with, (although that’s still evolving), and I was lucky to have a team who believed in the songs, and saw the project through to completion.

One can only assume that you’ve had to exercise a fair amount of patience in the lead up to this. But did you ever, over the years, feel like giving up? Like it wasn’t going to happen? Or, don’t you think that way?

Yes, there are always doubts. And yes, I have had to exercise patience, in a wider sense (I’m not just talking about this album). There have been many disappointments and what I call ‘near misses’. The times when it’s ‘about to happen’ when I’m about to achieve worldly success and money, and then it doesn’t. I got sick of the ups and downs of it. The ‘hope’ followed by hopes dashed element of it all. I did feel like giving up a number of times and I have tried to give up a number of times. I would give up, say that’s that, throw in the towel, and get on with keeping a roof over my head and then something would always pull me back to it.

I guess I just need something in my life to do with mystery, something less explainable, less scientific. The thing that reflects the other part of me, something unknowable that I wish to dredge to the surface and manifest as an object, a record. I need art, with me as the art.

According to all sources the actual making of the album itself was something of a lengthy process and not without its complications. What’s the story?

It had its hold-ups, but we kept the faith. We all had other commitments, so scheduling studio time was a challenge. There was also interest from an eminent American producer who wanted to work with me. I felt very honoured. I had to consider it. It fell through in the end, but it took time. Luckily, (album producer) Louis and the team still wanted me back after I’d wandered off and toyed with the idea of being a famous pop star. (But I hope I can still be a famous pop star.)

But I’ve noticed I don’t seem to be in control of how long things take. Things to do with my music seem to take their own time, and just when you think you’re finished, something else comes up, and you’re not finished. It’s a momentous task doing an album, well it was for me anyway. It’s so different to doing an EP. There seem to be so many details, and everything has to be right. I mean everything, including the artwork. I’m a terrible fusspot. This also slowed things down a bit. I was a bit of a pain!

Back to the subject of time: the EP from 2009 was a work about fifteen years in gestation. Those songs I moved to the album because I felt they were part of the whole picture. The album, A Tale Untold, includes more recent works too. Of course ideally it would not have taken six to seven years, but that’s just how it turned out.

Louise Le May (photographed by Malcolm Willison)

Louise Le May (photographed by Malcolm Willison)

While there are real variations of style on A Tale Untold the songs still possess a very cohesive atmosphere. Were they written, together, specifically for this release (which is the feeling that comes across)? Or, were they written over a period of time and then cherry picked for the album? What were the criteria for the song selection? By which, I suppose mean; what kind of album did you set out to make?

I would say I had always had a vision of a ‘Kate Bush’ type of traditional, old-school songwriter type of an album. I’m not sure if that’s what I got, but I like what I got. From my perspective, melody, lyrics and singing come first and take priority, always, so I think that’s probably the cohesive part you can hear. ‘Style’ comes second to this. I’m more interested in a great melody. When I realised I needed to write my own songs (as opposed to co-songwriting) all I had was an 8-track machine, a keyboard and no technical ability. Just voice and a pair of hands to plonk on a piano… So the songs needed to be strong, to stand up on their own two legs, so that however humble the recording, the listener would still ‘get’ the song. This was my mission, if you like, because that’s all I had to express myself. (Even though there was no-one to hear it… well, I could hear it I suppose…)

Timewise, it’s a long story. The album has ‘time’ in it, in a similar way a painting has time in it, only it took even longer than a painting. However, seven years is neither here nor there in creative terms. It takes the time it takes, once all the different factors are gotten through. For some people it’s fast, for others it’s slow. For me, it’s a slow process, not a fast one, and certainly not a straightforward one. “Guru” was written back in 1999, and did not get heard until 2009 when technology had evolved and I could upload it as an MP3 somewhere. It was then recorded in 2009, for the EP.

Included in the ‘Guru period’ of songwriting is “Photographic”, “Coal Marble Stone”, “The Only Fish” and “Thunderbird”, all written around 1999, early 2000s. Then there was a musical collaboration which came and went and then I picked up again with my own songwriting after the EP came out, and so came “Broken Child”, “Cassandra”, “Furniture”, “Radium Smile”, “A Tale Untold “and “Sink and Swim”, from 2009 to 2014. You could call this the ‘Cassandra period’ I suppose.

You could say the songs were cherry-picked, but it’s kind of a more organic thing than that. It was obvious which songs would be on the album and they appeared at the right time. I think the album concept was always very strong because I’ve worked on it for a lifetime all in all. The cohesive atmosphere is me and because it’s me, it has my development in it, my disappointments, my experience of unrequited love , my feelings of being stifled and disillusioned in the world, and death: the final track, “A Tale Untold”, when my father died.

It’s become unusual to listen to someone’s album and not immediately hear which genre, or even sub-genre, that they’re coming out of (that ‘Oh, it’s a psych-folk album’ feeling, for example). Almost to the point where the success of any album is simply gauged against other artists working in the same area rather than in more general and meaningful terms. A Tale Untold, however, doesn’t seem to inhabit any particular genre. Are you deliberately ‘stand-alone’ or would you say you do have a pigeon hole and I’m just missing it?

My pigeon hole is Louise Le May and I am the genre. It’s not exactly deliberate, it just is. I don’t really want to follow anything. I’d rather be followed. Perhaps there’s no pigeon hole. Or maybe there is. It would probably be easier if there was a definite pigeon hole because people would know where they are, and I’d fit more easily somewhere. I’m not that interested in genre. I wouldn’t mind being put into any context and still be Louise Le May. I’d like to work with lots of different people. ‘Influences’ is another matter though.

Influences. Some reviewers have flagged up Kate Bush as your most obvious point of comparison. Other than that the review references seem more along the lines of classic pop, such as The Beatles or Ray Davies. Who do you, yourself, feel you have musical commonality with?

Those are all spot on reference points, because I love them all. Kate Bush has been my obsession since I was a teenager and so have The Beatles. It doesn’t really go a lot beyond that actually, although of course it does, subliminally. It’s all subliminal because I absorb it in and then regurgitate it. Musically, I’ve noticed I seem to have the most in common with the sensibilities of the 1960s. At that time, they seemed to put melody first, above everything else. So no particular one person, more like an era of music.

A Tale Untold is quite a piano-centric album, so presumably you write on piano? How did you arrive at the other musical arrangements? It’s a very subtle, almost subdued tone, at times but lends the music a real sense of elegance and covers numerous different moods.

I think the production team – Ken Brake and Louis Philippe, and Danny Manners as well, felt that the less ‘personality’ imposed upon the songs, the better, because the character and personality of the songs was very strong anyway. We already had quite a lot of work on “Guru” and “Photographic”. And for the overall balance of the album we felt it better to have sparser arrangements. These are not easy songs to produce – to keep the integrity – they are quite delicate things really and easily lost. I think Louis, Ken and Danny felt that what they were dealing with was special, and they did not want to interfere with it, and they wanted to give it space. So as much as possible, the aim was to allow the songs to speak for themselves without too much embellishment. The irony is, if irony is the right word, the result is a very strong identity overall. Louis’ character is all over it, delightfully so. But overall, musically, I think he stepped aside and put me first, like a gentleman, just doing his thing where it’s appropriate, to make my thing better. The song is the art form, first and foremost, and my production team were acutely aware of this. I write on piano, although “Coal “was written on guitar. Piano is easier because I can just randomly bang my hands down on something. Then I piece it together and sing over the top.

Lyrically, you cover a lot of ground. Some of the songs seem to be firmly character-based, others are almost oblique. “Cassandra” might be taken to represent the first style and “Photographic” the second. Could you enlarge upon the origin of those two lyrics and also say where your general lyrical inspirations come from?

Louise Le May (photographed by Malcolm Willison)

Louise Le May (photographed by Malcolm Willison)

For “Cassandra”, the lyrics to the chorus came first, about the neighbour, Kevin. It made sense to create the rest of the song around this story that was already half formed. If I’ve created a character, I usually use themes which I identify with. So Cassandra being in love and trying to strike up a conversation, but the conversation being terribly awkward because she fancies the hell out of him… in Solihull… I liked the names Cassandra, Kevin and Solihull. I recall ‘beloved ornaments’ bounced nicely on the melody. ‘A dusty paperback’, with the word ‘dust’: a brush stroke upwards. I see everything visually.

It’s a fairly straightforward process, fitting vowels and consonants on top of a chord sequence. Those vowels and consonants (lyrics) also need to match my voice. Some lyrics don’t feel comfortable to sing, and they also don’t sound comfortable to hear. So it has to suit my voice, my body. This limits things but also makes it a bit easier in some respects, because there is less choice (choice, I find, is a bit of a nightmare).I’ve got an English voice and that makes it harder, because it’s more difficult to flow with all the consonants. It’s tempting to cockneyfy the voice and make a thing of it. I do it in “The Only Fish”, a bit. But I’ve made a thing of my own limitations, and what I can do. There are lots of things I can’t do, so I’ve had to dig deep to find what I can. I don’t think I have a great voice, but it serves the purpose. I can’t remember which came first. Was it the need to sing or the need to make songs? But the whole thing is now rolled into one and I use what I’ve got.

The hardest song to sing on the album was “A Tale Untold” because it’s a spoken lyric. It’s like talking yet singing. The timing had to be exactly right, because it’s not meant to be exactly in time; it’s meant to bounce upon the piano, hovering slightly above it. But it’s spoken. It was really hard to do.

The songs all start with nonsense singing which is why some of them are oblique. There needs to be a sense of making sense within their own context though, however oblique.

“Broken Child” is about grieving for something that was never there, and never will be there. That particular thing I needed as a child that was not there. The missing piece that I’m still pining for. Sometimes a man reminds me of the missing piece, maybe if he smiles at me in a certain way… It’s quite painful. The past seems so deeply set and so unmovable and has made me and shaped me, so it’s like being haunted. But not all the time. There is now as well. I am a big fan of now.

“Photographic” is about needing something new. It’s my primal scream (actually the whole album is my primal scream). This is a hard one to explain. I feel a weight. It’s an abstract feeling. Everything seems to be boxed and categorised but once things were new. Life can be quite painfully stifling. Sometimes I ask: is this all there is? There must be more to life than this…

Having finally got A Tale Untold out into the world do you now, mysteriously, ride off into the sunset or is there more to come?

I may ride off. I’m always riding off. I don’t really know where I’m going from here. I usually get as far as planning a month ahead. Or a week. A day… no, a month, usually. There are half a dozen songs written on a little eight track for the next album. If there is a next album. (I may ride off instead). I hope to survive. I would like to devote all my time to music. It’s bit of a dream. I’m open to the (slight) possibility of the dream coming true. If I sell enough records I will buy some new equipment. Then I would do another phase of songwriting. Then I expect the next album will get written. I wonder who will produce my next album. Yes, there is more to come. Probably.