señora may is a singer-songwriter and social justice activist who studied under Silas House at Berea College, co-founded the Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund with her husband Tyler Childers and recently released a wonderful new album, All my Love, which has been widely praised for its sophisticated earthy character. As the New Year approaches, we caught up with the artist from Kentucky to discuss his progress so far and his hopes for the future.
LEO: Can you tell us a bit about your family background and education?
Señora May: I started on a small farm in Estill County and moved to Lee County when I was 7 when my parents divorced. Growing up I was always whistling or humming and doing a lot of work with my hands – building fairy houses, baking mud pies, catching snakes. Mum is a stained glass artist and dad just retired from an aluminum recycling plant. I am one of six children; I definitely got used to sharing everything early on. After graduating from Lee County High in Beattyville, I attended Berea College and completed an independent degree in Green Architecture.
Looking back, were there any key events that put you on your current path?
Mom hid money aside whenever she could to pay for music or art [instruction] because it was important to her that we express ourselves in this way. One of my favorite childhood memories is going to oil painting classes on Saturdays with Russel McClanahan in town. He forced me to watch something for what it was and not for what it was supposed to be in my mind. You know, like squinting at an object and seeing its true form, the contrasting dots of light and dark and the honest hues, not the color your mind associates it with. I think this ability to perceive accurately has served me well over the course of my life, not just with painting or assigning shapes and colors, but also with music, lyrics, and intent.
Lately you’ve been using your notoriety as a musician to gain support for worthwhile organizations. What is the Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund?
The Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund is something my husband and I have been hoping to create for some time. It is a fund in which we direct contributions, generated by projects that we set up, to solve problems that would benefit from financial assistance. I realize that a lot of things that we help [including Louisville Urban League and Give Black, Give Back] we need a lot more than we can give, but it’s good to shed some light on something too, that way other people can see the need and participate. The fund has a board of directors and is managed by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, but my husband and I determine how the money we generate – with album sales, fundraisers, sales percentages of tickets and more – must be distributed.
Speaking of creative projects, what stood out in the process of assembling your last LP?
I rented an Airbnb in Neon, outside of Whitesburg, and all the women who worked on the album stayed there. We bonded so much during that week of recording, we took turns cooking, ate together, danced, told stories, discussed ideas for each song. It was one of the best experiences of my musical career. To top it all, Jessica lea mayfield produced the record, and if you know me, you know it’s a big deal. She wrote some of the first songs I ever learned on the guitar. She is one of my favorite artists. So for her to work on my songs, pull them apart and make some suggestions, took them to another realm and got me connecting with the album in a whole new way. I’m so proud of every song on All my Love and with this fraternity of instrumentalists contributing to the foundation, it has become so much more than an offering of love songs. It’s an exhibition of every kind of love, not just romance, but devotion, protection, affection, sacrifice, understanding, all of it.
The music business seems stranger than ever. How do you measure success at this point in your career these days?
When people tell me that my music has helped them in some way, or made them stronger than they thought they would in a particularly difficult situation, it makes me feel like I am successful as a as a songwriter. I’m so lucky to have the job I do, and as long as I can afford to travel and sing my songs for people who claim to do them good, I will continue to do so.