'My Home is On Stage:' A Conversation with Renaissance Artist EMay

Jun 27, 2016

Since the show began almost two years ago, A Change of Tune has highlighted some of the best up-and-coming artists out of these West Virginia hills with podcast-y chats ranging from The Sea The Sea to Qiet, New God to Coyotes in Boxes and beyond.

But those interviews have been a bit infrequent, and since West Virginia Day was this month (and with A Change of Tune’s second birthday on the horizon), we thought we’d do something special: 30 days, 30 brand new #WVmusic interviews that range from Morgantown alt-rockers and Parkersburg singer-songwriters to West Virginia music venues and regional artist management and beyond, all of which contribute to this state’s wild and wonderful music scene.

And today, we are chatting with EMay, a singer/songwriter and well-rounded musician who currently resides in Dryfork, West Virginia. We say “well-rounded,” because her music comes from so many different influences and experiences. As she’ll tell you in this chat, she learned music from a lounge pianist at the age of 5, fell in love with rock and metal music in Boston, learned world and dance music while studying at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, and has now settled into the old-time traditions of West Virginia.

EMay’s newest release is Longest Dream. You can hear her music on erikamay.com. Hear more #WVmusic on A Change of Tune, airing Saturday nights at 10 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. And for more #WVmusic chats, make sure to go to wvpublic.org/wvmusic and subscribe to our RSS / podcast feeds!

West Virginia-by-way-of-Pittsburgh/Boston/New Hampshire artist EMay.
Credit Anne Lopez

Interview Highlights

On her current career:

My name is EMay, and I make music in West Virginia. I live up in Dryfork on a form called Healthberry Farm. So when I’m not playing music, I help tend the bees and work in the garden here. I also have a group called Steel Town Fire that’s based out of Pittsburgh, and we do a lot of fire-dancing gigs. I also lead horseback rides and consult and teach music and just generally do all the things that I like to do.

On her journey to West Virginia:

I am a transplant. I lived in Pittsburgh for 13 years before discovering West Virginia. And I have to admit my own ignorance that I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in West Virginia when I lived in Pittsburgh. When I finally discovered it and moved down here, I thought, “Oh, West Virginia is pretty awesome!” It’s a well-kept secret to the rest of the country how awesome it is down here. I promise not to say that too loud to keep our population together [laughing].

I grew up in Massachusetts, but most of my family is from New Hampshire. West Virginia has a similar vibe to New Hampshire, actually, so when I first starting coming down here, not only was it like, “Great! I can be an artist and a musician and cobble together a life doing the things I love,” but it also really reminded me of home.

EMay takes the stage.
Credit Anne Lopez

On her start in music:

I have loved music as long as I’ve had memories. I’ve always wanted to be as close to sound and music as possible. When I was a kid that meant that any live musician anywhere we went had a sidekick for a night [laughing]. I would just glue myself to them. That’s how I got my first piano teacher. She was playing in a lounge, and I just wouldn’t leave her side. So at the end, she looked at me and said, “Do you want to play a song?” I nodded my head vigorously. “Well, do you know any songs?” I looked her shyly and said, “No…” She taught me “Ode to Joy” right there on the spot. My mom asked me if she could teach me piano, and she did. So I’m glad that my mom noticed early on that I was into it because it became a really important part of my life.

When I was quitting piano lessons as a teenager, my mom’s best friend said, “You can’t let her quit. She loves [music]. Here, I have a guitar.” So she gave me a guitar, and I played. I’ve never put it down. Well, maybe to sleep, but very rarely [laughing]. 

Catch EMay live around West Virginia, including in Elkins, Morgantown, Thomas, and Dryfork.
Credit Anne Lopez

On living in West Virginia:

When they don’t know anything about West Virginia, people ask me a number of questions, one of them being, “You’re so urban! How do you survive in an urban setting?” But it feels like home. I just love being out in the country and out in nature.

West Virginia has such a rich musical tradition. It feels like a really special place. When I was in Boston, all the music I learned was on the radio or in guitar tabs or in books. In Pittsburgh, I wrote my own stuff. But around here, there’s a huge tradition for traditional music, old-time music and songs you can play around the campfire. I love live music so much that that’s a turn-on for me musically to be in a place where people just bring their instruments out to the party and sit on the porch until 4 or 5 in the morning. And then when I go to bed at 4, they tell me I’m the early bird, even when my head is swimming with music.

On playing as EMay:

It’s been my nickname since college. I guess everyone has always called me EMay. It wasn’t until Facebook took off that people started calling me Erika again, when all of a sudden you needed a first and last name [laughing]. I didn’t have a nickname as a kid, so it was cool to use a nickname as an adult.

I think about this sometimes where as a performer, someone who gets up on stage, you kind of are expected to have this alternate personality or something that is larger than yourself. I think I wanted that a little bit, but with music as a solo musician, it’s really important for me to be transparent. I’m sharing these songs that are from my soul, from my experiences, from my perspective. When I get up on stage, I have to be myself. There’s no band or stage antics to hide behind when you’re solo. And it’s easier that way. You don’t have to worry if you’re in this character.

On describing her music:

It’s a difficult question for any musician to answer, and I find it to be especially true because I have so many influences. I’m inspired by great songwriters and mostly by classic rockers. When I say I’m a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, people hear, “She’s a chick, she’s a singer-songwriter. She’s like Ani DiFranco or Dar Williams.” And I’m like, “With all due respect, I sound nothing like them.” I’m maybe more Tracy Chapman or Joanna Newsom or Alabama Shakes. My roots are in rock and roll, and as I get more into fingerpicking and American traditional music, I fall into the more folky Joni Mitchell thing. You could put me in the “chick singer-songwriter” category, but it would be a limiting label for what I do.

Music featured in this #WVmusic chat:

EMay- "Skipping Stone"

EMay- "Oak, Poplar, Pine"

EMay- "Lay Down"

EMay- "Heavy"