Interview with El May

I spoke to Lara Meyerratken, who makes music as El May, about the album she’s currently recording, playing and touring with bands like Ben Lee, Nada Surf & Crooked Fingers, and composing music for commercials.

El May After The Show Interview

After The Show: You recently filmed a music video for “I Played A Role” in New York – how was that?

El May: It was really fun – it’s a very dance-y music video. We actually went up to people on the street and asked them to listen to the song (not out yet – it’s on my new record that hasn’t come out yet). People were sweet and it was intense having to get over any embarrassment, dancing in the street with strangers.

As a multi-instrumentalist, how you approach the composing process?

I’ve found the best way to start writing for me is a beat – either I find a loop or I make some beat in Pro Tools. When I’m really starting from scratch it’s usually with a beat…occasionally even a synthesizer sound or synthesizer bass.

I really like the sonic textures and layers on “Draining A Lake” and “Don’t You” – is that something you consciously strive to create, or is it more just a result of being able to play so many instruments? 

I think because I record my own things at home usually, it gives me a lot of time to get a little bit lost and try things. It comes from really getting absorbed in it and having the luxury of trying things. And probably the layering thing is sometimes maybe…too many layers [laughs]. With my new record there’s still layers vocally.

I was thinking about what attributes make someone a good session musician or backup musician…Like is there a certain personality/skill set better suited to playing backup?

Oh that’s a really good question…in Sydney I met Ben Lee when I was in my teens and that was just totally kids enjoying music, punk rock. When I toured it was just me having fun as a kid, you just do what you love.

In New York in the early 2000s, no one had keyboards in indie rock, then it started to be cool, so if you could find someone who could play keyboards, that was an asset. I was a good personality type for and it was more natural for me to be a backing person then because I didn’t really have an agenda to do my own music. Eventually it felt almost painful to play someone else’s songs – I knew I should do my own thing. To be in charge of your own creativity and destiny you have to be a little more assertive and confident and have follow-through. If you know that you’re being called to do something else, that requires a lot of strength…and stepping out, it becomes hard – it can make you feel very anxious.

What was the timeframe chronologically when you recorded and toured with Crooked Fingers, Luna, and Nada Surf?

Luna was early on – probably 2001 or 2002, and then ongoing with Britta and Dean…I did a lot of touring in late 2002 and early 2003, right before I toured with Nada Surf, I think over the summer of 2003. In 2004 Ben & I made Awake Is The New Sleep in LA. Right around then I got a call to come and sing on a Crooked Fingers record. I was thrilled about that and I loved Archers of Loaf when I was a kid.

You’ve composed and recorded music for commercials like Dell, Google, Comcast, Kelloggs, the charity RED…How do projects like that come about?

I get approached through different music houses. I started doing that (demoing on commercials) when I was in New York. When I moved to LA my friend Sam Spiegel got me working on a bunch of demos. You submit with a bunch of different people. The advantage that I have is that I made my own record and EP. Having made them on my own and people knowing that – it was a real draw for people because they thought, ‘oh, you know how to record as well’

I know you had songs placed on Pretty Little Liars and The Lying Game…has licensing to film and TV been as effective as you had hoped in terms of exposure?

Even from the commercials I’ve definitely gotten fans. Not as much as you would think – the Pretty Little Liars fans are so dedicated. I was a bit surprised with “Don’t’ You” – a lot of people were writing about it online. They all help a little bit, mostly it helps me live and get paid a little bit on what I do.

I’m so amazed and grateful when that happens…especially when you make something in solitude…it’s incredible that people are even imagining it [being used] in a scene.

Thanks Lara! Check out ElMayForever.com + stay tuned for her upcoming album (the working title is The Other Person Is You).

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