Abbe May: Sympathy For The Devil
Despite her Catholic-school upbringing, Perth blues belter Abbe May has no qualms about evoking rock’n’roll’s dark side, writes PATRICK EMERY.
Born in a small town, educated under the spell of organised religion and maturing in the spotlight of rock’n’roll. It’s a formula that can be seen in the icons of yore – Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, to name but a trivial sample. It’s fitting therefore that Perth singer, songwriter and blues-rock aficionado Abbe May takes her artistic cues from the original rock’n’roll community. Having cut her teeth in Perth garage rock band The Fuzz, May now pursues her own musical interests, initially with the Rockin’ Pneumonia, and subsequently via the Devil and Abbe May project.
May grew up in the West Australian town of Bunbury, south of Perth. “It’s a pretty small city,” she says. “It was a conservative place, but my parents weren’t particularly conservative.” By her teenage years, she had adopted an androgynous appearance that gradually set her apart from other Bunbury teenagers. It was in these early years – as a self-confessed outsider – that May first discovered the blues. Celebrating the margins of society, the blues provided immediate inspiration. “It wasn’t as if I was like a black slave in a white society,” May jokes, “but there was something in the blues that I was attracted to.”
Later, May moved to Perth where she shared a house with her brother KT Rumble, who was playing in The Fuzz. She was quickly drafted in on vocal duties. “By the time I got to Perth, The Fuzz had been going for four or five years. I moved to Perth, moved in with my brother and joined his band.”
While The Fuzz provided May with her initial rock’n’roll education, May gradually began to desire greater independence and autonomy in her artistic direction. “A band is very much a co-dependent relationship,” she says, “and there’s a point when that relationship breaks down. Up until I went out on my own I was doing someone else’s songs, but I was increasingly developing my own style.”
May put together a backing band, the Rockin’ Pneumonia, which took its name from her love of 1950s rock’n’roll. “The phrase ‘rockin’ pneumonia’ is used by Chuck Berry [“I got the rockin’ pneumonia/I need a shot of rhythm and blues” from ‘Roll Over Beethoven’],” she says. “I suppose my interpretation of that is that ‘I’ve got the blues’”. The name is also linked to her desire to invoke the spirit of the original rock’n’rollers – and their country cousins. “The Rockin’ Pneumonia started out as hokey, bluesy, country stuff,” she says.
“It wasn’t as if I was like a black slave in a white society, but there was something in the blues that I was attracted to.”
In 2007, May released her debut album with the Rockin’ Pneumonia, Howl and Moan, a caustic and invigorating take on blues rock. Despite the blues’ occasionally misogynistic tendencies, May says being a female artist was never a problem. “It’s never been a problem, ‘cause I sing like a man,” she quips. “But it’s also really important to remember that there’s lots of great blues singers, like Lucy Bogan. It’s no different to other fields that are dominated by men. Although it’s still largely a patriarchal society, I haven’t found any major problems. I’m just engaging in some subversive resistance – tongue-in-cheek, of course.”
May’s other recent project is The Devil and Abbe May, a darker, more intense and slightly cathartic take on the blues and its suggested irreligious character. “The Devil and Abbe May is far closer to rock’n’roll as it started out,” she says. Initially conceived as two parts of the same project, May decided that The Devil and Abbe May warranted its own expression separate from the Rockin’ Pneumonia. “By the time I finished touring Howl and Moan, I realised that I wanted to keep them separate. I suppose the distinction is that The Devil is more nostalgia blues, whereas Rockin’ Pneumonia is more my Blues Explosion. Basically, they’re two sides of my writing.”
Both projects see May draw from her own background, particularly her religious education. Born to a Catholic mother and Protestant father (who eventually converted to Catholicism after dabbling with various other denominations), May attended a Catholic school and was immersed in the various tenets of the religion. She admits her Catholic education plays a part in her music. “Very much so,” she explains. “The teachings really thrive on guilt, and I spent a long time under the thumb of Catholic guilt. The whole Devil album is about throwing off that guilt.” May’s upbringing has also played an important role in constructing her perspective on the world. “It ended up with me being spiritual, rather than religious,” she says. “It has had a massive impact on me, because it made me aware of the scriptures and the nexus between religions.”
As for the extent to which her songs are personal, May takes a bet each way. “Even if I try to write in an impersonal manner, the songs always tend to have an element of self-expression. Even if the songs aren’t supposed to be about me, then I still I have to find someone to have an element of the self in there.”
The Rockin’ Pneumonia have just released their latest record, the Hawaiian Disease EP. After completing a national tour to promote the record, May aims to head back into the studio to record her next album, which she claims will be a major deviation from both Howl and Moan and Hawaiian Disease. “The next album is going to be completely different,” she says. “The working title is ‘Sexorcism’ – it’s got bits of Prince-style melodies and afro-beats. I’m making it virtually unrecognisable from what I’ve done so far.”
For the time being, May is happy to remain in Perth. She’s positioned herself neatly in the local independent music scene and recently guested on a recent release for the Painkillers (James Baker and Joe Bludge). “I’d like to make Perth my base,” May says. “I’ve got a lot of ties here and there’s lots of great people. I’m hoping to get overseas next year. The records are starting to make profits now, so that should help in getting overseas”.
Hawaiian Disease is out now through MGM.