Heather May: To be soft in a hardened world & her upcoming LP “For Mark”

Story and photos by Annie Da Silva

Heather May is a northern Albertan singer songwriter that offers a unique blend of raw stripped down aspects of folk genres with soulful acoustic progressions. 

Often times we can fall into the seemingly simplistic routines that we build around our lives, forgetting to acknowledge the everyday magic that is waiting around each corner. Sitting down with Heather May about her upcoming album “For Mark” not only reminded me of the importance in searching for that magic, but also made me question why it was all too easy to become hardened in our ever moving world. 

“I’ve always been told I am a soft. A soft singer and a soft writer and I’ve never seen that as a weakness at all, I see it as a strength. It takes a lot to uphold a softness in this world and i guess I want to encourage other people to do the same.” Heather explains.

‘For Mark’ is Heather’s first full length album following two previous EP releases, one of which holds her first collection of songs that she promises will remain hidden! 

“I think I was 17 when I released my first EP. If I could look back objectively, I think I’d say it was a good release, I just can’t get over the fact that it’s me and I kind of sang with a British accent back then because I was very influenced by Ed Sheeran.”

Now influenced by artists Andy Shauf, Leif Vollebekk, Daniel Romano and Mandolin Orange, Heather explains her shift in focus bringing more structure to her songs and care in crafting the voice of her guitar to accompany her own. The upcoming album was inspired by the passing of her beloved partner Mark Grosjean. It was a true privilege to hear the honesty of emotion and process that went into creating this LP.

“Explaining the full inspiration behind this album is sort of hard to do. First of all, it’s called “For Mark” and is essentially a collection of elegies for my boyfriend Mark. I actually wrote an entire album before it and it was full of very sad songs about grief, how much I missed him and of how unfair things were. I realized that wasn’t the album that I needed to release.. I realized that the album I had written was my album and not his and when he passed away I made a promise to always sing for him and make him beautiful songs. While I do think that sadness can be beautiful, I didn’t want to compromise the happiness that Mark and I had because it was lost and I didn’t want the grief to overweigh everything else in the album. “For Mark” is kind of a chronological telling of the highlights of our time together, almost grouped in seasons in a sense. The opening track is about before Mark and I met but was written while we were together, the second track following the story of when we met in the summer, third track about falling in love later in the summer, fourth track is about just before the fall and so on. I guess when I was writing the album for the second time I was trying to think of really vivid images that I had that I didn’t ever want to forget. That was one thing that really motivated the album, to not forget and to create a really beautiful legacy for him. I have a song called “Ain’t it a Lovely Thing” which touches on the universal concepts about how scary it is to be in love and how scary it is to lose that love but how very lovely is it to have something to lose and I think that might have been the hardest song to write off of the album because it was one of the retrospective songs where he was already gone. I cried a lot while writing that one for sure. Mark and I were both quite young and I think quite pure people; we have a bit of a hard time in the real world, not in an idealistic way, but because we are softer people and I think sometimes the world sees that innocence as being naive. I think being kind and soft and innocent is actually very brave and the opening track is very inspired by that. That innocence and softness is a common thread through the entire album. It was one of the hardest albums that I hope I ever have to write but I think that is what will also make it one of the most beautiful ones.”

Having years under her belt as a singer, writer and musician, Heather now describes her sound as Prairie Blues and once you hear the smoky tones of her voice accompanied by the colour in her guitar voicing and lyrics, it’s as if you’ve been taken into rolling hills and never ending horizons.

“There is a lot of wild flower imagery in my music. I was writing a novel at the same time as I was writing this album and I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything with it but it definitely helped me figure out the important parts of the story for the album and how to weave it all together in a way that made sense and flowed well. I think even though I am often frustrated with my english degree for the critical aspects, it really helped me feel strong in the wording of my imagery and concise in my ideas. I think at certain times a song is like a small essay; I start with my statement, choose my theme and build ways to get to that. I want my lyrics of this album to stand on their own. That was something Mark had always encouraged me to spend more time with, I would often get impatient and just want a song to be done. He has impacted so much of who I am now as a musician.”

 

When sitting down with artists to talk about their passions within music, there always tends to be a deeper force driving them to continue creating and pushing forward in such a competitive and saturated industry. Heather eloquently explained her why within music and offered the idea that it can be taken through each area of life.

“I think a piece of why I do what I do is to turn beautiful and ordinary things in to magical things; not just in music but in all areas of my life and art forms; I think finding that magic is important. Also just being present in each moment is so important, I’ve obviously realized that so much more after losing someone so young and I think music demands presence. It’s hard to be caught in something else when you see someone truly captivating perform, I believe it pulls you into the present and I guess I hope to do that with my music as well, to pull people into the now. It’s very normal and very easy to shift into autopilot in our culture but no-one really knows how long they’re going to live. Being mindful of that doesn’t need to be depressing but rather very liberating, I think it’s important to wake up sometimes and to just enjoy the little things. Grief is one of the worst things to go though but it definitely taught me about how beautiful each moment is, how a lot of the ordinary moments are just so beautiful you know? I think my place in music is to share that beauty with other people and pour kindness and purity throughout my music. As a songwriter I am quite transparent but I also don’t just want to write about my sadness or my problems, I want people to be able to feel and to see themselves in my songs too and that’s really important to me.”

As Heather shared more of her process, she explained the hard work that went into building the rest of the musical components in the album with a stacked team of talented, local musicians. Phenix Warren recorded and produced the project as well as played bass, Ben Comeau on electric guitar, John Ferguson on drums and Mike Kissinger on the pedal steel. 

“I took Phenix and Jon to a cabin for a week to record. It was one of the best weeks of my life for sure and because I had two EPs under my belt and had been playing with the band, we knew what to expect and what we wanted to do with the tracks. We had five days to get the bass, the drums, the acoustic and the vocals down and it felt like a marathon the whole time. It was very productive but also very fun and I think we came out of it as great friends.”

The team has planned a release show to debut her album on August 16th at the Knox United Church, chosen as one of Heather’s favourite music venues in town. 

“I think the Calgary music scene is a very good scene to be part of. I’ve heard from a lot of people that come from scenes like Vancouver or Toronto saying it’s swamped and competitive whereas Calgary’s is still small enough that as a musician starting out, it’s easy to get proper experience from really wonderful venues. I also think it’s a wildly supportive scene and I really enjoy that. It’s quite diversified in a sense especially throughout the singer-songwriters. You have the bluegrassy Bella White and jazzy Kate Steven among many younger female songwriters next to the unique Victor Wu, Wyatt Louis and Rabino and it’s amazing to see how different everyone is. I can’t think of any songwriters in the scene who are similar or identical to each other and I really love that! I find I’m always inspired by the shows I go to. I’d like to tour a bit with this album, maybe do a prairie tour or something but I think the Calgary scene will remain home and will eventually grow into something that’s quite significant as people continue to invest in it. It’s becoming a lot more of a cultured city even foodwise, arts wise and fashion wise. It will eventually reach a higher standard that it has right now and I’m excited to be part of that!”

You can find Heather playing around town at other wonderful venues including Cafe Koi, Vendome and various house shows that represent her honey sweet songs. Stay updated on her upcoming release through her instagram, find her tunes on Soundcloud and be sure to grab tickets for the album release show happening this Friday at Knox United Church.

“Losing someone doesn’t mean you lose everything. We can be scared of losing out on love through a breakup or through a loss but that doesn’t mean you lose out on that love. Those moments are still so beautiful and will live on.”