“It’s more about catharsis… kind of like a release. You can listen to the album just for the vibes, and be like “I like how this sounds, I like how hard this track goes”, but if you wanted to pay attention to my lyrics and experience the things I’ve been through with me, you can.”May Chi
May Chi is a Hong Kong-born musician, songwriter, composer and artist currently based in the UK. May’s work blends elements of indie, folk, alternative rock and ambient genres to create a sound world truly her own, taking inspiration from her personal experiences to create a cathartic listen. Having recently released two singles — ‘Kill My Mind’ and ‘Under My Skin’ — PRXLUDES talked to May about some of the themes surrounding those tracks, her upcoming debut album ‘Suspension’, her blending of genres and the progression of her sound.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi May! Thanks for joining me today — how have you been holding up?
May Chi: Orange. -May holds up an orange and laughs-
You’ve recently released a new single called ‘Under My Skin’; I’m a huge fan of the sound! Tell me a bit about the writing process for that single — do you have a particular approach when it comes to your songwriting?
When it comes to songwriting, I think most of my songs have a very similar process. I usually start with the instrumentals, usually the “riff”… if I can find one that I like, that I can vibe with, I’ll stick with it, and then build lyrics and a melody line to it at the same time. It’s a trial-and-error process until I figure out the whole thing. I don’t know if I usually figure out the chorus or the verse first, it really depends. For ‘Under My Skin’, I figured out the verse first; but [usually] once I’ve figured out the general melody line I want, that’s when I properly start developing lyrics. I’ve been trying to pay a lot more attention to the words I’m writing, trying to be more poetic, more meaningful.
Let’s talk about your lyrics — what’s the inspiration behind ‘Under My Skin’?
I try to write about [things] that reflect on [what] I’m thinking about at the time. When I was writing ‘Under My Skin’ in July, I was borderline relapsing; I kind of check up on people that might have eating disorders, and I’m around some people who might have eating disorders, which is really triggering for me. In July, that was happening; the thoughts were coming back into my head, the thoughts of these bad habits, the whole mindset of having anorexia — and I really really needed an outlet. So when I had this nice-sounding riff, I was just like “vent!” and that’s what happened. -laughs-
Tell me about your upcoming debut album, ‘Suspension’. Are there any overarching themes you had in mind when making the record?
When I started doing the album, I wanted it to centre around my three years in Bristol, because it was a really important time for me. It was a really important part of my development as an adult, transitioning from being an idiot teenager to being a semi-functional adult. But even though I really grew a lot, it was a really hard time; I’ve realised recently that [the themes] have turned from that into more venting about things that might have affected me back then, but are still affecting me now…
I remember when I was in Bristol, in my final year [of undergraduate], and I didn’t have a mirror in my room. -laughs- I didn’t have a full body mirror, and somehow that was [the] best year for my body image, because I couldn’t see myself for a year! If you have a mirror [that’s] free to access, you’re gonna spend your time staring at yourself, like, “I look like a lump, don’t I?”
Did that dichotomy influence your process at all — particularly with ‘Under My Skin’?
That’s not something I [intentionally] wrote about. I actually really struggled with the idea of writing a song about body image, because I thought it would be hard to translate into words. It’s quite a sensitive topic, I didn’t want to be cliché about it; it was firstly that I was really going through it, and [it was also] something I went through in Bristol, because in my first year, I relapsed. I just thought it was relevant to include. I didn’t really include anything about recovery though. I wouldn’t really know how, I find writing about recovery so cliché. I’m not Meghan Trainor. -laughs-
How would you describe the album, if it’s not centred around your recovery?
I think it’s more about catharsis… kind of like a release. You can listen to the album just for the vibes, and be like “I like how this sounds, I like how hard this track goes”, but if you wanted to pay attention to my lyrics and experience the things I’ve been through with me, you can. It’s really your choice.
Especially with my previous EPs, there’s a stronger focus on the instrumentals rather than the lyrics. It’s quite reflective of the way I listen to songs; I just [feel] it’s like, “I like how this sounds, this reminds me of this really particular thing…”, like a wooden cottage in a forest, or a playground of a kindergarten or something… very particular scenes and emotions. -laughs- I kind of listen to everything the way you’re meant to listen to ambient music; Brian Eno [described] ambient music as being a “tint” of our surroundings, and I unintentionally listen to music that way. It’s as if ambient music is made for me. -laughs-
It’s very interesting to see how that music world feeds into what you’re doing now.
That really translated into the way I write songs. My words were kind of supplementary [in comparison] to the instrumentals, but now, I’m trying to focus more on the writing.
“I’ve been trying to pay a lot more attention to the words I’m writing, trying to be more poetic, more meaningful.” May Chi, in conversation with PRXLUDESTweet
Tell me about how the album opens; what can we expect on first listen?
‘It Feels Like I’m Underwater’ is about dissociation. Sometimes, I’ll be in a social situation, and no one will be speaking to me, and I’ll be in a room full of people, and everything zones out in my head and I’m like “Am I actually there? Am I real, can anyone see me?” My mind loses all its clarity, everything becomes a fuzz, and it feels completely unreal. And I just wanted to write a song about that, [channel] feeling either alone or isolated. It’s quite a strange feeling; I don’t really feel it often now, because I pretty much always have the company of people. It’s quite a particular feeling; I wanted to open the album with that, it just felt like an [introduction] to everything that’s about to unfold. Dissociation opens up the bullshit in your mind…
Does that theme of dissociation come back later in the album?
Yeah, in ‘Everything Feels So Real’… it has the word ‘feel’, so it’s related, right? -laughs- I used the same material, it’s basically the same song but made it [more] ambient. As the song progresses, more of the stuff from ‘It Feels Like I’m Underwater’ comes back… because it’s one of the last tracks on the album, it’s more [like] remembering where you came from, remembering from the beginning. It’s one of those things that felt right to do.
Talk to me about some of the other tracks on your upcoming album; do you think that element of catharsis is something that’s deliberate in your songwriting?
I don’t usually set out to write [those kinds of] songs, like, “I am going to write a song about my eating problems”, that’s not what I normally do. But with some tracks [on my album] such as ‘Sea of Eternal Sleep’, I did set out to write about that… I wanted to write about a [traumatic] experience from 2017. ‘Clifton // Suspension’ came naturally as well; I wrote the lyrics knowing what I wanted, I did the whole song knowing what I wanted, having a message I wanted to say.
How do the themes you’ve reflected on with this record differ from your previous EPs?
On my previous two EPs… ‘Blue’ was tied together by the colour blue, I associated all the tracks with the colour blue. I used blue to represent melancholy, but I also used blue to represent masculinity, because I’m quite a masculine person by nature, and I wanted to reflect that. I don’t know if anyone caught it; most people probably don’t think I’m a masculine person, but if you get that vibe from me… -laughs-
[With] ‘Wayfaring’, I said that it was about leaving your baggage behind, but [that’s] what I do with all of my music. -laughs- I feel like ‘Wayfaring’ was meant to be more nature-oriented, but in retrospect, it felt like a random collection of tracks [in comparison]. I remember being incredibly proud of the [title track] of ‘Wayfaring’; it’s still one of the songs that I can still say I’m really proud of writing and producing, [but] in the process of writing this new album, I remember thinking if I were ever to produce an album, it would take on a tone darker than ‘Wayfaring’.
I understand — so you wanted to go into this project with a more clear vision…
With this album, lyrically, I didn’t write random shit — [or] the first shit that came into my head — I wrote what was relevant to the whole, overarching subjects of the album. Everything was more calculated, more thought out. Also, the genres I chose to use are a lot more specific; I moved from synth-pop / indie-pop to a sound I was actually going for, [in] indie rock, alternative rock, and folk. Alongside indie rock, I also wanted to merge ambient practices into my songwriting; I already kind of did that with some songs off [of] ‘Wayfaring’, but I felt like I could go a lot further with that exploration.
I had a conversation with one of my friends [about it], and one of his comments on my EP was [that] he was trying to find a connection between the tracks, and he didn’t really hear one. When I told him that I was starting to write an album, he asked me what the theme was [first], and he was talking about art albums, and that really got me thinking. He really inspired me to think about doing this album as an art album, rather than a collection of tracks.
What’s your relationship to visuals — do you tend to have a specific image in your head when you’re writing?
I think there’s only a visual element for very specific tracks; I’ll write some songs with a very specific image in my head, for some of them, they’ll come afterwards. For example, [with the opener] ‘It Feels Like I’m Underwater’, with the lyricism and the imagery, I was visualising Mong Kok in Hong Kong; it’s a fucking ugly place. -laughs- One of the previous years I went back to Hong Kong, I visited Mong Kok with one of my friends. I didn’t go to the Hong Kong city centre often, [or] by choice; I just don’t like it, I didn’t grow up there. So I just went down there, and it was just a really strange experience; there were so many people, but there were just two of us stupidly walking down the road, chatting shit. I wanted to capture the image of Hong Kong, but in the loneliest way possible.
Tell me a bit about your sound’s progression; how did your sound change with your approach to this album?
I feel like my music currently is a lot more mature, in a sense; it’s a lot darker in its sound and subject matter. I feel like, as a composer with my sensibilities, in order to be taken seriously you have to write dark things… -laughs- If something I write isn’t dark enough, I tend to beat myself up about it, like, “oh, this sounds so infantile”. [With] one of the tracks [from my last EP], ‘Will You Tell Me’… when I first came up with that song, I was quite proud of it, but it’s the way I produced it [and] added all of those clicks. I grew to hate it, because it was too folky and happy. -laughs-
I feel everyone looks back on their work and thinks “oh, what the fuck was I thinking”. -laughs-
Yeah, I kind of regret the way I produced ‘Will You Tell Me’; I feel like if I left it as a singer-songwriter, acoustic guitar thing, it might have been more effective. Just for me, really; it would have been a lot more melancholic that way, I think I prefer things to be melancholic. I justified ‘Will You Tell Me’ as being upbeat with irony, but I think it works better [otherwise].
Tell me about some of the ambient work you’ve composed. I saw you performed some pieces for CODA Festival this year…
The way I create ambience in my music is a lot more subtle, maybe more sophisticated, because I kind of suggest it; it’s not in-your-face. I was very inspired by Boards of Canada, because they used guitars a lot in their record ‘The Campfire Headphase’; it was really cool knowing how guitar-heavy the record was, even though they manipulated some of the [sounds] beyond recognition. I think [in my work] there’s a stronger addition or elimination process; it’s a lot more random, but not really, because it’s this calculated randomness. I’ll add in elements, take them out, maybe put them in randomly to make the piece more unpredictable. That’s what I did for ‘Blue Grotto’; I scattered the synthesizer in the beginning, [and also] at the second half of the track.
With my ambient music, I pay a lot more attention to the sounds I’m using — I’m [always] like “how can I make the sounds? How do I get this particular sound quality or effect?” It was really hard to do the percussion for ‘Cloud Diving’. Initially, I was just using a Korg Volca Sample, and I put an amp to it, and my tutor Seán Clancy said “this doesn’t sound very good, can you change it” — so I just layered all these drum tracks together, so many of them, just to get the current sound you hear. I think that actually sounds alright now, but it was just like, the effort [I] had to go through just to get the sound you hear now.
It’ll be interesting to see how that meticulous approach transfers into the album.
I think that definitely transferred into the production of the album, because I was working on the ambient stuff before I started properly working on the album. I think you’ll be able to hear some of that production knowledge I’ve gained in the songs. I think the percussion part in ‘Under My Skin’ is a bit more sophisticated; it’s entirely programmed, but I worked a lot on making it sound more lively.
It sounds really organic; it doesn’t sound programmed at all.
That’s, again, down to Sean’s suggestions; when I sent him the track a week before I uploaded it, he said it [sounded] rather flat, so I changed it. He originally told me to record some actual sounds, like me slapping a table, or me pouring water into the sink to replicate a cymbal… I was gonna do that, but I [decided] to see if I could make it work with the MIDI sounds I have. And some of the MIDI sounds I have are alright… -laughs- Mastering ‘Under My Skin’ was such a struggle, cause I was trying to master it with my headphones and my Sony earbuds, and they sound so different through both. It was about finding a balance… oh god, that was a nightmare.
You’re ending the album with an ambient reprise, as well…
Yeah, on ‘Everything Feels So Real’… I also applied that kind of randomness to that track, as well. I think that’s the [only] proper ambient track on the album. You’ll hear some really random vocal elements scattered around, some guitar elements scattered around, and some whispering. I kind of like playing around with spoken voices in my work.
This is an easter egg to absolutely no one — as no one other than me is gonna get this — but I also referenced a guitar riff in ‘Everything Feels So Real’ from another song, that I’m not going to release on this album. -laughs- I might release it in the future… The song I referenced is [called] ‘Ginkgo’, after a tree — I think it produces this nut you can eat, too — when my grandmother passed away, and my mum told me how she passed, I spiralled, and I translated that sadness into song. On the day that my mum told me, [my friend] and I went to take a walk by the canal, [and] I saw a bunch of narrowboats. It was such a beautiful sight, seeing these narrowboats with the pretty plants on top, and I kind of visualised my grandmother as being a boat. She was a fishmonger all those years ago, and that was a very big part of when my dad was young.
I can imagine, that’s got to be a beautiful sight. How does that relate to the song?
The song is just about her journey… maybe her journey to death. I was also referencing a poem about death at the same time; I’m not that big on poetry, because not many poems make me go “wow”, but there was this one poem about death, which just so beautifully described the journey to death, and how you pass by all your previous memories, that supposed “flash” of memories before you die. But it was done in such a beautiful, pastoral way, or maybe that’s just my imagination speaking.
Going back to ‘Everything Feels So Real’, there’s a very particular riff I used that I just put [in]. I think it sounds kind of “off” from the rest of the song, but I just felt like it was right for me to do that. The title suggests that it’s [a] signal of clarity, even though it sounds so ambient; finding clarity when your mind is so muddled up.
More of May’s music can be found at:
- Boards of Canada – The Campfire Headphase (2005)
- Emily Dickinson – Because I Could Not Stop For Death (~1890 / pub. 1955)
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