Under the influence of Iris
by Sandor Slomovits
From the June, 2014 issue
When May Erlewine returns to the Ark on June 20, she'll be bringing along her two latest, and arguably finest, creations. However she may showcase only one of them on stage. For sure she'll be featuring songs from her new recording, Where We Are. Her other creation--four-month-old Iris Betsy Bernard--may be sleeping in the wings, or in the audience, while May and her longtime musical partner and husband, and Iris's co-creator, Seth Bernard, will be singing out front.
As half of the duo Seth and May, Erlewine has played at most folk venues and festivals throughout the state and recorded five joint albums. She's also issued eight solo albums and is a longtime member of the Earthwork musicians' collective. Audiences have grown to love her pure, fresh, unaffected voice, her multi-instrumental accompaniments, and perhaps above all, her thoughtful, poetic songwriting. And it's the songwriting that is front and center on this new album. May writes in an email, which she ends with a winking emoticon, "The entire record was recorded while she (Iris) was in the womb, and most of the songs were written this year as well. You can hear her influence ;)"
Yes, you can! You might anticipate that a soon-to-be mother might write lullabies, and the album opens with a wordless tune that would serve very well. You might also expect an expectant mom to sing the following, though few will fit words to tunes as elegantly as May.
Wait for your pretty little feet to walkBut in another song she questions:
Oh we will cover some miles
You and me, child, we will cover some miles
Round the block.
Tell me, can you see the pearly gates"I don't know, I do not know," she answers. "The album focuses on loss and rebirth, as we have lost a lot of dear friends these past two years and also welcomed our first child into the
When you let the world slip away?
Does heaven feel like home?
And are you traveling alone?
world," May writes.
In the past, Erlewine's voice was, by turns--often even in the same song--smooth as well as edgy, with a little rasp, soothing and also rousing. On this recording she delivers the songs in a voice that is calm, calming, pensive, and reassuring. There may be maternal mellowing, but there is also hard-won wisdom, backbone, and uplifting encouragement in her words and tone. "It's a medicine to take, to work and feel and pray / To find ourselves in darker times and turn towards the day."
Many fine Michigan musicians join May on the recording, among them Bernard on guitars and lap steel, Michael Shimmin on drums, and Dominic Davis on bass, and most of them will accompany her at the Ark. Red Tail Ring--a duo of fellow Earthwork members--opens the show.
[Originally published in June, 2014.]