Posted May 4, 2022 by Jeff in Tunes

May Erlewine Tries a Little Tenderness with ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’

May Erlewine photo by May Erlewine
May Erlewine photo by May Erlewine

Singer-songwriter May Erlewine stresses the importance of environmental advocacy, social justice, creative empowerment and community building. She’s been involved with, Safe House Ann Arbor, On the Ground Global, Cross Hatch Center for Arts and Ecolog and Bioneers Conference. Inspired by Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny Beautiful Things, she penned the songs for Tiny Beautiful Things, a beautiful collection of tunes that showcases her supple voice and poetic lyrics. In a recent phone interview from her Northern Michigan home, she spoke about the album.

When did you start writing the songs for Tiny Beautiful Things?

A lot of them were written during the pandemic. A couple were written previously, but most of them were written during the pandemic. I decided in January of 2020 to start working on a full-length record about the many incarnations of love.

Talk about Cheryl Strayed’s book and how you first came across it?

Her book was given to me by some friends many years ago. I was going through a pretty tough time. She wrote it under a pseudonym. She had this advice column called “Dear Sugar.” The book is this collection of these letters that people wrote to her and her responses. It’s a beautiful testament to humanness. These people are going through these intense things. She offers thoughts and reflects back to them. It’s a really beautiful book that was helpful to me at a time of need. The songs fit within that and the idea of humanness during this time of the pandemic when we’re all a bit isolated.

Do your songs respond directly to the letters?

Some of them are more direct, but most of them are scenes from humanness and love. At the shows, I read from the book and tie different sentiments to each song. I also read letters from my own life. The concert is a continuation of these exchanges.

The songs work so well in the order in which they are presented.

We play almost all of it in order and then go into some other material from my last record. The whole theme is around incarnations of love. There are letters and quotes from the book. It’s an uplifting show that goes to some cathartic places.

Where did you go to record?

The recording was done remotely for the most part. It was a bizarre process of piecing it together. Sometimes, we had to build a sand castle of the song to get the actual drums and then I would record the actual guitar. I was so fortunate to work with incredible musicians and mixing engineers. They were able to make sure that they sounds we got could mesh together. They put a lot of work into making it sound cohesive.

I think Theo Katzman (vulfpeck) contributes backing vocals throughout the album. Talk about working with him.

I reached out to him to see if he would do all the background vocals on everything. He was so into it. It sounds so cool to hear his voice in that way. He’s an amazing musician. As he was tracking, he heard a few guitar parts he liked. He also plays lead on a couple of songs. You hear Theo and his guitar playing too. He has this signature way about him that I love so much.

That opening song, “Easy,” is very contemplative. Talk about what inspired it.

That is a challenging song. There are a lot of questions and a lot of pain in that one. It’s about owning mistakes and pain and realizing that in order to have love or grow, we have to admit when we are wrong. That song is like looking in the mirror and acknowledging the self that maybe isn’t what you hoped it would be and being contemplative enough to move through it and not get stuck there. It was written at a crazy time in my life. I was feeling the weight of some choices and mistakes and trying to embrace that as part of my humanness.

I love the guitar solo in it.

That is Theo. I love that too. He called me in the middle of it when he was doing the vocals and said he was hearing a guitar solo that was a little wild for the song. He tried it anyway and sent it, and we just loved it.

“Could Have Been” features horns and is also really soulful.

The horns are really subtle. My friend Caleb [Elzinga] played saxophone on all the songs but he had him play in this really mellow way. There’s also a lot of flute mixed with the horns.

I think your father was a musician. Talk about how that influenced you.

My dad was a musician in the ’60s. He had a band called Prime Movers. He was into music and so were his brothers. His mother was an artist, so there was a lot of art inspiration coming from his side of the family. My mom had an appreciation for music as well. They encouraged to explore anything creatively that I wanted. They were playing music from all over the world. They asked if I noticed this or that. I was raised contemplating what I was hearing. I feel really lucky for that — just the appreciation of it. There was a wide definition of what music is. One of the lucky things was that it was not genre specific. That’s sometimes apparent in my music. It doesn’t always fit in a genre either. I don’t think genre is useful to think about it when you are creating.

Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?

I do. I wrote it when I was 12. It opened the whole door. I remember the feeling of doing it. I thought, “This is something I can do.” I wanted to write another one right away and couldn’t stop.

You released your first album back in 2003. Was it difficult to write and record it?

I had a lot of material so writing for it was not a problem. Being new to the process is the most daunting thing when making your first record. You don’t know how the studio works. I went to the studio and we spent the whole day recording. I went home and listened to it and it sounded wrong. I didn’t like the quality of the sound. They called me back and said one of the preamps was broken. They did the whole thing again for free and rescheduled it for a month later. In that month, I almost wrote a whole new album, so that first record is totally different from what it was supposed to be.

How the heck did “Shine On” wind up on The Voice?

That was such a funny thing. That season my friend Joshua Davis was on The Voice. He’s like family to me. It’s funny because he heard that there was this kid who knew my music. That was Sawyer Fredericks. His mom had a homeschooling group called “Shine with Homeschooling.” Somehow, they got ahold of my song and would listen to it all the time. I got a call and assumed it was Josh who was going to cover my song. I didn’t know how I felt about it because they were competing.

At what point did you start getting involved in social issues?

I’ve always really admired the activist songwriters who use music to speak for things and view their music as a service-oriented thing. That’s how I’ve approached music. I admire that lineage of songwriter, and I have always offered myself to the causes. I’ve written protest songs. I think music is so important in that way. It moves people differently than when you are speaking. It has a great power to promote change and bring people together. I believe in music that way. It’s scary and coming up against opposing forces. I made a record after Trump was elected, and I made it as an activist record about what was happening in this country, and it was political and outspoken and a lot of people did not appreciate that. I did all this imagery with the flag and what it means to be a woman in this country with a leader like Trump. It was scary and terrifying. To receive people’s frustrations and all the letters I got was exhausting to be totally honest. But I thought about it this way and I thought that when I’m older and look back on this time, do I want to say that I was quiet and made happy music or that I did my best to speak up about what was happening.

What direction do you see things going in?

It’s really hard when we’re dealing with a system that has so many problems. It’s hard to make large change happen. It feels a little disempowering. I try to make small changes in the community. That’s where we can have more impact. That’s an area of my focus. I also feel that politically, things are coming to a head. A lot of things are coming to surface. With racial injustice and feminism, we exposed how a lot of people think. I was maybe living in a bubble and thought we were in a more progressive place. In some ways, having that reality is informative. Now, we see the heart of the problem, and hopefully, that allows us to move beyond it, but I don’t know how yet. We’re still seeing the symptoms of a sickness that’s permeating right now.

Photo by May Erlewine


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].