The May North reveal the story behind their new album, 'Songs from the North Country'
With music and lyrics drenched in poignancy and life, The May North's music communicate the simplistic beauty of the North Country, leaving us dazzled, surprised and thrilled.
The band spoke with Gimme Noise before their CD release on Saturday at the 331 Club.
George McCorkell: guitar/vocals
Stephanie McCorkell: fiddle/guitar/vocals
Justin Smith: upright bass
Matthew Byrnes: banjo/vocals
Chris O'Brien: dobro/vocals
Gimme Noise: It seems like bluegrass has been finding its way into the Twin Cities music scene more and more in recent years. How and why do you think this progression came about?
There have always been good bluegrass musicians in the Twin Cities, but we agree that it does seem like the genre has gained popularity in recent years, particularly with younger people. Part of the reason might be that some younger, less traditional artists have emerged and brought the music to a larger, more diverse audience. In a lot of cases, you have musicians who have played in rock and funk and blues bands bringing their approach to bluegrass music, and the audience seems to follow.
Where does the name The May North come from?
The North Shore of Lake Superior is a favorite getaway spot for the two founding band members, George and Stephanie. Getting away from the city into the wilderness and quiet of the north country is relaxing and creativity-inducing. Camping, hiking, skiing, the lake, you name it. One summer day two summers ago they were throwing out expedition ideas, and thought, "Hey, maybe we should go north?" After all, it didn't really matter where, just as long as it was north and towards the North Shore -- and thus became the name, The May North.
What were your previous projects before The May North? How did performing in these groups influence how the music came together in this current project?
Our songwriter, lead guitarist, and vocalist, George McCorkell, along with Stephanie McCorkell, founded the band in the fall of 2010. George performed electric guitar and sang in area rock band Seven Corners for the last seven years, which mainly had played the cover band circuit at festivals, bars, and wedding receptions. He also performed in a partly cover-band, partly original group called George and Tim for about two years. For the last several years George had been writing his own music, and through his experiences in these other groups, decided he was called to pursue his original music with a band, thus, the band George and The Generous Thieves was born.
The George and the Generous Thieves project was also driven by songwriter, cahon player, and photographer Micah Kvidt with Stephanie on violin/fiddle and backup vocals. The band had a groovy acoustic rock feel to it; George and the Generous Thieves recorded one album, called Diamonds in the Rough (2008), before band member Micah moved south to warmer country. Stephanie and George continued playing in a classical guitar and violin duo, but they both looked to start another original band for the music they were now writing together. Thus began The May North in 2010. While George had always been interested in bluegrass, folk, and acoustic related music, he does not play traditionally in a bluegrass style (which uses a flat pick), but instead chooses to play finger style because he feels "it creates different ideas than playing with a flat pick."
Stephanie McCorkell, fiddle player and vocalist, started the band with George in 2010. Stephanie performed primarily in many classically styled groups over the last several years, including the Southern Crescent Symphony Orchestra, Allemande String Quartet, Romanza String Quartet, and the Northern Symphony Orchestra, where she was a section leader. Growing up, she loved playing and listening to fiddle and bluegrass music, and grew up in circles with family and friends of her family playing fiddle and bluegrass tunes. Her family also has regularly attended the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association bluegrass festivals, since before she can remember, and she has many memories of jamming around the campfires at the festivals with her family and other bluegrass musicians.
As a classical player who enjoyed fiddle music, she would learn traditional fiddle tunes to play at jams and soon she began performing fiddle music with her parents' bluegrass bands. When George and Stephanie met, they started playing fiddle and guitar tunes together, and when George became more interested in starting an original band, he and songwriter, cahon player, and photographer Micah Kvidt invited Stephanie to start performing in their new group George and the Generous Thieves.
After George and the Generous Thieves dismantled, she wanted to continue playing fiddle in a future band which became George and Stephanie's next project, The May North. Stephanie credits her training and experiences as a violinist with the technical instrument skills she needs to play fiddle in The May North. But the kind of improvisational playing that she does with The May North is like nothing she has ever done before, which makes it her favorite musical endeavor to date.
Justin Smith, our upright bass player, has been playing with the band since they started in the fall of 2010. He was the principal double bass of the Winona Symphony from 2005-2010 and also played classical bass with the Winona Oratorio Chorus. He is also the electric bassist for the Sugarloaf Gang jazz/funk/reggae band, bassist for the Winona State University Ensemble, and bassist for Twin Cities' electro-funk dance group, Apartment 4. He was also the sousaphone player Dixie Midnight Runners Dixieland jazz band and played mandolin, tenor banjo, and washboard for the Brueggermann Family Jamboree.
Justin doesn't necessarily identify himself as a "bluegrass bassist" but he says that he has heard plenty of old time traditional and progressive bluegrass. When he approaches a tune with The May North, if some musical aspect from his musical background fits a tune, he says, he will play it, even if it's not "the standard bluegrass bass line." He feels his experience in jazz, rock, and classical, even in using the bow, influence his approach to the band's music. Justin thinks that "a good musician uses all the tools in their performance arsenal to better the song."
Our banjo player, Matthew Byrnes, most recently played in the bands Zombie Season (fronted by Ali Jaafar of Hollow Boys) and Ex-Lovers. Zombie season was a slow and loud rock band with prog-rock and goth influences that he played keys with. He doesn't think that playing in this band explicitly influences his playing in The May North, but he says that it was "in the pain of setting up multiple half-broken synthesizers and dealing with the set up of a 5-piece electric band that he became interested in exclusively playing banjo."
He likes the simple set-up of a bluegrass style band, and he likes the simpler aspect of this band, in getting rid of lots of mics and cables he feels helps the musicians to interact more naturally together, especially when using one large diaphragm microphone and having everyone crowd around it in the early bluegrass music style. Ex-Lovers was a 3-piece band where he sang and played banjo and guitar with Jed Smentek (CLAPS, Safe Words) on upright bass and Eileen Shaughnessy (Eileen and the In-Betweens) singing and drumming. In Ex-Lovers he feels he really developed his banjo abilities and style. It was where he taught himself to play 3-finger banjo using non-traditional phrases.
During his time in Ex-Lovers, he started focusing more on the banjo and less on guitar, and when Ex-Lovers split, he felt that he still wanted to be in a band where he had an outlet for his banjo skills. Matthew likes playing in The May North because it's a band of people who are trained in a variety of kinds of music and over half of the band (George, Stephanie, and Justin) all went to college for music, so he feels it's great to be able to discuss more complex music theory and how it relates to the band's music. Matthew has been with the band playing banjo since January of 2011.
The band's most newest member, dobro player and vocalist, Chris O'Brien, joined the band this last fall in 2011 and has brought a wealth of musicianship and ideas to the band. He has been writing and performing original music for about 12 years, first under his own name and most recently with the band Enchanted Ape. In addition to singing most of the lead vocals in Enchanted Ape, he also helped sing and arrange harmony vocals on their studio recordings. Chris says he,"tries to bring that vocal experience to The May North and find harmony parts that elevate certain lyrics and phrases."
Instrumentally, he picked up acoustic and electric slide guitar while playing in Enchanted Ape, and it was just a matter of time before he became captivated with the dobro. Coming from a blues and rock background, his technique and phrasing is quite a bit different than traditional bluegrass players, which he thinks works well with The May North and adds an interesting texture to the music.
You say you make sense of love, loss, long winters, longer highways and the shifting lines between urban and country living in the music. How so?
Well, these are all themes that we tend to gravitate towards in the band's songs. There's usually quite a bit of room for interpretation, so when certain lyrics speak about a particular relationship or experience, hopefully everyone can relate in their own way. As for the urban and country living reference, there's a tension sometimes when you live in the city and also love the wilderness and the open road. That cagey, restless feeling definitely comes across in some of our songs.
Bluegrass is really backwoods music at its core, so when you see a bunch of urban city people getting down to a fiddle tune, it's like a vacation from all the concrete and cubicles. With the impending apocalypse, what better way to fight off the overwhelming sense of isolation in our modern, crumbling society than with a fiddle tune?
As with most bluegrass, there is an element of storytelling in the music. What comes first when you guys write, the lyrics or the music?
Yes, there is an element of storytelling in the music, just like with most bluegrass music. Interesting enough though, in our band it is not the lyrics usually that come first but the music. George (guitar and lead vocals) is the main songwriter of the band, and he brings the musical ideas to the table, with open spaces for lyrics and other instrumental parts. Then after the band hears what has been started, the rest of the group gets creative with the seeds that he has planted.
Stephanie (fiddle and vocals) often helps write the lyrics and helps create vocal harmonies along with Chris (dobro and vocals), and then Stephanie, Matthew (banjo), Justin (bass), and Chris all develop their instruments' own parts for the songs as the songs evolve into their finished products. There is a lot of collaboration and experimentation as we work out the songs together. Also, we are a relatively young band, having just welcomed our newest member, Chris (dobro and vocals), to the band late this last fall. As we continue to write songs and the more we practice and get to know each other personally and artistically, the more creative we can become. It is an exciting process to be a part of.
With your debut album, what was the story you wanted to tell?
This is essentially the music that you would hear after the end of the world, assuming there was still someone around to hear it and assuming acoustic instruments could survive nuclear annihilation. No seriously though, it's folk and bluegrass songs performed in an alt-grass style which tell stories inspired by our lives and our experiences. We think that on one hand, it speaks to an aesthetic of darkness and longing which many people might be able to relate to at one point or another in their lives, and on the other, a lighter and playful look at life that forgets about the troubles for a while.
What's the ultimate goal with the album? Any plans on touring?
We went into the studio on a sunny spring Saturday to make this album with a lot of music ready to record. It was our first album together, and we recorded it live, altogether in one room, in one day, in about eight hours. It was our attempt to capture the music the band had created so far together, as well as what we were doing for our audiences out at our shows. Plus, we were already penning new songs and were getting excited about starting our second album. We'd like to give a shout out to Nick Mundth and Joe Mabbott at The Hideaway Studio for being so great to work with on this project. We don't have plans to tour at this time, but it's something we'd look forward to in the future. Currently we're looking forward to playing shows and festivals this spring and summer, both locally and regionally.
How did you come about having the release show at the 331 Club and what can we expect at the show?
We knew that the 331 Club has strong support for the Twin Cities' bluegrass and original music scene, and we felt it would be a great place to hold our cd release show at. Plus, the 331 tends to attract engaged music fans from around the Twin Cities who know and appreciate good music, whom we'd love to play for. At the show, you can expect to hear all of the music from our new album, as well as older music yet to be recorded on the next album. We are also pumped to present several of our newest songs which we have been writing in the last few months. We're looking forward to Saturday.
The May North will release Songs from the North Country at the 331 Club on Saturday, 1/21/2012 with Folk 'n' Thieves.
21+, Free, 10 pm