A slow burner, hard worker, loyal, considerate, a contemplative person who thinks about things a lot, possibly too much at times – that's the way Elaine Mai describes herself, and she's right. She has come a long way from being one of State magazine's faces of 2012 to releasing a solo debut album almost a decade later. As an artist, she notes: "I've been on a journey over the past 10 years trying to get to the point that I'm at now. It has been an intentional move from one kind of music over quite a long period of time, so I take my time with things. I would never put out something that I wasn't really happy with. I just don't have an interest in that."
Originally from Co Mayo, but now resident in Dublin (within a hefty stone’s throw from Glasnevin’s Botanic Gardens), Mai has gravitated from band format to solo with ease. Irish music fans with long memories might recall her in Galway-based band Go Panda Go, with which she sang and presented a symbiotic mix of samples and synths, but she has long since established a one-person route. The intentional move that Mai refers to is a transfer of early loyalties from the guitar (“Nirvana; a metal phase”) to the layering and the creation of electronic music. “I’m at that point now where I just make the music I love,” she says. “There is a bit of perfectionism in there, but I’m fine with that, and I would rather never release anything again than something I wasn’t completely happy with. I just wanted it to be as good as it could be.”
Despite her solo status, Mai is astute enough (and a lover of texture enough) to know that mixing voice with synths can often create something that takes experimentation into a different realm altogether. Her early collaborations date back to her student days in Galway with Irish producer/songwriter Daithí Ó Drónaí ("he's a good friend of mine, we've always done it because it's good craic and we like experimenting"), but she has edged ever outwards since, working with indie artists – predominantly female – such as Loah, Sinead White, MayKay and Ailbhe Reddy. "There's a shared experience of women because, as has been highlighted many times, there are lots of struggles that women face in the music industry, and I think because of that there's definitely a deeper level of camaraderie and understanding."
Mai’s sense of perfectionism came at a price. Her debut album took time, she admits, because she binned many pieces of music. What was wrong with them?
“It’s a feeling, isn’t it? I think all of the tracks that ended up on the album have a real emotional connection, there’s something that draws you in. I was going for the mix of euphoria and melancholia – the album is called Home and so all the tracks relate to the title in some ways.”
I knew I was gay when I was about 15, so it was always a thing of knowing that when I went to college I would meet people like me and have that sense of community
Amateur psychologists would have a field day here. An only child (“or ‘lonely’ child as I thought it was for a long time”) whose parents split up when she was 12, she is wary about reading too much into it but admits that a sense of belonging is important to her. “You are a little bit more isolated when you’re an only child. When I was a teenager growing up in Mayo, I definitely felt isolated at times. I wanted to have that sense of belonging with other queer people, I guess, and maybe that is something that has stuck with me. Everyone needs to have some kind of support system around them.”
That eventually arrived in her life. When her parents parted ways, she moved from “an extremely rural place” to a slightly larger town and from there to NUI Galway. “I knew I was gay when I was about 15, or thereabouts, so it was always a thing of knowing that when I went to college I would meet people like me and have that sense of community. I wasn’t wrong, and then moving to Dublin, meeting people like me, blew my mind.”
Home is where you're from and where you live, but it's so much more than that, especially from a queer person's perspective. It's like a club where your chosen family are
The creative elements of her life developed, she says, when she started using Ableton, a digital audio workstation that is not only an instrument in itself for live performances, but also a device for composing, recording, arranging, mixing and mastering. A different world world opened up to her, she adds, “because you go from quite limited possibilities with a guitar and a loop pedal to any number of them, which included jumping into YouTube and watching tutorials, things like that, and then the practicalities of remixes from which I learned, and am still learning, techniques.”
When, I ask, did she get to the point where she knew she was good, and when the search for perfectionism became a friend and not foe? “I started to feel a lot more confident about three to four years ago with the last EP I put out, The Colour of the Night. I felt that was quite strong. And a remix for Loah I did a while back was really good, I thought.”
Improvement of the art and of the self is a continuous thing for Mai, and it’s clear that her debut album is the first substantial step in the progression of each. Every one of the nine tracks on Home, she accedes, references the notion of fitting in or finding your tribe.
“Home is where you’re from and where you live, but it’s so much more than that, especially from a queer person’s perspective. Home is like a club where your chosen family are. There’s a track on the album called Mother, and that is literally about the club, the feeling when you’re there. The different ways of experiencing the feeling of belonging is an interesting theme for me. I think that sense of wanting to belong is for everyone, wherever they may be or with whatever group of people, but I definitely think it’s important for queer people.”
We circle back to the music on Home, and its intertwining mix of bliss and despondency. How does she process the route from despair to euphoria? It can work both ways, she maintains, providing you have a degree of self-awareness to feel your way through it. As she has gotten older, she says, she has realised that life (“the whole time”) is, more or less, the combination of misery and its opposite, and so whenever she writes, music facets of each naturally seep through.
When you’re younger, you think you’re going to grow up and be happy forever, she says, yet she knew that wasn’t going to happen around the time she started writing 2017’s The Colour of the Night EP. “That was quite emotional, because in a short space of time my dad, my uncle and a cousin died. I feel it was my first real intense experience of death. It hit me, I joined that club, and I understood loss for the first time. The sadness comes through on that EP, as well as someone who is working through a lot of emotions. Coming out of that and moving into the new album is a more level place for me in that regard. The thing with grief and bereavement is that you don’t actually ever get over it, you just have to live with it.”
Jagged little thrill: Elaine Mai on the raw power of Alanis Morissette
“For me as a teenager, Alanis was one of the most raw, most unapologetic, most authentic artists, and I couldn’t get enough of her music. She sang in such a natural way and spoke honestly about her experiences that I was totally drawn in. She inspired me to pick up the guitar and write, and has had a huge influence on me throughout my life.
“Seeing yourself reflected in someone plays such an important role in making things seem possible. Alanis was a young, kick-ass woman sharing her experiences openly and she made me feel like having a career in music was actually possible.”
Elaine Mai’s debut album, Home, will be launched at the Workman’s Club (Cellar), Dublin, on Friday October 29th.