May Erlewine hosts healing holiday parties
Image: Steven Holmes
On a cold, snowy December night, a crowd filled Founders Brewing Company. People purchased boozy brews, filled tables, and mingled with friends.
A line of men dressed sharply in black marched on stage and began playing an upbeat jazz tune.
From the back of the bar, May Erlewine danced in. She shimmied her short, white-suited frame through the growing throng around the stage, pausing to dance with different groups and watch the band.
Then Erlewine took the stage. The band kicked into “Come On In,” the first track on Erlewine’s new holiday EP, “The Little Things.”
Between the beer, the sound, the sentiment and the body heat, the warmth was unavoidable.
This was one of Erlewine’s winter dance parties. She and her six-piece band played two sets with songs from her EP and covers of soulful hits from artists like Solomon Burke, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Jean Knight and more.
The parties were inspired by the premise of the new EP: creating a space for people for whom the holidays are not always merry and bright.
“I thought, man it’d be so cool to make an album that has a holiday feel but that is addressing those issues—of people being stressed or people not having authentic connection with their family and friends or community, or people who are grieving someone who’s gone,” Erlewine said.
But that didn’t mean it had to be a sad album, laden with emotion. She thought she could make this EP groove.
“In the studio we really leaned into trying to keep it danceable.”
They succeeded. The songs are joyful, but more self aware than your average holiday fare. They transcend materialism. They acknowledge mortality, death, and grief. They don’t shy away from the world’s weight, but they have a sense of humor that keeps them light.
Erlewine’s winter dance parties sought to provide the same services, with the added bonus of an opportunity to dance in public outside of a club, where sex is often an unfortunate subtext.
“It’s really hard to have places that you can go dance that aren’t kind of you know, sleazy,” Erlewine said. “I thought It’d be really cool to label these as dance parties so that anyone who wants to dance but isn’t sure will have an immediate excuse.”
The parties were not tied to any specific tradition. They sought to welcome anyone to have a warm time with their community—especially those who might not experience this season the way people traditionally do.
After the election, Erlewine realized the parties would be even more necessary, and they’d have to be more intentional.
“We’re not coming here to party and forget about everything,” Erlewine said, “but we’re coming to be together in the wake of something that’s really devastating to a lot of people.”
Early in her set, Erlewine pointed out a whiteboard at her merch table that attendees were encouraged to fill with names of organizations and events where people could come together and advocate for the oppressed. At the end of the night, those interested could photograph the whiteboard and learn more at home. She had a donation jar for Standing Rock Indian Reservation and the cause against the Dakota Access Pipeline. She held a moment of silence (or as close to silence as one can get in a giant, very crowded brewpub) for those oppressed.
Erlewine recognized these frank political statements might make some in her audience uncomfortable. And being the one to stoke the discomfort is also awkward.
“We have to be a little uncomfortable,” Erlewine said. “That’s one thing I’m learning.”
She’s made a point of entering that realm in these parties, while being careful not to isolate people or create opposition.
“There have been moments when I felt that I pushed people to their comfort zone, but I never felt any energy of negativity,” Erlewine said. “I pushed some people as far as they could go, but I did it in a way that felt respectful from my heart.”
The songs on this EP break away from the style many have come to expect from Erlewine. And her mode of performance at the parties—taking the stage as exuberant hostess, dressing in a chic white pencil skirt suit, and abandoning her acoustic guitar to focus on singing and dancing—is a whole new game.
“It’s funny to see people reacting to that and wondering ‘Is this the new you?’” Erlewine said.
“No, this is just one me,” she said.
Stepping out of her usual territory has taken courage, but it’s been rewarding.
“For my personal life, that feels like a good thing to do right now. It’s been really positive,” she said.
Her underlying intention in songwriting remains the same: Erlewine writes and performs as a servant to her community.
“My main goal is to be of service and to help people to feel things,” Erlewine said. She cited the tradition of troubadours, who took in the world around them, digested it, and translated it into song. She calls it “emotional activism.”
“That’s what I do. I take it really seriously,” Erlewine said. “If we’re not in touch with how we’re feeling, then it’s hard for us to be very effective.”
A necessary ingredient in that formula is the characteristic simplicity in Erlewine’s songs. There’s no need for in-depth analysis to hear what she’s saying.
“I love it when it’s so simple that you just can’t really deny it,” she said. Her favorite songwriters include Neil Young and Patty Griffin. “They say something that’s so very ordinary, that it can strike almost anybody.”
Erlewine’s biggest project yet is in the works—a full length produced by Tyler Duncan (Vulfpeck, Theo Katzman). They recorded in August and the album is set to release in fall 2017.
“I’ve been pouring every ounce of myself into it for months and months,” Erlewine said.
Erlewine said this yet-untitled album is a much more “May” project, replete with her brand of deep, emotional landscapes. It will feature musicians Theo Katzman, Joe Dart, and Woody Goss from Vulfpeck as well as guitarist Josh Pinkham and others.
She’s put more into this record than any other, she said.
“Already I feel like it’s changed my life creating these things,” Erlewine said. “I’m so excited to put it out into the world.”