by Ross Huff and Paul Kitti
Look no further, all those seeking a musical pick-me-up. Seth and May construct the sound of smiles from a fiddle, an acoustic guitar and cheer-up-buddy melodies. This busy couple has taken their music to middle schools, college campuses, festival stages and African villages – any place where warm music is welcome. Maybe they’ve made you smile before, too – they’ve played at the Ark two years ago and have been featured on Tree Town Sound with Matthew Altruda on Ann Arbor’s 107.1 FM. They’ll return to the Ark on March 8 (last time, they split their set into a segment with a supporting band and another with just the two of them). Interesting fact: the contact tab on their web page links to the Wikipedia article on Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel, “Contact.”
Recently, Macpodz trumpeter and iSPY writer, Ross Huff, was able to chat with Seth about his music with May and their upcoming show.
Tell me about this concert on March 8.
We’re just going to play a duo show. The last few shows we’ve done at the Ark we’ve had a four or five piece band, but lately we’ve been playing as a duo. May’s been playing more piano, and we’ve been doing the acoustic thing as well as playing our electric guitars. So we’re looking forward to placing our music in a slightly different setting for the Ark crowd.
Tell me about your experiences at the Ark and how it’s unique.
The Ark is a totally legendary, special, hallowed space for any musician or singer songwriter. It’s a combination between being the ivory tower and the ultimate campfire to play at. When I moved to Ann Arbor when I was 20 or 21, I set a goal to play at the Ark within a year. I volunteered all year, probably once to three or four times a week, and I got to play 363 days after I had moved, within two days of my goal. I’ve probably played there a couple dozen times with different people. I got to jam with the Macpodz. I got to be part of Madcat’s sixtieth birthday party, which was a highlight (Harmonicist Peter “Madcat” Ruth). It’s a rewarding spot. People come to listen and support you. There’s a sense of all the people that have played there – right when you walk into the dressing room and see all the signatures. You’re just surrounded by musical inspiration and influence, so it coaxes out genuine performances. I’ve seen some really wonderful shows there. We always try to dig deep and plan well and allow for spontaneity at the same time.
I like those reflections – the campfire and the ivory tower. It’s an institution.
It is a tall institution of the best kind. The spirit of volunteerism and community is very much alive and well there.
That fits with my impression of what appears to be at the core of yours and May’s motivations – the music business linked to the community building aspect. How does your music link up with community and activism?
The Ark is a great landing pad for what we do. There’s a strong alignment of values and of intentions. We’ve been brought up with the idea that music is a great tool for the revolution, for communicating, organizing and affecting change, bringing people together to talk about things and get stuff done. I got to see Utah Philips at the Ark and meet him before and after the show. I remember Utah was standing out in front of the Ark shaking everybody’s hand, and afterward he was there to meet everybody, every single person. Richie Havens was another situation just like that. These are guys that are fully committed to positive work, and their music is a vehicle for that. Those are the kinds of folks that influenced May and I to use our art for a larger purpose and to try to serve the greater good. You get a chance to do that at the Ark with people who are of the same thought process. There’s always more to be done and more to be talked about – it’s nice to have a platform for that.
Shifting back to your band, I’m personally curious about what it’s like to be life partners with someone you’re also creative and business partners with and how that shakes out.
It’s interesting… it’s a good thing we’re totally in love, because it would be really hard. It’s challenging, but it’s so rewarding. I think for May and I there’s a lot of different ways we connect and work together. We share the same sort of forward vision. We’re sort of looking in the same direction. The intention for our music to serve a greater good is always there underneath it. We know that what we’re doing logistically with planning, creating budgets, timelines, strategies. If we can keep in touch with the larger vision, we do pretty well with all the juggling that goes on, like driving long distances in the winter and doing it all ourselves. That’s the thing, we do all our own booking, promotion and management. We’re running a collective with a bunch of our friends. We teach classes together at schools and at this place in Traverse. With that said, we do have some nice spaces in our togetherness. We’ve been playing more separately – we have a couple different projects that we do separately. The act of writing our songs is something we each do on our own, sort of a practice that we’ve developed when we were really young, early teens, of writing in solitude and having that be something that’s really important to us… getting in touch with ourselves and our truth. We haven’t fully engaged in co-writing everything, but we tend to workshop our tunes with each other right when they’re fresh. So in that way we’re collaborating on our material by being the first person to bounce ideas off of. It’s an interesting thing because we’re so close and we do so much together, and then underneath the heart of all of that we still have our personal songwriting practice that we let the other one in on. It’s an ever evolving thing, but we’ve been together for nine years and have been playing together for nine years, so we just get a little deeper into it every year. We find more tools and more sounds become a part of our sound and our shared sound.
What is your process when you’re writing material?
It’s interesting because we’ve been teaching songwriting, and that’s a whole different angle – to talk about the process rather than to just do it. It’s been an interesting journey to help other people with their process. I saw a quote recently that said having a songwriter talk about writing songs is like having a bird talk about ornithology! When we’re doing our own thing, usually something comes into our minds and that’s the beginning of a song. The more this is a job for us (we have kind of a rigorous schedules we’ve created for ourselves), the more it’s practical for us to set aside time to write, to try to make it happen. We’re songwriters, and not only do we perform, educate and record, but we have to keep writing. Usually there’s some sort of seed that comes in. We just try to water it and nurture it and not analyze it too much. One of the things that we talk about in our class that has been a challenge for both of us is to not have the critical voice enter in to the first wave of inspiration. When a song is coming, just follow that wave. After that has taken place, the refinement process can come. We try to really dial in the lyrics and the music and make sure that there’s rhythm, melody, harmony and storytelling. I think our process has long been trying to have songs that have a use, either to us or to other people. If they’re useful to us in a genuine way, hopefully they’ll be authentic in some way to other people. We come from the school of Woody Guthrie, having songs give courage to people, allowing them to cover a myriad of emotions, but to try to have an application for the songs in the place and time we’re in.
On that note, would you talk about the signage on the front of May’s piano?
We started touring with that keyboard last year, and instead of Yamaha we decided we wanted it to say something else. What other word could we use instead of Yamaha to send out there to the people watching without it framing everything? Or, if it is going to frame everything, what would that word be? We decided COURAGE is the word. That’s what we hope to give. Rather than changing the way someone thinks or acts, just give them courage. Try to give something away, not be up there trying to take something from people or trying to control them or anything like that. That’s what I want when I go see somebody. I want to be feeling filled up with courage so I can do what I came here to do.
So how about your favorite five NBA players, retired?
Nice! One of the best interview questions I’ve ever been asked.
That’s why they pay me the big bucks.
I’ll say Joe Dumars.
Joe Dumars! I’ve always loved Dennis Rodman, man.
So, retired NBA players, I’m going to shift away from the Pistons…
We have to.
I’m going to say George “the Iceman” Gervin, one of the best scorers in NBA history.
I’m going to have to say this one because he’s got a dance move in the old dance “the Madison,” the Wilt Chamberlain hook shot, you know I’ve got to say Chamberlain.
Impressive. Dr. J, man. So much style. Tremendously inspiring.
At that point we have to talk about French Lick, Indiana.
Larry Bird! If you’ve got Larry Bird on your team, there’s always a chance. So much greatness. I’m going to say, Bill Russell! A champion.
I’m going to go to East Lansing and call Magic.
Really good. Pistol Pete Maravitch.
We’re kind of avoiding MJ, but he is the greatest.
You’re absolutely right, he deserves a spot.
He earned it.
He did. While you’ve got MJ, I’ll bring Darryl Dawkins in to dunk on MJ and break the backboard!
Yep! Chocolate thunder! Naming his dunks.
Right and an early hip hop artist. Broke more backboards than anyone by a LOT.
You know, I like all kinds of music, man, but when I go to see music, that’s like the kind of performance I’m looking for. I want that backboard smashed, you know what I mean? The metaphor doesn’t necessarily work for a string quartet, a folk duo or a jazz band… I’ll work on it.
You definitely want the Darryl Dawkins musical experience when you go to the Blind Pig.
If the Blind Pig then is the Darryl Dawkins musical experience, what are we looking for at the Ark in terms of athletic prowess?
Let me think about that one. I think at the Ark, I think it’s more of the Olympic Spirit that we’re looking for – this global vibe that makes us fall in love with being human. We’re looking for more of like a Carl Lewis …no not Carl Lewis. Let me think here for a second. How about Florence Griffith Joyner? Flo Jo. You want like a… Jim Thorpe. Just an unbelievable athlete. Broke the racial barriers. He was very positive, part Native American, captivated the whole world. You couldn’t stand up against Jim Thorpe. He was just that powerful.
You’re a cat who can appreciate the connection between arts and athletics.
I think that back in the earlier days, you could be in pro sports and have more of a political influence, be outspoken like Muhammad Ali – not only really uplifting people when he was boxing but moreso when he was outside the ring by being totally articulate about where he stands, uncompromising ethically and morally. These days there’s a little too much corporate influence, too much of a cash flow, peer pressure thing going on in pro sports that kind of soils it in some ways. Going back to Ann Arbor, I would regret not bringing up the Fab Five as a cultural phenomenon that Ann Arbor should be proud of. That was very good, not only athletically, for our nation to go through, but in the realm of music, these guys were great advocates for hip hop at a time when hip hop needed to move more into the mainstream. They had the hip hop style, they listened to EPMD and NWA and stuff like that on the way to games to get pumped up. That just brought [the music] right into my household out there in Moorestown, Michigan. They were young dudes too, but they had each other. That was something pretty powerful about the Fab Five. These cats were in the public eye at like 18, 19 years old because of their athletic prowess, but their brotherhood… the fellowship that basketball gave them, helped give them each the strength to shoulder that burden culturally of moving forward. I watched a documentary on ESPN on the Fab Five recently. I was really touched by one moment.Jalen described Muhammad Ali inviting all those guys into his hotel room – he basically brought them into his room and gave them his blessing and said what they were doing was really good. So that’s significant. That’s a really beautiful rite of passage. But we won’t talk about the MSU / U of M basketball game last week.
Yeah, we can leave that – that’s somebody else’s beat, man.
We’re not covering that one.
Seth Bernard and May Erlewine will perform on March 8 at The Ark.