THEAUSSIEWORD.COM catches up with Australian singer/songwriter Calan Mai.
How and where did it all begin for you? What drew your interest to the music industry?
I always knew I wanted to be a writer. But when I was a kid I didn’t make the connection between music and writing: the idea that songs were constructed and could be about any subject matter. Once I began learning guitar at 13, it didn’t take long for me to start writing my own songs. The compulsion was always there, I just needed the musical knowledge. I’m drawn to songs because they are one of the most concise ways to tell a story.
What motivates or influences you in your quest to make great music?
The number one motivation is my own wellbeing. Music is the only thing in my life that hasn’t let me down. It’s the only thing that doesn’t fade. I love it as much now as I ever did. Outside of that, I want to tell stories about the people I love. My family, my friends, past relationships.
Personal stories are unique because they are full of complex details that could never be replicated by chance. But they are also universal for the same reason. They remind you that every life is lived with the same deep knowledge of one’s own experiences. A good song, like a good story, shifts your perspective and teaches you something new about the world—even if it’s just the world in someone else’s head.
What are your biggest goals you hope to accomplish as an artist?
I want to release an album, publish a novel and write and direct a feature film. One thing at a time though.
What can we expect from you in the coming months? Any plans to tour?
I will be heading over to the US to record with Brian Deck (Iron & Wine, Counting Crows) in Chicago, as well as playing some shows while I’m there. I’m booked to perform at Rockwood Music Hall in New York on April 30th!
Tell us a bit about your latest release and how would you best describe your music?
My latest track ‘Friend of a Friend’ is a song about expectations—the space between what you know will happen and what you hope will happen. As a musician, I spend a lot of time living in this uncertain space. Because like anything worth pursuing, a career in music requires a lot of sacrifice, the biggest of which is a loss of stability. I gave up a very important relationship to continue down this road I’m on and I wanted to comment on that in the song.
So my music is autobiographical. I can’t necessarily comment on the ‘genre’ because I guess that’s always in flux. I care about songwriting and I care about sincerity. I want to tell my stories as close to the truth as possible.
Give us an insight into your creative process. What gets you writing songs?
My process is just singing and playing. I sit with a guitar or at a piano and I sing whatever comes to me. I never write anything down because I’m afraid of becoming too content with an idea before it’s finished blooming. The second I put words on a page it feels like the process is winding down. And I never want to stop looking for better words or melodies. I’m a bit superstitious in that way. The written word feels kind of final. With the lyrics floating around in my head, I can continue writing while doing other things, like driving or showering. This process of adding/subtracting words, combining sections, shifting metering and playing with melodies can continue for hours, days or months. It depends what story I’m trying to tell.
But the more I play the song, the less the words change and eventually everything settles. Then it becomes a matter of how I’m going to present the track. And those decisions are made in the studio.
Is there a hidden meaning in any of your music?
All songs have hidden meanings. Whether the writer intends for that or not. I try to weave the details of a story into the smallest package possible—hinting at a wider world that exists between the lines, outside a verse, chorus, beginning or end. That wider world is my real life and every song I write is my attempt to make sense of it.
So there is a hidden meaning behind every statement. Not just in music, but in all forms of art. The complexity of your innermost hopes, fears and desires is impossible to ever truly convey. But art isn’t about capturing all of that. It’s about the attempt.
Success, what is the secret to it?
It depends how you define success, because it means something different to everyone. But if you’re talking about the kind of success the world seems to value—that is, money, fame, adoration and owning your reputation—I’m really not sure if there’s a secret.
I don’t know that anyone successful ever considers themselves a success. If they did, they would have stopped trying a long time ago. The one thing that seems to unite successful people—at least from the outside looking in—is that all of them are unsatisfied with where they’re at in the present.
So I guess the secret to success is knowing that no amount of it will ever make you happy. At least if you know that, you’ll look for happiness in other places.
What has been your biggest career highlight so far?
Getting the opportunity to write and record with people in different parts of the world. Nothing is more exciting than creating something with a person you’ve never met before.
Which stars of the music industry do you find inspiring?
Justin Vernon, Julien Baker, Chance the Rapper—the list goes on. I am very inspired by people who stay grounded and surround themselves with likeminded artists. I have no interest in fame, beyond the fact that it would allow me to continue creating art and collaborating with brilliant minds.
Are there any new projects in the pipeline?
I still don’t know what Calan Mai is yet! And I don’t want to spread myself too thin. Right now, I’m very eager to record more, grow as an artist and explore possibilities.
The music industry is huge, where do you see yourself a few years from now?
That’s a tough question. I hope my music is able to reach the ears of many listeners and bring them comfort. I hope that I am calmer, with a stronger sense of who I am and where I want to be.
It would also be cool to own a Tesla.
What is your favourite and least favourite part about this line of work and why?
My favourite part is meeting new people and learning new things. Breaking into the industry is so goddamn hard and frustrating, and to do it right you need to constantly keep growing and challenging yourself. It’s a privilege to learn so much from people who’ve found success in a chosen field.
My least favourite part is the bullshit. Selling yourself. Creating an image. It’s a recipe for a disaster with a mind like mine. I am already deeply concerned with what people think of me, by default. The business side of music has the potential to bring out the worst in me. I have to be very careful and always check myself.
Name a few of your favourite Australian artists.
Whitley, Tame Impala, Colin Hay, INXS, Brian Cadd, Russell Morris, Vander and Young—there’s a huge wealth of amazing Aussie talent that so much of the world doesn’t even know about.
The shape of the music industry has changed significantly over the years, including the use of social media, how do you feel about the industry as a whole and what does it mean to you in getting your records out into the public eye?
It’s so much harder to stand out today. The whole industry is saturated, and streaming has just made everything worse. But on the flip side, you can now reach people on the other side of the world without being a platinum selling artist. And that’s a crazy concept. This opportunity simply didn’t exist 20 years ago. So you take the bad with the good.
I wish I knew how I felt about the industry as a whole. I don’t think I’ve seen enough of it to make a comment. I certainly think something has been lost in how we regard new music. Art is a lot more disposable these days. You don’t buy it anymore—you rent it. And that makes consumers a lot less patient, a lot less willing to give extended attention to any one thing. There’s simply too much out there. We’re reaching critical mass in more ways than one.
How do you plan on cracking the international market?
Step one is to get there. Being physically close to the place you’re trying to crack is the most important thing. In this age of music being able to reach every corner of the earth, it’s now more important than ever for people to put a face to the name. So I will be moving to the US soon.
Do you collaborate with others? Who is on your wish-list?
I love to collaborate. Justin Vernon would be number one on my wish-list!
What advice do you give for someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Settle in for the long haul – this isn’t going to happen overnight (unless you’re Lorde or something). Surround yourself with people who challenge you and put their money where their mouth is. Music is full of talkers and false prophets—if you meet someone who follows through with what they say they’re going to do, that’s a person you need to be around.
Most of all, do not be precious about your work. Have complete willingness to begin again. Cultivate your talent at every turn and experience the strange freedom of tearing a song down and starting over with nothing. That’s how you find out when kind of artist you want to be. And, it’s also good for you as a person.
Make no mistake—nothing comes easily to anyone. For every amazing song that is written in a single sitting, there’s another amazing one that was laboured over for months or years.
A message for your fans. How do you best interact and respond with your fans?
On any form of social media! Just write to me. Tell me what you think. Tell me your thoughts on the songs. Tell me anything. The fact that my music reaches and speaks to strangers is still a completely wild concept to me. I love hearing from anyone about how my music has affected them.
Any last words?
Be kind to yourself.