By Hillary Maglin
Point Park News Service
Boston-native-turned-Pittsburgher Erika May, better known by her stage name, EMay, knew from early childhood that she would
settle for nothing less than an artistic and musically focused life. She spent part of her childhood around one of the most iconic bands of the past century.
“I grew up in Boston, and my mom claims… the drummer from Aerosmith’s wife used to babysit for me when I was a kid,” May says. “We would go to their picnics.”
While she no longer has contact with the band, the Carnegie Mellon University art school graduate made a name for herself as a musician, fire dancer, writer and event producer around Pittsburgh.
“In terms of my own performance right now, I’m an acoustic singer-songwriter,” May says.
May is a skilled vocalist who also frequently performs with guitar, piano, accordion or a Middle Eastern instrument called a riq.
The songstress primarily performs her own songs live, but often covers crowd favorites such as Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” and Alanis Morrissete’s “You Oughta Know.” She and her band currently are a house band at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side of Pittsburgh, but audiences far beyond the city of steel have heard May’s music.
“I have performed as far south as Costa Rica, as far east as Boston and as far west as Illinois,” May says.
May, a resident of the Mt. Washington neighborhood, considers herself mainly a regional performer, but has done countrywide tours and takes opportunities that require travel.
In addition to her own shows, May has opened for several well-known acts in venues all over Pittsburgh. One experience in particular is a highlight of her career.
“If you play around Pittsburgh a lot, you’re going to wind up playing for bands that come in,” she says. “I opened for Dar Williams last fall.”
May says the most memorable aspect of opening for the pop-folk singer, best known for her song, “Play the Greed,” was the crowd.
“They sat and listened to my whole set and they didn’t know anything about me,” May says. “You could hear a pin drop, and I was just like, ‘Wow. If I continue to do this singer-songwriter thing and don’t venture off, then I want this kind of crowd that actually listens and is interested and engaged in the music.’”
Though May lives for her music, she does not have a particular love for recording her work.
“I tend to release my music as demos,” May says. “[But] I really love live performance, so it’s really hard for me to commit to a CD and have that for sale for the next year. It’s a little too final for me.”
May has released roughly two demos per year for the past five years, and despite her indifference toward recorded music, she plans to put out her first studio album within the year. May pushed back the release date of her album multiple times, but is currently aiming for a March reveal.
“I really want it to represent what I do and what I want to see in a studio album,” May says.
She is working with Dave Bjornson, an affiliate of the New Hazlett Theater, and his high-end audio rental company, Hearcorps, to put out her record.
So what exactly has inspired the music on May’s upcoming album?
“Love and death,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of death in my life so I feel uniquely qualified to sing about that kind of stuff.”
May also draws inspiration for her music from some of her favorite local performers.
“I love local music,” May says. “There are so many talented musicians in Pittsburgh.”
The diversity of Pittsburgh musicians fascinates May, and she counts Several Conclusions, whose style she describes as “country with a twist,” as one of her favorites.
Though May has a unique love for local artists, she is no stranger to rock and roll legends such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, whom she considers two of her favorite bands.
While EMay may be best known around Pittsburgh for her musical talent, she also gets her kicks from playing with fire.
“When I was a kid, I liked setting things on fire,” she says with a smile. “I was always in my family’s fire place like, ‘Let’s start a fire!’ in the middle of the summer, and my mom would be like, ‘No! Wait ‘til wintertime!’”
May is the CEO and co-founder of the Pittsburgh fire performance group Steel Town Fire. The group is currently preparing for upcoming shows at First Night and Gallery Crawl.
“We’re pretty active,” May says. “We do a lot of private performances in addition to the public shows.”
May explains that at age 15, she saw a girl at a music festival spinning poi, one of the main tools used in fire performance, and was instantly hooked on the art.
“I just said, ‘I’m gonna do that someday.’ It wasn’t really a question of how or when or why,” May says. “I was just like, ‘I will learn. When given the opportunity, I will learn that.’”
May’s opportunity presented itself a few years later when she got the chance to see a CMU grad student fire dancing in her backyard. May asked the girl for lessons and spent the next several months learning to perform with fire. She went on to start the Pittsburgh Fire Arts Group, which Steel Town Fire came out of once the group began getting invites to events.
Published writer is another title May can add to her resume. She has written feature stories and short articles for real estate publication Broker Agent Magazine, and also has had some poetry published.
“Poetry is a lot of, ‘I’m going to sit down and I’m going to write about this situation.’ It’s a little bit easier to finish it as a poem because there’s not the distraction of what is the melody, does it rhyme a certain way.”
May describes herself as an avid writer, but she said there is a different process for writing poetry than there is for writing songs.
“They kind of feel like two different things. Although on the outside, I think they look pretty similar,” she says. “Usually when I’m writing a song, it happens simultaneously. I play [an instrument] and just start ad-libbing words.
May has added to her busy schedule over the years with activities like performing with a Turkish band called Kirik Hava, event planning and producing for the New Hazlett Theater, kayaking, biking, teaching belly dancing classes, spending time with her dogs and working for the Saturday Light Brigade radio program, where she books the live entertainment and teaches radio arts to kids.
“I’ve always been interested in being an active part behind the scenes as well as a performer myself,” May says. “I think it’s really important to keep going.”
As for the future, May would love to do more touring and traveling.
“My day job’s really nice with that, there’s a lot of flexibility,” she says.
Though an abundance of artistic hobbies are prevalent in May’s life, she favors music most of all.
“I’m a musician through and through,” she says. “The fire and the dance is probably something I’ll always continue, but music feeds my soul in a way that only it can do.”
May says her ideal schedule would include one local music show, two or three out-of-city music shows and one or two fire performances per month.
“I’m really happy where I’m at in my creative life and in life in general right now,” May says. “I generally just really like being alive.”