Audra Mae is a dreamer with both feet on the ground. The great-grandniece of starlet Judy Garland, Audra is darn proud of her roots but equally as proud to have carved a path of her own, musically speaking. With a hugely capable voice and thoughtfully whimsical melodies, her music is a unique but well-rounded listening experience.
On the heels of her debut EP, Haunt, came the full-length album The Happiest Lamb, released in May 2010. The record boasts 11 tracks of skillfully wrought story songs. It’s both cohesive and dimensional with tracks like “Sullivan’s Letter” based on a missive penned by a soldier in the Civil War and “The Fable” with its lovely lovers howl. The somber yearning of “My Lonely Worry” bears a slight resemblance to a Tammy Wynette ballad circa “The Ways To Love A Man.” Over a year ago Audra signed with superhip punk-rock label, SideOneDummy (kind of an awesome and quirky fit for the likes of her downhome, swoony sound). Though she’s certainly since proven herself worthy of a place amongst them when she went out as the only female artist on the Chuck Regan revival tour last fall. During her most recent tour supporting the album’s release I spoke with Audra about her proud offering. Between the excitement of dreams coming true and the sincere gratification of all the hard work that’s finally paying off, here is one crooning bird who’s ready to fly.
The Happiest Lamb, your first full length was just released May 18th. How do you feel about it?
I’m excited. I’m really proud of it, and the response seems to be really good which is always a plus, and the songs have been really fun to play so I can’t complain.
Everything sounds really well put together. Was there a kind of blue print for the record from a writing standpoint or did these songs exist in your personal cache for some time before the record?
Some of them had been around for a while. What we did was sort of go through all of my songs and look for a group that fit together as a jumping off point. We picked a few that were a little folky but were still dark (I guess that’s a good word for it). From there I just started writing songs for the album. Just makin up stories and putting music to them. My producer Ted Hutt really taught me how to hone in and make an album, instead of trying to be too all over the place.
You’re signed to SideOneDummy which is sort of a punk rock label, how do both you and your music fit in there?
Well the thing about Bill Armstrong and Joe Sib, (the guys who own the label), [is that they] started it with the philosophy of only signing people that they liked listening to. So that’s kind of the common thread, they were just into it. The great thing is that all the other bands on the label are just notoriously fun to work with.
I’ve read that you moved to LA at nineteen to start your musical career. That’s pretty young and LA seems like a stark cultural contrast to Okalahoma — were there any getting used to it moments? Do you ever miss the countryside?
Yeah. Living in Los Angeles and being from the country you definitely miss it. But I think at nineteen I had seen enough of the countryside and not enough of the city-side. I just wanted to be in a place that I didn’t necessarily stick out in. I didn’t want to be a big fish in a little pond anymore. So, I packed up and headed west. And I’ve never felt like I was drowning because if I see an artist doing something that I want to be doing it really lights a fire under me. It tends to motivate me more than daunt me.
Your music has an old timey feel to it. When did you really start to develop your vibe? Was that before or after you came to LA?
It’s always been there. When I was in Oklahoma I didn’t want to sound like I was from Oklahoma but my songs have always had a bit of a nostalgic feel. I grew up listening to oldies from all kinds of genres. I’ve always been attracted to old souls and junk and thrift stores, that charm. And I think it comes out in every part of my life. It’s always kind of been there.
You’re on tour now- have you acquired and quirky pre or post show rituals even old ones from past shows?
[Laughs] I don’t know. Nothing other than cigarettes. That’s about it. Once you’re on the road for a while, every time you set up or tear down it sort of becomes a ritual. Everyone on the tour has their own way of figuring things out. I don’t know that anyone is out there blowing sage to the South in order to make sure we have a good show. [Laughs]
How important is it to you to get glammed up for shows?
For me, what I’m wearing is a part of how I’m expressing myself in that moment. But when you’re on the road you don’t really wanna pack stuff that makes you think about it too much. You just wanna bring some basic stuff, but a bunch of stuff that’s gonna look good wrinkled. [Laughs]. When I’m at home it’s different because I have time to plan it out and get all pretty. It’s different for everything I do, but I love clothes, they’re a lot of fun. A lot of fun.
What would you say is a more accurate description for your songwriting process- That you’re diligent and deliberate about it, like a bountiful spring or that you allow inspiration to smolder and build until you creatively erupt, like a volcano, all at once?
[Laughs] I would probably be more like a volcano creatively speaking. I never liked homework as a kid. If you told me to do something I immediately didn’t want to do it. So if things feel like a chore to me, I loose all inspiration. I don’t think I could wake up every day and try to write a melody. I feel like when I try it just doesn’t turn out as good as when I just let it come out. A lot of people find salvation in discipline, it sort of awakens their creativity, I don’t know what it is about me, I’m just not like that. I used to try really hard, you know, take a guitar lesson, really stick to my vocal warm-ups… but I’m just not that kid. I’m lazy.
Would you say that there are certain times of the day which are more creatively provocative?
I like getting up early in the morning. It’s a great time for ideas. Everything is kind of still. I’ll be listening to a song on the radio or a CD and whistling along a harmony, and I’ll be like “hey that could be a whole song in itself.” Nighttime is fun too. If we decide to go out, just being around the night, and lights on the street and people who’ve sort of cut loose a little more- that’s really inspiring too.
The songs on the happiest lamb feel quite reflective. Are you pulling from mostly personal experiences?
It used to be just whatever I was going through. But because there were only 4 or 5 songs from my own stash before we made the album I had to do something to get out of that headspace. I wasn’t about to go put myself through hell just to write a depressing song… so; I’m not a method writer. It taught me how to spin little fables and put songs to them. And almost the simpler the better, and I really really enjoyed it. Some of them are from personal experiences and some of them are just made up stories about what I’m afraid of. I try to make up a character that represents what I’m afraid of becoming and [who] helps me understand that, so I don’t end up there.
Can you give an example of one such song from the record?
Yeah. Well when I got signed, Bill from the label kept saying “this is a slow climb, and we’re in it for the long haul but you never know, you might hit lightning in a bottle.” And I thought, how do you make lightening in a bottle? Is there a recipe for it? And what if I had it and then I lost it? What happens if I become a total jerk? Like all the ways I’ve judged people who’ve become successful very suddenly. I mean is there something I don’t know that’s really scary or hard to get through and they just got caught in the barbed wire along the way. Maybe I’m just as human and that could happen to me too. So that song is kind of about that. About someone wanting the best moment of their life to last forever and they loose the rest of their lives looking for it and they wonder where it went.
Do you feel like after all your hard work you’ve got some idea about what the recipe for lightning in a bottle looks like?
I don’t think I know the recipe. I mean I get little clues every once and a while. It usually comes out in the form of a random person at a show that will come up to me afterward and look like they really needed it. I don’t think it has anything to do with critical acclaim or monetary wealth. I think it has more to do with connecting with people.
When it comes to music it seems like most professionals have to realize that their careers will look more like journeys than destinations in the end. Would you agree? Are you in it for the long haul?
Time gives you perspective. When you first start you want it to happen tomorrow and when it doesn’t it breaks your heart. And then a year later you’re like “Oh my God, if what’s happening now had happened even six months ago I totally wouldn’t have been ready for it.” It’s like when you see a mountain from really far away and you think it’s really small. Then you start walking towards it and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and you haven’t even gotten to the base of it- that’s what its like at first. And pretty soon you realize you’re gonna drive yourself crazy asking, “Is it gonna happen tomorrow? Is it gonna happen next week? Is this next show that I do going to be the one?” That what, saves my life, changes everything? And so you learn to let go of that. And the ones who aren’t in it for the long haul kind of just fall by the wayside. I try to focus my steps, take it one day at a time, one minute at a time and pretty soon I’ll knock my head into wherever I’m going.