By the standards of most people who aspire to do something creative as a job, the Los Angeles artist officially known as El May has spent her adult years living the dream.
Her résumé is a varied one that includes being a muse for fellow Australian songwriter Ben Lee, pulling hired-gun duties for acts such as Crooked Fingers and Nada Surf, and paying the rent doing soundtrack work. The woman known to her landlord as Lara Meyerratken is also an accomplished visual artist who has held gallery shows in both the States and her native Australia.
Despite all this, the singer has always felt something was missing, which led her to make her first solo album in 2010, and then follow it up with the just-released sophomore effort, The Other Person Is You.
Reached on her cellphone, Meyerratken acknowledges that she’s something of a late bloomer on the solo front. Even though the singer is proud of everything she accomplished before stepping out on her own, she realized she needed something more to make her feel fulfilled. Orchestrating the birth of El May, however, required doing some serious work, not just on the songwriting front, but also on herself.
“It was a real process of getting different counselling and help and a sense of accountability, sort of like ‘What are you going to do this week to work towards this goal?’ ” Meyerratken says candidly. “When I hear about people writing a book or a screenplay, and saying it was so hard and often depressing and torturous, I understand that.”
The birthing process might not have been pleasant, but the results are wonderful. Working with musicians who include Luna’s Dean Wareham and the Vaselines’ Eugene Kelly, El May is as comfortable hauling out the synths and going the minimalist-pop route (“My Policeman’s an Addict”) as she is strapping on a guitar and doing country swing at the roadhouse (“Lessons Appear”). Moments of Spartan introspection (“Atlantic/Pacific”) give way to songs of cello-burnished beauty (“Oh, Get Carried”). Pay attention to the words and you’ll get the feeling that Meyerratken was perhaps working through some things. Winning lines include “Lara let me remind you that you had your doubts, and when he left you you blamed yourself” from the glitz-pop gem “Diamonds, Girl”.
Both El May and The Other Person Is You would finally get off the ground in a similar way. Meyerratken has discovered that recording a cover of a song that she admires helps get the creative process going, taking some of the stress out of starting a record from nothing.
“You don’t have to worry about the structure of a song, or if the lyrics are any good, when you are working on something that you really like,” she suggests. “Starting this record by doing a cover really helped unlock something for me, which is something that also happened years ago. With my first record, I started covering ‘All Things Must Pass’ by George Harrison. This time I did a song by this band called Small Black, and it really showed me ‘Wow, I can finish something.’ ”
Not only that, but finish something fulfilling, to the point where the dream—making music strictly for herself, and for the fans who’ve been lucky enough to discover her—has become a wonderful reality.
El May opens for the Rosebuds at the Media Club on Thursday (August 21).