Filling dancefloors and bringing people together with music for years, Elaine Mai has taken the next step by recently releasing her debut album, Home. In the middle of a wave of ecstatic reactions, Elaine spoke to Peter Dunne about making music during lockdown and the long awaited return to live shows.
Photos by Niamh Barry.
T he multi-talented and multi-hyphenated artist Elaine Mai is a familiar name for anyone in Ireland who has found their tribe at festivals, gigs and clubs over the years. Having released a raft of quality singles and EPs, it seemed like an inevitable next step to go the album route, but it wasn’t necessarily so for Mai. More on that later, but let’s focus for a moment on the absolute majesty of Home.
Featuring a host of female collaborators, the nine tracks capture that sense of how music brings us together as a community, providing a safe space, a release, and, yes, a home. The propulsive and hypnotic beats definitely get the heart pounding before pulling you to your feet, but there is also a haunting quality to some of the tracks, raising welcome goosebumps on your arms just as much as raising your hands into the air.
Featuring stunning vocals by guest artists MayKay, Ailbhe Reddy, Loah and Sinead White, you can’t help but get the sense that this album is a musical artist at their peak. Coming as it has later in the year, the timing of the album has provided the listener enough perspective to see that we are witnessing one of 2021’s best. It’s basically essential.
Chatting over the phone, I hit Mai with the possibly existential question- what does it feel like now to have an album? She shared, “To be honest, I always focused on EPs and singles and stuff, I’d never really felt a massive compulsion to do an album. I kinda knew I’d do one at some point but I wasn’t really super worried about it. Now that I’m on the other side of it, and knowing all the time and effort I’d put in to get to that point, I can see that albums are received differently, that it’s kinda seen as a more full project, that there’s a level of weight behind an album. Which is interesting.” She jokes, “I’m just very glad that it’s out there now and I can tick it off the list!”
Beloved for her sets in clubs, (if you haven’t been lucky enough to catch Elaine live – know this – you don’t go to the bar midway through one of her sets. Because you can’t leave the floor) was making an album in any way like planning a live set? Making sure there’s a flow, figuring when to lift and when to ease off?
Mai answers, “The main thing for me when I was writing this, and I suppose for all the EPs that I’ve worked on before, I wanted there to be a consistent sound and some kind of theme that tied them all together. I used very similar instrumentation and plug-ins and all that kind of stuff when I was working on all of them. From an album perspective it’s making sure they sound cohesive together and that they’re related to each other in some way.”
The title of the album was the theme, as she explains, “When I was writing it all, I had the idea of ‘home’ lying in my head. It’s an idea I’ve played with before – about an open and inclusive space.”
Similar to how the mighty Massive Attack know how the right guest vocalist can bring the best out of a track, the collaborators involved in Home each bring something unique to proceedings. Had Mai decided on these folk in advance of creating the tracks, or what was the catalyst? “I knew them all already,” she explained, “and had already built some kind of relationship or friendship there -for example I had remixed a track for Loah previously and when I was writing what became ‘ Waiting To Breathe’ I really thought she’d be incredible on that. She was the first and only person I thought of when I had that track in my head. With everyone, it was having met them and thinking we might have an affinity, or that we might have a spark from an artistic perspective, so I wanted to explore that. And it worked out really well which was great.”
So did creating the album in lockdown affect the end result? What was the process like? “Well, like anything, I think there were good things about it and bad things about it,” she elaborates. “We were sending voice notes to each other and having calls, which would be quite different to what you normally do. We had to be really flexible with moving around studio time, because things were just changing all the time. So that made it quite difficult and a little bit more protracted than I would like. But on the plus side, it was a really nice thing to focus on when the world was on fire.
“For example myself and MayKay released ‘No Forever’ at the end of January, so through January and February it was just a really nice positive focus, especially as those two months were pretty depressing, and we had this nice, fun thing that was happening.”
Lockdown was tough for all of us, and so for an artist who thrives in front of a live audience, Mai made a welcome (and grand) return to live sets with a gig at the Fall Right Into Place Festival in Galway and then the colossal Mother Block Party – fitting, as one of the tracks on the album is called ‘Mother’ in honour of the club where Mai is a favourite.
“Those two shows were incredible, it was such a great response,” Mai smiles. “The Mother one obviously was a very big show. It definitely felt surreal being back with a crowd of people. But it was amazing, the energy was so high. And I think people were just really happy to be experiencing live music again.”
“Lockdown was very strange,” she continues, “I think we all felt this way in that we didn’t really know how long it was going to go on. The last show I’d done before those was at the very end of 2019.”
Did she feel nervous getting up there in front of an audience after so long away? “Oh stop, I’m always nervous,” she laughs. “And then add in a year and a half of not playing, even longer than that, and new music and a new set up and new equipment and new people I’d never done anything live with before. I was very nervous! It was a big relief when it all went really well.”
With the current state of affairs in the country, it’s hard to know how the next few months will pan out for live music and bigger gigs, but Home is here to fulfill all your dancefloor needs – even if that dancefloor is located in your kitchen.
You can keep up to date on all the artist’s musical news at www.elainemai.com. ‘Home’ is out now.