Interview with Mae Karthauser of Mae & The Midnight Fairground
At some point in 2013 I dragged my sister down to the opening night of a new arts centre in Totnes. Rather inauspiciously the sat nav took us down the back roads in to an industrial estate where we found a venue that hadn't been finished and a group of slightly confused but excited gig goers. I was ostensibly there to watch one of my favourite artists, Jake Morley, but before he was even a twinkle in the stage spotlight we were treated to something supremely special. Or should I say someone. You see, that night I witnessed the talents and charm of one Mae Karthauser, lead protagonist with Mae and Midnight Fairground. Now it's my turn to share these delights with you by way of an insight in to this intriguing character uncovered through an email interview.
Mae is an interesting musical character, something that comes out in her songs but I wanted to know whether
this was part of a stage persona or
something that is just part of who she is as a person. "I was brought up
in Hampshire in a little village, and raised by very bohemian parents along
with 6 other siblings. We all were taught piano by our mum when we were small,
and also learned violin and recorder in school. Music was just a part of life.
We used to sing around the Christmas tree every year to the big video camera my
parents had (much to my annoyance and irritation as a young girl. I didn't have
a lot of patience for other people's ideas when I was small)."
The joy of Karthauser is that she is a fantastic songwriter and an utterly enthralling performer with the patter to go with the songs. Every musician approaches their art differently but what is the Totnes resident's angle on the songwriting process?
" Writing happens quite gradually... Sometimes it's hard to focus an idea, and other times they roll out easily. Songs to me really need to be reflections of something very real, whether it is imagined, or fantastical, it still needs to be truthful. So the process of writing is really quite focused, I spend a long time really examining my idea and sculpting the lyrics. And of course the songs are immensely personal for that reason. The performance experience is similar in its focus - I play live a lot - whether on the street or at a big festival or in an intimate room and the experience is a lot like meditation. It's an intense period of stillness and focus. To the outsider it may look different, but each song really has its only story, its own time, a picture that it refers to, and these things are my world when I am playing. They are what I am drawn to, and the process is somewhat of an emotional journey for that reason. But it's beautiful for me!
"Songs sometimes come in pairs or triplets and other times there can be 6 months or more between each. The process varies. When a story is “hot”, a song flies out without too much help, an easy birth! I always use the piano as a way to start - so I find a riff, or a progression first and then the vocals come. The vocals are easier! When the story is not so clear or the flow is slow, I sometimes use a frame to make a song. So I will decide upon the structure and style and features of the song before I begin making the composition. This makes it easier and means I can focus more on the content without questioning every decision I make. I definitely would like to have a stronger flow in the writing process. Unfortunately the reality of being a model independent musician means I have to do so many things that do not involve music - web design, bookings, marketing, etc. Thats part of the joy and pleasure, and also a big drawback for the musical creative flow.
So, once those songs are written and perfectly shaped, how does one get up on a stage and translate that to an audience? Or even more challenging, set up on a street corner and perform until people start to stop and listen.....maybe even rummage out some loose change.
"I feel at home on the stage. There has been the odd time in my life when performing has taken a bit of courage (after periods of no performing or during difficult creative chapters during education) but on the whole I do not have to think much about being in front of others and playing. Part of this is my childhood, and part of it is that I play a lot - in recent years I’ve done a lot of performing on the streets / markets in France and also this year in Sweden. I really like playing on the street. It's very poetic for me - that you arrive, you play and you re-contextualise the street, you are a contradiction to the day to day scurrying around and I would argue that the connections and impact you can have on the street are in someways much more profound than in a traditional concert. You never know who you will meet, how people will respond, what wonderful stories will unfold: a kiss from a child, an impromptu dance from an old lady, a present from a homeless man, tears from a stranger... and so many generous offers! To come for dinner, to have a bed for the night, to have a beer, to play at a festival... a photoshoot, a gig! Anything. It's always different, always magical. Gigs are different of course, they are focused, they can be intense and energetic, and after playing in the hubbub of a market they can be deliciously electric. It's a good way of life, I love them both!"
With the songwriting and live side covered, I wanted to find out more about who Mae is and what her desires are. For instance, what musicians would she ideally like to surround herself with?
"Oooh. My ideal line up! WOW! Everything! I’d love tubas, clarinets, trumpets, accordions, cellos, percussion, double bass... It would be so wonderful to have a lot of different colours to work with. Unfortunately part of the traveling lifestyle means that having a solid band is quite challenging - to orchestrate everyone takes very good money and a wide consensus on what all the musicians want out of it, and also need. Its challenging to find that when you also want to live in a rural utopia!"
And what of her musical ambition? Festival headliner? World Tour? Collaboration with Miley Cyrus and Will.I.Am?
"I'm lucky. I really do have what I want from music. I have independence, the ability to survive (be it on a
modest existence!), a lot of
variety, a lot of contact with people and a very sweet unfolding journey where
things are becoming easier. Fame is traditionally the motivation of musicians,
but for me I am more interested in the details. Over the last few years I have
had more and more involvement with the world of circus/ dance, and this world
REALLY excites me! I like my journey because exciting things happen all the
time and I enjoy gathering those experiences together. It would be a shame for
me if I were to become famous suddenly!! I really think that. Fame is pretty empty.
What makes music wonderful is when you really get to know the people who you
play to, when opportunities arise that surprise and excite and when it develops
gradually. Then you get a sense of achievement, and a strong sense of reward
with each step. Sure, it's not always romantic, but the journey of being a
musician is really what excites me!"
Now, why, I hear you ask, am I bringing Mae Karthauser to your attention at this very moment? Well, on the one hand there's never a bad time to discover a true musical talent. On the other hand, she has an album on the horizon and I can't be any clearer about how much you need it in your life.
"We started [the album] in December 2012 and the copies arrived in May 2014! I never anticipated that. It was probably the most demanding piece of work I have ever made - there was a lot of focus, and a lot of changes, and a lot of questioning, editing, and often frustration actually, but it was great to have it finished. This album stands out from the last because the process was so different. Each song was crafted in the process and was crafted individually. This meant that there is not the same lineup in each, as there was in my previous two albums, and I think there is also more variation for that reason. We recorded in a little studio cottage outside Slapton village in South Devon and my partner engineer and co-producer was Jered Sorkin, a fellow Dartington College of Arts (and Cal Arts) graduate. In fact he mostly makes music for film these day (incidentally his short film “Head Over Heels” took him to the Oscars in 2013) but he is very experienced in engineering and we have always wanted to make an album together. The result of this album is much more emotional I think than the last album, and has less of a klezmer influence but has more variation and a greater sense of wildness I think. So the release is mid September and we are following it with a UK band tour (following the current European solo tour). It will be so good to get back with the band again and get out there playing together."
What strikes you most when you read these words is just how articulate, thoughtful and creative Karthauser is. This is no fame seeker or work shy artist. No, instead what we have here is a true creative with a penchant for trying new things and ignoring the boundaries of fear and concern that most of us are bound down by. So, yeah, get the album and look out for that tour for sure. But mainly just open your mind and heart until you have the music of Mae Karthauser firmly ensconced in your being. Do it.
More information: https://www.facebook.com/maeandthemidnightfairground?fref=ts
30th August - Potemkine, Brussels
11th October - Miss Peapods, Penryn
28th October - The Canteen, Bristol
14th November - South Devon Arts Centre, Totnes22nd November - Kendal Mountain Festival, Kendal