Songwriter Interviews

Kristen May of Flyleaf

by Greg Prato

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You just never know how the fanbase of an established rock band is going to react when its original singer exits and a new vocalist signs on. And that was the exact predicament that Flyleaf faced after their 2012 album, New Horizons, when Lacey Strum bid the band adieu.

But with the arrival of the group's fourth full-length studio effort in September 2014, Between the Stars, it is apparent that the band's new frontwoman, Kristen May, has been accepted - as the album debuted at #33 on the Billboard 200.

Speaking to Songfacts around the time of the release of Stars, Kristen talked about the album that may go down as the most crucial one in the band's career, as well as the stories behind several Kristen-era Flyleaf standouts, and which Lacey-era songs mean the most to her.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did you first cross paths with Flyleaf and how did you join the band?

Kristen May: Well, I was in a band called Vedera for about seven years. Around the time when we broke up was when Lacey had left Flyleaf, so my booking agent was talking to Flyleaf's manager and let them know when they were looking for new singers, that Vedera had broken up, my previous band. So they were interested in trying out some different people - I think they tried out a couple and hadn't found the right fit.

So they just called and said, "Hey, wanna jam four or five songs with us?" So I did. I went to Austin, Texas - well, about 45 minutes outside of Austin - where they live, and just basically rehearsed with them and it really felt natural. I was kind of nervous at first, not knowing what it would be like to play with these new guys that I had never met before, but it was actually really great. Everything just kind of snowballed from there. At first it was supposed to be just some radio shows and then it just kind of grew. They asked me to be their singer, so I said yes.

Songfacts: Let's discuss the new album, Between the Stars.

Kristen: Between the Stars, I'm super happy with how it turned out. It's my first full-length album with Flyleaf and the first time that I really got to collaborate on music with them. It was just a great time of songwriting for me. I really needed a new project to get me going, and it's great, because we all bring in ideas, especially me, Sameer [Bhattacharya], and Pat [Seals]. We collaborate on a lot of those ideas.

Sometimes I'll have a song finished already, but they'll kind of bring a new spin to it, if it's a rock riff that Jared [Hartmann] has to put under it. Or Sameer will come in with a little bit of a song and Pat will finish it off, and then I'll work on the lyrics for it.

Every song really has its own story on this album, and I think that's what makes it so special. I think it really takes you on a journey from start to finish. And every song becomes a new chapter of something we were experiencing in our lives. So I'm really happy with it. I can't wait to see what people think.

Songfacts: How would you say that the songwriting works primarily in the band?

Kristen: Every song had its own story. We did about five different songwriting sessions, and at first I wasn't sure how these guys write or if I should bring in my ideas or kind of see their vibe of how they write. So the first songwriting session I showed one of my songs and we worked it out a little bit. But then we focused mostly on just starting from scratch. So anybody that had an idea or a riff in that moment, that kind of snowballed and became a song.

And then about the third songwriting session is when I had written part of "Set Me on Fire." Then I had this song title called "Magnetic," and wrote a song called "Head Under Water." We just all kind of add little parts on top of it. We want to make sure everyone's spoken for and everyone loves what they create. So it was just a big collaboration.

Songfacts: Looking at the songs on the new album, which songs mean the most to you lyrically?

Kristen: I think "Head Under Water" and "Marionette." I wrote the lyrics for those around the same time, and they really helped me get through a time that I knew I had to deal with. I knew when I joined this band that there would be a certain level of people judging me. They're used to a previous singer, and how is this going to be with this new singer? And so I knew pretty quickly that I would have to be strong in who I am and feel very confident in that and not let these words I hear carry me down. I can't let everything I do rise and fall by other people's opinions.

So for me, those songs are just about learning that lesson and knowing who you are. And if someone is going to attack you or say you're not fit for the part or you shouldn't be there, you can't believe it. And that's what those songs are about.

Songfacts: Looking at the new songs, are there any lyrical themes that recur in more than one song?

Kristen: I think overall, we discussed where the band has been in their songwriting and what message they've had throughout their careers. And definitely hope was one of them. They've always spoken about the struggles of life and the struggles of who we are as human beings. But one thing that Flyleaf has always tried to maintain is that there is hope.

And so with these songs, whether it's "Thread" or "Well of Lies," those songs, especially, it's about even when you're feeling these dark times, there's a hope. And really, every song on the album, that rings true. So I'd say a feeling of hope and that there's redemption through these experiences.

That's what I think music is for me: it's definitely an expression of getting through hard times.

Songfacts: What is the first single on the album?

Kristen: "Set Me On Fire." It was a song first inspired by the book Divergent. Veronica Roth, the author, was a big fan of Flyleaf. And I had heard that she had actually used some previous Flyleaf songs as inspiration for some of the book. And so I thought, "Whoa, that's pretty interesting. I'd like to see how that translates."

I wasn't expecting to write a song out of it, necessarily. But I really related to the main character, Tris. She's experiencing all these new situations for the first time and instead of being scared of them, she just jumps in, and she finds out how exhilarating that can be. She also falls in love for the first time, and so that song became that kind of anthem of what life can be for us and how, if we really jump in head first, we can experience these amazing times and really experience the passion of what life can bring us. And so that's what that song turned into.

Songfacts: Is that the first time that a book has ever inspired you to write song lyrics or has there been another song that a book inspired you?

Kristen: That's a good question. Directly, I can't pinpoint one particular book. But I feel like art and movies and books are always creating an atmosphere in my life in which songwriting comes out. I think subconsciously there are certainly books and characters that I'm pulling from, but maybe not realizing it at the time.

Kristen is not the only rock songwriter that was inspired to pen a tune after a piece of literature. Other story/song combos include J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Led Zeppelin's "Ramble On" and "The Battle of Evermore," Patrick Suskind's Perfume and Nirvana's "Scentless Apprentice," and H.P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth and Metallica's "The Thing That Should Not Be."
Songfacts: Let's discuss a few songs, starting with "Magnetic."

Kristen: "Magnetic," we wrote that shortly after we had written "Marionette." We said, "Okay, let's write another song." [Laughs] And so I had this word, "magnetic." And it just evolved into what you feel whenever you have someone that could be very far away, but you have something so strong between the two of you that it is magnetic. It's amazing that we, as humans, can have that kind of effect on one another, and whether it's a friend or a parent or a lover, we can really have that power to be that strong for each other. So that's what "Magnetic" is about, it's about feeling the love from someone that's far away at the time.

Songfacts: "Traitor."

Kristen: "Traitor" is written about not one person in particular. If I look back in my life, there's a number of people - not a lot, thankfully - but a handful of people that I realized maybe a little too late that they were not healthy for me in my life. So I know we're taught to love one another and forgive and really try to welcome people in with open arms, but I also think there is something to be said for calling out the people in your life that don't make sense for you and shouldn't be there.

I needed to get that out. I needed to get that feeling of, "No, you're not good for me, there's nothing about our relationship that is healthy, and so I need to get out of this." So that's what "Traitor" is about.

Songfacts: "Marionette."

Kristen: "Marionette" was written about the feeling of people wanting to control you. I think a lot of times we try to put people in these boxes. We all do it. When you meet someone, you think, "Oh, are they funny? Are they smart? Are they rich? Are they poor? Are they fat? Are they skinny?" Whatever. And we kind of put people in these boxes.

At the time that I wrote the lyrics for "Marionette," I really was feeling very strongly that some people in my life were trying to put me in a category that was not who I am, and were attacking me for certain things. Once I joined Flyleaf, I really felt like people were comparing me to Lacey, and I'm not Lacey. I've never even met her in real life. I joined this new band to show who I am.

The song is about being free from that, and just saying, "Let me go, let me be who I am." And I think everybody deserves that. Everybody should be able to be who they are.

Songfacts: From the first few Flyleaf albums, what are the songs that mean the most to you?

Kristen: Oh, my gosh. It kind of changes, and that's the beautiful thing about their albums. I think "All Around Me" is a really special song. Also, as we started to play it out, "Fully Alive" became a really great song, and I started to inquire about the lyrics and Pat told me a little bit about them. That song was really powerful to me because it's about someone who has an illness and can hardly move, but yet they still have such a joy and such a peace about life. That can be a lesson to all of us who complain about the silly little things.

So "Fully Alive" became a song that I really love because of that, but also because people really love that song when we play it out live. It's really fun. And that's the first time I crowd surfed was during that song! So that's my fav.

Songfacts: Which Flyleaf songs are your favorite to perform live?

Kristen: Definitely "Fully Alive" is one of them. "I'm So Sick" is obviously one of their biggest hits, so people really go crazy for that song. Honestly, when we played "Set Me On Fire," and "Thread," our new songs, out live, people were stoked. So I'm really excited to see how they receive the new material.

Songfacts: Who would you say are your favorite singers?

Kristen: I love Joni Mitchell, I love Sarah McLachlan, I love Ellie Goulding, Florence and the Machine, Imogen Heap, the list goes on forever. Lots of female artists, for sure.

February 12, 2015
For more Flyleaf, visit flyleafmusic.com
For more Kristen, visit iamkristenmay.com

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