Interview: Spiritual Family Reunion (Patty LeMay)
I first encountered Patty LeMay of Spiritual Family Reunion through Bandcamp.com. Something about the blend of her pleasantly girlish, raw voice (like many folk artists, she does not use pitch correction) with her simple yet emotional background music and the sheer poetry of her lyrics appealed to me deep down inside and made me take notice. I actually feel, when I listen to her music, that time slows down (in a very good way).
If you pay attention to her lyrics, you will find that, not only does she write from her heart, but she also includes sometimes startling dashes of a dark sense of humor. For instance, in “Charming in a Coma,” she says that some of her friends’ souls “are just like trashcans,” and in “the light you save may be your own,” a man gets attacked by a near-and-dear (!) source. She paints beautiful word pictures and shows she is very in tune with nature; the songs “Blackbirds of Arkansas,” “Night of the Blackbirds,” and “Flowering Tree” all reflect this. The more I listen to “Night of the Blackbirds,” her soon-to-be released album, the more I appreciate her writing ability.
She’s not afraid to be herself, different and earnest, in a world of cookie-cutter perfection and anonymity sought and obtained by other artists who regularly climb the charts and produce top pop albums. I am especially fascinated by her songwriting process, her inspirations and how she got into the business. I wanted to get to know her better, so I emailed her and she was kind enough to agree to do an interview with me, even though she was dealing with the fallout from a recent car accident.
GLM: Where did the name, Spiritual Family Reunion, come from? Why that name? What’s your objective?
Patty: It’s a name exemplifying what it means to be with people with whom you truly belong. I’ve had that name since 2001 and played under it in other countries and various states with whoever was playing with me. They are the spiritual family. It’s something a loner always thinks about – where they might belong.
GLM: In your interview of March 27, 2008, with Nashville Scene, you said that you think of yourself “as a young person who has had a lot of terrible experiences that have made [you] unsurprised at anything that could or would happen—and left [you] with nothing but the plain truth.” Is it therapeutic to write about your experiences? How did you start writing about those events? In other words, what was the breaking point between the terrible experiences and when you were able to start writing them out in your music?
Patty: It is in a different way to write about it – unfortunate personal experiences rarely come out in my writing – what usually comes out is the beauty and peace that I have not known – the love I wish were there – and the truth that I wish could be there.
GLM: In an industry environment prevalent with pitch correction and electronic enhancement, why do you choose to produce your music in a more simple, raw format?
Patty: The music I enjoy most is usual a simple, raw format. When music is electronically enhanced, like most pop and country today, the vocals sound just like a machine – people are growing up only hearing that type of vocal and pulse corrected electronic tracks. Tracking and layering takes away the simple element of vocal communicating with the accompanying instrument, drums etc. which is what music is supposed to be about.
My music is in its rawest form for this record. It was all recorded either live or just me at a piano/guitar and recorded by friends.
However, when the pitch/vocal control is used in an obvious, artful way, like say Kanye West, then I can appreciate it.
GLM: Your piano playing has a gospel sound to it, and sometimes the phrasing of your playing reminds me of my church organist mother’s playing. How did you learn to play the various instruments in your music, and how old were you? Which instruments are your favorites to play?
Patty: The piano is my main instrument. The flute was my first instrument, but when my flute disappeared, I was never to have one again. I learned the piano at 14, when I felt an incredible need to play Chopin pieces. Piano notes are the same as flute, so I mapped it out and listened to the pieces until I could play them. It took about a month before I played my first Chopin pieces. I was a prodigy who was not developed. Then I wrote classical piano pieces and after that songs. I was 16 or 17. Then I didn’t write songs again until years later, and they were written on guitar, since at that time I had no piano. Drums are wonderful, too, when I can get to a place with a kit.
A piano player from Nashville Gospel, William Richardson, used to back me when I was a soloist in high school. After rehearsals we would take turns playing – I thought he was fantastic and so talented. I picked up stuff I adored that he did, but never as good as him. He was very kind and liked my playing style a lot. Neither of us had “training.” I have a secret technique for teaching myself instruments.
GLM: What other artists inspire and influence your music?
Patty: My favorite album is Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece. It is so perfect and pure from beginning to end. I can never tire of hearing it, especially in the fall or early spring. I like lots of soul artists – especially Gladys Knight. I love Otis Redding. Tim Buckley is a top favorite. Also Mickey Newbury and Fred Neil are some of my favorite writers. Too Short [with his song](“The Ghetto”) – his lyric, ‘the story I tell is so incomplete’, has my heart. And a new artist I love is Ledisi. I love the rock writers like David Berman of the Silver Jews and Will Oldham. Their music is very soulful – the lyric amazing.
GLM: What is your songwriting process? Do you write the poetry/lyrics first and then add the music, or music first, or do they come to you at the same time?
Patty: Most of the time, the whole song with words appears in my head. That is annoying, since I want the freedom to choose the words. Sometimes I dream a whole song or a piece of a song, in key. “Night of the Blackbirds” was partly dreamed and I knew it was in [the key of] A when I woke up. I didn’t finish it until over a year later when on New Year’s Eve 2010, all those blackbirds fell out of the sky in Arkansas. Strangely enough, the song, “Blackbirds of Arkansas” had already been recorded in 2009.
GLM: Do you write music for other artists to perform? And, if you do, who else has performed your music?
Patty: I haven’t ever written for other people, but that would be a fun challenge. Others have performed songs I’ve written – I think. My friend – David Berman of the Silver Jews – wanted to cover “Manchester Legs.” I don’t know if he ever did it live. Another friend, Caitlin Rose, had asked about covering “Wish You Would Ask,” I think my version ended up on a CD of her favorites.
GLM: One of my favorite songs from your new album, Night of the Blackbirds, is “the light you save may be your own.” Is there a story behind that particular song?
Patty: It’s one of those songs that I can’t remember how it was written. I’d always loved “the life you save may be your own,” a short story by Flannery O’Connor, about a man who is not in touch with what a piece of shit he is, basically. The road sign ‘the life you save may be your own’ is an ironic touch in the story. My song is about lovely people who are not in touch with how great they are. That’s why it’s called ‘the light you save may be your own.’ It’s an allegory to foster understanding that sometimes you just need to recognize a bad situation to get out – the light you save may be your own. And sometimes you just might be taken out in order to be saved.