Two female singer-songwriters — a relatively rare local breed — have resurfaced this autumn with new records. Both favor the acoustic guitar. Both have pretty faces. Both are in possession of alliterative names. But they represent divergent paths for the modern woman musician.
Margo May, who advanced to the Hollywood round in the 2009 season of American Idol, recently moved back to Kansas City after a stint in Portland, Oregon, where she wrote the material on her latest, Space/Face. At Broadway Café on a recent Thursday, May wore a leather jacket and yellow tights and spoke with a kind of nervous cheer. She admitted bashfully that she is 24 years old, but it was unclear whether she considered this a young or old age. May has been playing music for nearly 10 years, influenced early on by such performers as Alanis Morissette and Jewel and, later, by emo music.
"I was a part of this whole emo-screamo scene in high school," May said. "There'd be these house shows in people's basements and stuff. I was usually the only girl who ever played those shows. But that emo phase is what got me started writing music."
Folk songs, though, are essentially what May now writes. She's an admirer of folk culture but also of punk and popular cultures. (Her experiences in Portland seem to have soured her on the fetishisms of folk revivalism; she derisively used the phrase "train-hopping songs" a number of times while describing the folk scene in the Pacific Northwest.) One of her aims appears to be to bridge some of the gaps between these disparate traditions.
"I get pushed into being called a folk artist, which is fine," she said. "Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez — those are artists that have really inspired me. But when you think of them, or Dylan or somebody, you think of them having so much passion. Folk was a whole movement. But that's not really what folk music is like today, to me. With punk music and rock music, there's more energy and passion. That's what I try to have in my songs."
She's getting closer. May's debut, Summerof, contained occasionally intolerable levels of folksy adorableness, but she has dialed back the Juno a little on Space/Face. May's lyrics are simple and direct — girl misses boy or wants boy or wants old boy back — but also relatable. Her words aren't exactly Keats — It feels like we just met at a party/On your front porch/Or your favorite bar — but they convey something real, honest and modern. They represent the brain voice of a woman in her early 20s. Accuracy goes a long way with this sort of thing.
May collaborated on Space/Face with a friend, Kyle Klipowicz, who served in a kind of producer role and added reverb and some electronic undertones to May's sound. The results are fashionable — reverb and dark synths being the "put a bird on it" of indie music — but play only sometimes to May's strengths. Harsh electronic waves flood "Would You Be My Angel," wiping May to the remote edges of the track. Why is she hiding back there?
"Rock n Roll Baby," the finest song on Space/Face, offers a glimpse of May's streamlined talents. Her cool vocals mingle with an airy, electric guitar, building to a sweet chorus that calls to mind early Camera Obscura. It's not too cute, not too trendy — just a nice, sad little pop song. We could use more of those around here.
Sara Swenson, who is older than May, didn't start writing music until her late 20s. "I was buying a guitar at a store, and one of the guys there encouraged me to try writing some songs and to go to this songwriters' night," Swenson recently told me. "I don't think I ever would have thought of that otherwise, to write my own songs. But I started doing it, and it turned out to be something I love."
Partly because of this late start, and partly because she quickly identified her target demographic, Swenson draws from a less diverse pool of influences. She subsists largely on a steady diet of Lilith Fair acts. (To discuss her music without mentioning Sarah McLachlan's name would be critically dishonest.) Swenson's safe, inoffensive approach is not without its advantages. She was a natural pick for a local Lilith Fair representative when the tour came through last year, and her earthy, mournful songs are well-suited to melodramatic television. (Her song "Time to Go" was used in an episode of ABC's Private Practice earlier this year.)
On Never Left My Mind, her latest EP with her band, the Pearl Snaps, Swenson has picked up the pace a bit, adding more instrumentation and a couple of zippier roots numbers to the mix. The title track has the brisk, soaring quality of some of Beth Orton's more energetic songs. "Windows and Doors" is a playful, upbeat jaunt.
"I must say, a few of my bandmates have turned me into a bit of a Tom Petty fan lately," Swenson confessed, in a tone implying that she viewed her new affinity as rebellious. Not every girl goes through a screamo phase.