Artist Spotlight: May Rio

    May Rio Sembera started making her first solo project while confined to her home studio in New York, writing songs that were partly inspired by her time on tour with her former band, Poppies. She worked on the tracks quickly, with no real intention of releasing them; the result was 2021’s Easy Bammer, a warm and intimate record that married its charm with sharp moments of dissonance. Having popped up on songs by the Dare and Blaketheman1000 over the past year, she’s now come through with her second LP, French Bath, which she was able to treat with a newfound level of confidence and care. Rio has a knack for playful, off-kilter pop songs, and with help from co-producer Tony 1 of the eclectic duo Tony or Tony, they’re now punchier and cover more ground; there are wryly funny songs that sound dreamy and alluring, earnest moments that carry a sense of unease. “No one can fill up your emptiness,” she sings to someone looking for an easy escape on ‘Getaway’, and she’s not interested selling that kind of illusion to anyone. But her music does have a fun way of twisting the reality we still find ourselves trapped in, reminding us there’s more than a few ways to soak it in.

    We caught up with May Rio for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about her songwriting journey, community, her approach going into French Bath, and more.

    You started the project during the pandemic in your bedroom. What role had songwriting served for you up until that point?

    I kind of came to it late. Painting was my thing growing up. Going to art school, I had developed kind of an unhealthy relationship to painting at that point, it just wasn’t fun for me anymore. I’m a perfectionist, and I’ve gotten better at dealing with that, but definitely at the time painting had kind of been stripped of its joy for me. Just as a personal challenge to myself, I had a break from college and I bought this Yamaha acoustic guitar from this pawn shop. I couldn’t play it, but sort of learned how to play an A chord, and I wrote a song. And it just felt so good. It’s the best feeling – you get a song to click, and then you just get to keep experiencing it over and over again.

    After I moved to New York, I was in a band for a few years, that was my first project I’ve been in. But during the pandemic, that was the first time in a while when I had space for myself again. I’ve written a lot of songs for the band, and they were definitely like for the band – it was cool to just sort of sit down with myself and have those limits be lifted.

    There’s something therapeutic about that feeling that you’re describing, but because you said you had developed an unhealthy relationship with painting, I’m curious if you were wary of the same thing happening with music.

    There are some points that I wish I had started making music earlier, because most people I know did start making music earlier. But I kind of decided that, no, it’s good that I started late, because I was able to come to it without any expectation of being “good” at it, which is what painting had become for me. It was very liberating, and I’m happy that I’ve been able to bring that sort of energy to it still. It has not yet, and I hope it never does, become this thing that I feel like needs to be perfect.

    When did you move to New York?

    I’ve been here several years now. I don’t have any family here, but I definitely have built a family in my friendships here. But I’m from Texas, from generations of Texans. I grew up in Austin, and a lot of people are like, “Oh, there’s a really good Austin music scene.” I would visit New York when I was still in school, and what was happening musically was just so much more interesting to me. There is just so much happening. There is so much space to try this out and I go to a ton of shows now, and for the most part, the bill is never just three bands in a row that sound the same. I’ve always romanticized New York since I was a kid. It’s nothing like the 10-year-old version of myself thought it would be, but it’s pretty great.

    Do you still romanticize it in a way, when you’re away or touring?

    I romanticize it while I’m here. I truly fall in love with it again like every month. It is intimidating how vast it is, but it is really cool if you’re ever feeling beaten down or you’re in a rut, you just go to a different neighborhood, and you’re reminded of how much you don’t know and will never know, how much is there for you to discover. It can be exhausting, and it’s certainly frustrating whe, like, the trains aren’t working, but there’s so much adventure.

    What’s a new thing you’ve discovered that’s made you fall in love with it more?

    There is this Russian bar in midtown that I only found on accident because it’s right across the street from this other, much more popular Russian bar. I knew someone who worked there, and I thought I was going into that bar when really I was going into this less popular bar – they have a similar name. I’ve never gone there and have it be busy, even on the weekend. There’s a piano player and his friend sometimes plays this little electric harmonica; the two of them play in both of these Russian bars, they alternate throughout the week. I started going a lot, and one time I was there, I had like a Martini and was feeling a bit bold, so I went up to the piano player and asked if I could just join him for one song, and I ended up befriending them. They’d come up and invite me to join them for a song – that already is so much fun, but one night I did that, and after I jumped off the bench, this woman started talking to the piano player. And then he hands her the mic and starts playing a song, and it turns out she’s a real opera singer. [laughs] We’re in this nearly empty bar and we get this private show of this professional opera singer. Maybe that kind of thing could happen in other places, but maybe not a ton of other places.

    Now that you’re not in a band, what role does community play in your day-to-day life as a solo artist?

    It plays a massive role. I am a solo artist now, but I get so much support from my community, and likewise I support whenever I can – whether that’s, we’ll go to each other’s shows, but also bounce ideas off each other. I don’t know how things are now, but when I was in the band, I was playing a lot more shows with bands, and it did seem like there is maybe this undercurrent of competition, or everyone sort of doing their own thing and focusing on that. I feel like just the way my social infrastructure is now, everyone is constantly looking out for each other and is very proactive. I just feel more free to be myself now. I definitely don’t feel alone in what I’m doing.

    On ‘Aspartame’, you describe someone as “sweet in a sickly way,” which comes pretty close to encapsulating the aesthetic of the album – it’s infectious, but there are parts of it that are deliberately off-kilter. Was that your vision going into it?

    Totally. Even the name of the album, French Bath – do you know what it is?

    Yeah, I read about it. I don’t know if that came first, though, or if you had the title and the ideas grew from that.

    It’s funny, I don’t even know how these things get made. I feel like I black out. I definitely felt very drawn to that idea for a long time, and I’d had in my head that I really like this name for an album. But it wasn’t until I wrote that line that it’s in ‘Aspartame’ that it made sense. It’s not that I’m not thinking about these things, but I’m not like, “I’m going to make an album, I want it to have a hint of…” I just kind of make songs, and they show themselves to me through the making of them.

    Are you more conscious of why you were drawn to that name?

    I think I’m really drawn to things that have, if not dual meanings, at least dual ways they can land. And I think that name really land in very different ways, depending on what you know about it already. I also am drawn to humour, and I feel like the best pieces of art, even if they’re very sad, have at least a hint of humour, which rounds it out a bit more. Even Elliot Smith, who is one of the saddest songwriters of all time, his songs are funny, too.

    Do you have a song in mind?

    Like, “Fake concern says, ‘What’s the matter, man?’” It’s a very biting, funny line, I think.

    “Biting” is a good word for some of the funnier songs on your album, too, like ‘NYC UMTs’.

    Not all the songs are like jokes on the album, but this one definitely was kind of a joke song to me.

    It feels like it’s the romanticization of the lifestyle that’s kind of the joke rather than the characters themselves.

    I don’t want to seem like I’m putting anyone down. I go to a lot of parties, I’m a pretty social person – I’ve never actually encountered anyone who is sort of like the character in the song, it’s definitely kind of a cartoon of maybe characters I’ve encountered. Sometimes I get bored, I get tired of writing about myself and my own experiences that it can be fun sometimes to just step into the shoes of a different character.

    I’m comparing it to a song like ‘Mr. Horny Puke Man’, which is more directly poking fun at the subject.

    It totally is. That one was actually inspired by a specific friend who I adore.

    Did you have to show it to them?

    He doesn’t know. [laughs] I don’t think he’ll ever know, because again, it was inspired by him, not actually – if I truly felt the way about someone that the song expresses, I’m not sure that is really someone I’d be friends with. But I had a friend get too drunk one night after another friend’s birthday party and, you know, puke. It was just funny.

    What do you think it is that connects all these different songs and characters, whether they’re real or exaggerated or imagined?

    There’s definitely songs on the album that are completely true to what I’ve lived and experience, and there’s also songs that are made up and other songs in between. It is the inclination to try and classify things that way, like, this is true, that’s not true. But I do feel like a lot of people’s reality, the way that they experience things, is way more plastic than they realize. And how you experience the same interaction will be completely different, depending on what mood you’re in or how much sleep you got. If I said to you, “All of these songs are based are written about this thing that I actually went through,” I feel like anyone who says that – I’m not even sure that’s a true statement, even if they think it’s true.

    How has the way you personally reflect on these experiences changed since making your debut?

    One conscious way that I did approach this album differently was just by taking it a bit more seriously, and again, still having fun with it. The first album, the songs are all really short, I wrote them really quickly. It’s the first time I’d made something just for myself in so long, and I needed to make this album very quickly, even just to show myself I could do it. And then I did it, and I was like, “Okay, cool, I can do this. I can have a solo project.” It definitely started out with no real ambitions, I just needed to do something for myself. For the second album,  I was in this place where, like, “Oh, there is actually infrastructure and support surrounding me, and I can take my time and make a real album if I want to do that.” And I did.

    On ‘Self Service’, you sing, “Hope I’ll tell myself/ Slow it down/ Things take time to live out/ You might get it wrong/ Welcome in the doubt.” It must feel particularly important for you to live by that now as you’re about to release the record.

    It’s crazy, I’m having this moment of like things feel a bit easier in some ways because people are excited about this album, snd so they’re excited about me. And I know it is a moment, inevitably the wave will die down, so I’m really trying to allow myself to be excited about all of that while also get my own enjoyment and fulfillment not from all that stuff. All that stuff is exciting, it’s fun, but it’s not really something I can count on. And I also don’t want the way I view myself or my music to just be a reflection of how other people see it. It’s important to me to have my own relationship to myself and to my music.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    May Rio’s French Bath is out now via Dots Per Inch.

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