QSC Aspiring Interview: Lydia May on Social Cues: “people might be mean, but music isn't"

Lydia May has been striking the UK and Australian music scene with her youthful pop songwriting since she was a child. Releasing her demo album at 12 years old as an emotional outlet and creative distraction, she’s continued to channel the complexities and challenges growing up in today’s world comes with throughout her music.

Bursting with attitude and charisma, May has performed at iconic venues such as Abbey Road studios, The Bedford and The Half Moon, following in the footsteps of other BRIT School alumni. After relocating with her family from Melbourne in 2018 to study music, the young artist continued to develop her craft and fanbase in a new city with the releases of her EP Priorities and second album Orbit.

Now going back to her original rock pop influences such as Hayley Williams, Katy Perry and Kate Bush, this energetic vocal powerhouse is delving into a presentation of female complexity. The singer-songwriter explains why not being able to read social cues made her stronger as an artist, and why being imperfect is perfect.

Hayley Williams is the epitome of where I want to go.

Tell us about your journey to become the artist you are today…

I had such a weird journey into where I am now. I moved countries at 14 – hence the slight Aussie accent – but I always knew I loved music. My mum's an opera singer and my dad plays guitar, and I was a little theatre kid from age four. Then I started doing choir. We went to Northern Australia and we sang this 40 minute repertoire to a lot of different primary schools all around the top end of Australia for two weeks, and it was the best experience of my life. We went to a lot of Aboriginal communities. I'd never seen anything like that at all – we didn't even speak the same language. It was just so nice seeing how impactful music could be on a community level.

When I started channelling difficult situations that were happening in my own life through music, I was like, “This is exactly what I want to do”. I really struggled to make friends in primary school, and I was like, “Oh, well, people might be mean, but music isn't, so I'm just gonna say everything that I would say,” – like a friend through songwriting, and then it just developed. Going to the BRIT school when I was 14 made a massive impact on my whole understanding of this industry.

What would you say are your early musical influences that made an impression on you?

It was a mix. It started off with a lot of musical theatre things, but I was a hardcore 2010s Katy Perry girl. Also, Lorde was an idol to me. I hopped on the Taylor Swift bandwagon a bit later. Ariana Grande was such a vocal inspiration for me as well with all her runs. Obviously, all of her inspirations like Atlantis Morissette, Avril Levine and Paramore were inspirations as well. Hayley Williams is the epitome of where I want to go.

My dad really inspired me in terms of his musical library, which was all Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Norah Jones, but it was Blondie that really stood out to me. She was hardcore. Ten year old me was like, “Yeah, she knows what she's doing. She's just just rocking it up there.”

Adele made a big impact for me a bit later on. She is just amazing. I was having such a difficult time in school and I was like, “Where did Adele go to school?” My mum said, “She went to this music school in London.” I was like, “Can I apply?” So she was a massive inspiration for me. Honestly, it's funny. I'll go through these periods of listening to a tonne of new music, and then periods when I'm just like, “I just want to listen to the world around me and not listen to a single note unless I have to write it”.

What tends to inspire your own songwriting?

It's borderline, “Am I gonna cry about this? Or can I write a nice melody about it?” A lot of the time it comes from trying to find my own sense of catharsis with my own emotions, because that's honestly where I started writing music from. I was in such a bad place around 11 and 12. My dad being the teacher that he was, he was like, “Right, let's channel this through a project,” which ended up being my first album. From there, I loved telling stories. I thrive off of putting emotions down into a song.

I also walk a lot. Moving to London, I kind of treat myself as a tourist, even though I've been living in the UK for five years. So if I go to a new place or something, I take a lot of pictures. Sometimes I'll just be scrolling through and I'll come up with a little melody or something around a picture. But most of the time, it's about me and how I'm feeling. I have written a couple songs that are very story-esque and I don't connect with them as well. Relatability is a big part of why I do what I do.

I think being a big sister as well – I really enjoy lending out that helping hand or being like, “You're gonna make mistakes and it's gonna be completely okay,” as well. So writing songs about that, I really enjoy.

How did you adapt to moving to the UK from Australia, and how has that affected your music?

Oh my gosh, it was kind of crazy. Honestly, it is the biggest thing I've ever done. You should have seen the suitcases! It was ridiculous. Artistically on the music scene – especially being at the BRIT School – I basically stepped off a plane and into a classroom two weeks later, being around all of these jazz funk musicians. It’s such a creative hub; it was great!

I let myself be a sponge to everything that was going on. I think where I am now, musically, encompasses my inspirations in Australia and when I was a younger kid, and then just loving life and exploring London. Artistically, the move made me realise that everyone is so individual and unique within the music community. It made me really want to seek out my own authenticity and stop doubting myself, musically.

being imperfect is perfect – that’s what I want to embody.

You’ve performed at Abbey Road and Glastonbury – what is the proudest moment of your career so far as a singer-songwriter?

Glastonbury! It's just so full circle. All the artists that I have loved and grown up listening to have been there at one point or another. Performing and playing in Abbey Road too – I basically bawled my eyes out after we finished. I went and looked around at all the different studios. 

The Beatles were honestly the first band that I was introduced to that had such an impact on me. That’s where me and my dad bonded in terms of his music that interested me, so being able to record in the same place that a lot of the albums that we loved were recorded was just so emotional for me. I'm so grateful that I got to do that.

What have been your biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome in the music industry so far?

Perseverance and consistency is what takes the most out of me. Amongst all the amazing opportunities that I've been so lucky enough to have, it's the days where things aren't happening and it's really down to me to keep the ball rolling. I'm not in a band. It's a solo project. So the constant positive narration in my own head being like, “Just keep going, just keep ticking away at it, keep writing that song, connect with as many people as you can.” That is what takes the most out of me and is the biggest challenge.

Tell us about the inspiration behind your new single, Social Cues

Surprisingly, it didn't take as long of a journey to get to the release stage as most of my other music. I wrote the song back in June, just as school had ended and I was going through my first big breakup.

I was like, “Gosh, I really feel like I haven't changed since I was a kid” – not really having many friends, and then graduating school and feeling so isolated. I was like, “I just don't understand social cues at all, I guess”. So that's where the idea came from. I had a gig the night that I wrote it and I was like, “I am not meeting the setlist time – I need another song.” 

I got to the gig and I was like, “I don't know how this is gonna go. I wrote this this morning, but here it is,” and everyone seemed to love it, which was really nice. Then it just became a staple, and I really enjoyed playing it as well. As I kept doing more gigs and as the song kept developing, it became a song that I feel is my identity and how I want to present myself artistically going forward. It's a bop, in my opinion

I think the best piece of advice that I've ever got is, write what you know. Up until very recently, I felt like that guided my life a little bit – not really understanding social cues and being able to make friends easily and feeling very abnormal within a lot of different school settings and moving countries. So that story of me feeling quite on my own, I wanted to overcome it and be like, “No, look at where you are now.” I wanted to write an upbeat piece of music.

Perseverance and consistency is what takes the most out of me.

What kind of artist do you see yourself as?

It's a work in progress, honestly. It's about taking the idea that being imperfect is perfect – that’s what I want to embody. Artistically, I just love the pop music scene and the pop rock music scene. Look at Taylor Swift's following, it's such a community. Everyone finds their own support systems within that, from connecting with the music. That is exactly what I wish the younger me had had and exactly what me, now wants to create for anyone who wants to be a part of it.

What’s next for you…?

Oh my gosh…secrets! [laughs] I'm not only releasing an EP, but I'm actually releasing an overall album called Who Even Is This? This is basically summarising who I think I am now; putting every little mistake, every little wrong step that I've taken and feeling of being on my own into this overall embodiment of a project that's like, “No, you're okay, it's gonna be fine and I love you”. It's basically a love letter to my friends, my younger self and my family.

Interview by Grace McGuigan.