IT STARTS off with just one woman and her guitar, on stage singing her song, but as the music progresses it sounds as if more and more musicians and backing vocalists are behind her. By the end the ears believe she is accompanied by a full band and choir, but it is still just one person on stage.
This is Elaine Mai, one of the most talented and original singer-songwriters to emerge in Ireland in years. She is a singer-songwriter, but in such an overcrowded field, she boasts a genuine difference. It is partly down to the effects and arrangements she creates using a loop pedal, but strip away the effects and the songs still stand.
Above all her calling card is that she has talent, and more than most, and on Thursday April 5 at 8pm in the Róisín Dubh, Elaine Mai will launch her debut EP Dots.
Elaine is originally from Charlestown, County Mayo, and she inherited a passion for music from her mother.
“My mum is a singer,” Elaine tells me as we sit for the interview on a Tuesday morning. “She instilled a love of music in me from a very young age and it’s often the music that you grow up listening to that stays with you longest and at home The Beatles, Roy Orbison, and ABBA were played constantly.”
Key to the sound of The Beatles and ABBA were vocal harmonies and interplay, while Orbison possessed one of the purest and finest voices in rock’n’roll. It has rubbed off on Elaine, for when people hear her, it is the quality of her voice that immediately attracts.
“I feel my singing is my strongest point,” she says. “It’s something I don’t have to think about. If I’m listening to a song on the radio I’m more likely to sing a harmony to it rather than just sing along to the melody. I just love vocal harmonies, it’s from listening to ABBA and in more recent years listening to Björk and Regina Spektor.”
The magic of loop pedals
How though can a solo singer do vocal harmonies when she is the only one on stage? Harmonies require at least two or more people, to accompany the lead vocalist. The solution lay in a piece of technology called a loop pedal.
Before Elaine discovered the loop pedal and what it could allow her to do, she first had to figure out her path in life. She started playing guitar when she was 16, “just messing around in my room with it”. She moved to Galway to study in university and for a time became involved in a band. It was then she began to think music might be her calling in life. Following a trip to Australia she returned to Galway and became certain it was.
“Music is the one thing I feel happy doing, that I love. I feel it in my bones and I would love to be able to say in 20 years time I played this gig, I made that album, and I gave it my all,” she says. “I don’t want to have regrets. Music is what I feel I should be doing.”
However Elaine found the ‘one-woman and her guitar singer-songwriter’ approach limiting, and an unsatisfactory way to realise the sounds in her head and the arrangements she wanted to create for her songs. It is here the loop pedal came in.
A loop pedal is a device which allows for recording and multi-tracking of instruments, enabling a musician to layer different sounds on top of one another both in the studio or live on stage.
Witness Elaine in concert - she starts off just with her voice and a guitar. The guitar part is recorded onto the loop pedal while being played. Once recorded it can be repeated as long as Elaine wants. Over that she can add rhythmic strums, and licks. Meanwhile she can record different vocal parts separately and multiply them until it sounds like she is backed by a full choir. Examples of this can be heard on ‘Tainted’ and ‘Live’ from her EP Dots.
For Elaine, looping can be a tricky procedure - it requires enormous concentration and multi-tasking - but for listeners it appears to flow smoothly and never sounds in any way artificial. It is an occasion where technology and organic, natural, sounds co-exist happily.
“Two years ago I got a loop pedal, I was just interested in trying it out,” she says. “Then I got a more sophisticated one, which allowed me to do more, and now I work from a laptop and it gives me more control.
“Singing with just the guitar felt limiting, but the loop pedal opened up possibilities of vocal harmonies, building up songs, and doing so much more with them,” says Elaine. “The loop pedal has spurred on my creativity. When an idea comes I never try to force it, do that and it will never go anywhere. I just play around with it and see what happens.”
The four track EP Dots is the debut release of Elaine Mai and the debut release on Strange Brew Rekkids, the new Galway based label founded by the Róisín Dubh’s music promoter Gugai.
“I am so happy, the EP is something I have wanted to do for a long time,” she says. “Gugai is as excited as me. When we were opening the boxes with the CDs in them, we were like kids at Christmas.”
Elaine also pays tribune to Gugai and the support he has given her and her music.
“From the first time I met him he really started pushing me in a great way, always supporting me from day one,” she says. “So there was never a question but that I would work with him if he wanted me to. It’s great having someone like him. As a solo singer you don’t have a band to bounce off, but I can always talk to Gugai and he’s AA really great support.”
The EP showcases Elaine’s wonderful vocals and songwriting and arranging skills. However it is the final two tracks, the contemporary folk of ‘Re-write’ with it’s choral climax and the indie pop meets blues of ‘Live’, which give the best summation of her talents. The latter shows she is more than a match for anyone in the Irish indie scene, the former the kind of song you could imagine Mary Black or Eleanor Shanley covering.
“‘Guarded’, ‘Tainted’, and ‘Live’ were songs I’ve had for a while and always wanted to record,” says Elaine. “The original plan was to record those three songs and then a cover, but we had a spare four/five hours in the studio and this song popped into my head and Dave [Phelan, the EP’s producer] and I said ‘Let’s just go for it!’ I also thought ‘Re-write’ and ‘Live’ fitted quite well so that’s why they segue into each other on the EP.”
The artwork for the EP cover was created by Elaine’s friend Róisín O’Doherty, and is a collage made up of personal items and mementoes.
“The EP is very, very personal to me and I wanted the artwork to reflect that,” she said. “If I had tried to do it would be just a stick man, but Róisín did a great job. The images are made up of an Electric Picnic ticket, a photo of my mum, me as a baby, the R from the Róisín Dubh logo, and my first set list.”
Big Top gig
The launch night for the EP is the next big event in Elaine’s musical journey, but come the summer Elaine will play her biggest concert to date, at the Galway Arts Festival Big Top in support of Lisa Hannigan and James Vincent McMorrow on Thursday July 26.
“I can’t wait for it,” she says. “It will be amazing. I’ve always wanted to play the Big Top. The arts festival makes Galway the best place to be in Ireland during the summer. I will be nervous but it will be good fun.”
Admission is free to Elaine’s EP launch gig in the Róisín Dubh. Support is from Daithí Ó Dronaí, Dott, and Leanne Harte. Gugai will be DJing afterwards.