Meet Flyleaf’s Kristen May

Flyleaf vocalist Kristen May talks about her role as the band’s new singer.  “I try to bring about a bit of a lighter spirit with me on stage,” she told Pollstar. “I want people to feel free.”

For Flyleaf’s fans May is the new face in the photos and the new voice on the album, having replaced the original singer Lacey Sturm two years ago.  Formerly a member of Vedera, May joined a band that had already put out three albums with Sturm.  Released in September on Loud & Proud Records, Between The Stars is Flyleaf’s fourth LP and the first to feature May.  Although May has been fronting the group onstage for the last two years, for many fans the new disc represents an opportunity to get acquainted with the lady from Kansas City, Mo.

And May is up to the task, as she honors  Sturm’s legacy while establishing her own identity in Flyleaf. 

This has to be an exciting time for you, what with the release of the first Flyleaf album featuring your singing, and the upcoming tour.  What kind of preparation goes into a tour?

I’ve been touring for about 10 years. The touring part isn’t so overwhelming.  I get ready by singing as much as I can.  Also resting … practicing as much as I can.  This is the first time I haven’t been in a band with my husband, so it is a bit different.  But he has a job that’s pretty flexible at home.  He does all the fun stuff – walking the dogs, cooking dinners, cleaning the house –whenever I’m gone.  It works out.  We have a pretty great partnership.

What does practicing for the tour involve?

For this album I wrote on piano and guitar, but live I’m only playing piano on a couple of songs and I’m singing the rest of the time.  Mmostly for these Flyleaf shows I try to kind of jump around and sing.  So I work on my stamina as well as hitting the notes. This show is definitely a more high-energy show than I’ve ever been in before.  So I have to practice … what it would feel like if I was out of breath, or kept moving around.  I use a wireless mic on stage and I want to keep everybody excited and involved.

Is there an actual regimen such as going to the gym every day or working with a trainer?

I don’t work with a trainer or go to the gym.  I do run and walk a lot and do a lot of yoga.  That’s been my form of exercise for the past year.

What’s your routine on show days?

It’s really important for me to warm up about 15 minutes before doing anything, whether it’s a couple of songs at a radio station or [for] the performance at night.  I definitely don’t go on vocal rest until I have to.  I’ll usually hole up in my bunk, maybe read some books, have some “me” time.  It helps to center myself and save my voice.

How do you prepare yourself mentally?  Do you try to reach a certain place, internally, to be a better performer?

Being centered [and] I also try … getting myself pumped up for the show.  You need to get everyone excited from the first moment you step on stage.  I spend some time, internally, in prayer or doing yoga and stuff.  I like the camaraderie I feel with everyone.  Right before we go on there’s a sort of energy because everyone is excited to go out there and put on the best show we can.  My most exciting time is warming up, singing scales, having my outfit on, getting ready, having the guys with me, doing our prayer, talking about different parts of the songs … doing whatever we can do to feel like a unit and we’re pumped to go out.

Other than a different singer, what other differences do you think the fans will see between you and your predecessor?

I don’t know Lacey very well so I don’t know how well I can speak on that.  I didn’t go to a Flyleaf show before.  I’ve watched a lot of videos and I think there’s a certain quality she has that was pretty intense.  She definitely had been through some really hard times and things that tried her and made her turn to her relationship with God.  She was very fervent about that and passionate about it on stage. It came out in her singing, just calling out for help.  People that believe the same thing as her really connected to that.

For me, at this point in my life I’d love for people to feel empowered by the music we make and feel that they have someone that has been through situations that they have been through as well.  I have different life situations that I’ve been through.  I think the difference may be just that I’m me and Lacey is her.  I try to bring about a bit of a lighter spirit with me on stage.  I want people to feel free.  That’s the big thing about this experience I want to create with Flyleaf, that there is hope and people can relate to our music, they can feel free and just let go for that evening … a freedom I want people to feel through music.

Before you joined Flyleaf there were times when the band took exception to the “Christian,” label, leaving the impression that it was a group whose members happened to be Christians and that the message would come through in the music although it may not be there in every song.  Is that still the case?

I think so.  It’s interesting because … [We’re all] Christians … and our faith is manifested in many different ways. … I think, for us, we write music about life and Sameer [Bhattacharya] says it best – “When  you have something that means so much to you, if it’s a relationship with God, you can’t help but let that pour over into your songs in some way.” But we’re not really writing songs for the Church.  We’re writing songs for all people to connect to. 

Let’s talk about the business of joining an existing band.  Do  you share a fifth of the band’s revenues from the shows and sales of the albums you sing on?  Were there papers to sign or is joining just a handshake?

This band does everything very fair.  Moving forward with everything I’ve written, helped write, and helped perform, we split it up evenly.  I did that in my old band, too.  That’s the easiest way to do it.  We have to sign a contract saying that. There are contracts that cover everything that can possibly happen in a band.  They have a lawyer that they’ve had for 10 years for protecting [the band] in those situations.  I don’t make any money on past stuff Lacey has done except for performing some of the songs she had a hand in writing.

Is joining an established band similar to non-music jobs in terms of probationary periods for health care or benefits?

I didn’t actually join the band until we had been playing together for about a year.  It was sort of a trial period figuring out what we wanted to do.  So that was more like, “OK.  You’re trying this out for a little while. Let’s see how it goes.”  I don’t have health insurance through them yet because I have it through my husband’s job. But eventually, I’ll probably be on the [band’s] health insurance.  It works out pretty much like a normal job.

It must be challenging to replace someone who has already recorded a few albums and established an identity with the band.

It’s the first time I’ve ever done it.  But I had this great experience when I was called to do the audition.  I took some time and dove into what Flyleaf is. I watched a bunch of videos, listened to their songs and read interviews about them talking about lyrics. I became a fan before I joined the band.  It created a great experience for me. … I’m a music lover as well and that helped the situation when I joined.  I know I was meant to be here and the guys feel the same. … Moving forward this has been the best album we could make because it touched on situations where we were there for each other, got through these hard times and kind of uncharted waters and came out of the other end of it.

Were there any surprises once you started working with Flyleaf?

It was cool to see their writing process [and] to collaborate with people.  Especially Sameer and Pat [Seals], they are always writing.  I didn’t realize that Pat wrote full songs on an acoustic guitar and brought them in.  I had never been in a band where the bass player brought in lyrics and melodies.  That was a surprise, a beautiful one.  I think we all write songs that are a little bit different from the other and when we allow each other to caress the song a bit … it becomes this really great thing that you could not have done any other way unless you were in the room with the five of us.

How developed are the songs by the time the band walks into the studio?  Are you and your bandmates still developing the songs or do you already know how they will sound?

It depends on the song.  Sometimes I’ll have a vision,  like, “Head Under Water.” I wrote that in about 20 minutes because it felt like this overflow and it felt like something I need to say and put out there.  I knew I wanted it to be this anthemic build and wanted it to get big at the end, feel and joyous.  I think I definitely had quite a vision for that song.  Other songs kind of became their own as we worked on them.  We did about five different writing camps together where we went out to Texas. And we did some preproduction with Don Gilmore our producer and he obviously had a couple of things he had to say about some of the songs.  Even if it’s a minor change, sometimes we make the verse longer or cut off half a verse, or we need a metal riff there or go back to the chorus.  I think, the songs are always evolving, especially on this album.  We kept working, chipping away at each song until we felt proud to put it on the album.  All the songs were messed with until the last moment.

When performing the songs on stage, do you like to tweak them or change them to give them more life in a concert setting?

When we’re writing the songs for the album and we’re in the studio recording, we’re pretty thoughtful about what sounds we’re getting out of the amps and what microphone I’m using … how is the bass, is it stepping on the vocals?  It’s more of a … problem when you’re in the studio because you want it to sound as amazing as it can.  I think, for Flyleaf, when we play these songs live, it’s definitely about capturing the energy that we feel when we’re playing them.  I think you can’t help but naturally, sometimes swing things a different way.  Every now and again Sameer or Jared [Hartmann] on a lead part might get a little excited because the crowd is excited and create something different. Or there are certain notes I might go up to if I’m really feeling it.  I think it’s supposed to be a bit different because it’s the live experience.  At this point we don’t use any tracks or anything.  It’s just us, playing.  We can’t help but create a new environment when we’re in the moment.

One song on the album, “Blue Roses,” starts with a cold vocal intro.  Is leading with vocals instead of instruments challenging for a singer?

Not necessarily, just as long as when we’re performing live I know that first note.  So I’m usually asking them to give me a note.  When you’re coming out of another song, your mind is there.  I’m not a theory-minded person, I’m a by ear [person]. For me, as long as I have that note, it’s all good.

Are you able to leave all of life’s problems behind for 90 minutes once you walk onto the stage?

For the most part, yeah. It’s such a beautiful, exhilarating experience, performing on stage.  It takes you out of yourself.  You’re having an experience with new people every night in a different city.  It’s a real gift.  I consider it that, and I always will because it’s such a transcending experience to perform on stage.

Some singers have said they focus on one person in the audience and others have said they sing to the back row.  Do you have any methods for a better performance?

I do try to sing to the back row because I want everybody to feel like they are part of it.  I think I probably try to include everybody that I can.  They paid money to be there and I want them to feel the experience as much as possible.  I do try to engage with people.  Every now and then in the set there will be personal moments where I want to go inside myself.  Then on moments when you want people to sing along, the more people that sing the more it becomes bigger and bigger, more anthemic.  And you want to look people in the eyes [and] feel a part of it.  So I think there’s a little bit of everything.  That’s the fun variety of being a performer as opposed to just recording in the studio, to create an experience like that.

Who are the singers that have inspired you?

As a singer and songwriter I’m a huge fan of Joni Mitchell and Carole King.  But then, as I got into bands later on – Thom Yorke [of Radiohead] and Chris Martin of Coldplay, The Cranberries, The Cardigans.  I have many different singers [that inspired me].  Bjork was the first person I saw on stage that created an artistic experience.  She’s memorizing to watch on stage.  But also I think Haley Williams of Paramore does a bang-up job, of giving that energy back. I’m also a big fan of Ellie Goulding as well.  I have a lot of people I kind of pull from but I remain true to what I do.

Were there singers that inspired you even if you didn’t particularly care for their kind of music or their style was the complete opposite of what you’re doing?

I do love the act when you go see Grouplove.  They’re pretty incredible; they have this amazing stage presence.  I hadn’t looked into their music much when I saw them.  But my friend, Ryan Rabin, plays drums for them and going to see their live show made me want to listen to their albums.  [They have] a crazy, infectious awesome connection with their fans and they make the show so fun.

I pay a lot of attention to lyrics and stuff like that.  I did see Gang Of Four play at Download Festival.  I didn’t know much about them and they put on a very interesting show. Nine Inch Nails as well. I don’t listen to a lot of their CDs but they put on this kind of moody, pretty interesting.

Is there anything you’ve wanted to tell fans about the tour and the new album but nobody has asked you the right question?

We’re doing this cool VIP thing that’s unique because we’re playing three songs acoustically before every show.  So we’re working on all these different cover songs that we’re going to do.  That’s kind of my favorite part – meeting the fans before and after the shows.  I hope people want to be a part of that VIP experience.  It really does mean so much to us in the band if people are really excited and we love to meet them.  So come out for that.

“For me, at this point in my life I’d love for people to feel empowered by the music we make and feel that they have someone that has been through situations that they have been through as well.”

Upcoming Flyleaf shows:

Oct. 9 – Atlanta, Ga., The Loft At Center Stage
Oct. 11 – Carrboro, N.C., Cat’s Cradle
Oct. 13 – Washington, D.C., Rock And Roll Hotel
Oct. 14 – Cambridge, Mass., T.T. The Bear’s
Oct. 16 – New York, N.Y., The Gramercy Theatre
Oct. 17 – Philadelphia, Pa., District N9NE
Oct. 18 – Portland, Maine, Asylum
Oct. 20 – Pontiac, Mich., The Crofoot
Oct. 21 – Chicago, Ill., Subterranean
Oct. 22 – Milwaukee, Wis., The Rave
Oct. 24 – Lawrence, Kan., Granada Theatre
Oct. 25 – Colorado Springs, Colo., Black Sheep
Oct. 26 – Denver, Colo., Summit Music Hall
Oct. 28 – Salt Lake City, Utah, The Complex
Oct. 30 – Seattle, Wash., El Corazon
Oct. 31 – Portland, Ore., Hawthorne Theatre
Nov. 1 – San Francisco, Calif., Slim’s
Nov. 2 – Fresno, Calif., Strummer’s
Nov. 4 – West Hollywood, Calif., House Of Blues
Nov. 6 – Anaheim, Calif., House Of Blues
Nov. 7 – San Diego, Calif., The North Park Theatre

Please visit Flyleaf’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, Google+ home, Tumbler blog, Instagram page and YouTube channel for more information.