[Weekly Playlist] Janet May

Activism has always been the cornerstone of singer-songwriter Janet May’s music, in part emulating artists she grew up listening to who carried powerful political or social messages in their songs. May started her career singing backup for Bombay Bicycle Club and now through her solo material strives to shine a light on issues she’s personally passionate about. Her latest single “New York, I Am Home” intersects with a monthly residency of shows at Riker’s Island Women’s Prison and May’s work with activism groups and the NY DOC to raise awareness about mass incarceration and women in prison.

The song itself is a sentimental ballad to the city that never sleeps. Her voice rings out over her delicate piano accompaniment, beautifully evoking the songs vulnerability about embracing the ever-changing landscape, which mirrors the constant evolution of life.

When asked about the inspiration behind the song, Janet shared, “‘New York, I Am Home’ is for anyone who has lived in, or returned to this city. This song is the truth in my heart of the passion and turmoil that we embrace in New York, there is never a dull moment. The struggle in New York is real. In this city everyone has a fight it seems. Our experiences are more extreme, our love more ferocious.”

We asked May to put together a playlist of her favorite songs and it’s no surprise her picks played a big role in her formative years, like The Cranberries and Tracy Chapman, and helped shape her into the woman with a message she is today. Take a listen in below.

The Cranberries – Zombie

I used to sing this into a hairbrush growing up. It was the first song I learned on guitar as well. Everything from the production to the wailing vocal are completely epic. Even more influential to me are the lyrics from singer and songwriter of the band, Dolores O’Riordan. This song is about her home war torn country, and decades of violent civil divide. To a kid in the states with no prior knowledge of the politics of Northern Ireland, this song brought that message to me across the sea through the radio. This song was an eye opening moment about the power of music and poetry to call for change and build awareness. Also want to mention I had the image of O’Riordan like a golden goddess in front of a cross burned into the back of my eyelids during the height of MTV rotating music videos. What a moment.

The Verve – Bittersweet Symphony

The string opening of this song has become iconic. I love the mix of strings with guitar and rock kit, making the song so striking and unforgettable. At the time I was still a churchgoing, choir singing youth. In my free time, I worshipped English guitar bands. This was at a time when i was listening to a lot of Oasis, and Radiohead’s “OK Computer” had changed my life. I thought there was nothing cooler than being in a band. I was obsessed with the Verve, and Richard Ashcroft is one of my favorite songwriters all time. His songs are packed with emotion, so moving and so so real. “It’s a bittersweet symphony this life. Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money, then you die.” So simple, can’t poke a hole in that. This is a forever song.

Tracy Chapman – Fast Car

I listened to this song on repeat for months when it was on the radio. I remember pouring over the story imbedded in this infectious chorus. I was, am, and forever will be like a magnet to this song. She really puts you in the car riding shot gun, it is so affecting. Chapman’s lyrics are direct and honest about the realities of being poor, stuck in a small town, the struggle, the hopes and dreams, self respect and growth. One of the very best.

Joni Mitchell – Woodstock

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time worried that I was born in the wrong decade. I spent all of 5th or 6th grade, exclusively wearing hand me down tie dyes and rock ‘n’ roll t-shirts from my aunt and uncle who had followed the Grateful Dead. I was enamored by the idea of a youth traveling culture, standing up to the draft in the name of peace, and love. Along with those t-shirts, they gave me a pile of vinyl, and luckily that was how I first heard Joni Mitchell. She is a huge influence to me. Her songbook and her guitar playing are superior. With “Woodstock”, however, she writes on piano. Like me, she wasn’t at the festival, though she knew many of the performers. The song is her fantasy of what the concert was like, and her understanding of what it was about. “Woodstock” is like a gift for an old soul trying to connect with the moment long gone. “We are star dust, billion year old carbon. We are golden, caught in the devil’s bargain. And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name

I was really young when this heavy song was released, but it was the
90s and my older brother brought it to my attention and taught me about the politics surrounding the moment, shortly following the LA Riots. I was rocked by the sound of rebellion and resistance. Speaking truth to power.

Billy Bragg – Levi Stubbs’ Tears

I was also introduced to Billy Bragg by my older brother who raved to me about his political activism, which at the time I couldn’t relate to, but I immediately loved his unique sound on the electric guitar. With just a guitar, there is such depth in this story about his mother. I think its Bragg inspired me to take my songs and guitar into less traditional venues, like political rallies, hospitals, and jails. I wanted to play electric guitar like him. It’s punk rock.

Nina Simone – I Wish I Knew How To Be Free

I can watch hours of Miss Nina Simone performing. She really was better than everyone else, as a musician at the piano, and jazz, rhythm and impulse. Her bravery and strength unmatched. She is an important voice for the fight for American Civil Rights Movement then and today. By recording and performing this song at this time, it served as an anthem for the movement. It is a standard jazz song with gospel influences from the time. The lyrics are uplifting and challenging, highlighting the struggle.

Leikeli47 – Post That

Hip hop, R&B, and soul influenced Leikeli 47, lights me up. I think she is a really important artist of today, a kind of American treasure, and a voice we need to paint a picture of our time. She gives me LIFE. Her language is clear and honest, She dominating and powerful but pure. Her perspective is smart, and uses humor in an invigorating way. In addition, All her tracks seriously rip.

Fleetwood Mac – Landslide

I am forever fainting for this song. It is perfect. It paints the full picture. It tells the whole story, start to finish, life til death. Penned and performed by Stevie Nicks, its about the challenges of changing and loss. This song gives me a growth spurt every time I hear it. It is epic and personal at the same time.

For more music from Janet May head over to Spotify.
Photo Credit: Pete Voelker