M897 Artist Spotlight: August 2013
SETH & MAY
Michigan Music with Seth & May
Michigan Duo Seth & May Are Just Folks
Story by LCC Radio Staff Reporter Karen Hopper
They’d probably not call themselves this, but husband and wife duo Seth & May (Seth Bernard and May Erlewine) are the closest things to a reigning king and queen of Michigan folk music. Some of Michigan’s finest musicians perform under their Earthwork Music label--which they say functions more as a collective--including the likes of Steppin’ In It, Joshua Davis, Jen Sygit, and Breathe Owl Breathe. 450 guests attended their 2011 wedding at Seth’s childhood home, the 183 acre Earthwork Farm owned by Seth’s parents in Lake City, and the the wedding featured an hour-long concert of “our favorite people singing our favorite lovesongs,” based on a mix tape Seth had made for May when he proposed.
Seth & May are loved--I spoke to a fan whose tone when discussing the pair was downright reverential--but the love is far from one-sided. Instead, the duo is broadly devoted to others. May and I spoke following a solo performance at The Filling Station in Traverse City (Seth was playing at the Cabbage Shed in Elberta after a teaching gig at Interlochen Arts Academy’s summer songwriter session), and she made it a priority to talk about Seth & May’s (and Earthwork Music’s) endeavors.
“We focus a lot on the community,” said May. This includes “environmental action and social justice issues,” said May, and “we do a lot of youth empowerment with the collective.”
Earthwork Music partners with SEEDS ( Seeking Ecology Education and Design Solutions). Seth & May teach with the organization’s after school program, providing arts programming to schools where the arts budget has been cut.
“It’s rewarding work,” said May, and later, while speaking about how she defines success as a musician, she noted that continuing to be able to work in the schools is a priority.
Seth & May’s dedication to community translates to an interesting perspective on their relationships, both with their audience and with each other.
“We’ve taken on this attitude that we’re not separate, in a lot of ways, from anybody. Instead of being performers on a pedestal, and the stage separates you from the person--that’s not what we’re about. Seth & I are very accessible. We love our community and we don’t want to be slightly removed from the community,” said May.
“Since we’re both so raw and we’re both so accessible, it’s part of the deal that some of the songs are going to be about what we’re going through. And since we’re together, some of those songs are going to be about one of us. We both do it respectfully. We’re intentional about what we want to put out there.”
Being able to spend time with each other and be a part of a community currently drives Seth & May’s thinking regarding their goals as musicians.
“There’s this idea in the music industry that’s sort of faulty; that you’re going to ‘make it.’ What is making it? A lot of peoples’ idea of making it is touring relentlessly and playing for these huge audiences. But a lot of people that are actually in that reality are not very happy,” said May. “Seth and I have a goal of being able to be home and enjoy the things that, ‘normal people’ enjoy, but balance it out with our careers and playing and touring but also doing work and schools.”
Seth & May met at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival. The music came first, technically.
“From the moment we met, it was a spark,” said May. “It was kind of love at first sight, but our lives were in really different places.” It was a year before their partnership evolved into a romantic relationship.
But back to that love of community; it’s one of the things that brought them together.
“We both traveled a lot before we met, and we were both drawn back here because the community is so beautiful. We’re really inspired about working here and keeping our roots here. That was something we had in common when we met.”
While Seth grew up in Lake City on Earthwork Farm, May was raised in Big Rapids. Her father, the owner of a software company and founder of the All Music Guide (now sold), and her mother encouraged May creatively while home-educating her. May acknowledges that her parents had “some resources to put into me and my art,” but believes that it was their appreciation and dedication to the arts that catapulted her career.
Seth & May currently live in Williamsburg, just outside of Traverse City. They have no pets and no kids, but they do have a cactus named Otis.