Hank May Finds Out What Makes Life Worth Living on “Where I’m Calling From”
The LA-based songwriter’s debut album One More Taste of the Good Stuff is out October 15.
“If I start loving you, will I know what to do?” singer-songwriter Hank May asks toward the end of “Where I’m Calling From.” On the latest single from his forthcoming debut album One More Taste of the Good Stuff, there’s a clear sense that this track has aged along with him. Initially written while single, its latter half finds him in a relationship’s grip and wondering if the love surrounding him will inspire him to move forward. There’s a war between the darkness, which exists inside his mind and is poked by the chaos of the outside world, and the impulse to survive that makes the Raymond Carver–nodding single a captivating listen.
May’s music is a blend of detailed, climactic folk-rock similar to Father John Misty or Hamilton Leithauser. Both introspective and observational of the world’s absurdity, May’s songwriting paints a vivid world while letting us into the crevices of his psyche. “There is an exit without a marker / And when you take it, the world gets darker,” he sings during the chorus, his voice heavy as he details a metaphor about unchecked bad habits. By the song’s end, he’s screaming with a breakthrough. “Do it for you if I can’t do it for myself.” Love makes life worth living.
“Where I’m Calling From” comes with a Suzie Vlcek–directed video that details the grit and pleasantries of the outside world—the rolling waves, smashed beer bottles, purple flowers dancing in sunlight, a dog peeing on a chair. You can watch that and find our chat with Hank May below, which touches on everything from his lone acting performance in a Silversun Pickups video to an addiction to Settlers of Catan. Pre-order One More Taste of the Good Stuff here before it drops October 15 via Dangerbird Records.
What inspired you to start writing music? Where do you see yourself inside the rock ’n’ roll canon?
My earliest songwriting memories are…improvising melodies and lyrics under my breath while riding my skateboard around my backyard as a kid, my mom finding some wannabe dark and violent lyrics in my fourth grade backpack and telling me I could get expelled for having them. But then offering me the easy defense, that this was my response to Columbine (false, but I took it anyway). As a little kid, I was just obsessed with rock music and rock musicians and I can remember what a huge bummer it was that in order to be taken seriously as one myself, I would have to become an adult first.
All of my interests have since changed except for this one. I no longer watch Rugrats, I no longer collect action figures, I no longer build Legos or drink chocolate milk out of a tiny carton, but I am still 100 percent obsessed with popular music and following my dream of becoming a successful pop musician (a.k.a. rockstar). I think we all face the paradox of longing for adulthood as kids and then turning around and longing for childhood as adults, and I suspect that my life as a musician and writer has more to do with softening the blow of that particular catch-22 and finding its bittersweetness than anything else.
Inside the rock and roll canon, I’m just a five-year-old boy hearing “Wonderwall” on the radio in 1995 and knowing by the bumps on my arms that I had found my calling.
What was the process like for writing “Where I’m Calling From?” Was it similar or pretty diverse for the making of the rest of the album? How does this track fit into the greater picture of One More Taste of the Good Stuff?
I like to classify my songs into two categories: songs I wrote in a single sitting and songs I labored over for months. When you have both types on your album, what ends up happening is that the songs you spent months on bear the marks of the songs you spent minutes on. In my song “High on LCD,” which didn’t take more than an hour to write, the lyrics describe me playing one of my songs in the car for the person I’m on a date with. In reality, the song I put on was an incomplete early draft of “Where I’m Calling From.” By the time I finished writing “Where I’m Calling From”—a process which extended well into the recording stages—I was falling in love and making space in my life for a relationship, so the lyrics—if I wrote them honestly and accurately—should paint a grander portrait of growth and change than a song like “High on LCD” ever could. However, I will say that the single-sitting songs are always the fan favorites.
I noticed this track references the album title. Which came first? Can you talk a bit about what you mean by “the good stuff?”
There’s a certain addict’s mentality where every hit, every bag, every bottle, every taste is the last you’re going to take before you quit. I am that guy. You know…twice a week I’ll tell the bartender that she’ll never see me again. Another thing is that when you’re buying drugs or alcohol, there’s always a top shelf, always something that’s classified as “the good stuff.” But it doesn’t matter if it’s cheap or expensive, the thing you’re trying to quit—whatever it is—becomes the good stuff in your life that you’re always just taking one last little sip of, day in and day out. Let me tell you, it’s a vicious cycle and I wrote my album inside of it.
More recently, I’ve found that the title is reflective of another habit I have as an artist of tricking myself into believing that my current project is my last project, telling myself it has to be my best work because I may not get another chance. It’s a delusion all the same. Broadly speaking, I think you have to delude yourself to stay sane in this world, and as an artist I’m just taking it up a notch.
“Where I’m Calling From” seems part a documentation of emotional growth and also a love song, but I don’t even get the sense that it’s romantic. Are there multiple relationships that you’re addressing here?
Because I had the book open on this one for so many months, anything and everything was fair game lyrically. I was single when I wrote the first verse. But by the time I was screaming at the end, I had entered into a serious relationship and was deciding that I need to do something with my life in order to make my girlfriend proud to be with me (“Do it for yoooooooou, etc.”).
I love how your songwriting pivots between almost comical moments of observation (kids lining up to buy sneakers) to intimate divulgences (“I’m embarrassed by how long I’ve been alone / You don’t know how many nights I’ve just destroyed myself at home”). Would you say the balance between the two is key to your style?
Yes, this keeps coming up, and every time someone says this I feel a sense of victory like I’m finally becoming myself in my songs. Looking back at my old stuff, I don’t see that balance and so I know it’s something I had to work for. I’ve come to believe that the act of writing emboldens your true personality to come forth. This is what “fake it ’til you make it” is all about. You find room in your art for all the various sides of your self, and you make them look good together, and that’s when you’re onto something.
I feel like the video has the same sense of that balance. How did it come about?
I really wanted to work with someone on the video who would work how I work—having fun, but with a heavy heart, sucking the sweet from the bittersweet, chasing the chills, and as little trying-to-be-cool as possible. That felt like a tall order, and I didn’t think I was gonna get it from the first 10 people I DMed about working with me. Then I remembered Suzie. As a 15-year-old in LA, I randomly got to be in the video for “Lazy Eye” by Silversun Pickups. It came about because I knew someone who worked at the label. This was and is and will always be my only acting gig. I am not another child actor turned indie rocker, I promise. But I remembered that Suzie was sensitive like me, and I had a feeling she would like my song. She and Darrin ended up making something that to my eyes is absolutely oozing with the bittersweet magic that I’ve made it my life’s mission to capture and keep.
Did the screaming at the song’s end come unexpectedly or had you envisioned that prior to recording?
Unexpectedly! In the studio with the band, the plan had been to repeat the ending chords again and again with the intention of fading it out (a lazy songwriting trick), but when I got home with the files and began the year-long process of adding my vocals and guitars, all those plans kind of fell by the wayside. At some point at the computer with Pro Tools open, I felt inspired to grab the microphone and belt some shit out so that’s what I did. I was feeling like I wasn’t going to finish my album at that stage. When I’m screaming “Do it for you if I can’t do it for myself,” I am literally yelling at myself to finish my album so that my girlfriend can have some pride in her scrub. She’s at work. I’m at home making zero progress on my album, probably playing Catan on my phone (last game before I delete the app), feeling guilty, writing those lines.
What do you hope people take away from your songs?
I want people to relate. I want people to hear the stuff I’m singing about and have a laugh and a cry about how well it describes their own heart. And I want my years of faking-it-’til-I’m-making-it to help other people along their path of faking-it-’til-they’re-making-it. We are creatures who speak in melodies, and if you can have a meaningful conversation, you can write a meaningful poem. It’s the great thrill of my life to do this, and the thrill only intensified after I stopped drinking. I would love for everyone I meet and everyone who hears my music to learn how to feel this way about simply talking and opening up.