7 p.m. Sunday, Brewhouse Stage, 110 W. Main
Last year, Audra Mae got the kind of break that can make a career. British singing sensation Susan Boyle recorded her song, “Who I Was Born to Be,” the only original composition chosen for her debut album. It sold several million copies worldwide, including more than three million here in the states, garnering the former Oklahoma City resident a nice publishing check.
Not that she’s seen it yet. Mae still has some advances from her publishing company to cover, and she’s been on the road for a few months, so there might be a check in the mailbox when she returns home to Los Angeles. But she’s given some thought to how she’d like to spend it: not on a car, HDTV or a new guitar.
“I’ll probably buy some old trunks and fill them with old clothes,” she said. “I have weakness for old junk.”
This should come as no surprise to those who’ve heard her music, which harkens back to the torch jazz and country-blues of artists like Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline and the recent wave of similarly backward-looking acts such as Jolie Holland, Be Good Tanyas and Eilen Jewell. Mae’s sweet warming vocals boast a powerful natural vibrato reminiscent of Neko Case, and are nearly as transfixing. Singing is something that’s always come naturally for her, although it took some time to find her voice.
“I’ve never been afraid to sing. I’ve been afraid of lots of things, but never that. I just kind of came out with jazz hands, you know,” she said. “I grew up listening to Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton, but I really didn’t appreciate as much when I as younger. Once I got older and came to terms with my roots, and where I was from, it became really hard to deny. When I sat down to write a song, that’s what came out: a little country flavor.”
The grandniece of Judy Garland, Mae said she didn’t set out to be a singer. She thought she’d do musical theater at Middle Tennessee State University, but classes just never quite clicked for her, and her scholarship was pulled for missing too many of them.
So, like many with big dreams, Mae moved to L.A. in 2004 to become a struggling artist. Fortunately, she was able to secure a publishing deal within a couple years. It didn’t make her rich, but it helped pay the bills.
An opportunity came last year to write a song with a Swedish songwriting trio Play Production, which was trying to place a track with Boyle. Admiring Boyle’s talent and pluck, Mae dug into her biography and wrote lyrics she thought might resonate with Boyle, given her background.
“I thought she was really fascinating because it was the ultimate rags-to-riches story. She symbolized something that’s a total taboo in show business. It’s almost like you’re not allowed to be that successful unless you are going to turn people on, and she just touched our hearts and that’s why we love her,” Mae said.
Of course, she’d already experienced the same thing. Mae had labels sniffing after her, but waited for the right one to come along. Finally, she singed a deal with SideOneDummy, which released her “Haunt” EP last year. She releases her debut full-length, “The Happiest Lamb,” next month.
It’s a bracingly affecting album suffused with a burning radiance that shines all the brighter for its simplicity. Although much of it features little more than Mae’s swaying vocals, an acoustic guitar and understated percussion, the disc is adorned with nuance, subtle instrumental embellishments and spot-on production that makes it seem much larger than life.
She credits producer Ted Hutt (Flogging Molly) with helping her to focus her sound and encouraging her to try to tell stories, rather than relying solely on personal experience.
“This forced me out of that box, and it was the best thing that could’ve happened,” she said. “You just make it up and don’t have to feel so limited like, ‘Nothing is going on right now, so I guess I don’t have anything to write about.'”
Mae’s looking forward to returning to Oklahoma, which she misses more than she ever thought she would.
“I miss that red dirt, the big sky, and having country to go drive around and get lost in. Sure, you have the ocean but it’s different to drive around in a countryside and see old abandoned houses, old farm equipment, horses, cows, grass and dirt,” she said. “That may sound like the most boring thing in the world to 17-year-old-me, but 26-year-old me really longs for it.” “Chris Parker