Mae Powell: Songs of innocence and experience

The songs on Mae Powell’s debut album, Both Ways Brighter, are openhearted suggestions to experience the transformative power of relationships. The lyrics invite us to dissolve the boundaries between self and other and slip into the bliss of universal connection. “I come from a perspective that’s pretty cosmic,” Powell said. “I often have the feeling that I am you, and you are love, and when you’re loving another person, you’re also loving yourself. The vibrations of a love song can heal us. When you’re in a state of deep love, you are the love, as well as the loved one.”

Both Ways Brighter flows like a suite, each song smoothly morphing into the next. “Light Beam” opens things up with a cheery explication of deep friendship. Powell’s piano triplets and melismatic vocals follow a couple strolling through San Francisco, with bright electric guitar fills supplied by Spencer Owings. Wistful washes of lap steel guitar and soft, percussive brush strokes lay down a samba rhythm on “Weird Dreams,” a serene, cannabis-fueled reverie. Shimmering vibraphone chords dance around Powell’s free-floating vocals on “Let the Flowers Die,” as she questions her ability to be happy in a world where nothing lasts forever. When she croons, “It’s such a strange time … to be alive … ,” her words hold up an empathic mirror to the uncertainty of the past year.

The melodies Powell composed to accompany her musings are as boundless as the feelings she describes. Jazz, folk, rock, samba, blues, soul, country music and more slip and slide together, producing a sound both familiar and distinct. “I don’t have a conscious style, I listen to everything,” Powell said. “I sing jazz. I love Astrud Gilberto Gil, ’60s music, contemporary artists of all genres and my friends who make music. Creative people are like radios. You can tune into whatever station you like. After listening for most of your life, it simmers down into a soup of inspiration that informs what you write. I love writing without knowing where the music comes from, but knowing it’s a part of me.”

Powell’s mother gave her a guitar when she was 15. Powell watched YouTube lessons and learned how to play, but didn’t try writing songs until she moved to San Francisco to study broadcasting and production at SF State. “I had a songwriting friend in college,” she said. “That took away the anxiety I had about having to write the best song ever. I realized I could write about anything I wanted to express.

“I started singing all the time. One day, I walked past [the music club] Amnesia, and Ted Savarese, who ran the house band, heard me. He asked me to sing with the Amnesiacs.” Powell got a weekly gig singing jazz and pop standards with the Amnesiacs and developed her performing style. She finished school, landed a part-time job and got serious about songwriting. When she had enough tunes, she asked Savarese to help her make an album. He had a small studio set up in his home. Together, they recorded the acoustic guitar and vocal tracks that became the foundation of Both Ways Brighter.

At the same time, Powell played dates with a band she put together with friends—Mayya Feygina (Mayya and the Revolutionary Hell Yeah!) on bass and backing vocals; Sam Jones on drums. Later on, Garrett Barley (lead guitar and lap steel) and Spencer Owings (lead guitar and keyboards) joined up. They recorded the album sporadically between 2018 and 2020. “It took a while to get momentum,” Powell said. “I did more tracks with Sam in his home setup, but realized I’d need a real studio if I was serious. I was playing a show one night. Jason Kick was doing the sound. He sent me an email that said, ‘Let’s make an album.’ He plays a lot of instruments. I think he was filling in the sounds the songs needed, in his head.”

Powell worked with Kick and her band at his Tunnel Vision Studio in Oakland throughout the pandemic. The musicians sent in tracks, recorded in their home studios, and Kick added and subtracted layers of sound and instrumentation. The lockdown allowed them time to rethink arrangements and to tweak the tracks with ambient sound effects, vibraphone, organ, harpsichord and other instruments. “As soon as we were all testing negative, we got together in the studio to tie up the loose ends and mix everything,” Powell said. “We finished working on it last August. We’re releasing it on August 20th.”

Living in San Francisco contributed to Powell’s success as a musician and songwriter. “I remember coming to the city on weekend treks with my mom,” she said. “Even when I was little, the place had a sense of wonder. I’ve lived in the city for seven years now and that sensation has never left. The city attracts creative, stimulating people. The musicians are supportive and inclusive. They made me feel it was safe to share my songs.”

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