Abbe May. Picture by Thom Perry.

Abbe May talks censorship, social media and empowerment

The release of Abbe May’s latest album Bitchcraft crawls ever closer, and it would be fair to say this work has required her mightiest effort yet.

May had quite a large scare back in 2013, which resulted in her having to take a step back from her music. While on tour, she had what she describes as a ‘nervous system breakdown’, resulting in a seizure that forced her into recovery mode for a couple of years.

Unsurprisingly, the event itself and the recovery process has been a significant influence on May’s composure as well as her direction in crafting this new album.

“It’s really affected my approach in that I no longer allow myself to go above certain levels of stress,” she says down the phone line.

“I have no intention of having another seizure or breakdown ever again.

I’m pretty chilled with the creation of the work – if I’m late for deadlines I don’t really care, much to the chagrin of my manager,” she chuckles.

“Some deadlines you can’t ignore, but I don’t allow it to get to me on an emotional level. It has affected me in a really positive way, so I’m kind of glad it happened, y’know?”

I respect the word, I understand that’s it’s not something that everyone should be using, [but] I’m certainly harnessing it because I feel like I am entitled to turning it around.

Two singles from the album have been released so far – the stripped-back Are We Flirting? and the powerful, politically-charged Doomsday Clock. The album as a whole, May claims, is solid in its theme, and has been since the brainstorming began.

“It’s a feminist manifesto, but it’s an album about femininity rather than something that’s just exclusively for women,” she says.

“It’s addressing the role of the feminine, the power of the feminine in our existence, and that extends to both men and women, we all have feminine aspects, and I’m really interested in studying the power of that, and I have been for a long time.

“I think Bitchcraft…” May ponders, “I tend to come up with the album titles before anything else, and Bitchcraft has really been a title that has directed me towards the exploration of the feminine within our society and as a greater whole and also within ourselves as a microcosm of that macro. So it’s maintained a pretty strong and direct purpose from the beginning.”

It’s fairly ironic then – and May certainly did not miss it – that when it came time to start promoting the album via social media channels, the biggest of them all in Facebook decided it would not allow her to use the title in her posts, deeming it inappropriate.

May is fine with the decision now, but admits it was both funny and sad all the same.

“I’m at peace with all of that stuff no matter what,” she says.

“Instead of getting upset, you just adapt. I’m not changing the title, but I’m changing the way I talk about it online. I understand the medium has certain rules for engagement and use of it as a promotional tool so I just adapted to that.

“I do think it’s kind of funny, it’s such a powerful word, and it can be used in a really abusive way, so I understand why they do what they do with their censorship. Within reason, they are open to discussion about these things, which is quite incredible for a platform of this size. I respect the word, I understand that’s it’s not something that everyone should be using, [but] I’m certainly harnessing it because I feel like I am entitled to turning it around. I feel like it’s something that is used negatively towards me and other women, and I just feel like turning it into something more powerful and positive.”

There’s certainly no denying the nobility of the cause, especially in this day and age, where everybody with a social media account has a platform to express an opinion. May, who was in fact recently heckled at a show by a male, also believes it’s very important that women continue to stand up for themselves.

There’s people you don’t get along with and you have a choice to actively pursue that disagreement, or you can come to some kind of peace with it.

“I think [on social media] this strange attitude towards the feminine prevails. There’s quite a lot of awareness of it that’s growing. I think that’s a good thing. What I’ve noticed as well is that women are becoming better at expressing in the moment when they’re not happy with the treatment they’re receiving.

“Women are feeling more empowered to say, ‘I’m not alright with this, don’t talk to me like that’, or, ‘I think this is unfair’. That’s definitely a direct result of the efforts of feminists, male and female, that preceded our generation, and a sign of perhaps a time that we have these open platforms to discuss this stuff and highlight it and to say, ‘Look, things may have changed a bit, but this shit is still going on.’ A guy can rape a woman behind a dumpster and get three months.

“I think the age of the internet is quite cool in that it’s spreading these issues in a more open way. It’s less filtered. There’s still tremendous power in the hands of Facebook and things like that, but I do think it gives people more power than they realise.”

That said, May also considers the fact that social media can have the opposite effect.

“It can be really ugly too because a lot of people say things that are really hurtful online that they wouldn’t dare say to someone’s face. So that’s another side where people don’t realise how powerful they are. It’s a really interesting time, and to step back and have a look at it is really important.

“I remember thinking last night, you know, people generally don’t get along. It’s always been this way, and it’s part of why we’re here, to navigate it and grow with it. It’s an age-old behavioural pattern and it’s certainly not changing. The best you can do is try to understand it, I think.”

Abbe May’s annual celebration of WA music comes to Fremantle Festival this October & November in the form of The Tonight Show, with the first round of guests including Alex ArcherElli SchoenLee SapphoTimothy NelsonSteve Gibson and more. Head to Fremantle Festival’s website for more information.

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