Senora May is a singer-songwriter and social justice activist who studied under Silas House at Berea College, co-founded the Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund with her husband Tyler Childers and recently released a gorgeous new album, All of My Love, that has been widely praised for its sophisticated earthiness. Heading into the new year, we caught up with the Kentucky artist to discuss her progress thus far and her hopes for the future.
LEO: Can you tell us a bit about your family background and educational pursuits?
Senora May: I started out on a small farm in Estill County and moved to the Lee County line at age 7, when my parents divorced. Growing up, I was always whistling or humming and working with my hands a lot — building fairy houses, making mud pies, catching snakes. Mom is a stained glass artist and dad just retired from an aluminum recycling plant. I’m one of six kids; I definitely grew accustomed to sharing everything early on. After I graduated from Lee County High in Beattyville, I attended Berea College and graduated with an independent major, Ecological Architecture.
Looking back, were there any key occurrences that put you on your current path?
Mom hid money aside whenever she could to pay for music or art [instruction] because it was important to her that we express ourselves in those ways. One of my favorite childhood memories is going to oil painting lessons on Saturdays with Russel McClanahan, in town. He forced me to look at something for what it was and not what it was supposed to be in my mind. You know, like squinting at an object and seeing its true form, the contrasting points of light and dark and the honest hues, not the color that your mind associates it to be. I think that ability to accurately perceive has served me well over my life, not just with painting or shape and color assignment, but with music, lyrics and intentions too.
Lately, you’ve been using your notoriety as a musician to garner support for worthwhile organizations. What is The Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund all about?
The Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund is something my husband and I had hoped to create for a while. It’s a fund in which we direct contributions, generated from projects that we put out, to address problems that would benefit from financial assistance. I realize that a lot of the things we’re aiding [including Louisville Urban League and Give Black, Give Back] need a lot more than we’re able to give but it’s a good thing to shed light on something, too, that way other people can see the need and pitch in. The fund has a board and is managed by The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, but my husband and I determine how the money we generate — with album sales, fundraisers, percentages of ticket sales and more — should be distributed.
Speaking of creative projects, what was special to you about the process of assembling your latest LP?
I rented an Airbnb in Neon, outside of Whitesburg, and all of the ladies who worked on the album stayed there. We bonded so much over that week of recording, we took turns cooking, we ate together, danced, told stories, discussed ideas for each song. It was one of the best experiences of my musical career. To top it off, Jessica Lea Mayfield produced the record, and if you know me, you know that’s a huge deal. She wrote some of the first songs I ever learned on guitar. She’s one of my favorite artists. So, to have her work on my songs, pick them apart and make suggestions, took them to another realm and made me connect with the album in a whole new way. I am so proud of every song on All of My Love and with this sisterhood of instrumentalists contributing to the foundation, it became so much more than an offering of love songs. It’s an exhibition of every type of love, not just romance, but devotion, protection, affection, sacrifice, understanding, all of it.
The music business seems stranger than ever. In this day and age, and at this point in your career, how do you measure success?
When I have people tell me that my music helped them in some way, or made them stronger than they thought they were in a particularly hard situation, it makes me feel that I am succeeding as a songwriter. I am so blessed to have the job that I do, and as long as I can afford to travel and sing my tunes for people that claim they’re doing them some good, I will continue to do that.