Just Like Judy
By Shana Naomi Krochmal
Photo by Brent Kyle
In the five years I’ve been seeing Audra Mae play her raspy, rollicking brand of rock ’n’ roll around Los Angeles, her faithful crowd of followers has changed a bit.
Having settled in California almost a decade ago, the Oklahoma native has never neatly fit into one musical genre. During her day job — more of a midnight-to-dawn, musician’s hours kind of job — she’s written maybe 100 songs a year for the last eight years. Among them are a couple of massive pop hits, including a track from the 2009 multiplatinum debut of Britain’s Got Talent runner-up Susan Boyle.
But then there are the songs she saves for herself. “They’re a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” Mae says when I call her in Nashville during a stop on a Southern tour. “I would call it... gumbo. The roux, the gravy, the thing that gets cooked down — like the reduction — is basically pop with balls.”
Though her 2010 debut, The Happiest Lamb, was put out by SideOneDummy, a Southern California indie punk label, its brokenhearted ballads better resemble Allison Krauss or imported nouveau bluegrass acts like Mumford & Sons. (One song, “Sullivan’s Letter,” is based on a letter written by a Civil War soldier.)
She covered Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” on an episode of FX’s biker drama, Sons of Anarchy, and in 2012 released the boot-stomping, brassy Audra Mae & the Almighty Sound. She went out on the road with Tennessee troubadour Cory Branan, added some welcome estrogen to Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tour, and did a series of residencies and appearances at a cabaret-style showcase at the Rockwell, a theater space adjacent to a Silverlake gay bar.
Somewhere along that wandering way, she picked up a devoted queer base, if a show I saw last summer at the Troubadour was any indication — I was elbowed out of the way twice by 20-something boys and their boyfriends as they rushed the tiny stage.
Her blend of tender, vulnerable, confessional lyrics and defiant attitude is reminiscent of divas from another era, from Dolly Parton to Linda Ronstadt. “It’s not simple, pretty-girl stuff,” she says. “And it’s also not victim–torch-singer stuff. I don’t want to be the chick that sings all the time about the guy that did her wrong, because all that’s doing is reinforcing that most guys suck. And that’s bullshit. There’s so many great guys, or great girls, or great people for you. I have to figure out how to spread that message.”
Maybe it runs in the family — her great-great-aunt is Judy Garland. “When people find that out, they’re like, ‘Oh, that makes sense,’ ” Mae says. “When I had a smart mouth, my mom would say, ‘You’re just like Judy — a smart ass.’ And when I would do really well on stage, my grandfather would tell me, ‘I haven’t seen that since I saw Judy do her thing.’ ”
For a long time, she played down the connection. “It’s far enough removed that people always hope I’m a little more related than I am. I was afraid people would think I was trying to use some bullshit to get somewhere, and I have a lot of pride. But now I feel like I’ve earned it.”
That’s a bit of down-home modesty, too. Two of her songs appeared on Celine Dion’s Loved Me Back to Life (“Breakaway” and “Somebody Loves Somebody”) and one showed up on Swedish DJ Avicii’s True. (Her vocals also anchor three tracks, including the haunting “Addicted to You.”) “We were up all night, and we wrote a track, and he let me play my kazoo on it, so I thought he was the coolest thing ever,” she says. “But I didn’t know who he was.”
For her third album, which she started recording last month, “I got really interested in the art of recording something and not making it sound live,” she says. “I want it to sound like a computer did it, even if it’s a rock ’n’ roll guitar hit. It’s got to have that extra bit of imagination that you can only get through technology. I was such a snob for so long about what was real music or what was a real instrument that I just want to go in a whole different direction now.”
“I can’t preach to the choir,” she says. “I have to change.”
WATCH Avicii's "Addicted to You" ft. Audra Mae