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May Rio
Photography Rob Blair

May Rio is making heartfelt DIY pop for New York’s cool kids

We catch up with the former indie star to talk going solo, throwing herself into live shows, and her sophomore album French Bath

Few musicians open with a story as charming and organic as May Rio, who tells me that she started making music when she stumbled into a pawn shop in Rhode Island, bought a Yamaha acoustic guitar, and challenged herself to write a song just to see if she could. “I was looking for something to do, and then I managed to do it. It was just three chords, but it felt so good.”

Raised in Texas and now based in Brooklyn, New York, May was painting prior to writing that first song. She explains that she grew up approaching her art as a perfectionist, putting a lot of pressure on herself and feeling it from others, which caused her to lose the joy of creating. Focused on enjoying the process rather than fixating on the outcome, May has found making music to be an entirely different experience. After spending a few years singing and playing guitar in the indie rock band Poppies, May is throwing herself into what she describes as a performance bootcamp as a solo artist. “What has been so cool about this project is just being free to not be strategic. I just kind of like, fucking do it.”

Her sophomore album French Bath, co-produced by Tony or Tony, is a lustful, lighthearted pop record that uses moody guitar riffs and electric drums to bring May’s ethereal vocals into sharp focus. Drawing on the emotional punch of her indie rock background, the album is, in her words, “matured and reflective, but still playful. I really think that all of the best art has humour in it”. True to form, “Aspartame” takes you through the turmoil of a friend break-up, while “Horny Puke Man” pokes fun at a night out gone wrong. French Bath as a whole has a sincere femininity coursing through it, allowing itself to indulge in a full emotional range, but anchored by May’s effervescent, engaging persona. 

Below we talk about her journey going solo, playing live, and her heavily stylised and romantic music video for “Aspartame”. 

How long have you been making music?

May Rio: It was around the end of college when I kind of discovered making music. I grew up painting, that was really my thing. I had this idea that painting was what I was supposed to be doing, and I was getting a lot of praise along the way. I’m a perfectionist. I put a lot of pressure on myself and I kind of lost the joy of it as a result. When I was a little kid, I would draw all the fucking time and it wasn’t because I was wanting to do anything with it. I just enjoyed the experience of it. 

Prior to this project, you were the vocalist in a band called Poppies. What made you decide to go solo? 

May Rio: I left the band not necessarily in pursuit of going solo. It was the first band I’d ever been in. I think it took me a lot to leave and I really cared about it a lot. It took me a really long time to understand that what I just thought of as normal was actually not. I realised there were some issues that were not up to me to fix. It was very heavy. But when I started the solo project it felt very light and funny and I felt happy again. 

Where does the name French Bath come from?

May Rio: It sounds very elegant and kind of dark, but a French bath is when you smell and should just take a shower but instead you just cover it up with perfume. I think it’s funny and also a little bit gross, and I like the layered meaning where it doesn’t line up with what the phrase sounds like it would be.

Can you talk me through your inspirations for this album?

May Rio: There are some songs that are deeply personal and extracted from my lived experiences. This album was reflective and sort of self-soothing. A lot of these songs were written as balm for myself because leaving the band was actually a very hard thing to do. But other songs are goofier... “Cursed Fortuna” was inspired by one of my favourite books in high school called Confederacy of Dunces

I read that “Aspartame” was a song about losing a friend and intentionally stepping away from someone. Tell me about your experience with that?

May Rio: Friendships are really important to me. I’m definitely not going through a friend breakup unless it feels like it has to happen. It seemed like during the pandemic there was this overall shift towards examining friendships and placing more importance on relationships that are not romantic. It’s almost like for the first time friendship breakups were being talked about.

What music did you listen to growing up? 

May Rio: Growing up it was mainly my Dad playing me a lot of 50s oldies, classics and one hit wonders. Very melodic, tender and a little bit goofy. I still listen to shit like that all the time. Then in middle school, I got into raw classic rock like The Beatles, The Stones and The Who. Then it became more like alternative punk, the Pixies, Television... In the last couple of years, I started listening to really highly-produced pop a lot more. Lately, I’ve been really into SZA and also Doja Cat.

What’s your favourite conspiracy theory right now?

May Rio: I don’t fuck with conspiracy theories.

Who are you listening to right now?

May Rio: Contour and Melody English.

French Bath is out June 16 

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