Music Features

Activist and Musician Janet May Releases “Lessons to Learn” Vinyl to Benefit the Women’s Prison Association

Stories can help us heal and grow. Janet May is writing her own healing mantras for our time—and she wants to mail one directly to you.

Pete Voelker

Janet May is a singer-songwriter and activist from New York.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she had been playing a monthly residency at Riker's Island Women's Jail, bringing her music to some of the women incarcerated there. She also frequently plays shows at shelters in NYC as part of the Women's Prison Association's arts initiative.

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Janet May Finds Harmony in Music and Activism

Protest movements, music, and human beings are more similar and interconnected than they are different and alone, and Janet May lives her life in a way that reflects this.

Pete Voelker

Janet May's heartfelt ballads are deeply personal, but she has a decidedly global outlook.

The artist, currently on tour opening for the indie band Palace, has found ways to merge her passion for music with her dedication to activism.

She's involved in many organizing groups around New York City, working for everything from environmental justice to ICE abolition and beyond, constantly appearing at protests, taking part in a residency at Riker's Island, and performing for incarcerated women.

Her intimate music expresses a similar but more private kind of strength, an earnest reflectiveness that stems from a place of interconnectedness, love, and undeniable, breathtaking talent. A former backup singer for the Bombay Bicycle Club and MGMT, May's solo career is catching on after she took some time off to care for her father and move to Los Angeles. She currently has two singles on Spotify, which explore two different sides of strength: "New York, I Am Home" is an aching, wintry ballad about returning to New York and finding strength in solitude, and "Lessons to Learn" is a guitar-driven sparkler of a song about female complexity and resilience. Peppered with gems of wisdom and honesty, and delicately wound together by simple and elegant musical motifs, they're intoxicating songs that blend the best of modern pop with vintage Laurel Canyon-esque Americana.

Over coffee and tea at a Williamsburg bar near the sold-out venue where she was about to perform, Janet and I spoke about the personal and the political, about the importance of personal connection to larger issues, and about our deep love for New York and all the music and people of the city.

EG: How do music and activism connect in your mind?

JM: My impetus to move on things—whether in music or activism—feel similar, in the sense that they're the first things I think about when I wake up. I write about what I care about, and I work on what I care about, and both things really come to fruition when the time is right and when the opportunity and inspiration strikes. I think they're similar in that artists and activists can be pretty integral to shaping change in culture. So I think they belong in the same conversation.

A lot of movements seem to involve music and singing, so they're definitely connected. What actions have you done that stand out in your mind, and what organizations have you partnered with?

JM: About a month ago, I was out front of Cuomo's office with Sane Energy Project and a coalition of people working to shut down a pipeline going into New York Harbor. We brought petitions to the office. I recently marched the Brooklyn Bridge as part of that same movement against that pipeline. That was a great march—there were loads of kids involved, as well as some of the Lakota women who had been at Standing Rock. They're powerful voices in the environmental movements—and to march with them and that they'd come to New York for our water was amazing.

I've also witnessed and been a part of some big actions with Extinction Rebellion, and I've seen them shut down City Hall.

I got into activism because there was part of me that wanted to understand the movement as a whole, including this idea of resisting, and the idea of acknowledging our responsibility to try to at least steer the ship because we're not being represented well.

At first, I was just checking out loads of different groups, just to see how they were organizing, so I've dabbled in a lot. Here in New York, Rise and Resist has been an incredible and constant system of organizing. They were just down in DC, and I played in DC as well, and it meant a lot to me to know that they were all on the floor of the Senate. Also, they organized a Non-March for the Women's March, so disabled individuals and people who couldn't march could also have a rally. I think they're really inclusive and they're all 30-year organizers or more, so I've learned so much from them.

I also work with a group called 8 Ball Community. They're an art-activist collective located in downtown New York. They have an ongoing zine library that is so unique and so special in terms of presenting alternative news and making it accessible in terms of finding information that may not be in the news. We recently did a big Fox News protest when Fox was trying to get money for advertising. We turned up with some glitter signs.

How do you balance music with all this?

For a long time, I was really overwhelmed with how much is going on, and I wouldn't say I'm not now, but I would say I'm learning through my music and am listening to where I feel like I should be activating. I'm trying to narrow down that overwhelming feeling, and focusing on working on what enrages me, inspires me, and moves me.

What motivates you to write a song?

My songs are so personal to me, and I feel like I can't really write about something unless I really know it. I'm married to that idea. Usually, I'll write a song and feel like that's led me somewhere else, so it's always a multi-step process.

I know you performed a Riker's residency—what was that like?

I have a monthly residency at the women's jail on Rikers' Island, so I've been in a few times. My reason for going in… there's multitudes of reasons, and this is something that I've sat with for a long time prior to even being able to get access.

I wrote a song about having a loved one who's incarcerated called "Feet on the Dashboard," and that's about a personal lived experience for me. I felt really isolated through that experience. It's something I felt was stigmatized, and I didn't really understand and was totally happening to us, not just to that individual. While writing that song and living through that experience, I'd seen this panel discussion with Bryan Stevenson, a leader in criminal justice reform and a lawyer and a writer. He said that when you want to learn about an issue or have an effect, the most important thing is your proximity to that issue.

That's where it started for me. When a loved one is incarcerated, you can really feel that border between yourself and that person. I was interested in rectifying some of that experience for myself and providing some healing by being with other people's sisters, mothers, and loved ones. And that's been amazing. I'm always taken aback by how resilient these women are, and hearing their stories—and that they hold space for my story—is an honor.

I like that quote about proximity—it's so important to elevate the voices of the actual people who are people being affected. And music that directly relates to actual emotions always seems to be the strongest. You seem to have connected your music and activism.

For me, the real idea behind activism is understanding your agency and taking ownership over what you can do. It's not glamorous, and it's not about the outside-in; it's totally about the inside-out.

I got into music and activism because I'm so fascinated with people and movement, and live music—to me—is a direct exchange of energy with a larger group. There's magic inside of that, and so I feel like I started to seek out activism because I was curious about how people were moving with one another and sharing concern and bringing that to action.

There seems to be a lot of rhythm involved in both music and strong movements.

I've heard the reason why music is able to move us so much is that the second we're conceived—the second the egg is fertilized—it splits into two cells, and they start beating together, and that's a heartbeat. That will stay with you until you pass, and that's almost like the first thing that we are, is this shared pulsation.

I've read a lot about how sound waves are central to our makeup.

And sound waves are real, as real as this table.

You're on a pretty intense tour. How do you spend your time off?

I just had one afternoon off in New York recently, and I had to ask myself: In just a few hours, who did I want to see?

One of the places I went was the WPA, the Women's Prison Association. It's a shelter for women who experienced incarceration. It's providing resources in terms of materials for creativity, whether facilitated workshops or what have you with the women who are currently living there. The women who run the WPA are incredible. They're the only group providing resources to specifically women who are concerning themselves with female incarceration. Women are definitely preyed upon, and the system fails so many. Proximity is really important for me here in New York.

Apparently, my yoga studio is important to me, too. I practice on my own, and that day it was heaven. I went in and they were steaming a kettle with eucalyptus and burning firewood, and it just reversed whatever was taking over my sinuses on the tour bus. So, New York gives me life.