About the Interview
Dan May spent over a decade as an opera singer. After vocal chord surgery permanently altered his voice, May left the opera stage and joined a dance troupe. Three years and a new hip later he parlayed his unique voice into a successful solo career. That was four years and four albums ago.
Dan took time out of his hectic schedule promoting his most recent album The Long Road Home to chat with .think about his life, times and the re-branding of himself.
.think | 1. How would you describe your current sound / musical style?
Dan May: I call it Americana. It’s kind of a rootsy sound with Rock, Folk, Country and R&B influences with a focus on the melody.
A lot of it I like to think has that “back porch” feel to it. Like a couple of guys were sitting on their back porch playing the guitar and singing. And then eight other guys and a few backup singers wandered up and joined them. Something like that. I think I’ve become more comfortable with that sound from album to album.
I like to think of my songs as little movies, where I get to live vicariously through the characters that I write about. I’m a storyteller, I don’t write from an autobiographical point of view. I’m sure a little “Dan” sneaks into every song, but for the most part my songs are just stories.
.think | 2. You’ve described your career path as having more twists and turns than a corkscrew in a hurricane. Other than your current occupation, what’s been your favorite job and why?
Dan May: After I retired from opera, I danced in a contemporary dance piece for 3 years and that was a lot of fun. I would go up to Montreal to rehearse for a few weeks at a time over the course of a couple years, and ultimately got the opportunity to perform in St. Petersburg, Russia, in a World Premier and that was an experience of a lifetime. But then I blew out my hip and had to have it replaced and it was bye-bye Baryshnikov.
Other than that, my favorite job was cameraman for a cable TV station when I was in high school. That was a blast. I was responsible for reading the paper and getting the weather report to make the map for the newscast. Sometimes I’d forget, and I’d just come in and make it up. I’d put a big High pressure system on the map over Omaha, and the weatherman would say, “That high will be affecting our weather next week.” I’d shake my head and think, “No it won’t.”
As it turns out, I think I was right more often than the National Weather Service. People got wind of me controlling the weather and they’d call and ask, “Hey Dan, the Indians are playing the Yankees tomorrow and Guidry is pitching. Could you make it rain?”
.think | 3. How is your new audience different and how have you adapted your personal brand for this new genre?
Dan May: If you mean how was my opera audience different than the audience that comes to my shows and buys my CDs now, then it’s night and day. I would guess that 95% of the people that come to my shows have never seen an opera and never will. The other 5% are my opera friends and people that like all kinds of music.
And it’s a faithful audience. I’m always amazed how far people will travel to see my shows. We played a show in Toledo last year and people drove from Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis and Philadelphia to see us. I was amazed. I honestly don’t know of anyone I would travel that far to see.
But I’m certainly not complaining. My music now seems to appeal to such a wide-ranging audience it’s surprising. Young, middle-aged, old—my fans run across a lot of demographics, and that’s great. I’ve been fortunate enough to have CD sales in 42 states and 18 countries, mostly as a result of the Internet.
.think | 4. With so many social mediums available what’s worked best for you to connect with your fans? WOM, email, FB, iTunes?
Dan May: I would say MySpace has reached the greatest number of people. I have people from all over the world who’ve bought the CD as a result of MySpace. Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Italy, France, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Indonesia, etc.
I have a good following across the U.S., especially in certain areas. Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska have been good. A good following in Washington, Oregon and California. The Carolinas and Florida have been good too. And of course, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Ohio.
Playing live has been huge in expanding my audience. Whenever I open a show for a national act, I sell a ton of CDs to this audience that has never heard of me before, but somehow in a half an hour or 45 minutes, I’ve managed to win them over. It’s a real validation of the music, and I appreciate it. And then those people become my fans and they turn their friends onto it. And so on, and so on.
For example, I opened a show in Lancaster, Ohio two summers ago for Livingston Taylor, James Taylor’s brother, and ended up selling 165 CDs that night. These people didn’t know me from Boo, but they ate it up. That’s a wonderful feeling. When that happens, I say to myself, “Hey, I might actually have something here!”
.think | 5. Dan May: More widely know as an opera singer or pop singer / songwriter?
Dan May: Pop singer. Although I had a good career in opera that spanned a dozen years, opera is more of a team sport. The soprano and tenor tend to get the accolades, while the bass just shows up and does his job. In sports terms, basses are the offensive lineman of the music world.
I sang roles that gave me an opportunity to shine, and I enjoyed it very much, but this is far more rewarding. I never felt like I was creating when I sang opera. I was singing roles that had been done for a couple hundred years by countless other singers, and it was difficult to put my own mark on it.
.think | 6. What’s been your greatest challenge in developing a following?
Dan May: Well, surprisingly, it has been pretty easy so far. The audience has just heard the music, liked it and come on board. Thank God for the Internet. It would have taken me 50 years of touring to reach the audience I’ve reached in the 4 short years I’ve been doing this. MySpace, iTunes, CD Baby, it’s all worked like a charm.
The most challenging part is the business end. Booking and marketing and PR. I spend way too much time on the business end, but I’ve got to keep the momentum going. I don’t enjoy that, but the creative part I love. Writing, recording, performing—I love it. Every single minute. Well almost every minute. Having a band can be tough. Personalities, egos, etc. And firing people sucks. But it’s all part of the business.
.think | 7. Have you met Mike Rowe, former opera singer turned Ford spokesperson and host of Discover Channel’s Dirty Jobs?
Dan May: Never met Mike, but I’ve seen his show and liked it. I think he sang in the Chorus for the Baltimore Opera. I think we probably have some of the same friends.
.think | 8. From the music industry, who’s been the most positive influence on your career? Performer, agent, mentor?
Dan May: I’ve had so many influences along the way, and I love the work of so many songwriters, it’s hard to say. But as an overall influence on my career, it was probably my first producer, Anthony Newett. He was the first one to take the ideas I had in my head and put them out there for an audience to hear.
When we finished my first CD, we sent it to WXPN, the big station here in Philly and they played it the next day. I was like, “Wow, that was easy.” Well, it turns out, it’s not easy, it was just good, and that was largely due to the work of Anthony Newett.
.think | 9. What advice do you have for anyone reinventing themselves career-wise?
Dan May: I would say go for it. But don’t go half-assed. You’ve got to put everything you have into it. You can’t be lazy, and no one is going to do it for you. Don’t be afraid to take chances or to blow your own horn.
It’s imperative that you wear a number of hats in today’s market regardless of what it is you’re doing. Also, don’t try to force a square peg into a round hole. Sometimes you just have to let things take the direction they take and not try to steer it. Sometimes you can only go in the right way if you take your hands off the wheel.
.think | 9-1/2. Do you miss wearing elaborate costumes and make-up on stage?
Dan May: I sure do miss the wigs. Anyone who has seen my head will know why. But I never have a bad hair day. I do miss the spectacle of opera, the grandeur, the big costumes and the elaborate sets. There’s nothing quite as exciting as standing backstage waiting for the curtain to go up before the opera, as the orchestra is playing the Overture. And then the curtain flies and you’re on. It’s a rush to say the least.
But this is where I was supposed to be all along, and I’m so lucky to be here.
Images: Lisa Schaffer