Photos from corrinnemay.com
It may have been appropriate to sit down to a tea of five loaves and two fishes, but Corrinne May and I settle for kueh lapis and laksa lemak instead.
She is bare-faced, dressed down in a comfy floral shirt, and tucks into tea with the enthusiasm of a former Ghim Moh girl who has spent the bulk of the past 18 years in Los Angeles (“you can’t get good chicken rice there”).
I would tell you we’re instant best friends within minutes of generous laughter and warm conversation, but I strongly suspect she has that effect on everyone who meets her for the first time.
You hear it in her songs – the authenticity, vulnerability and attentiveness of someone who prizes face time over screen time. Listening over speaking. Home cooking over Michelin. Friends over fame.
I have to leave the table for a moment, and when I return, I find the diner from the next table in Corrinne’s arms, in tears. Turns out the young woman is overwhelmed at meeting Corrinne, whose music she and her fiancé had bonded over while they were dating. They are getting married in a few months, she reveals tearfully, and are planning to play one of Corrinne’s songs at their wedding.
Such is the effect her music has on people.
Every one of her concerts here has been sold out, she wrote the 2010 National Day Song for Singapore, reached a high point (literally) when she performed at the momentous SG50 celebrations, inspired 10,000 Catholics at the Joy SG50 thanksgiving mass, sang alongside Jason Mraz, and was invited by the U.S. Department of State to attend the state luncheon hosted by then-U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden to honour Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who was at the White House on an official visit.
And she manages all this with grace, a caramel voice and the approachability of an old school chum.
The 45-year-old Berklee College of Music graduate, award-winning singer-songwriter, wife and mother, tells Salt&Light how God inhabits her music, chats about her long-awaited sixth album, and reveals the best thing she has ever done.
Does every song you write stem from real-life experience?
Yah, I’m quite kay poh, so I’ll note things down in my journal and my songs come out of what I’m going through in my journey, my faith, my reflections.
My journal is where I draw a lot of my inspiration. I write about things I notice. I think it’s the writer part of me. And the music takes it to a different level. (She graduated with a double degree from the National University of Singapore, including an Honours in Literature.)
Writing songs has to do with a lot of “digging”. One of my songwriting teachers described the whole process as digging through a lot of crust and soil and dirt to get to the gold nugget of what you’re trying to convey.
But I find that my songwriting process has changed. In the beginning it was mostly about the melody and how to fit lyrics to the melody.
Nowadays, it’s about: What message am I trying to say? What is it that moves me? What is it that irritates me because it feels so unjust?
Was there ever a question about the genre you would pursue?
I have always been a Christian songwriter. But in the beginning, I used more metaphors to reach out to people who might not know about God’s love yet, but need little ways to engage.
There’s a song in my very first album, Fly Away (2001), called All That I Need. It is about God’s love. But it sounds like it could be the love of, maybe, a boyfriend or husband.
But along the way, God’s given me a little more courage to come out and say: This is actually about Him.
Five Loaves and Two Fishes is the one song that people keep talking about. And I almost didn’t put it in. God’s ways are not our ways.
The turning point was probably Five Loaves and Two Fishes in my Beautiful Seed (2007) album.
When I first played it for Kavin, my husband and music producer, was like, “No way, cannot, cannot. It’s too Christian.”
But that did not sit right with me. The song moved me in ways that I wanted to share. So we decided to include it.
And I’ve had friends who’ve told me that this song accompanied people they know who were in the process of suffering.
It’s the one song that people keep talking about. And it’s the one song that I almost didn’t put in the album.
So that tells me something: That sometimes God’s ways are not our ways. And I just need to discern that a little bit more, pray about it. And not be too stubborn-headed about what I think is good!
How long have you been a believer?
I was born Catholic, so I was a “cradle Catholic”. As a kid you sort of follow your parents to church, but you don’t really own your faith.
It was when I went to college and joined the music ministry that I realised that God is in so many more things than I thought He was.
My eyes were opened to the fact that my faith could be lived out in many more ways than I thought it could.
People here on earth are only here because God has loved them into being.
The whole idea about loving God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind (Matthew 22:37) – it was a mystery before.
It still is a mystery but I’m growing more towards it and seeing that if you look at people, even the people you love, through the Lord’s eyes, it’s easier to love them. Because if you love God, you’ll want to love what He loves.
Someone wrote something about this that I found really refreshing. He said that people here on earth are only here because God has loved them into being.
So to be able to look at someone and say, “God loves them and God would die for them”, that’s teaching me to try to love my husband more, even when he irritates me. Or someone who, maybe, cuts into my lane when I’m driving. Of course it’s hard to put into practice, but … step by step, you know?
What’s the relationship between God and your music?
I think God gave me my music.
When I was young and I could play things by ear, I knew that there was something special I could do. But it took me a while to see that He gave it to me for a purpose.
Music can get to places where sometimes words can’t. Sometimes our hearts are locked; if words don’t get through, sometimes music somehow finds a way.
It’s been true for me, too. Sometimes I hear music that moves me in ways that words don’t.
It’s a form of witnessing.
Yes. It hasn’t always been easy for me to share about my faith through my songs.
I think He’s always challenging me to be courageous with that. And it’s not been easy.
I have to look at my life and say: Okay, what is it that He’s trying to teach me here? Is it something that I’ve been through that I can share even if it’s painful? Is it something maybe someone will benefit from hearing so that they won’t feel so alone?
At the end of our lives, I would love to hear Him say: Well done, good and faithful servant, you’ve used the gifts that I’ve given you for whatever purpose that He meant it for.
You performed an untitled song at the Marina Bay Sands Events Plaza last December. Is it for your next album?
There are a couple of little orphan songs that I have in my notebook!
I call that song The Good Thief, because I was thinking about the mercy that Jesus showed the good thief who was crucified next to him and who said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. (Luke 23:42)
There’s a phrase in the song that goes: Even if the stars should fall around us, even if the mountains crumble to the ground, I won’t forsake you.
I have to consciously tell myself, ‘Don’t think about what’s popular. Think about what would please Him.
It’s 90% there. It’s not “set” yet – it’s still a bit wobbly, like agar agar.
We’re hoping my next album will be out this year. I’m thinking of the church as salt and light: If you have a light, don’t hide it under a bushel basket.
A part of me is like, “How am I supposed to get people to listen to my songs?” And then I have to consciously tell myself, “Don’t think about what’s popular. Think about what would please Him.”
It’s almost like I need to peel back certain layers to see what’s behind and whether I’m willing to be vulnerable for Him.
But the good thing about recording songs is that you just have to surrender them. They’re like children. After a certain point in time, you just have to let them go out into the world and know that your moment of planting seeds is limited now.
What is your most significant personal milestone?
Becoming a mum. Definitely a big one.
We took all those prenatal courses and tried to figure it all out. But once you become a mum, once the baby’s there, you still feel so helpless. You’re like, “What am I supposed to do with this?”
But knowing that you are this little one’s whole world … there is something very humbling about that.
When Claire was a baby, we played Kavin’s music – it helped to soothe her and I remember the strings of the music reverberating around the house, rocking her to sleep gently.
Motherhood is the best thing I’ve done in my life. Beyond the music, beyond being a musician.
Now she’s at that age where she’s asking questions about why this and that is so. And it’s such an honour and a blessing to be able to be that first authority.
We try and explain the way the world works, give her the pros and cons. But always lean towards the side that is sunny and optimistic. To let her know there is hope beyond whatever she is seeing.
Motherhood is the best thing I’ve done in my life. Beyond the music, beyond being a musician.
Motherhood, fatherhood – they are some of the most important roles that we can ever have in this life.