Old Towne Orange is one of the few places in OC that looks as if it were built before 1965. With turn-of-century Craftsman homes, fountains, street banners and building colors other than tan, brown or beige, one half expects to see couples strolling the streets in Edwardian-era clothing or straw hats. It’s a perfect setting to discuss DIY ethics in the digital age with the one-woman empire that is May McDonough. The composer, illustrator, garage punker and inventor and I met for eggs at Watson’s Soda Fountain & Cafe, where we talked about her many sides and the eternal artist struggle of supporting yourself through your art. Why suffer the anxiety when you could have the security of a steady job and knowing where your next paycheck was coming from?
“Well, my brother and I used to joke that we have ‘fictional character syndrome,’” she says. “When we were little kids watching movies, we idealized certain character types and just decided to be that way. We have since made our life choices based off that ideal—choosing what would be most interesting, as opposed to maybe what we should’ve done. And if I look back at my life, I probably made a lot of decisions that way. Or the other reason might just be, you know, I have some screws loose.”
A classically trained vocalist, she started fronting her own bands at age 15 with a nudge from her mom, who taught her guitar and piano and was also a guitarist in an early incarnation of Kim Fowley’s post-Runaways project Venus and the Razorblades. McDonough’s bands, such as Eavesdrop and the May Company, as well as her solo music embraced her love of punk and psychedelia, which she parlayed into building DIY fuzz pedals for musicians around town. She has custom-built guitar-effects pedals for such like-minded musicians as John Dwyer from Thee Oh Sees, Sean Danson of the Gospels, comedian Marc Maron and indie producer Joel Jerome.
“I really love pedals,” McDonough says. “I have a friend who made his own pedals, and he made me one. I don’t remember what he called it, but it was really great. It was a blend between a fuzz pedal and an octave pedal. I fell in love with boutique pedals and decided I wanted to learn [to build them], so I got myself an Electronics for Dummies book. I’ve been into cloning pedals ever since. I try, through word of mouth, to let people know that I make them, and occasionally people will ask me to make them something and pay me for it.”
McDonough uses the same innovative attitude when scoring a film. “I’ve done a lot of horror films, and I’ve invented instruments to get the sounds I want, [with] trips to Home Depot and digging through my trash, too,” she says. “I find film soundtracks freeing because I really like being by myself creating music.”
And how important is an audience to the creative process?
“That’s a weird dichotomy because I have spent my life playing to audiences and trying to release albums,” McDonough says. “I definitely feel like there’s some sort of symbiotic relationship where you feel the need to share what you’re doing. But it can also be a really difficult experience. I’ve played shows to empty rooms, when I just wanted to shoot myself onstage, you know? I was so flooded with anger because I’m playing to no one. ‘What am I doing this for, some sort of experience?’ I’m not sure why we need to do it, but it does seem to be important, and it does seem to be an integral part of the process.”
I often wonder that myself, though performing seems to be a way of communicating that can’t be done any other way.
“Yeah,” McDonough agrees. “It’s, like, this is what I have. This is all I have to offer, to participate in the human race. So, when there’s no one there to receive that, it’s really spirit-breaking.”
Is it safe to say, I asked, that like many of us, you’re consumed by music and art? And does it pay the bills?
“No way in hell,” McDonough responds. “It pays a small portion of my bills—occasionally and if I’m lucky. The world has voted and decided that music is free, and it isn’t a valid form of work, for some reason. So, I don’t get paid much.”