Nathan May took up drumming at an age when most kids are still barely in control of their limbs.
“It was when I was three years old,” says the musician, who grew up in the Northern Territory and is descended from the Arabana, Yawuru and Marridjabin clans.
“I just loved it. That was pretty much it – from then, I listened to music all the time. It was just music, music, music.”
His first live show was at four, drumming with his uncle’s cover band in Darwin. May still remembers being nervous and excited before the show and gives a cool assessment of his performance.
“It wasn’t the greatest, but I did manage to just keep time,” he says with a laugh.
It’s been more than two decades since that first on-stage experience, and the magic hidden in music that first captured May’s attention still holds him fast. Almost everything else about his musical life, though, has changed.
After a brief teenage period spent writing rap music – with verses mostly “about love, of course”– May added the guitar to his instrumental repertoire, learning from videos on YouTube. He also moved south, shifting to Adelaide to study at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) in 2012.
It was an often-difficult time of his life.
“There was a lot of racism and people judging me from the colour of my skin when I was younger,” he says. “And I had to deal with that.”
At the same time, the new city brought new opportunities. Encouraged by teachers and peers at CASM to develop his fledgling skills as a songwriter, May started performing original material. He quickly discovered a platform that would become central in his career.
“It was 2014 when I first played at Fringe,” says May. “I played under the rotunda in the Garden [of Unearthly Delights] with a friend of mine. I probably would have had a catalogue of about four original songs, and I think he had about two.”
Despite the small repertoire, those early gigs attracted a strong response.
“I just remember people coming up and being like, ‘Keep writing, we love it, we love what you’re doing’. I think that was a big confidence booster.”
As May’s body of work grew, his performance opportunities kept pace. His songwriting was evolving, moving on from a youthful focus on love and the self to cover broader storytelling horizons – from his experiences of racism to reflections on family.
“My grandmother and her story, and my father’s story, my mother’s story – I can voice them because I’m a part of that journey as well,” says May.
His first EP – Reflections – was launched in 2016 at the Fringe, triggering a series of spin-off opportunities. In the following few years, while much of May’s time was absorbed in his work with schools mentoring Indigenous kids through music programs, the chance to play Desert Fringe and in venues like the Fringe Club kept him connected to his personal musical practice.
In 2020, just before COVID struck, May performed his biggest Fringe show yet. An artist grant from the organisation supported him to stage Lost in The Dream. Performed at Tandanya, the show was built around a suite of new material destined to form the backbone of May’s forthcoming debut album.
With the help of additional funding, those early versions of the songs have opened the door to some of the most satisfying creative moments of his life.
“I’m now working with people that I’ve really wanted to work with for a number of years now,” he says.
“I’ve been going to Sydney to write some songs with a few people – Kevin Bennett and a guy by the name of Colin Buchanan who’s written a lot with Lee Kernaghan, and Luke O’Shea. I went over and wrote three awesome songs with these guys… I put my heart and soul into these songs and these guys taught me a lot.
“They are so generous and they… are all so heavily invested in music. I love to sit at home with a cup of tea and just listen to songs and think about how people wrote their songs, and then I get to Sydney, and they all want to do the same thing.”
May’s first album is scheduled for release in 2022. It is going to be a big year for the artist. Alongside releasing the music made in collaboration with some of his idols, he will likely again be working in schools and with ActNow theatre – delivering programs for Aboriginal actors and communities.
He’s also hopeful funding will come through to support a new batch of regional touring with Adelaide Fringe – continuing the symmetry between opportunities at the festival and his musical milestones.
The Business of Art is an InReview series about the development of performing arts careers and opportunities from Adelaide. The series has been produced with the support of Adelaide Fringe.
Read more of the series here.