I don’t wanna deny my heart its chance to feel
I don’t wanna deny my soul something real
These lyrics tell the story of a young woman looking for something in the world that might satisfy her.
Their author and singer, Kristen May, knew in her teenage years more than a decade ago at Blue Springs High School that music was more than just her hobby.
It was her passion, the way she would one day make a living.
Kristen, a 2001 Blue Springs High graduate, led a nationally known band with three male bandmates, including one who would become her husband, for most of the last 10 years.
Now, six months before her 30th birthday, she’s determined to put out her best work to date – and hopefully share it with an international audience – all while doing the one thing that seems impossible in the entertainment industry these days: remaining true to herself.
IGNITING THE SPARK
From playing soccer to making music
Kristen May grew up combining the arts with athleticism by taking dance lessons and playing in soccer leagues.
“When I was a kid, I had so much energy,” says Kristen, who grew up the middle child with two brothers. Her family moved to Blue Springs when Kristen was in middle school. “I think parents probably, at first, just put me in (soccer) to kind of run my energy out.”
Like athletics, music started early for Kristen. She remembers browsing her parents’ vinyl collection. Her father, Greg, played tunes of the ’80s through vintage speakers and a record player. He also played the drums and guitar while Kristen’s mother, Beth, sang.
“There was something so sacred about the rows of vinyl and boxes of tapes my family listened to constantly,” Kristen writes on her Tumblr biography. “We were always playing music around the house.”
Back and forth from dance or choir rehearsals, Kristen and her mother would sing together. Beth also remembers her daughter singing in the shower and singing in front of the mirror, using a hairbrush as a microphone.
“I just thought everyone did something musically,” Kristen says, laughing.
Everything changed for Kristen at age 17 when Greg gave his daughter a guitar. Many of her friends were playing in bands, and Kristen, inspired at that time by the guitar-heavy sounds of grunge music, wanted a part of that experience, too.
“A spark was ignited inside of me,” Kristen says. “I just learned a couple of chords from (my dad), and then started to write my own music.”
But then came a difficult decision.
Kristen had gone out for the Blue Springs High musical her junior year but received just a small singing role. But in her senior year, she auditioned for “Guys and Dolls” and landed the role of nightclub singer Adelaide, one of the lead characters.
Page 2 of 6 - “It was amazing. It was so thrilling to be up on stage in that way,” Kristen says. “I was writing music then, too, so I was kind of like, ‘Man, I can’t think of anything else I want to do with my life than this.’
“When it came time to apply for colleges, all I could think about was music.”
In her senior year, the all-around talented soccer player who had done well as a goal scorer and midfielder had to quit the sport so she could focus on “Guys and Dolls.”
It wasn’t easy, Kristen says, as she loved the camaraderie of sports and Blue Springs High School soccer coach Doug McLagan.
“But, you know, I just felt like there was something telling me that music was what I was supposed to do with my life,” Kristen says.
Or, instead of going to college, Kristen says she thought about just moving to New York or to Los Angeles, “and doing it myself, trying it without college.”
She didn’t have time to get scared about making a living out of her passion for music.
“I was just excited. I was just ready for what was next,” Kristen says. “High school was amazing ... but I was just so ready to go try something new.”
FORMING A BAND AND FALLING IN LOVE
After graduating in 2001, Kristen attended one year at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., where she studied classical voice techniques and music business.
The experience was good, Kristen says, but she also felt confined with the music theory studies and schoolwork. “For me, it was all about the music I was writing,” she says.
Kristen moved back to the Kansas City area, itching to find a band to join so she could try out her own material. She knew only of her brothers, Rob and Pat, and a familiar face from the past would soon join as second guitarist.
Kristen had met Brian in passing because Kristen’s older brother, Rob, and Brian used to jam together. Kristen also was on the dance team at Blue Springs High, and she occasionally saw Brian since he played trumpet in the Golden Regiment Marching Band.
Kristen and Brian had a crush on each other in high school without the other one knowing about it, but they didn’t date then.
“When he came back into my life, I was pretty blown away,” Kristen says. “It was the first time that I really felt connected to someone without really knowing them – it’s kind of hard to explain.”
She laughs. “I was never one to put myself out there, but with Brian, I put myself out there – I couldn’t help it.”
Page 3 of 6 - The couple began dating and formed their band around the same time.
That group, known as Red Authentic, marked Kristen’s first experience with a four-piece band. Red Authentic played several rock clubs in Kansas City, as well as at Blue Springs Fall Fun Festival and at Lake Tapawingo Clubhouse.
The band disintegrated after Kristen’s brothers expressed that they only wanted to play music as a hobby. Brian Little’s brother, Drew, and Jason Douglas – also Blue Springs High School graduates – joined “and just picked up right where Red Authentic left off,” Kristen says.
Known as Veda, the newly reorganized musicians recorded a six-song EP, “This Broken City,” in the summer of 2004, using leftover studio time that Red Authentic had secured.
A year later, Veda released its first full-length album, “The Weight of an Empty Room,” on the Kansas City-based label Second Nature Recordings. (The band changed its name in 2006 because of a dispute with Vaeda, another group whose name was pronounced the same.)
And then began touring across the United States.
Following the Kansas City circuit, Vedera’s manager got the group gigs throughout California and soon secured a booking agent.
“Oh my goodness,” Kristen says, laughing, of her first tour experience. “It was a blast. It was crazy, but I’m so grateful that I’m not a super prissy girl because I never would have made it.”
With a van and a trailer, the band either slept in the van after a gig ended – or they would ask random show attendees if they could stay at their place for the night, “which I would never do in a million years now,” Kristen says, smiling. “Overall, people were really cool and were just genuinely interested in our music and wanted to put us up in their places.”
A BALANCING ACT
An artist remains true to herself while balancing the personal and professional aspects of her music
Vedera, a pop-rock group, toured with nationally known commercial acts like The Fray, Augustana and Jason Mraz and had its music showcased on the popular MTV reality show “The Hills.” “Stages,” the band’s second full-length album and its first through the major record label, Epic Records, was Vedera’s “music-business boot-camp album.”
“It was very different from when we did everything grassroots, by ourselves,” Kristen says. “I don’t like waiting for someone at the label to decide when I need to do something. I don’t even really like the label having any input on what I do, but I understand to get my music out there to a broader audience, you’ve got to have a relationship in that way.”
When Vedera started, Kristen says she didn’t care much whether their music would sell or gain popularity among listeners. But when the group signed to Epic Records, that’s when Vedera was bombarded with pressure on sales charts, appealing to different demographics – and what Kristen should wear.
Page 4 of 6 - “For me, there’s definitely an excitement in the experience of signing to a major label and doing all of these things for the first time,” Kristen says. “I think the balance I need to find is making sure that I kind of keep myself in all of that, that I don’t get lost in the excitement of the experience.”
Because their personal and professional lives intertwined, Kristen says rough moments took place in she and Brian’s relationship – and they still occur, such as when one doesn’t agree with the other’s opinion of the sound of a guitar or the melody of a song.
“That’s just always going to be there, I think,” Kristen says, “but we’ve really learned how to handle it better and how to take it for what it is and not take it personally.”
Kristen and Brian, now married for five years, also struggled to find a balance in work and their relationship. Although they were together all the time while touring, the relationship often took the back burner because every moment was focused on playing live or doing a radio interview.
“It’s kind of a push and pull for both of us because we’re so invested in the music,” Brian says. “...Sometimes, the relationship, I wouldn’t say necessarily suffers, but we don’t focus on it as much because we’re both 100 percent in the music.”
Even with her determination, three experiences throughout the past eight years stand out in Kristen’s mind as moments she wanted to give up.
While on tour in Detroit, Vedera’s van and trailer, along with instruments, clothes and Brian’s first engagement ring for Kristen, all were stolen. Though Vedera continued on the tour, Kristen says she felt “stripped” and “a little bit out of her element.”
“But looking back, I would definitely say that made me feel stronger,” she says.
Driving home from another tour, Vedera was in a bad car crash after skidding on some black ice.
The first two shook Kristen up, she says, but they didn’t break her passion for music.
Things got more difficult when Vedera and Epic Records had their struggles. The band had experienced three different presidents at the label. Vedera had started recording “Stages” in October 2007, an album that wasn’t released until two years later.
“We worked our first single, and we were kind of promised things that we thought were going to happen, and then they didn’t happen,” Kristen says. “So, when it was time to release our second single, (the label) was kind of over it.”
Vedera ultimately left Epic Records, feeling a bit shunned.
“We tried our hardest. There wasn’t anything more we could have done,” she says of herself and her bandmates. “I think there was just, like, some deep emotional damage there that I didn’t realize, just because I didn’t realize all these expectations I had set for myself in this process. I got further and further away from my passion, which was making music and going on the road and sleeping in a van and not caring about the next day.
Page 5 of 6 - “Somehow, along the way, I had lost that.”
Kristen remains motivated, though, says her Chicago-based manager Steve Smith, who also managed Vedera for about five years. She is constantly pushing herself and others to reach that goal in their music-making, “and always in a fun and a creative way,” Smith says.
ON HER OWN
Not far from 30, a solo musician aims to make her own album – and stay true to her values
Vedera is on hiatus.
After seven years together, the members have different goals, so Kristen is moving forward on a new electronic-pop album with Brian.
Most days, she works on her songs, whether it’s jotting something into her iPhone, writing in her journals or listening back to some recordings she’s made, as well as working part-time at Hi-Hat Coffee in Westwood Hills, Kan. She and Brian have a makeshift recording studio with several computers and instruments in the basement of their West Plaza apartment in Kansas City.
Kristen and Brian traveled to Los Angeles recently, where they worked with a producer from Warner Bros. That relationship is in the beginning stages, Kristen says, as the couple is determining whether they’d like him to produce their new project.
From Kansas City, they send the producer homegrown recordings of their work. Kristen isn’t officially signed for her solo album, but she’s released some new demos “for fun” on SoundCloud, an online audio site that allows musicians to collaborate, promote and distribute their material.
Whether she’s signed to a label or it’s self-produced, Kristen says her goal is to release an album by the end of 2012.
Kristen wants to be the headlining act, leading a tour where fans are coming out to just see Kristen and her accompanying musicians. She wants to tour overseas.
Kristen lowers her voice to nearly a whisper. “Going and winning a Grammy wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.”
But don’t expect her to change her values or who she is in order to make it big.
Kristen’s mother, Beth, says her daughter’s career is important to her, but she also believes in marriage and family. By staying true to herself, Kristen sets a good example for young girls, Beth says.
For example, at the end of Vedera’s “Satisfy” music video, industry officials suggested that Kristen not have much clothing on as she entered the ocean. Kristen, her mother says, refused and left on her bathing suit and a tank top.
“I’m just so glad that she’s out there, and that it’s not all about how much skin you show and sex. It can be about something good,” Beth says. “I’m just really proud of her because she has all of her priorities in the right place. I don’t ever worry about her. I know she’s going to make the right decisions and that she’s going to set the right example.”
Page 6 of 6 - Some female musicians use their looks or other gimmicks to sell the product, Brian says.
“She’s doing this because this is absolutely what she was born to do,” Brian says.
It would’ve been an easier route to success, he says, to have Kristen dress sexier, “but that’s not our way of doing things. That’s not the way we would like to have things perceived, and it cheapens the music a little bit when you do that, unfortunately.”
Smith, who’s been a manager for 14 years, agrees.
“She’s never compromised herself as a person. Kristen being Kristen is a great role model,” Smith says. “In this business, people are willing to change their looks and value system – she decided early on that she wasn’t going to compromise, and I think that’ll pay off huge for her in the end.”
Two years ago, worn down, Kristen asked herself, “Do I have it in me to keep doing this?”
But as Kristen approaches turning 30 on Sept. 28, she feels a “rekindling in her spirit,” a sense of not feeling any older than she did at 21.
“I set goals for myself, but I set loose goals, because I don’t ever want to not enjoy the ride. I try to keep a healthy perspective of what I’m doing because I don’t want to lose my priorities. I really just want to be able to make art for a living.
“For me, it’s just so much about the experience. I just feel like so much of living is the experience and putting yourself out there. My job kind of allows me to put my money where my mouth is. I just want to keep creating, and whatever that means, I just want to keep pushing forward. As much as it gets hard, it’s what I love the most.”