On a recent Friday afternoon, Kristen May was in a tour bus headed toward Philadelphia. Her band, Flyleaf, was in the middle of a 36-day, 29-show tour that will stop Friday in Lawrence.
Two years ago, May was a singer and songwriter without a band, contemplating the next step in her music career. These days, she is right where she wants to be, though it’s a place she’d never dreamed of.
“I really love doing this,” May said with the certainty of someone who had to endure loss to appreciate what she really loves.
Vedera fades out
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When the phone call came, May was living in Kansas City with her husband and former bandmate, Brian Little, working at a coffee shop and writing songs on the side. Their band, Vedera, had broken up a year earlier, four years after signing a major-label deal with Epic Records.
Vedera flirted with mainstream success. In October 2009, the band released “Stages,” its Epic debut, which peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s “Heatseekers” chart. The single “Satisfy” broke the Top 40 on the adult-pop songs chart.
The group appeared on the “Ellen” show. It placed songs on MTV’s pseudo-reality show “The Hills.” And the band toured doggedly, scoring coveted opening slots for successful bands like the Fray.
But changes at the band’s label and in the music industry slowed the momentum. A follow-up album never got recorded, and in mid-2011, the band disbanded. May took a break.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” she said. “I continued to write songs. I thought about doing some solo stuff. I was working at a coffee shop, flying to Nashville and New York to do some co-writing. I was not thinking about joining a band. Not for a while.”
But in November 2012, her manager called her. A band was looking for a lead singer.
“He asked me if I wanted to audition to go out with Flyleaf as a replacement singer till they figured out their next move,” she said.
Flyleaf is a hard rock band from Texas. It formed in 2002 and put singles on the mainstream rock, Christian pop and Christian metal charts. Its first album, “Flyleaf,” released in 2005, has gone platinum. In October 2012, Flyleaf released its third album, “New Horizons.”
As the band was planning its tour, founding singer Lacey Sturm announced she was leaving to start a family. At first, her bandmates weren’t certain what was next. Then May was called to fill in.
“I don’t remember discussing ending Flyleaf,” said guitarist Sameer Bhattacharya. “If it did come up it was just for a split second. It was more like, ‘I still believe in this. I’m still in it. Are you?’”
“There was doubt, of course,” said bassist Pat Seals. “But James (Culpepper), our drummer, really led the cause to try to find someone else. Eventually everyone’s efforts and faith began to pay off when we crossed paths with Kristen.”
Unlike Vedera, which was a pop band, Flyleaf is a heavy rock band and one that May wasn’t too familiar with.
“I’d heard some of their big singles and I remember seeing their concert posters when Vedera was on the road,” she said. “But at that time I wasn’t really listening to a lot of rock music.”
But she decided to give it a go, even if it was only temporary.
“I said I’d go out and meet with the guys to see if it might work for a couple of shows,” she said. “I figured I’d help out till they found someone else.”
Immediately, the chemistry was good.
“We first met Kristen at a sushi restaurant the night before rehearsals,” Bhattacharya said. “She was immediately family. The next afternoon when we got into the practice room it was game over from the first note. Kristen blew us away.”
“During the very first song of the audition (it) felt like Kristen was the appropriate candidate before we had played through the final chorus,” Seals said.
May felt the same way.
“It was exhilarating,” she said. “I hadn’t realized how much I missed live performing. It all felt so natural.”
Before she signed on to make it permanent, however, she wanted to do more than just sing.
“I said, ‘Let’s write music together and see what happens,’” she said.
A changing vocal style
No band loses its founding lead singer after 10 years without suffering some consequences.
“There were and are naysayers, but many have converted from this persuasion after actually seeing Flyleaf with Kristen,” Seals said.
For May, although the chemistry in the band was good, the transition with the fans was tough at first.
“That was the hardest thing about joining the band,” she said. “I don’t know why I didn’t intellectualize it before. All those fans she (Sturm) had harvested were committed to her story. Obviously, it was going to take time for them to see someone new in the spotlight. But I was surprised by the backlash online at first.”
May also had to transition into a new style of singing.
“The music I’d been writing was more subdued,” she said. “I knew I needed to step up my voice to compete with the levels of guitar and drums in a rock band. You can’t play these high-intensity, emotional songs without getting more into it and singing out. But I knew I had it in me.”
It didn’t take long for her to convince her bandmates.
“I’ve met very few singers who have and can control that kind of vocal agility,” Bhattacharya said. “I know many singers that have amazing voices but don’t know how to control them. It’s almost like having a Ferrari, but every time you get into high gear you wreck it. Kristen gets into high gear and has complete control. It’s impressive.”
A new album
On Sept. 16, Flyleaf released “Between the Stars,” its fourth album but its first with May as one of its songwriters. She was comfortable singing older Flyleaf songs, May said, but she knew if this was going to be a permanent gig, she needed to start telling her own stories.
“I needed something I could really put my heart into,” she said. “I really want people to know who I am and to connect with me, hear my story and love it.”
The collaborations with Seals and Bhattacharya were nearly seamless.
“Kristen knows how to use melodies to evoke a certain emotion while making that melody stick in your brain so that you’re humming it for the rest of the week,” Bhattacharya said. “She is a beautiful lyricist, as well. Some of the stuff she’s written in Flyleaf has become my favorite.”
She has navigated the other transition as well: the live shows. In Vedera, May was often strumming a guitar or playing keyboards. In Flyleaf, her instrumental duties are limited. So she is much more demonstrative and physical as the lead singer whose only prop is a microphone.
“This band more than anything has gotten me out of my shell,” she said. “I want everyone in the place to be into it and feel like we’ve put it all out on stage.”
Three years after Vedera broke up, May said, she still thinks about her former band. But for now, she feels like she is in the right place.
“Parts of it I do miss,” she said. “It’s hard not to think about what I’d done the past eight years. But I’m focused on Flyleaf. I really enjoy this. It feels like this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Flyleaf performs Friday night at the Granada, 1020 Massachusetts St. in Lawrence. Lullwater and Ryan White open starting at 8 p.m. Tickets to the all-ages show are $20.