Mae Powell Savors Sensory Joys with “Scratch n Sniff” Premiere

Photo Credit: Grant Cluff

It already appears that summer 2021 will be unlike any that came before, in terms of the surreality of what we’ve experienced in the last year, the joy that it’s finally over, and the underlying anxiety of when the other shoe might drop. With that arises the need for appropriate new tunes, which is where Bay Area singer-songwriter Mae Powell comes in. Today she premieres the video for new track “Scratch n Sniff” on Audiofemme, off her debut album Both Ways Brighter, out August 20 on Park The Van Records.

Produced by Jason Kick (Mild High Club, Sonny and the Sunsets), the sunny acoustic indie folk evokes the feeling of someone like an Ingrid Michaelson, but updated for a more uncertain era, a little more akin to an Indigo De Souza. She wrote it when an ex sent her an unusual care package on a trip to visit her father in North Carolina a few years ago. “We were being pen pals, even though I was only gone for a week and a half, but we were just obsessed with each other,” she explains. “I think some people would probably [think] this is weird, but part of it was a piece of paper, and he had little circles on it and was like, this is my spit, this is my blood, this is my hair, this is a kiss. Literally had put pieces of himself on this paper.” It reminded her of scratch and sniff stickers, and the entirety of their relationship revealed to her the intimacy of analog communication. “Any time we were apart we would send each other postcards and shit, and it just felt like a piece of that person, because you’re like, oh you touched it! So even though it’s been in a bunch of hands since then, it’s still different than a text or a call or whatever.”

The song feels like the honeymoon phase of a relationship, but tempers it with a very current unease and the need to remain present, a certain brand of cautious optimism. “Clinging to the thought of unattachment because I know that everything will change/But clinging to the thought is still clinging to something/The way that works is strange,” Powell sings. She says this was intentional, that the album is as much about anxiety as it is about love.

“Normally when I play shows, I’m like oh my God, I’m putting everybody to sleep, because there’s a lot more slow songs, or I’ll write about anxiety. And sometimes when you’re at a show you’re like, do I want to hear songs about anxiety right now?” she says. “It’s the start of the second half of the record, and I feel like there’s a lot of contemplation and heavy themes and airing out the dirty laundry, and then you flip the record and it’s like okay, we’re happy! It’s chill! You have to have those moments of joy.”

What really sets it apart is the video itself, an animated short from Santa Barbara-based artist Emily Hoang. It’s all smiling celestial bodies and bright colors and flowers; the lens through which Powell observes her environment is somehow cute but not saccharine. The same way you can judge a book by its cover, you can judge Powell’s music by its visual elements, which adds an extra layer of thoughtfulness and intentionality to the whole package. “I don’t want it to just be an auditory experience, the visuals are super important to me,” she explains, “and I feel like I have a vision of rainbows and cute shit.” It coalesces to transport you further into Powell’s world, where the sun shines and mindfulness mutes anxiety about the future. 

Mae Powell plans to continue to experiment with animation on future videos, something she contemplates as she prepares for the album’s August release. After expanding her three-piece band to a five-piece, including a lap steel guitarist and a keyboard player, she’s preparing for her first show in eighteen months this Saturday, June 26 at the Red Museum in Sacramento. Besides that, she’s just easing herself into the new normal and “trying to figure it all out.”

All in all, she’s just excited for people to finally listen to these songs, a compilation of one-off tracks she wrote and refined over a period of years until she felt she had enough material for a cohesive whole. “Now it’s been two and a half years of the recording release process, plus the year since I wrote the songs, so it feels like old news to me, but I forget that most people have not heard these songs,” she says. “Things change when you share them with people, and I’m excited to have them exist in a world that’s not just like, in my head, or whatever.” Based purely off this small taste, it doesn’t seem like that’s such a bad place to be.

Follow Mae Powell on Instagram for ongoing updates.