Premiere: Mae Powell’s ‘Catalyst’

The Bay Area singer gets personal on the latest single from her forthcoming album, ‘Both Ways Brighter.’

For a brief two minutes, singer-songwriter Mae Powell’s new single “Catalyst” — and its accompanying music video — made me feel like I was her best friend, out on a jaunt around the city on a sacred day off. We visited all her favorite haunts: The Conservatory of Flowers, the beach, Golden Gate Park, and I listened to all her straight-from-the-diary introspections.

“Catalyst,” one of 14 tracks on Powell’s forthcoming full-length, Both Ways Brighter, draws from the halcyon days of twee indie — think the Juno soundtrack — but with modern sensibilities. Her use of synths, omnichord, and a drum machine, unvarnished though they may be, differentiate her from singer-plus-instrument artists like the Moldy Peaches. But her conversational, almost sprechgesang way of delivering melodies is clearly borrowed from the early-aughts duo.

As a singer, however, Powell couldn’t be further from the staccato chirps of the Peaches’ Kimya Dawson. Her suave, slightly twangy vocals feel like a soak in a hot tub with a glass of Cabernet — at once bubbly and soothing. The music video, too, with its pastel landscapes and meandering production, seems to exist beneath a wine-drunk veneer.

 Most remarkable is Powell’s use of quotidian moments to grapple with existential questions. “How come it’s so much easier to say sorry to a stranger on the bus / than it is to say sorry when I’m irrationally mad at you?” she asks, succinctly summing up the way pride can derail a relationship. And though the lyrics depict hyper-specific experiences — drinking wine alone and getting scared by Black Mirror — the emotions Powell muses on are universal.

 The intimacy Powell cultivates is surely a product of her raw authenticity, not only in her lyrics, but in the way she takes a breath when she needs to, how she adjusts the strap of her tank top because that’s what humans do when their shirts fall down. These moments of fallibility are endearing, as if Powell is letting you and only you in on the huge secret that she’s human too.

Both Ways Brighter drops Aug. 20 on Park the Van. You can catch Mae Powell live, Aug. 21 at the Rickshaw Stop with support from Tino Drima and James Wavey

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