When Oklahoma-bred songwriter Audra Mae moved to Hollywood a few years ago, this grandniece of Judy Garland made two brilliant decisions. She dropped her awkward surname, Butts, and signed with a prominent publishing company instead of angling for a label deal. The contract eventually came. Her meticulously-crafted alt-country debut “The Happiest Lamb” is out, on the traditionally-punk imprint Side One Dummy. But it didn’t happen before some remarkable career milestones.
Writing for a publishing company really panned out for you, right? Absolutely. Labels weren’t doing artist development deals anymore, so I guess some publishing companies decided, “We’ll do artist development.” So I went through a few years where, at the end of every year, they were going, “We’ve given you money, but we haven’t gotten anything back yet. We want to see some growth.” But it takes somebody a long time to find their voice.
What was your first breakthrough success? Probably the “Forever Young” cover that I did for “Sons of Anarchy.” Then I got other great little placements along the way, for a Canadian artist, then a Japanese artist, even a Dutch “X-Factor” winner. One girl even covered one of my songs in Mandarin, which was so badass.
How did you land your song “Who I Was Born to Be” on Susan Boyle’s debut? That’s the only song I set out to write for one artist that the artist actually picked up — the others had been songs of my own that people liked and wanted to sing. The Swedish songwriters Play Production contacted me, and they had this song that was chords and a melody, but no words, and they said it was for Susan Boyle. So we just brainstormed, knowing that it needed to be a mature anthem for her, something she could identify with.
Was it weird hearing her sing your lyrics? I thought she did such a good job! There were a couple of words that she sang with such emotion, it felt like she actually loved it and had a real passion for singing it. That just felt great. It surprised me when I finished listening to it, how much that song applied to my own life — now when I hear her sing it, it’s kind of a mutual thing.
You’re not missing your last name? My sister wants to be a comedienne, so she’s going to keep it. And run with it. And all the other comedians will be jealous!
IF YOU GO
Opening for Good Old War
Where: Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Contact: (415) 621-4455; www.bottomofthehill.com