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Allowing Herself to Be Free: A Conversation with Erin Rae

Jul 11, 2018

Allowing Herself to Be Free: A Conversation with Erin Rae

Quiet may come off as meek, but don’t be fooled; strong doesn’t necessarily present in overly clamorous ways. That’s the central truth Erin Rae unearths on her new album Putting on Airs. Across twelve hushed tracks, her haunting voice depicts the ways in which the past looms over the present, especially how the scenes we witness as children build their own imposing edifices in the psyche. On the title track, she sings with bare-bones honesty, “I never did learn to like myself/ Been chasing down anyone that might could help/ Lure them in with charm, come out stealing.”

Putting on Airs is as much about calling out herself as exploring the circumstances that formed her, but through it all the Nashville-based songwriter’s honesty is manifested through her clear-eyed vocals and deft lyricism. She wants to heal, and her music, functioning like a salve, allows her to do exactly that. For example, on “Bad Mind,” she sings about a lesbian aunt who faced discrimination decades ago in the Alabama court system and how that, and other adolescent experiences, shaped the perception of her own sexuality.

Recorded in Appleton, Wisconsin, during winter’s muted apex, Erin Rae worked with co-producers Jerry Bernhardt and Dan Knobler to make full use of the space—a former Franciscan monastery known as The Refuge. As a result, the production lives, breathes, and echoes, giving her the room to use her voice, both literally and lyrically.

These songs are so tender, and that descriptor strikes me in two ways: Tender like a bruise, and tender as in full of care. When you were writing them, did one apply more than the other?

I think it’s a little bit of both. With “Putting on Airs” in particular, I was like, “Am I just being harsh on myself?” My mom’s Buddhist now, so I’m really [thinking] like, “Is this being kind? Is this causing harm?” It’s been helpful to me to own that behavior and, yeah, it is uncomfortable to feel the reality of that and the consequences of that and how it affects other people and myself. But also, by owning it and saying it, my hope is to continue to get more free from that. It’s a little bit of both: It’s tender temporarily.

How have you seen your songwriting shift on this album?

I guess I’ve always used songwriting to process through my own stuff; it’s been very cathartic for me. My last record was tying my own experience in with that of my parents or close friends. There’s still an element of that, but I feel like this record has become more directly about me. I didn’t really intend for these songs to be that, like “I’m going to call myself out.” “Putting on Airs” is about people-pleasing where it’s harmful to myself and other people, where eventually you just become dishonest in a way.

No kidding. That line, “Lure them in with charm, come out stealing,” got me right in the gut. It almost hurts to hear but it’s so true.

It’s like, “I want you to like me!”

It’s almost like a safety mechanism at first, but it’s interesting how you say it can become self-harming at a point.  

My dad is super outgoing. He’s one of those people who’s never met a stranger. That’s how I am as well, but learning in a way to make sure…especially as far as it goes with relationships. That’s really what I’m focusing on in that song.

Ok, we have to talk about “June Bug.” That transition to the old-timey piano at the two-minute mark is stunning. That riff says so much, and coming after all you’ve confessed, hangs even all the more beautifully.

At the Refuge up there in Appleton, there’s this giant chapel and all these monks’ quarters, 60 little individual bedrooms, and a lounge area on the first floor. It was in the middle of winter, it was still snowing, and the Fox River is right out the back. The room has a wall of windows, so you could see the snow and the bald eagles. There are two hallways, and in the center of that is where we had a lot of tracking stuff set up and the computer and all the gear. Then we ran guitar amps and put the drums in the chapel, so you hear that huge open sound. We tracked vocals in there so we had the room sound.

I have these fond memories of everyone being super sweet to each other. Basically, Jerry played everything. I think he had tracked that piano part and then Dan, when he was mixing everything, surprised Jerry by putting that into the end of the song, because the song otherwise would just be a minute and a half long. We had this beautiful piano track that Jerry had done in this space, and Dan surprised us with the old timey piano outro, and I thought Jerry was going to cry. It was really great.

I’m especially interested in the labels that circulate around Southern women. To that end, “Mississippi Queen” is such a striking song. How have you attempted to battle against the labels about who women should or shouldn’t be?

Nashville is like a blue spot surrounded by red. It’s a town full of creatives. I’ve got a family member that lives in Mississippi and my dad grew up in Missouri, but whenever you go back to more traditional Southern cities, it’s kind of like, “Oh yeah, people more or less adhere to these cultural norms that feel a little outdated to me.” But I’m always drawn to a sense of tradition. The only way I’ve known how to challenge anything is personally, like internally making sure that I’m clear.

That’s what a lot of this record’s about—allowing myself to be free to see what my own personal truth is, so that, hopefully, I’m able to lend that to others and give other people that space. Even in thinking that that’s a way I want to live, it’s still difficult. I empathize with people that have grown up in a more traditional city; I feel like it takes a conscious effort to grow up and be open-minded if it’s not the norm.

Right, if it’s not modeled for you it’s even harder to practice.

My parents are super open-minded and I still grew up in the South and absorbed a lot of the social norms, so I can’t imagine how hard it is for someone else [who didn’t] to feel free enough. With a more conservative or strictly religious background, it’s hard work for everybody to be more open-minded.

The past six months have been fruitful for singer-songwriters wishing to challenge heteronormativity, including projects from H.C. McEntire and Sarah Shook. Why do you think now is such a powerful moment for such visibility?

So much progress that had been made was starting to feel uncertain with this new administration. It kind of worked out to be a timely thing, especially with the song “Bad Mind,” and that story being born out of the state of Alabama. When Roy Moore was almost elected, I was like, “It’s all happening in the same time.” I think it’s so important to keep the conversation going and make opportunities to heal around this stuff, around sexuality, while it’s all being threatened.

It does feel like a backlash, similar to what took place in the ‘80s after women had made significant strides in the ‘70s.

Music helps us process. One image that came to mind while you were talking about a backlash is the Women’s March—the second one that happened recently in Nashville. It ended with a big concert at Bicentennial Mall, and Alanna Royale and Becca Mancari were both performing there. Alanna has always represented real womanhood for me, being a strong and powerful woman. She’s full of life. It was this really beautiful moment to walk with all these people—dads, and little kids, and folks old and young—through Nashville, and then end up at this powerful, beautiful concert with people that I admire in our community. It was such a beautiful way to tie it all together.

Photo credit: Marcus Maddox

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Allowing Herself to Be Free: A Conversation with Erin Rae
Allowing Herself to Be Free: A Conversation with Erin Rae