Unless you’ve been living under a rock — or in the White House — you know that June is LGBTQ Pride Month, with celebrations taking place everywhere from Birmingham to Bali. Even though we’re patiently waiting for VA PrideFest until September, keep calm: The Camel is hosting Richmond Celebrates LGBTQ Pride on June 12th, featuring singer-songwriters Heather Mae and Crys Matthews. I caught up with both artists before they headed out on their nine city Pride Month tour to find out how they’re feeling about the present state of the musical and political world.
The tour kicked off at Jersey Pride in Asbury Park on June 3rd, and will wrap up at City Winery NYC two weeks later, making stops all along the eastern seaboard. For Crys Matthews, booking a tour like this is still surreal. “To have venues who value this community, to be here for us is really powerful… Twenty years ago when I came out, I would never have imagined going on a tour like this.” Heather Mae agreed: “We’re so honored to have these venues that want to show support and put on a Pride event.”
Matthews and I talked on the phone about the love songs on her most recent LP, The Imagineers, as she drove up I-95 to her home in northern Virginia. “As a songwriter I feel that there’s so much about love and life that’s just so universal. You’d have to be listening with your ears closed to not hear something that relates to you.” You can hear that universality in the sweetness of songs like “Unraveling,” a road-weary lullaby of longing. While Matthews and Mae are standing up for LGBTQ rights, they also want their audiences to tear down the barriers and labels that society uses to separate; a love song is a love song, no matter who it’s for and no matter who is singing it.
Both singer-songwriters sing about love and LGBTQ issues, but what is most striking about their music and messages is that their activism doesn’t stop there. When I asked Mae if activism for one cause breeds activism for other causes, she gave a resounding “Hell yes!” “You can’t go out into the world and not think ‘Wow, there are so many more issues I need to talk about.’” We touched on body positivity, the Black Lives Matter movement, and our country’s mental health crisis and gun violence — all issues that Mae addresses in her work.
In a music video for “Stand Up,” a song from her 2016 EP, I Am Enough, Mae shows images of police brutality towards African-Americans, footage from the aftermath of the Pulse massacre, and scenes of refugee cities and the Muslim travel ban. She ends the video with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Crys Matthews believes staying silent was never an option. “I am a triple minority,” she said. “As songwriters, we have such a responsibility… there’s no way I can sit back and watch without doing anything. You have to say something. Most people are not at all concerned with what their neighbor is going through because it’s not their walk, but that’s just not how I was brought up.”
It’s not all lullabies and sweetness for Matthews, who astoundingly put out a separate five song EP, Battle Hymn for an Army of Lovers, in addition to The Imagineers last year. There is fire and anger in her voice on songs like “We Must Be Free,” in which she sings: “You reach for your ID, they smile / I reach for mine, they shoot.” When I asked her what it’s like getting to tour with Matthews, Mae glowed. “She has this really beautiful way of intertwining all of these issues together. She sings about all of these issues in her set,” said Mae. “She has such an amazing way of being a storyteller. She is a true activist in song.”
We continue hearing that activism on songs like “One and the Same,” where Matthews writes about the Confederate battle flag. We talked about the flag which flies over I-95 heading towards D.C., and I asked her what figures she would offer to the Monument Avenue Commission as alternatives to the Confederate generals.
Her suggestion? Mildred and Richard Loving, the Richmond couple who fought the state of Virginia in a landmark Supreme Court case that declared the prohibition of interracial marriages was unconstitutional. “It’s shocking to me that there’s not a statue of [them] in Richmond. They changed the world.”
Standing up for this much-needed change is hardly ever easy, and Mae and I talked about the fear that can come with playing Pride shows. She told me a story about a man who got up and walked out of a show during a recent midwestern tour. “I remember feeling a little nervous,” she said. “I was playing this pretty harmless love song, but it didn’t have pronouns. Halfway through the first verse he got up and left.” You can’t not notice something like that, she says, and it’s painful to see that blatant disrespect and unacceptance while performing.
The man ended up coming back into the venue after the show, and Mae was terrified. Then the unexpected happened: “He comes up to me and says ‘I’m sorry I left. I needed to go call my brother who is gay and I hadn’t talked to him for five years.’ He had red eyes and clearly had been crying. He said, ‘Your music is very moving.’ We hugged, he bought five CDs, and left.”
Both of these politically-active artists talked about planting seeds: of hope, of acceptance, of change. That’s why they do this work, and that is why they are on this Pride Month tour. “If anyone at our shows is queer or part of the LGBTQ community, I want them to know that there are people out there who are fighting and who won’t stop,” Mae said. “We are still fighting… there are people out there who aren’t giving up.”
Make sure you don’t miss these two incredible voices singing their battle hymns at The Camel on June 12th, as Richmond celebrates Pride Month. The Camel is located at 1621 W. Broad St. Doors open at 7 PM. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door, and can be purchased here. For more info on the show, click here.