Here’s another article from our Fall 2018 Pride Guide, released in conjunction with 2018′s VA PrideFest. Get your copy of the print edition at your favorite shops around town, or check out the digital version here.
It’s Heather Mae’s first time at VA PrideFest, and she is excited. “This one’s a big one for me, because I’m a Virginia resident,” she tells me as we speak by phone one Friday afternoon. “This one feels like home. It feels special, just to be able to play the Pride of my home state, when we have marriage equality. It feels pretty great.” She laughs happily.
Singer-songwriter Heather Mae got her start at the end of last decade, after graduating from New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy. Her first project, One Year of Songs, was an ambitious one that saw her write a song a day for a year. But her biggest challenge was still to come — soon after releasing her first album, she was sidelined for a couple of years due to nodules on her throat that required surgery and a lengthy recovery.
“I lost the ability to sing,” she said. “I was told that I’d have to be quiet if I wanted to be able to sing again.” But that need to be silent, so difficult for someone who’d always wanted to sing at the top of her voice, ended up being a blessing in disguise. “Because of the silence, the not talking and not singing and not doing anything, I had space,” she says. During those quiet years, she came to some important realizations about herself. And she brought those revelations to the world when she went back to singing in 2016.
Her return to the public eye began with the release of an EP called I Am Enough. “In that record, I came out as queer, without anybody knowing that that was gonna happen,” she says. What’s more, all of the songs on I Am Enough related to social justice issues — a very deliberate choice on Heather Mae’s part. “I had lost my ability to sing, so I wasn’t going to waste this new opportunity,” she explains. “If I was gonna do this damn thing, I was gonna do it so that if I was to lose my voice again, at least I went down with a fight.”
She wasn’t playing around, and I Am Enough proves it. A bold collection full of brassy pop songs that tackle important subjects, the EP takes as strong a stand lyrically as it does musically. Songs like “Hero” and “Stand Up” exhort listeners to make their voices heard, and to fight for the causes they believe in. And the EP’s title track is a body-positive anthem that deals with a subject close to home for Heather Mae.
“For 25 years I thought I was a skinny girl just stuck in a fat girl’s body,” she says, “and that one day I would be allowed to look in the mirror and tell myself that I’m beautiful.” It was during her recovery from nodules that she started to question the ideas in her head about her own body image. “The silence was able to shine light on this bully inside of myself,” she says. “I actually was able to listen to the voices in my head every day that were just constantly telling me these things — that I believed! Like, I can’t ride a bike, because it looks silly when a fat girl rides a bike. Or that fat girls shouldn’t wear bathing suits without a cover up, because your body might offend somebody.”
“And all of that is just a bunch of bullshit!” she declares. “I started to realize that it doesn’t matter the size of my pants, I have value as a human being. I am worth the same amount as a human if I was to gain 100 pounds or lose 50. And that thought had never occurred to me.”
This realization changed everything for Heather Mae. “Once I was able to recognize that I am enough as I am, it opened me up to the realization that we as a society, not just fat people but all people, run our lives based upon what other people think of us,” she says. “If we could just shed some of that, that caring about thinness and beauty, and focus more on wholeness and what we put into the world, I feel like we would get more shit done.”
This realization was what led Heather Mae to write an EP full of songs about social justice. And she doesn’t plan to move away from those topics in the future, either. “You can never go back. I mean, I can’t,” she says. “I joined this community of people who write music and go to protests and show up in women’s spaces, trans spaces, LGBTQ spaces, spaces of color. Going down to the South and playing in spaces [where you] might not be welcome; but it’s so important because five queer people showed up, and they need you. You go home and you’re writing the next record, and you can’t just write love songs.”
Then she catches herself. “Fluff songs, not love songs. Because for LGBTQ people, our love songs are political, just by keeping our pronouns.” An important point, especially from a singer who has only been out for a couple of years. “It shouldn’t have been this hard for me,” she says of coming out. “I grew up in a home where I had gay people coming in and out of my house, my parents’ friends, [but] I’d always been assumed straight. I self-identified as bi in secret, but I spoke out as a straight ally without having the courage or ability to out myself, because I just was too scared. It wasn’t until I met the person that would change the course of my life that I was like, ‘I don’t want to lose this person, and so it’s time for me to be honest about who I am’.”
Since the release of I Am Enough, Heather Mae spent a lot of time on tour; in particular, she’s played a lot of Pride celebrations. She tells us that Pride is “a totally different experience when you’re an out queer person. Now being on the other side and seeing all these people attending Prides and maybe they’re not out yet, but maybe they’re taking the steps to come out, it is such a different version of Pride.”
This year’s celebrations have been another new experience — in a very good way. “This season of Pride has been amazing because I’ve been playing it as an out queer married woman,” she says. And that’s not the only change in Heather Mae’s life that will be reflected onstage when she performs at VA PrideFest. “I’m going to be playing with a band!” she tells us. Whereas normally, she tours as a true solo artist, just herself and a guitar, she’ll be joined at PrideFest by bassist Joe Stevens, formerly of Coyote Grace, and drummer JJ Jones, formerly of Girlyman. “It’s like this epic queer band we’ve created,” she says, laughing.
Doing shows with a full band isn’t the only new thing Heather Mae’s got going on right now — she’s also working on a new album. And yes, it’s definitely going to have social justice-oriented lyrics. “This next record is about mental health, and about the #metoo movement, and about feminism, and the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned,” she says. “[It’s] all set to the tune of dancing music that you could not really know what it’s about, but as soon as the end of the song comes, you’re like, ‘Whoa. Shit.’”
As she did with I Am Enough, Heather Mae intends to crowdfund her new album. Which prompts an obvious question: would she work with a label if she had the chance? “Of course I would love to have a machine behind me that would support what I am doing. but that’s hard to find,” she says. “I know that I’m a little bit of a risk. I am a fat social justice songwriter with very loud opinions, and I get arrested in DC for standing up for people’s rights. If I was to find a label, it would have to be a label that was fully behind their artists who could get arrested one day.”
Thankfully, today’s internet provides an alternative for musicians like her, whose career doesn’t exactly make them a safe bet for labels. “I’m so grateful to have platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon, where people can donate their funds directly to an artist’s project, and say, ‘I believe in you’,” she says. “Because without it, I wouldn’t be able to create the records that I’m creating right now.”
The new album will arrive in a completely different political environment than the one in which I Am Enough was released. Like many of us, Heather Mae was shocked and disappointed by the election of Donald Trump. “I was going on the road singing songs about voting, women’s liberation, LGBTQ liberation, taking to the streets,” she says. “Then November 2016 happened, and it felt like all of the work I had done since the release of I Am Enough in June was just for naught.”
Thankfully, she found once she got back on the road that this wasn’t the case. If anything, the opposite was true. “I went back on the road in the spring of 2017, and they still showed up!” she says. “People were louder now, and they want the community so bad, because when you are at home and you’re looking at the news, you become so othered. You see all these white supremacist groups coming together, and these misogynist groups coming together, and all of this hate is being thrown out.”
“We as marginalized people are feeling like we need each other, and we are coming together,” she continues. “That’s why places like Virginia Pride [are] so important to keep going, in spite of an administration that refuses to acknowledge us. Because without that sense of community, we would lose hope. And then we wouldn’t show up at protests. And then we wouldn’t vote.”
When the LGBTQ community comes together, Heather Mae wants to be there. And she’ll have a strong, positive message for us all when she takes the stage at VA PrideFest this year. “I cannot imagine writing music that is just fun music,” she says. “The stories that I hear, and the emotion that’s poured out to me from the people who listen to my music, make this job, as hard as it is, so worth it. Because my songs are working, [even] when I am not onstage. Who gives a shit if this job is really hard and I want to pull my hair out? I know I’m helping people.”