Five questions with: Heather Mae

The Singing Out Tour

CSPS Legion Arts — Friday, June 14 at 8 p.m.

Heather Mae will perform with Crys Matthews as The Singing Out Tour at CSPS. — publicity image

The Singing Out Tour, a Pride-centric passion project by musicians Heather Mae and Crys Matthews, stemmed from an impactful, longtime friendship. Then it turned into an outpouring of love, from the two artists on stage to everybody in their audience.

Matthews has released four albums and three EPs. Her most recent EP, Battle Hymn for an Army of Lovers, was produced at the same time as a full-length album, The Imagineers, demonstrating her drive and ambition when it comes to music. She combines traditional genres such as Americana, folk, jazz, blues, bluegrass and funk with her modern, original lyrics to create her own complex sound, earning her comparisons to Tracy Chapman and Ruthie Foster. Matthews focuses on social justice in her solo career in addition to the Singing Out Tour, calling herself “the poster-child for intersectionality.” These lived experiences and the goal of soothing others with understanding are apparent in Matthew’s realistic, vulnerable and honest lyrics.

Mae released an EP, I AM ENOUGH, in 2016, earning her the label of “the new, queer Adele” from L-Mag. She is working on a new project centered around mental health and has also focused on body positivity, women’s rights and self-love. Following the release of this new album, GLIMMER, Mae will go on tour again to promote her new tunes.

Mae and Matthews will be stopping in Cedar Rapids’ CSPS Hall on Friday, June 14 at 8 p.m. Tickets for the event will be $16 in advance and $19 at the doors. I had the chance to hop on a phone call with Heather Mae as she and her band took a break from driving across the country to spread their message of acceptance.

How did you come to combine your passion for singing with social justice, and why do you think they’re so important fused together?

Well, I got [vocal] nodules in 2013, and my voice was taken away. Losing that ability to sing made me completely reevaluate everything that I was doing. You get told enough that you could lose your voice, and you start to really, really think about what you’re singing about, like, “What are my fans hearing when I sing?” So I actually, literally, made a vow to God that if I ever got the chance to sing again, I would write music that matters. Music that might make some people mad, but music that might make a lot of people feel seen and understood. So that was the beginning of me being a social justice songwriter.

Music is like the writing of the narrative for our country. When people look back on what was important to us at the time and what was going on in the world, they’re going to look back at music. For me, I want to know that my legacy I leave behind is … that I’m fighting for change. I’m fighting for progress. It’s important to me that we’re doing that.

And the other thing is that music and art really tap into people’s brains and hearts for positive change different than a politician just talking to you. There’s a part of the brain that only fires up when music is being played, or when you’re playing music or singing music. It’s known in neuroscience that when that part of the brain fires up, other parts of the brain fire up like those that help with empathy and understanding and kindness. To me, it’s my duty: I have to do this.

How did Singing Out come to fruition? Was is always you and Crys Matthews, and how did you find a partnership?

Oh, man! Crys is one of my best songwriting friends. Crys lives in Virginia, and I live in D.C. Crys was a huge part of my coming out process, because I knew Crys before I even really knew I was queer. When I fell in love with my wife, I immediately went to Crys and was like, “I have this new thing that’s happening in my life.” And she was really just a good friend. My first double date ever with my wife was with Crys and her wife, and Crys sang me and my wife down the aisle.

So Singing Out has always been Crys and I because we’re both social justice songwriters and we’re really close friends, too. This year, though, I got to bring my band with me. It’s JJ Jones of Girlyman and Joe Stephens, formerly of Coyote Grace. The tour just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

I’m having so much fun. I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m having so much fun.

What impact does Pride month have on your performances and Singing Out? Do you change the way you organize the event?

So Singing Out Tour is our tour only during Pride. Crys and I will tour and we’ll play shows throughout the year, but our Pride tour is the Singing Out Tour. This is the second annual [tour], and it’s going to happen every year. Last year was only seven shows on the East Coast, but this year we put the call out all these amazing venues and cities were like, “We must have you.”

The Singing Out Tour is different than us just playing gigs together because this time we curated our set so that it has an arc and it tells a story of where we have been and the struggle, but then also a celebration of Pride and the hope. We’re not done, and yes we’ve seen pain, but we’re not done.

What are some social justice issues you and Crys tend to focus on within and outside of Singing Out? How does the expression through music amplify them?

Our music in general focuses in on a lot of issues. My next album is called GLIMMER, and it will be out in September, and that record is mostly concerned with mental health. It’s about finding light in the dark. I also struggle with bipolar disorder, and I’m very open about my mental illness because my next phase in my career for the next couple of years I’m going to be talking to my humans, my fans and helping them feel not alone.

When it comes to LGBTQ people and mental illness, they kind of go hand in hand. When you’re told you can’t be yourself, when you’re told you’re not good enough, when you’re told to hide a part of yourself, mental illness becomes even more prevalent. So it’s really amazing that Crys insisted and encouraged me to sing some of my mental health music as well, because it is so prevalent in our community. Of course, I asked to sing them as well.

So, it’s not just social justice music. It’s also our love songs, too. It’s the songs we’ve written about our wives, songs about liberation in LGBTQ people and songs about where we have been, where we are going, and not losing hope. And we’ve built it into this really dynamic stage show. I’m really proud of it.

What do you hope audience members will leave the concert with that they might not have had before?

I want then to feel like they are amazing. I truly believe that the people who listen to mine and Crys’ music, they’ve been through a lot. They have been through so much. To get them to the point where they can even sit proudly in an LGBTQ Pride concert, whether they’re LGBTQ or an ally, or a family member of someone who’s LGBTQ, it has not been easy, because they live in a society where it is not easy to be LGBTQ. So the fact that they’re there and singing is so awesome. They’re doing that for themselves.

We reiterate at the end of every show that they are still here, and that’s something to be proud of. They should go home looking around, knowing they’re not alone that they are amazing, and they should lay their head down at night knowing they’ve been felt. They are seen and understood by four people on that stage, and by a room full of people. That’s our goal, our mission for Singing Out is for them to feel amazing, and to remind them how truly spectacular they are.

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