Nashville-based Erin Rae is in DC tonight to play a show at Pearl Street Warehouse, and she’ll be in NYC on Wednesday for a gig at Rough Trade. I’d highly recommend grabbing tickets to whichever night matches your geographical location, and I’d also suggest picking up a copy of her newest release, a 4-track collection of demos from her most recent record, Putting On Airs.
I got caught up with Erin over the phone a few weeks ago to talk about the year that’s gone by since Putting On Airs was released and how she feels about the songs now, plus we chatted “Old Town Road” and country music’s 2019 trajectory, growing up and living in the South, not marrying Aaron Carter and more, all of which you can internet-eavesdrop on below:
So does it feel crazy that the record has been out for a year, and that these songs have been written for even longer than that?
It does, yeah. Especially now that it’s time to be working on a new record. It’s just crazy how much time has passed.
How old is the oldest song out of the batch?
I feel like “Wild Blue Wind” is maybe the oldest. I wrote that around the time my first record came out, so that song’s probably been written since the end of 2015.
And how has your relationship to some of these songs changed, not just since you first wrote them, but also now that you’ve had a year pass that they’ve been out in the world?
I think I still feel emotionally connected to all of them. They stay kind of current for me, fortunately. I guess it’s just the subject matter; mental health is what a lot of them are talking about, and patterns within myself and in relationship to other people, so that’s an ongoing thing. There’s always something relevant in them that I can connect to when I’m performing. But it’s interesting to think about the headspace I was in when I wrote them, which has morphed. Same with the song “Bad Mind”; I feel like I’ve learned so much about myself just from feedback from other people, and how things are not as black and white as my anxious brain would like for them to be. It’s cool. I feel like I’m still learning new things from the songs all the time.
That’s rad! Now, clearly a lot of the songs are super personal. Were you feeling pretty comfortable about putting them out into the world by the time the record was taking shape? Because I imagine there has to be a level of self-awareness during the writing process where you kind of accept that everything you’re working on could more than likely be released, but were you nervous at all? And if so, how do you feel now?
Yeah, with a lot of the songs on the record (like “Putting On Airs”, “Can’t Cut Loose”) I was trying to bring a lot of things that were going on internally to the light, and just kind of expose them, in a way, as a way to encourage me to not keep repeating some of the same things. So there was some of that, and I was also basically like, “Is it good music?”, like, asking myself whether or not it was good practice to bring some of that extremely personal stuff to light. “Is that necessary?” With “Bad Mind”, I sent that song to Jerry [Bernhardt] (who I worked on these demos with that are about to come out, and who co-produced the record), and he was like “Oh, ‘Bad Mind’ is my favorite Erin Rae song of 2016!” And that one was the one I was worried about being too personal. So there was definitely fear when I initially shared it with people I was creating with, but then once we all agreed that these were the ones that were going to be on the record, I kind of felt supported and validated. But there are even some shows sometimes where I feel a little bit self-conscious about playing it, depending on where we are in the country or what the vibe is, you know, what the demographic is. I’ll say less about what it’s about and just kind of let people listen on their own. That’s a long rambling, sorry!
No way, totally fine! I identify as queer as well, and I do think there is this like…thing in the back of your head (or at least the back of my head) where it’s a kind of reflexive “Okay, I need to make myself as small as possible and not throw this in people’s faces because they don’t want to hear about it.” Like I still do that as an adult human, and most of the time it’s just pure internalization, but it’s so weird to think that that’s deeply ingrained enough to ripple out.
Now, you’re based in Nashville, and I feel like it’s such an interesting place since it’s (from what I understand) pretty open, but it’s also historically so rooted in the country scene. The “Yeehaw” movement/agenda is kind of super buzzy right now, so I did want to ask you if you had any insight or feelings about any of it? Like, maybe as a jumping off point, we could start with “Old Town Road” and how people are saying it shouldn’t be counted on the country charts and all of that?
Well, it’s always funny, because I always kind of go, “Oh, yeah, I guess I am kind of country,” with my music and my songwriting style, but I…well, first of all, let me just say I’m a huge fan of “Old Town Road”, Lil Nas X. I think it’s great. Fortunately in Nashville, the lens I get to see all of this through is my peers and people I respect on social media, like one of my favorite journalists, Marissa Moss, has done so much work as far as exposing inequality in country radio for women and all of that. So when I was being introduced to this information, the first I heard about “Old Town Road” was the uproar that country radio had removed it, that they weren’t about it. And then as soon as Billy Ray Cyrus featured on it, country radio put up a huge banner on Music Row in Nashville that was congratulating him on his number one hit, but there was no mention of Lil Nas X. And we’re all like, “What?!” So the difference is obviously…I don’t know, it feels very strange, and to me it seems racial.
But I do think it’s cool to see how country music is evolving and finding new space in the mainstream. Like Kacey Musgraves does it with rhinestones and pop crossover, you know? And there’s psychedelic stuff, and…I’m not even sure what I’m talking about at this point, but it’s just really exciting to me that country music is showing up in so many different areas and being celebrated.
Absolutely. And that’s honestly something I would never have predicted ten (maybe even five) years ago, you know? I grew up listening to country music, and I think even as a kid I understood country in two parts – the pop songs about the tractors and the horses, and then the folkier Americana stuff, like old school Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton and all of that stuff. So I think it is cool that it’s transcending in this way, because I think it’s one of the last genres that hasn’t really tried to do that, or if it has, it hasn’t been publicized so much.
Yeah. Actually, just recently I watched Dolly Parton’s new movie Dumplin’, and she’s just such an icon. Her caricature is just so celebrated, and I feel like Kacey Musgraves is carrying that torch, too, where it’s rhinestones and big hair. It’s such a cool art form, in my mind. That gaudiness of it, you know, is really beautiful in my mind. Hopefully people don’t hear me say that and say, “She thinks it’s gaudy?!” [Laughs]
No way, I get what you mean. [Laughs] Alright, so talk to me a little more about growing up in the South. I grew up in Virginia, so not exactly DEEP South, but still close enough that I think I’m able to understand how a lot of the negative stereotypes about the South can be perpetuated by outsiders; I think there is such a warmness in the South, and a lot of the time that warmness even applies to conservative people, and I think there are a lot of redeeming qualities that don’t necessarily get talked about as much. But of course, I don’t live there or really even travel there too much now, so for you, someone who does, what are your feelings about the current state of things the last couple of years with this administration? Does it feel more volatile in that area of the country? Less volatile?
I think it’s kind of hard to imagine a time before Trump got elected. I definitely think it’s more volatile as far as the content we’re being exposed to, and the language, and hate crimes and all of that. This is, of course, not an informed thing that I’m saying, but just an overall feeling. But I also know that it felt volatile for a lot of people, people of color, people of different cultural backgrounds, for a long time. And we just maybe weren’t exposed to it as much. I think it’s brought a lot of hate to light, and it’s been pretty terrible, the ways in which it’s been encouraged, too. With this administration there’s been so much fuel added to fires. And I think especially in the past few weeks with the abortion bans and laws being passed, it’s pretty shocking. It’s a powerless feeling that I haven’t really experienced before; it’s not even happening immediately in my state, but my mom is from Alabama, and my sister lives in Mississippi.
It’s just really…it’s scary. It’s scary, but I feel even more strongly about the importance of not just abandoning the South like people are talking about, like, “Fuck Alabama! Fuck these states!” It’s like, “No, people need our help. We need each other’s help. We need to help each other and vote.” I think there’s still such a beauty, even in people with different beliefs. I love being from the South, I love living down here, and I feel even more…kind of loyal, and feel like I have an even bigger responsibility to show what the beautiful things are. And I’m just kind of seeking to understand the mindsets and fears behind why people decide the things they decide. I always think a more compassionate lens is the way to go, even though there’s so many things that are so enraging about what’s going on. I do think, ultimately, everyone wants the same things – wanting to be happy and feel safe and at ease in their lives, and to feel like their families are protected. But there’s a power shift that needs to happen.
Totally. I completely agree with you there, and it is really just so unfortunate, and all of it has been so tough to process. For you, what’s your sort of self-care routine? Like, what makes it easier to cope with this onslaught of seemingly never-ending bad news? And has any of this stuff found its way into your songs?
Yeah, I do feel like it shows up in my writing. Anything that affects me emotionally on any level, or the people near me, ends up in my songs. That song “Wild Blue Wind” is a good example of that. But yeah, it’s definitely coming up in the songs that I’m writing for the new record. I try to practice self-care, therapy, getting together with like-minded people and people that are loving and supportive. I think it all kind of goes down to the personal level when things feel crazy out in the world. Like, “What can I do first?” Well, begin with myself and try to get centered and grounded, heal whatever wounds and things are going on inside of me that need my attention. That’s really the best that I know how to do at this point, and then share the resources from my own healing experiences with people that ask for them. Just make sure people know what’s available. That’s what I try to do, but then I also do my fair share of not being present, just scrolling through my phone for hours, just being disengaged. I think that’s just part of being human, not necessarily like, “The world is so terrible that I have to check out.” It’s about trying to find a balance between being present and not being present, I think. Checking out, healing, self-care, and then also trying to live and work and have fun, you know?
Completely. It’s a tough balance to find, but I know I’ve been trying to get there, too. Now, being on the road as well is its whole own separate thing that can potentially be draining, even just from the perspective of like, you play a set and it’s very high energy, and then you sort of skip to an hour after the show and it’s the total opposite. How do you deal with being on the road and taking care of yourself that way?
Well, fortunately I have good people to travel with; everyone in the band is pretty easy-going, kind and fun. We sort of all have a similar level of chill, and we don’t party or anything really. But just in terms of staying balanced, we make sure we get out and go for walks if we’re in a pretty place, go to museums…there’s so much cool stuff to get to see. And getting as much sleep as possible is important, too. And healthy food! Minus this past month, which was the Pizza Tour of 2019. We had pizza 90% of the time we were on the road. I feel like I’m still recovering from that. [Laughs]
But I feel really fortunate to even be able to be traveling to play music, and to get to do that in this phase of my life, so even though yes, I get tired of traveling sometimes (and I’m getting better about not being in denial about that, like “Erin! You’re tired! Take a day and rest!”), I think the excitement for me right now still feels new in a lot of ways. Getting to see things, getting to go to different parts of the country…the travel aspect of it helps to balance out any work aspects of it right now. Of course the energy of the shows makes it all make sense, too.
Right. Alright, and the last thing that I need to talk to you about is that Instagram post from the other day where you showed a school journal entry from when you were like ten…
[Laughs] There were some other really good ones in there. But Aaron Carter…really?!
Oh my god I was dying! “We have the same name! ‘Erin and Aaron’!” So I’m assuming the class prompt was just like, “You’ve been asleep for twenty years for some nebulous reason that we’re not sure about…”? So your brain thought that that was the perfect future back then, or you at least fooled your brain into thinking that that was the perfect future, but for you now, what does your perfect reality look like? Like, are you living it currently? It seems that way! But maybe in another twenty years (if you wake up one day and two decades has magically passed), what does that look like?
You mean will I still be married to Aaron Carter? [Laughs] I think my reality right now feels pretty great. I think if I were to envision it again twenty years down the road, I’d love to have a home, like a house, and I’d probably love to be close to my sister and family. I really love the way my life is set up right now, but I’d love to be more disciplined with writing. Somehow having a balance with music and nature, maybe I have kids at some point. [Laughs] It’s so great right now, though; I feel like I’m moving into the next phase of my creative life. I saw a quote that was like, “When you don’t know what the work is, that’s when the work truly begins.” It’s like, I had all these ideas when I first started playing music about why I was doing it or what my songs should be about, and now I have more freedom, and my life is more catered to me being able to create, and I just want to keep growing to be more comfortable in that, showing up to write every day. I want to be comfortable in the routine of writing, and I just want to have good, close relationships with the people I care about. Finding a balance between all of that is the goal at this moment.