Growing up in Virginia near Washington, D.C., in an area fueled by politics, Heather Mae had one goal: “I wanted to get out of the suburbs, move to a big city and have a big, loud life,” she said. However, it took a prolonged period of enforced silence for Mae, who’s making her Spokane debut on Sunday, to finally find her voice.
“I was really bullied growing up because of my weight. I had intense mental health issues because of it,” Mae said. She found refuge in her high school drama club and after graduating, left for New York City to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy.
Mae landed several auditions and callbacks but balked when asked to lose “a ridiculous amount of weight.” “Once again my body was the problem,” she said. “I got so tired of being told I had to change.”
And that’s when she starting writing. “Writing my own music literally saved my life,” she said. Her world revolved around writing and performing, but in 2014 two medical diagnoses rocked her. She was told she had vocal nodules and needed to completely rest her voice, and she was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder.
“It was the worst best thing,” Mae said. “It totally changed my life.” With the loving support of her family, she sought professional help for her mental illness, and, during the eight months of silence to allow her vocal cords to heal, she finally found her voice.
In 2016, her independently released debut EP “I Am Enough” reached No. 58 on iTunes Pop Album charts. Her lush vocals, rhythmic piano style and lyrical writing call to mind artists such as Stevie Nicks, Sara Bareilles and Adele. Mae is at nYne Bar & Bistro on Sunday evening with Atari Ferrari.
Mae’s music tackles complex topics surrounding mental health, LGBTQ+ issues, self-love, racial injustice, social inequality and women’s rights and is inspired by her own experiences and identities – a queer, plus-size woman living with bipolar disorder.
Her fans embraced her and her message. “I call my fan base beautiful broken misfits, and I love them,” she said. Her newest project, “Glimmer,” is a collection of nine songs supporting one central theme: “Feel to Heal.”
Within the grooves of the new album, Mae wrestles with the complexities of existing as a human with mental illness. “Mental health issues really resonated with my fans,” she said. With the support of her wife and family, she chose to go off her medications to write “Glimmer.”
“It was a scary decision,” she said. “But I wanted to write my way through it. I was tired of being so afraid of taking up too much room, physically and emotionally, and I was tired of seeing my fans making themselves smaller to fit other people’s molds.”
The result? An album featuring powerful anthems and deeply personal ballads. Her #MeToo-inspired feminist anthem “Warrior” includes a choir of 100-plus female vocalists. Mae wrote all the choir parts and said a music video is coming soon.
The lyrics resonate.
Women gonna rise like the water.
Gonna shut oppression down.
I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter saying fight for me, fight for me now.
Mae calls her performances “experiences,” not concerts. “It feels more like a protest or a rally,” she said. “I want my fans to be liberated from the shackles of what society says they should look like or be.” She’s unapologetic for “Feeling Crazy,” another track from the album. “I’m taking back the term crazy,” Mae said.
While all her songs are personal, she said that she usually closes her show with “I’m Still Here.”
Sometimes the best I can do is just wake up
Open my eyes, put a brave face on
Ignore the lies in my mind that say I’m better off dead than alive
“It’s an anthem for myself,” she said. And for her fans. She has them sing “I’m still here” with her and to each other. “I’ve got this new voice, and I’m not going to be silent,” Mae said. “When I said a big, loud life, I meant it. For me, it’s not just about music – it’s about leaving a legacy.”
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