The out lesbian Canadian songstress Ria Mae has released her highly anticipated EP, Stars.
Ria Mae may have a big city, commercial pop-dance sound but the out lesbian songstress hails from Halifax, Canada in the far-flung east province of Nova Scotia. But when it comes to being musical, Novia Scotia blesses its residents with Celtic influences, courtesy of the Scotch-Irish diaspora. “I grew up around a lot of fiddles and kitchen parties,” Ria told me over a vegan lunch in New York. The humble and insanely talented singer was in the Big Apple to promote her new EP, Stars and I was thrilled to sit down with her and find out her story— in true lesbian fashion, over meatless burgers and mimosas.
“I always liked pop music,” Ria said, “which was so far from this little place, Nova Scotia. For me it was just about finding who I was. It kind of felt like I was born in the wrong community for being queer and for liking pop music. I guess it just made me used to feeling like an outsider, which was positive.”
But that feeling of not fitting in has fueled Ria’s music with a modesty that makes her songs even more appealing. “I was the shy person in my family. I think I spent so much time alone, avoiding parties in high school so no-one would know I was gay,” she says. She didn’t want to “disappoint people” for not being straight and so she spent time “hiding from the real world,” taking refuge in a lovely bubble of sound.
“I feel like I create this world where [being gay] is totally normal. In real life where I still might be too shy to hold my girlfriend’s hand—in the music I’m so confident and I’m giving people that view, I’m creating an alternate reality that I would want, that I prefer. I feel like that is my activism. I’m creating this perfect place where someone in a small town can be like, ‘Yeah, it’s totally normal. I’m just like Ria’.”
Things have changed when it comes to LGTBQ acceptance in Canada, especially under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “It’s getting to a point in Canada where it’s not even a topic,” she says. “I could take it for granted but I don’t,” she says. “There are definitely provinces that are farther behind” in terms of acceptance, she reveals, and she is always mindful of how her public image affects her fans.
“It’s on a small scale but when I started getting tagged in photos — a 14-year-old girl who looked like me posted: ‘Feeling like Ria Mae today’. These people exist. When you’re young and Ellen DeGeneres comes out, for example —you’re looking for role models.”
Ria Mae is now one of those role models. It’s hard to listen to Canadian radio without hearing one of her tracks but she’s not an overnight success. In fact, she describes her career as a “slow climb.” She’s charting, sure, but she’s also a strong live performer with solid stage act. I was lucky enough to catch Ria supporting Nelly Furtado at one Montreal Pride and she was terrific onstage (I remember her performing “Take Your Clothes Off”). She radiated real stage presence, or what she describes as “big lesbian energy.”
And there is big lesbian energy in her music. Take her 2014 single “Crazy,” in which her crazy good vocals address fears of being cheated on by a girlfriend. And take her backstage pluck, where she was able to befriend Tegan and Sara at a recent Canadian awards ceremony. They invited her to tour Europe with them. She did, and Tegan Quin also did guest vocals on Ria’s single, “Broken.”
Perhaps Tegan and Sara recognized in Ria Mae someone much like themselves: authentic. After all, Ria’s been’s been writing songs since she was 13 and almost every Canadian has heard one. What is a Ria Mae song? “I really like melody first. I like it to be one feeling, as simple as you can imagine and that’s it. I never want to get in the way of it or make it too smart. Lately, I’m trying to be more positive. It’s hard. I’m so aware of how everyone is affecting each other. You listen to sad and depressing music all day, it affects you. You watch bad Twitter news all day, it affects you. A song like ‘Trixi’ is just a fun story. A song like ‘Hold Me’ is just positive. I’m trying to not leave the world a worse place.”
Stars, the follow-up to Ria’s JUNO Award nominated My Love, is out now.
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