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Erin Rae's songs of empathic, exacting quiet

Bree Fish
Courtesy of the artist

"Welcome to the mess," Erin Rae said lightly as she answered her door – she'd sent advance notice through reps that the place was in disarray. "We're in the process of moving and by 'we,' I mean 'me.' I've carved you a trail to the back of the apartment."

The folk-country singer-songwriter led the way past neatly stacked boxes, and stepped into a doorway. "So this is my dining room slash where-my-organ-is," she noted, flicking a switch that activated the instrument's electric buzz, pressing a few keys and demonstrating its primitive drum machine. "Yeah, see, this is another reason why I have to move, because I'm on the third floor. I'm sure it drives my neighbor downstairs insane."

For someone who was packing up to relocate the same month as releasing a new record, Lighten Up, and preparing to tour behind it, Rae actually had her chaos more under control than she made out. "You have the inevitable litany of apologies that you give to someone when they walk through your door," she laughed. "I feel like that's a truly southern thing to be like, 'I'm so sorry. This place looks horrible.' It can be immaculate, you know, but I'd probably give you the same spiel."

Her only reluctance about vacating had to do with her attachment to the building's thoroughly Nashville history: Old enough that faintly knocking, intestine-shaped space heaters warm its units, and located near the publishing companies, recording studios and label offices of Music Row, the brick complex had housed countless waves of songwriters. "So many people that I love have lived here," she explained. "I had a romantic idea of it, and I still feel that way, but I'm going to pare down."

Rae was merely referring to downsizing her living space, but for her and her subtly profound music, that's also something of a guiding principle.

There were still some photos out on her shelves, including one of an austere-looking man holding a Martin acoustic guitar. It could've been the unsmiling portrait of a rural folk singer skeptically sitting for a photo shoot, but in actuality it was her lab technician dad. As Rae later pointed out, this was the same guy who'd been into transcendental meditation since college. It was ZZ Top — the trio's front man Billy Gibbons specifically — who turned her dad on to the practice, when he was the student tasked with shuttling the boogie rocking band to an on-campus concert. Rae's full of revealing anecdotes like that. She talks about her upbringing in Jackson, Tenn., a small, sleepy city between Memphis and Nashville, like she's gently dispelling regional stereotypes. Though she maintains a comfortable proximity to what's shaped her, any coastal cosmopolitan expecting some proudly narrow or rigid worldview won't find it in her music.

When her family attended church, it was a Unitarian congregation: "My sister used to be like, 'Can we just go to a normal church?'" Rae's parents enrolled her in a Montessori school, where the principal and most of her classmates were Black and where she was, as she put it, "taught so much about the Civil Rights movement, and taught the Black national anthem and so much beautiful stuff that I feel fortunate to have been exposed to as a white kid in a segregated town."

"Not to be dramatic," she added, "but I could have had a very different experience."

Rae felt no particular need to rebel in her teens, by which time the family had moved to the Nashville outskirts. The music handed down to her by parents, who harmonized together in the kitchen and gave her a guitar — the Martin from the deadpan photo — became an artistic outlet for her, too. Through many music lessons and open mics, she cultivated a serenely observant style of expression and fell in with other young songwriters who were as drawn as she was to the Nashville tradition of refining their craft in pursuit of moving simplicity.

There was a pair of self-released projects, then a 2018 album, Putting On Airs, that took her places she hadn't been. She walked into meetings with media companies in high-rise offices, conscious of how they might see her. "I feel like I even maybe leaned into this stereotype of just feeling like, 'I'm from a smaller town,' and be like, 'Wow, this place is huge!' " she joked, exaggerating her usually soft drawl.

Bree Fish / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

Naiveté was not what Meg Duffy, the singer, songwriter and guitarist who performs as Hand Habits, picked up on when first touring with Rae. The two have vastly different life experiences. Duffy, who goes by they/them and hails from upstate New York and LA, recalled being captivated by the contemplative evenness of Rae's singing.

"But also," Duffy said, "it's not just the singing. It's everything in her energy and her kindness and her lyrics, how they really somehow consolidate complex emotions into simplicity and also expand upon them through her perspective."

Duffy marveled at how Rae teased out the dissonance between stable, nurturing relationships and social rejection in "Bad Mind," a song set in a small town. The lyrics acknowledge the inner turmoil set off when Rae watched her aunt get stripped of parental custody over a lesbian partnership – but it's a subtle kind of baring witness, worlds away from an explicit message song. "Subliminal," was how Duffy described it. "If you've lived through the experience, then you know, and it resonates," they said. "And I remember just saying to her, 'I can't believe you've figured out a way [to do that].' "

Rae recorded that song, and the rest of Putting On Airs, in a former monastery in Appleton, Wis. For Lighten Up, she selected a studio destination even further from Nashville, the bohemian California enclave of Topanga Canyon. There, she could work with producer Jonathan Wilson and his go-to players, and also invited Duffy to add ethereal filigree here and there. "I just wanted to have a new experience, more than anything," Rae reflected, "and be a little pushed out of my comfort zone, which I was — but not too far out."

She was open to Wilson applying elegant psychedelic touches. While demoing her song "Candy & Curry" at home, she'd sung crescendoing mouth trumpet parts as placeholders, and the final version became a pleasingly mellow and meandering trip with astral, arcing synth lines and pensive strings.

Rae had a few misgivings, though, about recording the song "True Love's Face," worrying that it was too syrupy and courtly — too in line with time-tested templates for romantic ditties — compared with the emotional excavation she'd grown used to doing in her writing.

The song on Rae's new album that's gained the most notice so far is "Modern Woman," the one where she gestures toward how many more ways of embodying womanhood have existed, in all sorts of places and stations of life, than received definitions of femininity have acknowledged. "Might make you coffee, might make it rain," she sings, summoning images both mundane and metaphysical with the slightest of gestures. Then she turns her gaze to how these possibilities are received: "Might confuse a smaller mind just sittin' on a train."

Over the chorus's sunny, bopping West Coast backbeat and unfurling ribbons of steel guitar, Rae suggests another way of being, just the way she might in conversation, casual and confident in the lived wisdom she can offer: "Round up the old perceptions / Lay them on down / They're only tellin' stories and they're / getting in the way right now."

"It's still pretty open-ended," Rae reasoned, "because it allows whoever is listening to kind of fill in the blanks, I feel like. And that's intentional, because I only have the experience I have, even though I try to be mindful of other folks' experience."

That magnanimity gives Rae room, too: "I get to have this quiet way that's meaningful."

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