By Angela Sells
Interview by JJ Jones
Queer supergroup, the Heather Mae Band, does more than make music. The three use their time on stage to make a statement.
The group includes Tom Tom’s tech and gear editor, JJ Jones, an internationally-touring Berklee-trained drummer and educator who founded EmpowerDrumming.com, an education company exclusively geared toward female-identifying drummers. Heather Mae is an imaginative lyricist with a powerhouse voice who forged new ground with her last album, I AM ENOUGH. Songs on the release addressed LGBTQ discrimination, gender stereotypes, body image, and mental health issues. Mae is working on an upcoming release, Glimmer. Bassist Joe Stevens is a California-born singer/songwriter, trans-activist, and multi-instrumentalist. His band Coyote Grace toured with the Indigo Girls, and he released his solo album, Last Man Standing, in 2014. Joe starred in the documentary Real Boy about a transgender teen finding his identity and voice, and he co-wrote the musical The Civility of Albert Cashier based on the true story of a transgender civil war soldier.
Jones spoke with Mae and Stevens over a conference call about fighting the good fight with music.
JJ Jones: Heather, your politics and your songs are really personal, but ultimately your message and creative vision transcend politics. It’s about self-love and self-acceptance and knowing that you’re enough. When I try and describe you, I always say, “It’s like she’s on fire. She’s on a mission.” Heather, why are you on a mission? What was the journey that brought you to this place in your art, your politics and your career?
Heather Mae: Well, in terms of a new vision, I lost my ability to sing [because of vocal nodules]. I was so sad and felt like I lost my chance to make an impact on this world or to do something good with this voice that I’d been given and the love and passion for writing songs. I remember sitting in front of my keyboard putting my hands on the keys, thinking, “If I could just have one more chance to do this music career again, I promise (saying it to whatever deity is out there), I will use my music for good: to help marginalized people. I will be honest about my beliefs, I will stand up for the little guy and girl, I will stand up for being who need a voice and will be a mental health advocate” which is what the next record is about. So, there really was an actual moment when I made the decision to keep that promise if I got the chance. And I did, and I’ve kept my promise.
Jones: It reminds me of when people have a near-death experience. It was like the death of your voice or the death of you as an artist, so all of the promises that people make [in that context], “I promise I’ll be good if…” Was this your version of that with your art to promise to help people and be of service?
Mae: Yes. When I first started writing these songs, it’s all based on feel. So, I knew all of the songs would be topical about what I believe in helping the world be a better place and more inclusive, but would also be musically authentic. What you see on stage is my brain: what I envision the song to feel like, from the writing process to the song’s performance.
Jones: I’ve seen hour-long lines of people who just want to meet you and hug you [after shows]. I imagine that is also feeding you as an artist, creatively and politically.
Mae: I think, honestly, it’s less about them meeting me. An amazing musician, Ellis, said once in a performance class that people don’t come to see you, they come to be seen. I really believe that: when I sing my songs, I am just making them realize how very un-alone they are and how comfortable they could be in their own skin, imperfections, and flaws, or in their body-type, their political beliefs, their queerness; it is my job to make them feel seen. After the show, people come up to me and often I say very little. It’s mostly others telling me about life experiences and how understood they feel. It’s an honor to me when people come up after a show. That’s the whole point, to make people feel understood. It means I’m doing my job.
Jones: It’s a reciprocal thing.
Mae: I mean, this job is hard. But I had a realization when someone messaged me a little while ago—I haven’t been touring much lately at the end of the year, since I’m about to release another record—but someone wrote to me about listening to [my] song “Hero” and how it made them realize that they needed to reclaim their story after having thoughts of suicide. And this is someone who had been through trauma. Through the song, I wrote about my bipolar disorder, it helped someone else feel like they could go on. That made me realize that my songs are working even when I’m not. So, when the business is difficult and we get more “no’s” than we do “yesses,” because my job is to make the world a better place, I can keep going because I know that my music is doing good.
Jones: Joe, the way you present, you could totally pass for a cis-male, yet at every performance you out yourself as trans. You’ve instructed Heather to do the same for you at her shows. Why is that? Why is trans-activism so important to you?
Joe Stevens: Trans-activism is important to me because it affected my life so deeply. I came of age right before the internet and before there was any trans-representation in media. There wasn’t even much online at that time and I felt very alone. The first little inklings of community that I found were so incredibly important to me to the point where it gave me a reason to keep going. There were other people out there like me that were dealing with the same stuff and struggling and had to overcome struggle. Without that knowledge, it’s hard to imagine how my healing process would have gone.
My first band, Coyote Grace, came of age in the early days of social media and because of that, we were able to tap into a queer and trans audience that I had no idea how we would reach. But word spread, and there was such a need for community and for representation that people came out of the woodworks and started showing up at our shows. I don’t even know how they found out about shows, but it spread through the grapevine and I realized the power of being visible and it didn’t come to me naturally.
I didn’t start out thinking I would be an advocate—I come alive on stage, but I’m a shy person off-stage—but the need for representation had to override any fears. No one was going to know I was trans unless I said something, and I felt misrepresented if people were going to see me as a White cis-male, so it became important to me, for people to understand my songwriting, for them to know that I was trans. For trans or questioning people in the audience, they were looking at a trans person. And for non-trans people to know that they were looking at a trans person. That human [connection] of “I saw a trans person. I met a trans person,” breaks down huge walls. I felt at a certain point that it was the least I could do was be out. That was behind my insistence that I would like people to see me as a trans person. If it helps anyone, it’s worth doing.
Jones: The visibility of it… It’s so easy to make people an Other, with a capital O, but I think the common theme here with both you and Heather is that the personal is political. Both of you are so passionately political because of your personal experiences — you’ve been there, and you know what helped you and you know what saved you. You want to pass that on.
Mae: One hundred percent. I also think that the personal is universal. It’s not easy, but if you can tap into and be brave and share what is most personal to you, you may find that you can actually help so many people.
Jones: Yes, the personal is universal. Any great art — it’s so personal, and because of that, everyone can relate to it. Making yourself that vulnerable as an artist and taking the risk to put yourself out there—that’s what people are relating to.
Check out Heather’s Kickstarter “GLIMMER: Heather Mae Makes a Record for the Light-Seekers”: bit.ly/betheglimmer
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This interview will be published in issue 36, which you’ll be able to buy here at our shop!