Country Queer

Lifting up LGBTQ+ voices in country and Americana.

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Erin Rae: Slow Rivers Run Deep

By Christopher Treacy

Erin Rae McKaskle likes to take her time.  

In a world where hustle culture has us feeling like we can never move fast enough, her music comes across as unhurried and contemplative. Her songs drape over you like a loose-fitting jacket—familiar and comfortable; warm, but never smothering.

Her second full-length, Lighten Up (Good Memory/Thirty Tigers) was recorded in California with producer Jonathan Wilson, a fellow singer-songwriter whose output also tends toward a leisurely pace. She sought to work with Wilson—also an accomplished drummer and guitarist—based on his production work with Jenny O., Leslie Stevens, and Father John Misty. But as their correspondence developed, she also discovered their mutual love for Scott Walker and Bobbie Gentry, and felt as if Wilson truly understood the record she intended to make.

Wilson brings unexpected whimsy and neo-psychedelic flourishes to Lighten Up, a country-adjacent album that mixes the laid back feel of 1970s Southern California with modern, indie-pop textures. It’s politely glossy and inviting on the surface, guided by McKaskle’s striking warble, which is reminiscent of Jenny Lewis.


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

But the slower reveal is the emotional turmoil binding these sometimes mournful narratives, wherein Erin Rae (McKaskle’s stage name) is focused on learning from her own mistakes as she accepts some hard losses. Through this lens, Lighten Up is entrenched in a painful process, the search for belonging in the grand scheme of gender expectations, sexual identity, and relationships. In the end, she realizes she must let go of her comforting, self-analytic ledge in order to live a life that’s truer to the person she’s discovering herself to be.

We spoke to Erin Rae about her quirky new album from her Nashville-area digs as she readies for an upcoming tour of Australia with Courtney Marie Andrews. American dates with the duo Watchhouse will follow later in the spring.

Lighten Up has a wonderfully lazy vibe to it. Would you say that’s fair?

That’s definitely my natural rhythm. Not to be cheesy, but in Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash movie, he says something about, ‘Well, that’s just the way that I play it.’ And there’s definitely some intention with that on the album. “Candy and Curry” actually started faster on the original demo I sent. Not a lot faster, but we slowed it down even more to dramatize the feel of it. The image that came to mind when thinking about the idea of an unhurried pace just now is a lazy river. It’s like you’re moving along physically…just kind of floating through, but then emotionally and topically, you’re doing some deep digging. And that’s also typical of the reflective kind of music that I like to listen to: mid-to-lower tempo. It’s to the point where something like “Modern Woman”—which is more upbeat for this collection—just feels like a lot. There’s more going on. It’s louder, there’s more and more percussion driving it. That song almost feels jarring to me.

Were you writing under pressure? It must be challenging to reconcile the natural inclination to write when you’re inspired with the need to release new music for the marketplace.

I very much agree with that. Initially, when the pandemic hit, the plan was to go into the studio in April or May of 2020 and put a record out by later that year, because at that point, it would have been just over two years since the last one. But I had been on the road for a lot of 2018 and 2019 and was just getting up to speed, figuring out how to find the time to write in the midst of this new level of busyness in my career. I had a handful of songs that I wrote in 2019, but it was actually a huge relief when some of the pressure was taken off because of the pandemic. I thought ‘okay, cool, I can reconnect to my natural creative rhythm.’ But that being said, I have found it to be extremely helpful to have a disciplined time to be creative. It’s not something I had done regularly in the past, but I did mark off some time to show up every day, put the phone on airplane mode and just for two or three hours, bring my guitar, my colored pencils—whatever I need—and just see what comes up. And what I found was that setting aside that time really did clear the space for songs to arise.

I always laugh when a press release says something about an artist or a band holing up in some remote location to write songs for a new album. Seems like so much could go wrong!

Funny, at one point I went to a friend’s cabin about an hour west of Nashville, and I was like, ‘I’m just gonna go for a week and write.’ But I didn’t count on being so uncomfortable with that level of aloneness! It definitely wasn’t this peaceful, serene, open channel of reconnection to the muse. I did come up with a verse or two, but it was not a prolific time. I like to be alone to write, but apparently I also like to know that my people are nearby as well.

I read that your mom is a therapist. I’d imagine this has had an impact on the way you deal with inner struggles. Can you talk about that?

I grew up being taught that not only is it okay to process emotions, but also that it’s very important to prioritize emotional health. And sometimes, maybe I overdo it. I just remember when I was first waiting tables and I realized that my whole thing about prioritizing emotional health was useless in that scenario. There I was, wondering if a situation was emotionally healthy or toxic when obviously, in the restaurant industry, nobody’s there for that. It turns out the priority is hurrying and getting the food to the customers and I’m there, like, ‘Sure, I’m not on time, but I have this great emotional awareness!’ Which, y’know,  wasn’t going to work very well for me in that environment.

But I was raised in such a way that doing a lot of introspection is a comfortable, natural-feeling space for me. And those are a lot of really beautiful tools that I was given.

I was a pretty anxious kid, I think it might even be genetic. I definitely have a proclivity to do deep dives into the emotional world and that feels a little bit safer to me than taking risks and existing in the outer world with other people. To me, it’s more of a controlled environment… or at least a familiar one. The song “Lighten Up and Try,” is saying, “Okay, you’ve done the deep dives, Erin.” It’s meant as kind of a gentle nudge, with compassion and self love, and not a judgment. It’s me saying “Okay, we have that information. Now, let’s go live. Let’s take some risks and maybe relinquish some protective walls.”

I’ve experienced this new level of self acceptance about the messiness and imperfection of how I might’ve gotten in my own way in the past. And so it’s about moving forward—with acceptance for those things—and opening up to life.

Has this impacted the way you sexually identify? There are several articles floating around that imply you’re out, but I couldn’t find anything that actually quotes you as having said so.

I love that. Because I’ve read a couple articles and thought, ‘Did I say that? I don’t think I said that.’ I would say, at this juncture, I identify as queer for sure, but beyond that I’m still in process of understanding what that means, specifically. So, there’s more to be revealed with that. I have some more work to do. That’s the journey now.

The song “Bad Mind” is about being afraid to be gay, and growing up in the South and witnessing people really, really struggle because they were gay, close to my family, in my family. It’s about relinquishing that struggle or maybe just bringing it out into the light—that was such a huge, huge part of my life from the age of 11 onward. My sexuality may not be 100% clear to me at this time, but that song in particular was about airing out this fear and the survival instincts I developed. I think that I repressed a lot of stuff in general, feelings for both men and women. Especially any female crushes that I had growing up, I was just like, ‘Nope— can’t do that.’ It seemed really bad to me. You know? Really bad. So I figured out all these ways to avoid finding out how I feel, if that makes any sense.

And I can totally understand someone thinking, like, in this day and age, why would someone write a song about being afraid to be gay and even discuss in the press if they weren’t gay? I can understand how that would be the conclusion. But it’s also kind of like a strange thing to need to announce it either way.

So, maybe Lighten Up is about trying to find a way to be comfortable in the gray areas? Gray areas seem to be more challenging to people, in general.

I mean, they’re more threatening to me, internally. If I could just decide one thing, that seems a little bit safer. And at least I’d know what to expect from my mind. I guess I’m giving myself, and others, hopefully, permission to be uncertain. And for there to be a lack of black and white thinking around these issues. Obviously, we’ve come a long way in that department where, now, people can identify in many ways. But I think also, in the mainstream, there’s still a need, a pressure, to label things as black or white.

Christopher Treacy has been writing about music and the music industry for 20 years. He’s contributed to The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, and Berklee College of Music’s quarterly journal, as well as myriad LGBTQ+ outlets including the Edge Media Network, Between the Lines/Pride Source, Bay Windows and In Newsweekly. He lives in Buffalo, NY.