By James Dillon III
Celebrating small town origins and romanticizing being from the working class have achieved something of a trope status in country music, especially when done by artists who haven’t necessarily lived that experience. You won’t find any such disingenuous exaltations of humble beginnings in Harper Grae’s music, however.
“I’ve lived everything I’ve written,” Grae said, during a recent chat. “I think I’ve lived a lot of lives in my time on this earth, and that shows in my music.”
Raised by her grandparents in a rural Alabama, Grae recalls from an early age the effect her parents’ struggles with poverty, addiction, and incarceration had on her childhood.
“I was labeled “the crack baby” as early as second grade,” Grae said. “It being such a small town, people just all knew your story. Or thought they did.”
It’s clear in talking with Grae, and especially in listening to her music, that she holds her past closely, in a way that is uniquely hers. She is reflective without harboring resentment.
“’Humble beginnings’ is a great way to say it,” Grae said. “That’s the beautiful side to it. But there’s also the side of growing up without a lot and overcoming the adversity of what that means; how the world sees you. And when you’ve lived in that space, it can break you. It can also completely build this super strong foundation of who you can become.”
Grae has used her own foundation to create a musical catalogue that is intimate without being melancholy. It’s uplifting without overly anthemic aspirations and aligns with her faith while avoiding preaching to the listener.
“Faith was my identity,” Grae said. “But I always felt who I was—who I innately was— was rubbing up against what I was being taught.”
Grae used her time in college to begin intentionally piecing together these seemingly incongruent parts of herself.
“From the beginning, I wanted to answer the question ‘Can I be gay and Christian?’” Grae said. “Because if I couldn’t be, then I wasn’t going to be.”
Grae went so far as to study Greek so she could more closely read the Old Testament and better understand the early translations of the Septuagint.
“I needed to undo all of this and break it apart for myself,” she said of untangling what she’d been taught in her Evangelical upbringing. “I really wanted to figure out who I was in my faith. And a lot of that centered around my sexuality.”
Nowadays Grae practices a balance of honouring her religious background and defining her own spirituality.
“I’ve always innately identified with the holy spirit,” Grae said. “I’m one hundred percent still connected to the divine. That’s why I wanted my last name to show that I still fully believe in God.
Grae’s last name is self-styled acronym that stands for “God Redeems All Equally.”
“I fully believe that God redeems every single person,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, what you come from, what you have, what you don’t have. I think he does redeem you. Or she. I think they’re genderless to be completely honest.”
Grae’s commitment to honesty affects not only her persona and spiritual life, but her artistry as well.
“I’m always honest in my music, but this is VERY honest.” she said of her upcoming EP. “The very first song is called “Devil Worship.””
This lead track refers to a time when she fell in love with a female worship leader at her church. The young woman’s mother thought Grae had “turned” her daughter and said the entire congregation was worshiping with the devil due to Grae’s presence.
“It’s about a not-so-great opinion someone had of me, just for loving someone,” Grae said. “She genuinely thought I was the devil.”
Much of Grae’s upcoming EP will focus on her coming out story in her twenties.
“I kept a journal throughout that entire process,” she said. “The nitty, gritty, good, bad, ugly—everything. It’s what I had to go through to reconcile my faith and my sexuality and be okay.”
Now a mother herself, she’s been using her experiences to help others facing difficult times, including those suffering through harassment due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“This is the stuff that, when people tell me that their child is suicidal because of x, y, and z, and they would love for them to talk to me, I drop everything. Because I was there. And I don’t think the people take it seriously. This is a serious issue with our adolescents and children.”
Grae’s upcoming EP will drop at a time when many states across the country are debating the rights of LGBTQ+ community, passing or otherwise considering passing anti-lgbt, particularly anti-trans legislation.
“I am wanting to see the trans community lifted up,” she said. “Their voices really matter. And they are being murdered every single day. While this isn’t my story to lead, I want to always be here to support and bolster them up.”
Tennessee, the state where Grae lives, is currently considering House Bill 800, which will effectively restrict even the mention of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans individuals in K-12 classrooms across the state.
“That will directly affect my family,” she said. “[It will impact] my children that are in schools right now and how they’re going to be able to talk about having two moms.”
These latest attempts at erasing queerness from the American narrative have artists like Grae standing firmly where they are, more boldly expressing their queer identity, and turning it all into art.
“I’m so excited to share this part of my journey,” she said. “People who grew up in southern evangelical or even just in a Christian environment and who have walked the journey of coming out, they are totally going to get this EP. They’re going to understand the weight of it.”
More information about Tennessee’s HB 800 bill can be found here.
James Dillon III is an artist living in Portland, Maine. A self-styled Renaissance Queer, they use photography, writing, and performance art to explore, celebrate, and challenge the world around them.