Over the past four years, Halifax pop artist Ria Mae has accomplished dreams she has openly spoken about: being produced by fellow Nova Scotia success story Classified and touring with Tegan and Sara and Coleman Hell. Since creating her self-released demo of “Clothes Off” in 2013, she has signed with Sony Music and Nettwerk Management. The former has helped develop the careers of Avril Lavigne, Barenaked Ladies, Coldplay, Dido, Sarah McLachlan, and many more. The finished version of the song – her major label debut – earned Mae her first Juno nomination, for “Single of the Year” in 2016, which put her in direct competition against Drake, The Weeknd, and Justin Bieber.
From Mae’s new home in Toronto, only two days removed from a cross-Canada tour with Scott Helman, she spoke with Georgie about her sudden rise, working with Classified, stepping up as a voice for LGBTQ groups, and more.
G—As you’ve discovered, you can make a lot of unexpected connections in a small town. But that can be a good thing because working with people who differ from you in their approach forces you to create from new perspectives. Do you ever have reservations about working with people who are quite different from you stylistically?
RM—No, I kind of love that. When I’m starting a new project, I love to start it with some sort of element of me not knowing what I’m doing. I worked with Classified on my last album last year, and I didn’t know what I was doing in terms of collaborating with a hip hop producer. And the last EP that I just released, I don’t play piano, but I wrote most of it on piano, just putting my fingers down and seeing what happened. I think I’ve always been inspired by being in a position that’s brand new, where I’m just not an expert ‘cause… I get bored really easily, and I think that’s just my way of life.
G—And with the piano, was it around this time last year when you sat down and played around with it?
RM—Yeah, I just bought a piano and soundproofed my room, and I would stay up late and just try weird things, and a lot of those weird things made it to the EP… I don’t know how well it’s come along; I don’t know if I’m going to play piano live any time soon. But it’s a good tool for me to feel like I don’t know what’s happening, which is when I feel creative.
G—Speaking of Classified, you have an impressive track record of just reaching out to people and getting what you want: collaborating with him, touring with Tegan and Sara and Coleman Hell.
RM—Yeah. For a long time, I was always embarrassed to say what I wanted because I felt like if I didn’t get it, then people would just think I was a loser. Something changed at one point. I just started making myself say to people what I wanted. I’m not a religious person, but I really believe in something that, like, when you say it out loud, it just starts happening. It just starts coming towards you…. Tegan and Sara and Classified both were things where I just kept telling everyone, ‘No, I’m going to. I feel like I’m going to do an album with Classified. It’s gonna happen.’ And with Tegan and Sara, I just kept saying to my manager, ‘I’m going to tour with them. I know it.’ It was such a coincidence how I met them, and they asked me to tour with them within like three minutes of meeting them.
G—Maybe this is a question that should be directed at Classified, but why did he only work with you one song at a time?
RM—I’ve I heard through the grapevine in Nova Scotia that he worked with a few artists before me and I guess the work ethic wasn’t there; he put a lot of work in, [with] nothing happening. And he really didn’t know me or know my genre of music too well, and if I’m being very honest, I just didn’t have money. I would take odd jobs and work for a month and a half or two months and then pay him up front for each job.
G—Did he ever say there was any particular skill or sensibility of yours that impressed him when you first began working together or when he first heard your demo of “Clothes Off”?
RM—He’s really shy. He and I are both kind of awkward, and when we’re together, we’re even more awkward… He would never say this to me, but I’d hear him say to other people that he was really impressed with how hard I’d work. If I was working on a song, and we couldn’t get it one day, I would go home and work all night, and then by the next morning, it would be finished, and I think he hadn’t really experienced that with a younger artist who he worked with.
G—In addition to “Clothes Off”, another one of your biggest hits is “Gold”. Before shooting the music video for it, you never considered yourself an LGBTQ activist. Now that you’ve done so, and you’ve received such an overwhelmingly positive response, do you feel compelled to step up as more of a voice for LGBTQ groups?
RM—I definitely feel I shouldn’t shut down any questions or hide, but at the same time, I’m not very articulate when it comes to things like that. [Tegan and Sara] are so good at saying the right words or teaching people what’s wrong with a certain situation… I’ve always been good at knowing what I’m not good at, and I think I’m good at songwriting because I’m not good at articulating myself in any other way… At the same time, when people ask me in interviews, I always talk about it, and I don’t hide anything.
G—Between “Gold” and having toured with Tegan and Sara, have you noticed your LGBTQ fanbase grow?
G—Do you keep those specific fans in mind when you write music now, or do you still write as you usually do?
RM—When I first started touring, it was mainly LGBTQ communities…. Sometimes, it’d only be ten or 30 people at shows, but it would be an obviously queer audience. As I started getting played on CBC Radio and started getting festivals in Canada, then it kind of switched. Then it was this very mainstream audience… I’m really lucky I’ve been able to maintain both of those groups of people.
G—I wanted to ask you about your mother’s activism. You said she mainly did it through writing?
RM—My mom would take us to women’s marches. I remember when we were little kids, she was going from store to store trying to get them to put up shields over the pornography sections, having these conversations with the owners being like, “Look, this is inappropriate.” And any time we were watching TV, she would often turn it off mid-show and be like, “This is why this is racist. This is why this is sexist.” She was just very influential at opening our minds.