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(photo by by Bridgette Aikens)

IT GETS SLOWLY DARKER around Erin Rae as we speak, the setting sun still just visible behind her van, parked in Dixon, a satellite town of Nashville, just as a winter storm promising snow blows in.

As exciting as the storm is for her, having grown up in Nashville, Rae normally wouldn’t be banking on a dump of the white stuff, but thanks to climate change, these days anything is possible.

“Usually once a year, we get a snow that sticks around for a couple of days but just the other day we had like 6 inches of snow, which was a dream come true,” she says.

While she may have missed out on regular, proper snow growing up, and finding herself drawn to artists like Feist, Judee Sill and Wilco, as much as the names normally associated with her home town, leaving Nashville has never really been on the agenda for Rae. “I think touring has scratched that itch for me.”

And now, as she and friends like Margo Price and Brittany Howard, Michaela Anne and Kelsey Waldon, have begun to push through the usually static industry barriers, reaffirming Nashville as the home of an alternative roots/Americana world to the dominant pop country, leaving makes no sense.

“Right now I feel so well-connected and it feels like we are all, my peers and I, hitting our stride as far as maturing and becoming adults,” she says. “Pandemic aside, it just feels like a special time to stick around.”

Making these connections isn’t just about someone who will understand your irritations from your last gig as a support act; it’s also about knowing intuitively what’s needed personally and musically. These roots go back.

Which makes it even more surprising when you hear that on Lighten Up, her new album that shifts her from quiet, almost interior country musings to seamless and warm rediscoveries of how country and rock merged in the 1970s, not only did she temporarily relocate from Nashville to Los Angeles but she did it to work with producer Jonathan Wilson, who she barely knew.

Wilson was last seen in Australia – where Rae will be touring alongside Courtney Marie Andrews in March, Covid gods-willing - leading the band behind Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, not a man noted for his Americana credentials.

“[Waters and I] are pretty comparable,” laughs Rae. But she points out, the Topanga Canyon-based Wilson is originally from North Carolina and “there was a common thread there, but also a common thread in being fans of Scott Walker and the cinematic pop sound”, a key driver of Rae’s own vision which also encompassed Bobbie Gentry’s stylish country soul and the languid but emotionally potent sounds of Nashville’s Lambchop.

“He has the chops and the vision and materials to realise these ideas that I have sort of hinted at,” says Rae. “A song like Modern Woman turned out to be so much more dynamic than I had heard in my head. It’s nice when someone pushes me out of my comfort zone in like being willing to get loud when it’s my habit to go for more muted tones.”

You shouldn’t always take an album title too literally, but “lighten up” here feels appropriate for Rae freeing herself to explore without the weight of expectation and tradition.

“I kind of forget that that’s part of it,” she says. “It’s about freeing up the experience of playing music, and making sure that there is a lightness when I’m performing. Not just limiting myself to being what I think I always will be, the quieter one.”

If the sonic key to Lighten Up is gentleness, easy moves and fun, the emotional key is much the same, that album title also directed to at the way she lived her life and the harsh self-judgements she was prone to making. Covid lockdowns brought it all into focus.

“The pandemic allowed some growth that was starting to occur within as I was realising some things about myself. Maybe there was some maturing happening and the pause of the pandemic allowed me to digest that,” says Rae. “I think a big shift that occurred was it finally clicked with me [that] for a long time growing up, I was very self-critical, a habit or survival skill kind of thing.

"I felt that I needed to be perfect or be really healthy emotionally to be okay, and it finally dawned on me that every human has these things that I’m thinking are so horrible, these character ‘defects’ and imperfections in the way we operate in the world.”

Instead of beating herself about her motives for everything, whether she was being selfish or breaking the arbitrary rules she set for herself – in her life and in her art – she accepted the imperfect.

“Of course I care about [doing ‘right], but I don’t have to exile myself for it if I don’t,” Rae says in what is now full darkness. “I can allow myself to try things, see what works for me, and not have to know ahead of time if it’s all the right thing.”

Which sounds like how she got herself to Los Angeles, Jonathan Wilson and Lighten Up.

Lighten Up is out February 4.

Courtney Marie Andrews and Erin Rae will play:

Canberra Theatre, March 3

Eltham Hotel, March 5

The Zoo, Brisbane, March 6

Fremantle Arts Centre, March 8

City Recital Hall, Sydney, March 10

Port Fairy Folk Festival, March 12-13

Wesley Anne, Melbourne, March 15

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