THE SINGER HAS COME A LONG WAY SINCE A FAMILY FRIEND TRICKED HER INTO DOING HER FIRST PUBLIC PERFORMANCE
Ria Mae has played the underdog so much, she’s not used to the position she’s in now.
The Halifax singer/songwriter is a self-made woman who worked odd jobs and hustled to finance the production of her first album and her breakthrough single “Clothes Off.”
Asif Illyas, who produced her first album Under Your Skin says her story of tirelessly knocking on doors inspires him. CKUL 96.5 FM in Halifax was the only station to play “Clothes Off,” but a representative from Sony Music heard it and offered her a record deal. That song earned her a Juno nomination and propelled her career to the next level.
Her latest journey with her record label was much different.
“I said ‘I want to make another album’ and Sony is like ‘OK, tell us what you want to do,’” Mae says.
It’s an adjustment because, for years, the skepticism of others has motivated her.
“I work really well when I feel like when no one thinks I’m going to do it and I do,” Mae says from Toronto as she prepares to head back into the studio to work on her next album.
Mae’s musical mentor, Pat Riley, a Halifax-based producer, songwriter and musician, thinks she’ll be fine and won’t run into the same wall many successful musicians have. “She has a lot more upstairs,” says Riley, who has known Mae since she was 14. “She knows who she is.”
From the moment they met at Summer Rock Camp at the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts, Riley saw something in the singer-songwriter even though Mae was “shy and hid in the corner” on the first day.
On the second day, Mae brought in some demo tapes of songs that she had written in her room while teaching herself to play the guitar. “I was kind of embarrassed that I had this secret world,” she recalls. “He recognized how much work I’d put into them and how serious I took it.”
Riley recalls what he told Mae at the time: “This is good, don’t hide this. People will want to hear this.”
Riley put Mae into an ensemble that needed a singer and she sang in rehearsal. But all along, he schemed to get Mae to sing her songs at the camp’s final show; it took some encouraging from bandmates to get her on stage.
She wowed the crowd in the high-school gym and even though Mae says Riley “tricked” her into singing, they remain close and she thanks him on her albums. “He could tell that I was ready to run,” Mae says. “He’s a really special person to me and to our family.”
Riley was friends with Frank Trainor, Mae’s uncle on her mother’s side. Trainor was a songwriter based in Nashville and helped Riley get a job during hard times on Prince Edward Island. Throughout high school, Mae continued working with Riley to develop her talent. She loved basketball and was on the St. Patrick’s varsity team. As much as she loved the sport but not the way she loved music. “It didn’t even compete with music once I caught the bug for performing,” Mae says.
She quit the basketball team so she could be available for a non-paying showcase gig at the East Coast Music Awards. “That showed me where my priorities were,” she says.
Though many suggested going to university to study music, Mae went to Alberta and bounced from job to job. “I was always scared that if I don’t do music, I’m going to have a life where I don’t care about anything enough,” she says. “Nothing was as good as that alone time when I was creating music.”
Mae, battling a cold during the interview, laughs at herself and her selective work ethic. “Now, I’m as sick as I could ever be, and I would never cancel a show,” she says. “But if it’s not for music, I’m not reliable and no one should hire me.”
Mae knew she needed to do something that was “not working in bars and drinking alcohol,” so she came home to go to school. She took a two-year program at Nova Scotia Community College and landed a job as assistant to the project manager overseeing the construction of King’s Wharf on the Dartmouth waterfront.
“I liked it, but it was really obvious to me that I needed to not have that take up too many years,” Mae says. When an opportunity came to move on, she had a little nest egg built up and decided to make a go of it in music.
Around that time, The Company House opened on Gottingen Street and the music venue with a seating capacity of 120 was the perfect size. “I got a job working the door part-time and they let me open for anyone that came in,” Mae says.
Mary Ann Daye and Heather Gibson were the owners then. “Ria needed some extra cash and we needed a door person,” Daye says.
Mae’s music was different. Slow, acoustic, folky, and sad. “Not quite the upbeat stuff that she has now,” says Daye. “But we loved having her onstage and providing her with that opportunity.” Mae also provided the venue with a steady draw as she built up a local fan following. That’s how Mae met Melissa Ferrick and got a chance to tour the U.S. “It was my first American tour; it was like going to university for touring,” Mae says of that big break 10 years ago.
Mae is open about her sexuality but doesn’t put it at the forefront. Still, she is keenly aware how important a video like “Gold” is to young people. She was initially reticent about the video, in which she kisses another woman, but she then embraced it because she wanted to create a positive image of that kind of relationship.
“I love talking about this topic,” she says. “But some people will call me an activist and I always get resentful. If Classified talks about his wife and kids, it’s not shocking. I just talk about my life and my breakup with a woman and it becomes political and people think I’m trying to take a stance on something. Sometimes, it sucks.”
Although her musical style has evolved, the constant in Mae’s work are lyrics that speak to relationships in a way that appeals to all sexualities and genders. “I never assume that I’m alone,” she says. “If I’m feeling this, there must be a 100,000 people that feel like this.”
She hopes for a day when a celebrity’s sexuality is not a news story, like it was with Ellen Page. “Ellen felt she had to hide her sexuality,” Mae said. “Hopefully, in the future, it will be a non-issue.”
Daye says Mae’s approach reflects a balance of showing that a person’s sexuality is not something that anybody needs to talk about and fighting for equal rights. “She’s not out there waving the pride flag, but she was willing to speak up and stand up for rights,” Daye says. She’s referring to Mae taking on YouTube when it slapped a restricted label on the video for “Gold.” Mae convinced YouTube to remove the label.
Although Mae lives in Toronto currently, she remembers her Halifax roots. When she won an East Coast Music Award in 2012 for Under Your Skin, she commissioned a separate award to give to Illyas. Mae had learned that despite getting 33 nominations with his band Mir, Illyas had never won an East Coast Music Award. When Mae came home at Christmas that year, she had a gift for Illyas in a paper bag. “That’s the type of person she is,” Illyas said. “It was wonderful, I almost teared up.”
Mae also sent a letter to Riley that he reads to kids attending Summer Rock Camp. “That week changed the course of my life. I gained confidence as a songwriter and continued to work hard at it,” Mae wrote in the letter.
Years later, that confidence made her choose music over construction management.
“I still sometimes can’t believe that I pulled that off,” Mae says of her decision to leave her job at King’s Wharf. “If my kid was doing that and left her big job for songwriting, I don’t know that I would be able to support them. It was just such a risk.”
Full given name: Ria Mae MacNutt
Schools attended: Saint Mary’s Elementary, Gorsebrook Junior High School, St. Patrick’s High School, Nova Scotia Community College.
Where she grew up: “South End, West End … my family moved a lot. When I go for a run in Halifax, I pass two of my old houses, minimum, each run.”
Year she graduated from high school: “Just say St. Pat’s and people can do their own math.”
Discography: Two LPs. Under Your Skin (on her own label in August 2011) and her self-titled album released by Sony in June 2016. Two EPs. Between the Bad (on her own label in November 2009) and My Love, which was released last fall by Sony Canada.