When I ask queer pop singer Ria Mae to describe her music, she smiles, laughs, and offers perhaps the most Canadian response imaginable: “I just told someone I was like the poor man’s Tegan and Sara.”
As a fellow stan of the sisters Quin, I laugh along with her. Mae, dressed in a tomboy-chic sweatshirt, patched jeans, and well-worn Vans, is shier and more humble than she ought to be. After all, she’s had a handful of chart-topping hit singles across the border, including 2015’s “Clothes Off”, which went platinum. And she’s toured across Europe with Tegan and Sara, whom she snuck into an A-Lister green room at an award show to meet. “I call them friends now,” she says, “but I don’t know if they know the full story of just how crazy I was to meet them.”
Later, she tells me she “can’t go more than 20 minutes in Canada” without hearing one of her songs on pop radio. Though she now lives in Toronto (“Canada’s New York,” she jokes), she’s originally from Halifax, the small capital city of Nova Scotia with about 400,000 residents. So that career milestone—being well-known enough to get radio play—makes Mae what the locals call “Halifamous.”
I tell her I’m definitely going to use that term, and she bursts out laughing. “Oh,” she says, “please do.”
Though Mae isn’t yet a household name in the United States, she’s got all the trappings of an international pop music phenomenon. For one thing, her singles are infectiously catchy, blending heartfelt lyrics with fun hip-hop style beats. Mae says she finds a lot of inspiration in hip-hop and R&B music from the ’90s and early 2000s, and it shows. She credits Classified—the biggest Canadian rapper and R&B artist aside from Drake, she says—with taking her under his wing and helping her launch her career. The two had a natural connection: They’re both native Nova Scotians. “I was a huge fan of everything he’s ever done, and he was from my hometown,” she recalls. “So I reached out. It definitely changed my life path.”
Mae dropped her debut album, Under Your Skin, all the way back in 2012. With Classified as her mentor, she dropped a series of chart-topping singles; her second studio album, Ria Mae, under Sony Canada’s label; and My Love, a 2017 EP.
Though she was always open about being queer, Mae never made her sexuality a huge part of her art. She describes her music as “pretty safe,” and she didn’t feature an explicitly gay story line in one of her music videos until the 2016 music video for “Gold.” The video features Mae as a lesbian in an up-and-down relationship with another woman. It came at the perfect time in her career, she recalls. She’d already had one platinum-selling hit single, and fans were speculating about her sexuality.
“I’ve always been myself,” she recalls. “I’ve always been out. But there’s those decisions you have to make, those little crossroads of like, Do I be myself? Or do I play it safe? [Before “Gold”], I’d never done a video that was unapologetically gay. And the fact that I was thinking about that told me I had to do it. I kept feeling like, I hate that I even have to think about this. My [straight] friends who are also on the radio don’t ever have to think about this. And I told myself, Well, if it ruins everything, at least I made a good choice, right? Like, I’ll tell my kids that some day.”
Lucky for Mae, it didn’t; if anything, the unapologetically queer music video cemented her status as an out artist to watch. It also opened the door for more queer representation in her music: In her latest single, “Trixi,” she’s clearly singing to another woman, though she clarifies that the narrative in the song is entirely fictional.
Reflecting on being queer in the music industry, Mae tells me she’s overjoyed to see the quasi-renaissance of openly LGBTQ acts in pop music. Names like Troye Sivan, Sam Smith, “Lesbian Jesus” Hayley Kiyoko, and King Princess all come to mind. (In fact, Mae saw the 20-year-old “Pussy Is God” singer in concert recently. “She’s amazing!” Mae gushes. “The way that she’s such a little shit…you can’t look away!”)
It just wasn’t like that when Mae was a shy teenager in the closet, making music for herself in the privacy of her home—and that wasn’t even that long ago. “I can’t imagine what it’ll be like in five more years,” she says, grinning ear-to-ear. “With all that’s happening right now? It’s pretty cool.”
Listen to “Trixi” below, and look out for Mae’s latest EP, Stars, which drops March 8.