When Brandi Carlile recently performed at the Chicago Theater, she said that it was not long ago that she was playing Schubas. Now selling out a theater with a capacity more than twenty times that of the Lakeview club, her remarked seemed a quaint way to relate to the audience through a concrete, local example. A week later, however, up-and-coming folk singer-songwriter Erin Rae said that it felt great to finally get to play Schubas, having heard the name thrown around by other artists. For both artists, the venue signaled a certain level of professional success – a couple of albums under their belts and the chance to be the name on the marquee (or, rather, the poster on the door).
Rae’s recording career started a decade after Carlile’s, and like her senior, has seen a huge leap from her first to second album. Putting on Airs, which came out on June 8th, is Rae’s follow-up to 2015’s Soon Enough. While it’s still constructed around Rae’s oft-arpeggiated rhythm guitars and soulful vocals, co-producers Dane Knoebler and Jerry Bernhardt’s production gives it an airy, ethereal quality that Rae herself described as “dreamy.” I spoke with her over the phone ahead of the show, and she told me, “We’re excited to play around with all of the dreamy songs that the guys dreamed up when we were making the record,” and cited “June Bug” and “Mississippi Queen” as two songs that she was specifically interested in playing live. When asked about recreating the psychedelic, summertime “June Bug” in a live setting, she said,
I think recreating it is cool, just ‘cause it’s such a romanticized thing. I know in Chicago it gets really hot in the summertime as well, but just humid summertime, just like heat that doesn’t let up, is just what that song exists in in my mind. I’m just like a nostalgic sort of person so I just like recreating it.
“June Bug,” like the other tracks from Putting on Airs, sounded great live. The adaptation was, of course, aided by Rae’s singing ability. Her vocals are both lovely and distinct – deeper, weightier, and more soulful than the high, slightly nasally pitch of may folk singers. They have earned her the attention of Americana heavyweights, with her having collaborated on tracks by Margo Price and Andrew Combs.
Her songwriting, meanwhile, has the unique effect of causing the listener to think, oh, that’s what she was taking about, somewhere around the second verse of the song. The first verse of “Wild Blue Wind,” for example, describes someone who clearly exists on society’s margins. It’s unclear, however, if he’s an eccentric drifter, suffering from demons, or some combination of the two. When she sings the line, “cussin’ all the drugs they can’t make him take“, however, it becomes clear that she’s talking about someone with schizophrenia. This songwriting style causes her songs to feel like a funnel. At the beginning, they could be about myriad situations. There’s often a point, though, when a specific detail makes the song’s subject crystal clear. These details, while not necessarily intentional, come about later on in the songwriting process. Rae said,
Not [doing this] intentionally . . . Usually the first verse and chorus are the parts that come up easiest to me, and then I’ll be sitting with it for a little bit and like, okay what else am I trying to say? What else do I need to express about this?
The idea of expression – radically transparent at times – is definitely baked into Rae’s songwriting. She told Billboard, “As more time has passed since writing [the songs], every time I hear ’em I’m like, ‘Damn, that was pretty bold. I just said exactly how I was feeling.”
Of course, self-expression alone doesn’t make great art, and Rae makes it work through her sophisticated use of details. On “Bad Mind,” a song about Rae’s own sexuality, the third verse includes the lines: “You looked so pretty at the prom, yellow dress long hair swaying, I never had the courage to tell you until now.” The image of the yellow dress and long hair is vivid on its own, but takes on extra weight when the listener pauses to think that the narrator still recalls it a decade later. Of this detail Rae said,
With that song especially, I was writing it very stream of consciousness, writing down all of the things that stick out in my mind around that subject and around that time in my life. And, like, what images come to mind still. It’s interesting, it’s more like a journal exercise almost, just trying to express some of that stuff. With that one especially, it was important for me to make it clear that I was talking about having a crush on one of my girl friends in high school and not leave it so ambiguous.
That lack of ambiguity elevates Rae’s songwriting. Details as mundane as the flowers in audience members’ hair on “Love Like Before” or as heavy as a parent’s loss of custody on “Bad Mind” make her songs feel far more concrete and fuller than if she simply used generalities or cliches.
The modest crowd at Schubas seemed to enjoy Rae’s performance (notwithstanding the couple to my right, who, through a combination of infatuation and inebriation, were far more interested in their game of tonsil hockey than the show). Rae said that she appreciated everyone showing up, and wasn’t sure how everyone even heard about the show. It was perhaps a bit too modest, considering that outlets like NPR and Billboard have covered Putting on Airs. Nevertheless, she seemed to be striking the right balance of a mature performance while still allowing her joy at being able to play her new album live to shine through.
Putting on Airs is out now, and Rae is touring throughout the summer. Her next Midwest date will be at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo on July 17th, and Third Coast Review’s craft beer writer informs me that the the brewery alone is well worth the trek.