Given a few beats to think it over, Erin Rae — whose enchanting second solo album, Lighten Up is out now — concludes that she is, in fact, a happy person.
Based on her lilting voice and the gentle smile on her new record’s cover, it seems easy to accept that at face value. Folky and folksy, her pleasant style pervades all 12 tracks, along with the alluring and disarming production from Jonathan Wilson that adds a feel of psychedelia.
And it’s helpful, perhaps therapeutic, to consider the question, as she notes during a smiling and easygoing Zoom call with SPIN. Because her songs offer a message that “would be so much heavier if the music also conveyed that.”
Rae knows better to just dump music and perform into a personal blend of therapy. “I definitely need other therapy,” she says, laughing. But she acknowledges that the intersection of her introspection and authenticity with a country backbeat “definitely is cathartic. I think I have realized in the last couple of years, I was born with a certain set of anxious tendencies. Kind of an overactive, maybe hypervigilant mind. But then I also got to learn that I can sing, and that has always provided a soothing antidote to my brain.”
So Rae constantly and delightfully zigs toward melodies that should be required listening at all future campfires, then zags in the direction of a psychologist’s couch. Now 31, and wearing pants in a pastel rainbow wheel design that she made herself during a recent bout with COVID, she is laying bare so much emotional baggage, writing with a bracing vulnerability of past heartbreaks, of loneliness, of confusion and fear. She admits that the album’s title is even a bit of a joke; try seeing how useful it is to tell a depressed person to lighten up.
“But also,” she continues, “it’s serious, wanting to bring a lightness to some of this shadow work, to use a therapeutic term. Digging deep and looking at the not-so-cute stuff about being a person. But also just the requirement that I need some self-compassion to be able to do that.”
It’s all there in the album’s final four songs a tetrad that, taken together, offers quite a therapy session. The songs go from projection to balance to resolution, and then begin the cycle anew. “I’m going back a few steps,” she sings in the album’s final verse. “Coming undone in the process.”
So she writes and performs, leaving what she called the comfort zone of her previous album, Putting on Airs, to record with Wilson at his facility in Topanga Canyon. There is some light and easy reference to yoga in the album’s opening track, “Candy + Curry,” but in conversation, Rae finds a more challenging pose, explaining the Zen intentions behind the “Mind/Heart” chorus, the way it involves the dukkha of Buddhist teaching (and features a harmonious and tuneful “fuck” in the refrain that is deployed powerfully enough to impress David Simon. “The mind is loud,” Rae says. “And it has a lot to say. But it’s actually just going on. Just because it’s louder and busier than the signals that we get from the heart, it’s not to be trusted more.
Whatever Rae’s mind does during a typical day-to-day, It’s easy to feel good when the work is done, and now that the album is out in the world, and the songs ready for some live play, Rae also thinks about someday writing a happy album. Maybe, she laughs, she’ll save some of the introspection for her diary (although, she admits, “You should hear the ones I’ve held back.”). In the meantime, though, the vulnerability and honest self-assessment has served her well.
“I think where I am right now is kind of tiptoeing into the idea of, ‘I could just enjoy myself;’ that might be a valid experience or valid way to live,” she says, then swerves with another gentle and easy laugh. “Seems a little sketchy, though.”