Pop music may often seem like comfort food---an easy treat, a guilty midnight snack---but sometimes the songs that stick with you are the more uncomfortable concoctions: bite-sized dramas inside which you can taste tinges of desperation and pinches of angst.
Take, for example, "Under Your Skin," the lead single and title track from Ria Mae's debut. In someone else's hands, it could be just another hummable longing-for-love song. But it becomes something special when its tightly wound, four-on-the-floor drumbeat collides with Mae's vocals, which sound more like a tense conversation than a performance.
It might have been that intensity that caught the ear of the judges of the Mountain Stage NewSong Contest. Mae was scheduled to play the Halifax Pop Explosion last month, but had to change her plans when she was selected as the contest's international round winner and given the opportunity to compete with 11 other finalists in New York. There, she made it through the first cut, and though she ultimately didn't take home the big prize, Mae found it to be a confidence-building experience.
"When I submitted, I didn't think much of it," she says. "It's funny, because you don't want an outside assessment like that to make or break how you feel. If I had submitted and not gotten in, I'd hope that I wouldn't be devastated. But in the end, it was a big confidence boost."
That's valuable because, despite her talents, she admits that she's never been the most confident performer. Chatting over brunch during Remembrance Day's torrential rainstorm, Mae shares that she was incredibly nervous before her album's release in August, worried about how much more personal the songs were than those on her first EP. She also discusses how she struggled with stage fright---a fear she pushed through when she quit her construction management job to focus predominantly on her music career.
"I still struggle with how that all translates: from me being in my bedroom alone writing songs to being in front of other people. But it does---in fact, there's something about being on stage that's really alone. It's a two-way connection, sure, but it's not a one-on-one."
Playing for familiar faces---the sorts who will no doubt be in attendance at Sunday's release show---is one thing, but Mae says she finds it particularly liberating to play for new audiences. That's how she and collaborator Margot Durling spent their September: winning over new fans on a 17-date United States tour through cities like Nashville and Charlotte, opening for singer-songwriter Melissa Ferrick.
"They could have a comedy movie about our experience, because we were so overwhelmed by everything," laughs Mae, noting a YouTube video the pair made to document their awestruck reactions to a gigantic laundromat. "I loved it, we had such a great experience."
This fall, Mae is one of the judges of CBC Mainstreet's School of Rock competition for youth bands. She also made her feature film debut as a street musician in Rohan Fernando's Snow, screened during the Atlantic Film Festival--- an experience that she says helped her as a performer: "Any new situation, figuring out that you're able to do it...it's so good for every other situation in your life."
Hopefully she doesn't get too confident, though, lest she lose the nervous spark that makes Under Your Skin so kinetic.
Ria Mae CD release, Sunday, November 20 7:30pm, FRED, 2606 Agricola Street, $10
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