In 2016, Heather Mae decided to dedicate her music career to helping others.
That decision informs every note and lyric on her latest LP, Glimmer. The album is a collection of songs dedicated to the theme, "Feel to Heal," and each song is crafted to cut through walls of shame, embracing the pain that comes with mental illness, addiction, and sometimes just being alive.
While many artists who try to create art that "helps others" often fall into the trap of creating work that feels prepackaged and insubstantial, Mae shatters this expectation with direct honesty, unfiltered emotion, and elegant, carefully crafted alt-pop melodies. By the end, it's clear that there's no surface-level empowerment to be found here. The message isn't, "Decide to start feeling great today!" Instead, sometimes the songs are about unconditional self-acceptance (Mae's self-released EP was called "You Are Enough"), but even more often, her message is simply: Survive. Survive in a world that makes it clear every single day that it wasn't made for you. Survive and fight to carve out a space for yourself in a world where maybe, sometimes, you can thrive.
I Am Enough - Heather Mae (Official Music Video) www.youtube.com
Mae has done her fair share of surviving, and she uses her own experiences to inform her work, turning the loose ends and broken pieces of her own story into a vehicle for connecting to others. She delves into the messy actuality of what life is like while living with chronic mental illness, taking care to address different facets of the issue. "The album is dedicated entirely to mental health and I strategically wrote from every angle possible," she told Popdust, adding that the record is "dedicated to [shattering] the stigma surrounding mental illness by owning my crazy."
Glimmer is full of stories about her experiences as a queer, plus-sized, bipolar woman, and on it, Mae traverses topics often left undiscussed in typical mental health discourse—such as medication, addiction, and the ongoing, unpredictable nature of mental illness. She talks about the effects of the antipsychotic medication she took to help with her Bipolar Disorder on "Feelin Crazy," which was inspired by its "sometimes maddening, sometimes comatose side effects."
The song "In My Head" tackles addiction. "I wouldn't be a mental health advocate if I didn't shine light on addiction," Mae said. For a track about the all-consuming effects of substance abuse, it's surprisingly upbeat and sensual. "The song began as a gloomy piano ballad, but eventually became the dark sexy electric ballad it was begging to become," she explained, adding that the track is her favorite on the album. "As a lover of late 60s rock music, I asked [my producer] to channel the iconic guitar solos of that age," she said, "and it's the closest I'll ever get to living my Almost Famous dreams."
She also discussed the song's forthcoming music video. "As a kid, I would sit for hours watching music videos on MTV and VH1. Brainstorming about this song, I thought about the music videos I danced to in my room and there was one image that stuck out in my mind: a thin woman, clad in lingerie, dancing on a car," she said. "It was images like this, alongside the lack of positive representation of fat bodies, that brainwashed me to believe that fat bodies like mine are not sexy, desirable, or wanted...which is bullsh*t. I wanted to take back that narrative and smash it to the ground."
Filming the video required her to dance for the first time in a decade, but she decided to go ahead with it after imagining what that would've meant to her younger self. "I thought about what it would have been like for me—a fat, bullied 12-year-old watching a proud, independent, demanding, fierce, sexy, fat, queer woman, dancing and singing her song about being lusted and longed for by more than one person—and I felt a kind of primal feminine power as I danced under the full moon that night," she said. "This music video is 100% dedicated to any woman who has ever been told she isn't sexy. We set our own standards of what it means to be beautiful and good enough and sexy and my standard is me."
That balance—between shame and power, fear and hope—is a constant dichotomy on the album, but often these two aspects coexist in harmony. Songs like the subdued, sultry "Glimmer" offer particularly powerful glimpses into what it feels like to have your mind lash out at you day in and day out; but in a song that's about struggling to get through each day, there are glimpses of light and hope.
Hope and healing are pervasive theme throughout the album; whenever things seem to be getting too dark, a glimpse of hope and strength appears. The breathtaking "Smoke Signals" and "I'm Still Here" are twin anthems about the messages and affirmations that help us go on, even when it seems impossible—the little lights in the darkness, the glimmer in the midst of all the smoke. As Mae belts out her harmonies over triumphant guitar at the end of "I'm Still Here," it feels like an exhale and a rising, a releasing of old pain and a reaffirmed dedication to fighting through whatever comes next.
There's also a lot of healing and love to be found in these songs, both for Mae's listeners and for her partner. "You Are My Favorite" is a gorgeous, heartfelt ballad, and it's one of the album's sweetest moments. "One night, as I was drifting off to sleep in the arms of my wife, I said to her 'You are my favorite,'" she said. "Suddenly, in my mind, I could hear myself singing a melody I had never sung before, singing the phrase 'you are my favorite word,' which turned out to be the first line of the song. 'Go to your piano,' I heard myself say."
An hour later, the song was done. "The recorded version is the exact version that was written that night. Not one single edit," she said. "I pulled my wife out of bed and carried her to the piano, played the song for her, and said 'millions of LGBTQ couples will walk down the aisle to this song that I wrote about you.'" Though it's a love song, it's also a protest song. "Until the day every nation passes anti-discrimination laws for LGBTQ+ people—big and loud LGBTQ+ love will always be an act of protest," Mae said. "One day, I hope, my songs about my wife will be seen as boring love songs, just like every other love song out there, but until that day, I will sing of our love proudly and loudly."
Though particularly powerful because of its subject matter, Glimmer also shines sonically. Many of the songs are influenced by modern alternative and pop as well as vintage '60s and '80s sounds, and they range from soulful, choir-driven ballads to upbeat, electric R&B. Mae's voice is also a standout feature. Sometimes a guttural scream or growl, sometimes smooth and effortless, her voice seems capable of any feat or style, and it's not hard to see why she's been compared to Sara Bareilles and the like.
At its heart, the album is a work of compassion, standing in solidarity with everyone who can relate to it—which is probably a lot more of us than you might think. "I had a goal when I was writing these songs—for (fans) and for me," said Mae. "The messages I get are not, 'Yeah, I partied to your songs this weekend and I went on a road trip and blasted your songs.' What I get is, 'I didn't commit suicide 'cause I listened to your song' or 'I came out because of you' or 'I left my abusive partner because of your song.' Those are the messages I get. So f*** this music business. As long as I'm doing the work of keeping people alive, I'm successful."