June 6, 2016

Featuring: Rae Fitzgerald

Rae Fitzgerald articulates stories of death, family, and religion.

Rae Fitzgerald can thank LimeWire for the bulk of her early musical exploration. The 27-year-old Columbia, Missouri-based musician grew up “really religious, super strict and somewhat isolated” in a household devoid of secular music. Until her parents divorced when Fitzgerald was 14, traditional hymns and popular Christian music dominated her sonic world. When Fitzgerald transferred from Christian to public school, her new friends showed her the wonders of downloading music; out poured the Cat Power, Bright Eyes, Elliott Smith, and Sufjan Stevens. Though those indie folk heroes shaped Fitzgerald’s musical path, she doesn’t abandon her religious past on her latest full-length album, Popular Songs for Wholesome Families (an ironic joke made with a friend-turned-album-title).

Fitzgerald no longer believes in the religious teachings of her youth, but biblical imagery continues to compel her, and the church informs her world view. “I think it’s because you can’t really unlearn a lot the things you learn as a child,” she said. “That way of thinking, the parameters of what you’re willing to believe, they still kind of exist in a way, in your mind. You’ve shaped major views of what you think this world is and what you think the boundaries of it are. That stuff definitely persists.” Fitzgerald, who grew up in Alabama and later moved to Missouri, didn’t set out to write a thematic album, but “my family was making their way into a lot of my songs, and I wanted to explore that.” She does so on an album rich with imagery, one more experimental than her past work, though she doesn’t stray from her folk roots. Fitzgerald kept instrumentation bare on past albums in order to closely reproduce the album’s experience in a live setting, but with Popular Songs for Wholesome Families, she experiments with more instruments and electronic sounds. “I’ll always be kind of folky,” she said. “Not Americana-y, probably. But I definitely want to explore other palettes of sound and get more into dream pop, indie, maybe even shoegaze area, in future albums.”

Woven through those melodies and sounds are Fitzgerald’s narrative and vulnerable lyrics, articulating stories of death, family and religion. In “Dark Man,” Fitzgerald tells a story of her father, though not an entirely autobiographical one. “He was kind of a dark guy, and there was a weird feeling about being so isolated and so religious. Childhood is super trippy and kind of scary, so it felt like a whirlwind most of the time,” she said. “Jackal ii” describes the fallout Fitzgerald experienced after a close friend’s death. “I couldn’t get over all these visions of loss that I was having, so that song was kind of me coming to grips with some things that had happened and trying to expunge some really negative feelings,” she said. “With songs like that, it’s definitely cathartic to write it, and it can be cathartic to perform it, but performing it a lot can be really heavy, because you’re reliving this really dark imagery; you’re reliving it each night.” The shape-shifting nature of music can help alleviate the pain of reliving those moments, Fitzgerald said. “With some songs, the meaning stays the same every time I perform it,” she said. “But for some, what the words mean starts to change with certain situations in my life. So sometimes I can morph it into something a little bit more positive and contemporary.” The album, too, went through an evolution; because many of the songs were several years old, their meaning, and the album’s sonic influences, took new directions during recording. As her work evolves, Fitzgerald ultimately strives for a unique voice and sound, an album some might dislike but few would describe as derivative. “I definitely try to capture glimpses into my life, because that’s what makes the perspective unique,” she said. “I’m the only one, technically, who can write about my experiences, just like everyone, so that’s what compels me.”

Listen to Rae Fitzgerald on Soundcloud.

Quinn Kelley, a Baltimore-based writer, who has never not finished an open bag of Swedish Fish. She tries really hard on twitter.