“When you go from zero to warp speed in 0.2 seconds, and everyone knows your name and your face, you’re supposed to know how (to handle it),” says LeAnn Rimes, thoughtfully considering her start. "When you’re at the top, you’re supposed to do all that. I was a child who was dependent on so many people.
“Then my parents got divorced when I was 14. When I needed my mother most, she got taken from me. I didn’t know who to depend on. From the outside looking in, it was great. But that’s a lot of people’s judgment (weighing on me); I didn’t want to let my parents down, all the people depending on me, all the people watching.”
Rimes, who became a cultural sensation with the Patsy Cline-evoking “Blue,” as well as the youngest and first country artist to win the Best New Artist Grammy, is anything but launching into a sob story. Cautionary though this clear-eyed revelation may feel, the woman receiving the Human Rights Campaign’s 2017 Ally for Equality Award, presented to LGBTQ activists including Katy Perry and Meryl Streep, is finally owning up to the reality of having the fairy tale thrust on you.
For the multi-platinum singer, it was in honoring those conflicts that she found her strength. If global fame – and Rimes has sold in excess of 44 million albums around the world – and sold out concert tours seem glamorous, the young woman at the center of it all often found herself alienated from her needs, struggling to keep up and trying to work through her fears.
“I’ve been through hell and back,” she concedes. “Picking myself up when I was a kid, I had defense mechanisms. I built big walls. I built big lies, to myself especially. There was a defense mechanism to shut off parts of myself, so I could just shut things off and move on.
“There are times from when I was 14 to 17, things I don’t remember. People tell me these stories and I have no recollection. But I’m not complaining. I wouldn’t change anything, because it’s how I became the person I am now.”
Who she is now is compelling. At 34, she has emerged from a longtime Nashville record deal to sign with RCA UK in England. She’s won American Music Awards, Country Music Association Awards and Dove Awards, shifting from child darling of country music to an inspirational pop-leaning artist with a greatest hits of dance remixes. But most importantly, with albums Spitfire and Remnants, she’s emerged as an undeniable songwriter who uses her fear to create songs that speak truth to life.
“I used to write poems all the time when I was little,” she says. “I wrote my first songs at 9 or 10; but when I got my record deal, people would say, ‘What does she have to say?’ So I just sang other people’s songs.”
Image credit: Steven Sebring
She pauses, on the phone from somewhere in the bowels of Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Casino where she will perform later that evening. There is no rancor in her voice, no passionate resentment of being kept down, though it’s an obvious reality unspoken in the exchange. As she continues, you can hear the release in her voice, “At some point, I had things I wanted to say, and I couldn’t find the songs. That hit me in the core: I needed to sing these things.”
Seeking writers who wanted to draw out a deeper truth, the turning point came with “What I Can Not Change,” an anthem of acceptance of one’s own faltering places, as much as other people’s. Laughing, she marvels, “It was like a therapy session. And once I wrote that, it was like a dam broke and everything poured out.
“My friend and cowriter Darrell Brown used to tell me, ‘If I could only find that place from just the left or right of where I sang from, I’d find my voice as a writer.’ I did, and it changed everything.”
Not that there wasn’t plenty to draw from. For the young woman whose last true country foray was the gender-flipping Lady & Gentlemen, where the power-soprano sang material made prominent by men, she emerged a writer and artist whose songs filled up the cracks between genres, with songs that fell somewhere between Patty Griffin and Emilie Sande. Slightly pop, slightly heart wrenching, the 30-something yearned to empower herself – and the listeners – through song.
The evolution began with a hard thump on her 30th birthday. Rather than celebrating all she’d accomplished, her new husband and two stepchildren, Rimes found herself checking into a facility for anxiety and depression. The expectations had become so overwhelming, she’d come to a place where she couldn’t be alone.
“My first night in treatment, I cried all night,” she recalls. “There was so much terror inside, and anger, and fear. There so much pain that had just been pushed down, down, down. It was a turning point for me: easily one of the scariest things in my life, but also the moment where I realized I had to take care of myself.”
And in the mix of all that, there was also the shame. Not just the shame of not being able to “handle it,” but the idea that she had let it come to this.
In a voice that makes it hard to believe she’s ever been anything but a swan, she allows, “There’s always shame underneath all of that, but I was stronger than the shame. I wanted better for myself, and for the people in my life.”
That knowing also threaded her will to get well, to get sorted out with an empathy for all those confronted by bullying, marginalizing and judgment.
“We are taught and bred in fear,” she explains. “We are controlled by fear, and the best thing I’ve ever done for myself is when I feel fear in my body, I go right into it. For years, it felt like everyone was out to get me. The world was a very dark and scary place. But I look myself right in the face now, and I’m learning to love myself how I am, through all of it.
“And I’m softer with myself now. It makes a difference. I’m definitely more alive. I feel things and allow myself to feel things, which is scary sometimes, but if you feel them, you can pass through them.
“I’ve never really allowed myself to stand and look back, to look at how strong I was, and where I’ve gone. Getting through (these things) is a part (of surviving), and you need to recognize that. There’s a confidence from going within, and seeing that you did handle these things, and can do even better.”
With that resolve, Rimes began shifting her work life and her priorities. Music came into a new kind of focus, driven by her songwriting breakthrough and the recognition that for all of her vocal prowess – Streisand is a fan – it’s what she had to say that would truly lift her artistry up.
Spitfire’s steel guitar-stained “Borrowed” finds her raw, vulnerable and wanting. From those earthy, low register opening notes that turn quicksilver bright and weightless, the emotional transparency of a woman in love with someone else’s man shines a light on the complex emotions that drive needing and knowing. By the time she descends into the bridge of facing the inevitable “how much time is left ‘til you tell me…,” this isn’t just a cheating song, but a consideration of how we all face things – hurt, love, life – far more extreme than ever intended.
If Spitfire is reckoning with the end of her first marriage, falling in love – and refusing to buy into the gossip, refusing to relinquish her own happiness – and honoring pain’s place in growth, then Remnants was writing her way to where she hopes to go.
"‘Borrowed,’ especially, was in the moment. It was the first time I really looked at myself, and experienced things, understood things that were happening in the moment, and through the writing, I was right there in it.
“Remnants’ songs I wrote to step into,” she says. “I didn’t know it until I wrote them. Owning yourself as a woman gets you to that place where you have to own how hard it is to own that.”
On the grand piano and vocal “Mother,” a genre-defying song which evokes Kate Bush and Tori Amos in their prime, that translucence flutters through the confession of her own lack as a daughter, the transference of pain passed from generations and expressing the acceptance of knowing her mother did the best she could. It’s a complicated dance, crowned by asking for forgiveness.
“I was so mad at my mother the day we wrote that. We’d had a horrible fight in the car,” she confesses. “I was telling (coproducer) Mark (Batson) about it, and he said, ‘You’ll get through it.’ And I said, ‘No, I won’t.’ We started talking and writing, and the song evolved – because it is all about acceptance.
“It’s complicated on so many levels. But when you strip it down, when I look at my mom as a human being, look at her faults and challenges, you see something else come into focus. That’s what matters.
“I’m a grown woman. I don’t need her to be ‘a mother’ to me in that sense. (In writing this), it was nice to drop that need, and have this woman-to-woman relationship with her. When you start there, I was able to look through her life, and forgive my grandmother for the pain she left my mom with.”
And on the mid-career Mariah Carey-esque, handclap punctuated and gospel vocal driven “Love Is Love Is Love,” healing and acceptance abound. Rimes’ supple voice rises, falls and almost bounces, suggesting we confront those darker selves with the lyric “I’m just trying to start a conversation” that leads to a bridge of “Hate the hate, and love the hater/they’ll come around, sooner or later/ I believe it with my whole heart…”
“I’ve always been an ally of people who get beat up emotionally, who are harassed,” she says. “My uncle passed away from AIDS when I was 11, and being from the South, no one accepted him. He was the sweetest man, and people didn’t see that.
“I grew up Southern Baptist, and I’m a very spiritual person. But I kept asking my mother, ‘Why would God leave these people out? Why? He wouldn’t not love some of his children.’ That made no sense to me. People are very comfortable in their judgment box, and they don’t know how to handle (differences).
“But when I open that (thinking) up, I really see a world where there’s no difference. We are all so unique, but – and it’s cliché – I don’t care about that stuff, except to see how interesting the differences make all of us. In the end, we are all human and that connection is what matters.”
Even before Rimes truly knew that cognitively, she understood. Laughing with knowing, she recalls all the little boys who used to come backstage at her concerts. “I think their moms thought they were in love with me, but really they were in love with being me. They wanted to be in my shoes – or part of my world – only they couldn’t be out, or might not even have known (their sexuality) yet.
“I was being judged a lot then, and I could see it: the fear of what people would think. I felt like an outcast and felt different, so I could relate to them. I loved them just for them, but also for everything they were feeling.”
With this newfound clarity, Rimes is finding new thresholds within her music.
“When you start out like I did, (singing) becomes a trap. You get into a mindset of, ‘If I can’t do it right, I don’t want to do it. People are going to judge me.’ I wanted no part of it. But now, when my heart is open and I get onstage, I’m really letting go. It’s the lyrics, and it’s not about me any more.
“Every night, to sing ‘I will build the kingdom from my remnants…’? That’s really inspiring to me – but the people are really captivated, they’re in it with me now. I’ve never had this kind of joy with music. After all this time, it’s a whole new feeling.
“I can make people feel every emotion. But take them on that ride? The control of my voice, you’re right, I’ve always had that. But now there’s a fearlessness from this shift I’ve had. Now I trust that the technique is there, but it’s about sharing myself. I get onstage, and it’s my whole being, and people are experiencing my heart.”
(Cover image credit: Steven Sebring)