Sitting on her front porch, Mandi Rae stopped strumming her guitar to acknowledge a comment about the garment she was wearing.
“I get more compliments on this,” the singer-songwriter said of the full-length blue prairie-style dress she bought in San Francisco during a West Coast concert tour. “It’s from God-knows-what. The ‘50s, I guess. It looks like something Loretta Lynn would wear.”
Perhaps a bit too much like that.
“I’ve been advised to lose the prairie dresses if I don’t want to pegged as a country singer,” Mandi Rae said. “Well, I’m not a country singer. What I play or wear while I’m on stage has nothing to do with me trying to be anything or anybody other than myself.”
Determined to remain true to her personal style, she still wears the “old-timey country” dress for shows sometimes, and she still hasn’t been stereotyped. With three self-produced albums and an EP to her credit, she’s become one of Birmingham’s most in-demand musicians, having performed at local venues such as Bottletree, Stillwater Pub, Rojo, Saw’s Juke Joint and Workplay, where she opened for the Avett Brothers.
Now at work on a series of singles to be released individually as each is completed, she’s aware of how her journey has influenced her current sound.
“A lot has changed since I started out, but there will always be some thread of my own style in my music,” Mandi Rae said. “That theme is starting to be finding yourself. Go figure. I don’t know what the new Mandi Rae will be. If there is a new Mandi Rae.”
Her journey toward self-discovery began after her husband’s death two years ago.
“Having lost someone I shared my life with made me evaluate,” Mandi Rae said. “Anyone who has lost people has considered — what did they leave behind? What did people think of them? How did they live their life? What will people say about me when my day comes? Priorities start to become a huge thing in the front of your mind, and I don’t want to waste time.”
Some observers questioned her priorities when she booked, funded and kicked off a three-week concert tour not long after her husband died.
“I was single with two kids, so a lot of people wondered what I was doing,” Mandi Rae said. “When you become a widow people put you under a microscope and look for you to do crazy things. But my dad was in the military and would leave for a year at a time and nobody complained about him. My girls are my top priority and always will be, and they’re fine. I needed to do that tour. It got me back in the swing of things.”
Mandi Rae and her band loaded their instruments and equipment into Beau, her white 1995 Chevrolet van, and drove to shows in Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oregon, northern California, San Francisco Los Angeles and Denver.
At shows in Portland and Denver, they met former Birmingham residents now living in those cities.
“It was bad to the bone to see those people,” Mandi Rae said. “We had great audiences everywhere we played. Having people support your music is a big deal. People don’t realize how big. When you go to see someone, whether it’s a big well-known group or a small local band, you’re helping them.”
The influence of her western tour will be heard in the songs she’s currently writing and recording, which have a sound she calls desert rock. The title and idea for “17 Out of San Jose” were inspired by a conversation she had after a show in the “state of Jefferson.”
“It’s a place in south Oregon and north California,” Mandi Rae said. “They want to secede from their states, not the United States, like what Winston County did during the Civil War. They take a lot of pride in it even though it’s not a real state. We played a secession party in Siskiyou. We got there, and it was a campground. The stage was made of plywood with ‘State of Jefferson’ spray-painted on it. A guy was cooking burgers on a portable grill next to it.”
After the show Mandi Rae asked an audience member for directions to their next tour stop in San Francisco.
“He told us about different routes we could take for 30 minutes,” she said. “Finally I asked him, ‘Listen, which one would you take if you were me?’ He mulled it over real hard, said, ‘I’d take 17 straight out of San Jose,’ and walked off. I looked at the band, said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and that turned out to be a great, windy, beautiful stretch of road. And a great song.”
Although she’s hearing the road calling again, Mandi Rae has happily played and recorded her music in Birmingham since returning east.
“I have deep roots in this city,” she said. “There’s an old traditional feel to it. You can get lost in its neighborhoods. It’s also a nice mix of traditional Southern things and trendy, cool open-mindedness.”
Describing Birmingham as “poised to be the next big music scene,” Mandi Rae said she believes her hometown has all the essentials. “It’s a perfect storm of great bands, producers, and venues. But as much as a local proponent as I am, you can’t stay in your city and do well for yourself. Once you have done well for yourself, then you’re in position to do something for your town.”
Mandi Rae explained that she tries to do her part by promoting Birmingham while touring.
“To claim Birmingham and tour isn’t something that’s being done a whole lot, but it gives me great pleasure to say I’m from Birmingham, Alabama, and tell people about it while I’m on stage in Mount Shasta, California, or Missoula, Montana,” Mandi Rae said.
Behind her decision to record her new songs locally, Mandi Rae explained, is a desire to support her city.
“I’m much more serious about this set of songs than any other I’ve ever done,” she said. “And I’m serious about my city. If you love Birmingham, why not record locally? So many people go out of town to record, but everything you need in a studio is right here in town. I am a huge fan of Birmingham, but it’s not going to do anything if people don’t come out and support it.”
Though she doesn’t reside in Birmingham proper, Mandi Rae said she considers herself to be an advocate for its downtown.
“I think you can live in a suburb and still promote downtown,” she said. “If I can do it with two children, anybody can drive over the mountain to shop or see a show.”
Mandi Rae said she sees downtown as a destination worthy of investment from fans of live music — one that is “only just starting to take advantage of its potential.”
“It’s been a matter of oversaturation in a way,” she said. “Downtown has several great music venues and all these great bands, but there are only so many people downtown. It still needs people coming from the suburbs to see these bands.
“They’re afraid to come downtown because it’s dangerous? That’s ridiculous,” she said. “Denver has had shootings in its ritzy places, but it’s never stopped women from jogging there at night. Statistics are one thing, but you have to look at what they really represent. Besides, the bigger the influx of people wanting to experience downtown, the safer it’s going to be.”
And then there’s the other side of the coin.
“You have in another camp people who live downtown but drive to the suburbs because they believe there’s more artistic, cultural, and intellectual diversity there,” Mandi Rae said. “That’s ridiculous too. I can’t stand pretentious people.”
Occasionally, when she feels the need to get away from it all, she said she unplugs with a break from social media.
“Oh my gosh, it was great,” she said after a month-long Facebook hiatus. “I read a book. I’ve never ever been a drug user and relapsed, but this must be what it feels like. I announced on stage at a show that I had deactivated my Facebook account, and people clapped. It was kind of neat.”
She wrote four songs during the first week.
“The thing about social media is that it conditions you to turn every little thought into a status post,” Mandi Rae said. “I pay more attention to what I write when I’m not constantly sharing it. But you have to share it. I tried my hardest to promote my stuff without social media, but you have to be connected. You create a thin rapport with people you don’t know in everyday life in the hopes that they might support your music.”
Playing her own music is important to Mandi Rae, especially in recent days.
“For me the only way I can be fulfilled as a performer is to play my own material,” she said. “I love heart writing, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with these new songs, be brutally honest. Writing is a love-hate relationship. You question everything. You pick yourself apart. It’s tough, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable.”
Mandi Rae appears to be oblivious to the pressure to categorize her music.
“I try to be relevant, although I don’t write to satisfy a certain genre,” she said. “I can’t imagine being stuck in a country slot or a pop slot and have to write only that kind of music. I don’t think I could do that. I’m aiming for impact. Not that I want to be famous, but I want people to be into what I’m doing. I’m not just messing around.”