Photo: Steven Sebring

Q&A: LeAnn Rimes on HRC Ally Award, Avoiding Political Talk & the Closeted Country Stars Who Motivated Her Activism

'(Living) in the South... I Just Wanted to Run the Other Direction'

By Chris Azzopardi

The moonlight can wait - LeAnn Rimes is busy fighting for our rights.

On a recent afternoon, the country-prodigy-turned-genre-bender calls in after finishing her daily meditation (hey, times are tough), a practice she started a year ago.

"Let me come back to life," the 34-year-old singer begins. Then, Rimes walks us through her devotion to LGBT activism just weeks before being honored with the Ally for Equality Award at the 2017 HRC Nashville Equality Dinner on March 25.

Congrats on the Ally Award, LeAnn!

Thank you! I'm very honored and very emotional, actually. (Laughs) I think I've cried a couple of times thinking about it. I know I'm gonna completely ruin my makeup on stage. I've won many awards, but nothing feels as good as when you're being honored for your heart.

How does this honor feel compared to winning a Grammy?

To me, it stands above everything. It's different. Music is amazing - that is a part of my heart, obviously - but when you've left something behind on a different level than just creating music, it's very special, so I'm very honored.

A gay couple recently got engaged at your London show. What was it like experiencing that and sharing that moment with your fans - and can you find me a husband?

(Laughs) I'm sure I can. It's so funny: My mom's always like, "Do you have any straight friends?" I'm like, "I don't think I do." So, I'm sure I have a husband for you lying around somewhere! (Laughs)

But it's amazing to be a part of someone's memories like that. Music is so powerful, and I've always heard stories from people that I've been a part of their wedding or a funeral or whatever it may be, or they remember their first love or their first kiss because my song was on, so to be a part of someone's fabric of their life is really beautiful. To have that happen live was very cool, and they were so sweet. Love is so beautiful, and to have them experience that with me, and for them to allow me to be even a part of that moment in their life, was pretty incredible.

Considering the resistance to marriage equality, do you see that moment as a political statement?

Yes and no. Since 13, when I started, I've always been a huge supporter of the LGBTQ community, and I think maybe people would've thought from the outside looking in that I've always tried to make a statement about that, but for me it's just about love and it's about equality and it's about doing what's right and relating, human to human. It's really that simple. I don't understand why it's so complicated.

What prompted your passion for LGBT issues?

Well, first off, my uncle was gay and he passed away from AIDS when I was 11, so that propelled me, especially (living) in the South and (it) being such an aversion, like, this is a disease. I just wanted to run the other direction, and I just never quite understood it.

I remember meeting a lot of my fans who were young - my age - and I knew that they were gay, obviously. So, when I'd have fans come back and they were these young gay guys and girls, it was just something I related to. I just understood, especially being so young and being in the spotlight, because I was always judged and it was very intense in that way. So, in some ways, I understand some of that judgment from a different point of view, but it was just that they related to my music and I related to them - something just clicked.

How did you reconcile your pro-gay stance with the fact that your outspokenness may vex your conservative fan base?

That's the thing: I was young and I was a country artist at the time, and that was when people were hiding it just to be an artist in the country community, but it was something I dove right into. It felt very natural. It was about humanity, it was about love. To see people hiding it and to have known that people were hiding - people that I loved and cared about - and to see the struggle they were going through just to be an artist, I think that fired me up a bit. I've never really thought about it... but even before music, before fans, comes the humanity of everything and doing the right thing. That always comes first to me; my career comes second. The heart's what I wanna leave behind.

I've known publicists who've distanced country stars from LGBT press to avoid potentially alienating their conservative fans.

Oh yeah.

It still seems difficult for country artists to be gay-affirming. Even politically, it's interesting that while the entertainment industry as a whole has taken a stand against Donald Trump and his hateful rhetoric, country artists seem hesitant to do the same.

Yeah, even I don't like to get involved in all of that, although I have very strong opinions about it, obviously. I feel like... that's a hard one for me. I think people know, obviously, with my support of the LGBTQ community, where I stand, and I definitely don't support any kind of bullying or bigotry or anything that is not equality. I've definitely been shocked by a lot of things that I've seen. (Laughs) That's putting it lightly.

But you draw the line at making any political statements?

Yeah, I do, I think, at the moment. There might be a time when that changes, but for now, when I talk about things, I want to talk about them from a place of love because I feel like there's a lot of anger in this world right now. When I do speak about things... and I know I will... I'm sure I will in the future talk about political stuff, because I know myself, and I know there's so much stirring underneath that's inside of me that believes very passionately about certain things, especially about LGBTQ issues. So, I know that will happen. But I wanna always make sure I do it from a place of love because I think that's the only place to make change, that's the only way somebody's gonna listen.

Your new album, "Remnants," makes many gestures and statements about love. Is this release your reaction to what's happening in the world right now?

With this album, I feel almost secondary to the message of the record. And with my last record (2013's "Spitfire"), I felt it was very much an artist making an album about their personal story. There's all of me all over this record, but I feel like a vessel for whatever decided to come out. And there was so much love.

We were taking a look at love from so many different angles - giving it, receiving it, standing up for it - and I guess it was kind of in response to what was going on, seeing so much negativity out in the world. I made a conscious effort as an artist this time to put out something that could bring joy and make people think a bit. Like the line in "Love Is Love Is Love" - "I just want to start a conversation."

What's the story behind "Love Is Love Is Love"?

I was at (producer) Toby Gad's house, and he just put on a groove and was playing this little melody, and I started singing "love is love is love is love," and that kicked off the song. Obviously, that (line has) been spread around social media and that's a big thing, and I guess it just stuck with me. And the LGBTQ influence - I wanted to take a stand on that in my own way. I felt like I wanted to stand up for love not in any political sense but maybe in more of a spiritual sense.

You were 14 years old when "One Way Ticket" was released, a song that's easy to relate if you've ever sought to be more fearless. As someone who, years later, would live that song and take her own path, does singing it now feel different? Are you singing it within a new lived-in framework?

Oh, wow, yeah. And now that we've arranged it the way we have, it's much more meaningful and is a deeper experience for me to perform. There are times when I've cried singing it (laughs), because I really have - I've lived every one of those words, and to have that fight in you - "I will fall in love again because I can" - and to have that spark in you that never goes out, I mean, I've been through it and I understand how dark it can get. I think I come from that place when I sing it, and it is really powerful. It's so interesting how an arrangement can completely change a song like that, but it's definitely much deeper for me.

You guest judged "RuPaul's Drag Race" in 2014. Was that everything you dreamed it would be?

I loved that! Oh so fun! I love (RuPaul). He's so fun. I've known him for a while, actually. I don't even know if he remembers this, and I forgot what award show - maybe it was the Grammys, maybe the AMAs - but we were by Tower Records off of Sunset and somehow he ended up in my limo! (Laughs) He was just the sweetest person in the world.

And tall!

He's huge!

What's your memorable run-in with a LeAnn impersonator?

I don't know if I've seen a LeAnn impersonator! I've seen drag queens do my songs, though. I was told that at a club in Nashville after the HRC Dinner, at Play, they're gonna be doing a whole LeAnn Rimes night. I'm sure I'm heading over there, so hopefully someone will dress up as me! (Laughs)

What is your advice for an aspiring LeAnn queen?

I don't know!

They should probably practice meditation.

They meditate, yes! They become very neurotic - just kidding (laughs). No - work it. Have fun. I'm having more fun on stage than ever, so just being free in the moment is definitely a way to kind of be a little bit more like me.

As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyonce. Reach him via his website at http://www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).
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