"Do you like this song?" Ria Mae turns up the radio in her car. She repeats the pattern at least a half-dozen times through the next couple hours: Breaking off from what she's saying, asking that question, turning it up, stating a fact about the song, then respectfully returning it to just-audible. "I've always been obsessed with pop radio. I always know everything, it's like people who watch sports," she says as "I Can't Feel My Face" thumps. "Like, 'The Weeknd wrote this with Max Martin.' That's why I write pop music—I don't try to, it's the only thing I listen to."
This gloomy afternoon's outing was her idea, talking as she pilots her "dadmobile" around town to the north and west ends, the tree streets, Armdale and Clayton Park, including Starbucks pee stops in the Hydrostone and Bayers Lake: "All I do in Halifax is just drive and listen to two radio stations: C100 and The Bounce."
She hasn't been here much at all in the past couple years—this trip is a vacation, though she flew in with minutes to spare for her set at Classified's Fort McMurray benefit a few nights ago. For awhile she split her time between here and a farm in New Brunswick, then Sony Music came calling and she's been running all over the world since. Now, "I pay rent in Montreal, all my stuff is still here," she says.
It's a few weeks before the release of her major-label debut, Ria Mae, but she's been preparing for such a day since she was in her early teens—through more than a decade of trying to find her place here, forging an unlikely relationship with Classified and ending up, this spring, with a Juno nomination for Single of the Year. (Up against the likes of Drake and Justin Bieber, she lost to The Weeknd.) "I almost thought it was destined not to happen because it meant so much," she says quietly. "I don't know why I never stopped. It's the only thing I've ever wanted to do."
Ria Mae dropped her last name, MacNutt, from her stage moniker back when she was writing folk-pop hybrid songs with the singular goal of getting on the radio. She grew up in Halifax, a shy introvert. At 14, she was secretly writing songs. During a summer rock camp she didn't want to attend, Pat Riley of The Swell Guys offered to listen to them and encouraged her to perform. In 2009 she released her first EP, Between the Bad; in 2011 her first full-length, Under Your Skin.
"I thought that was a pop album, I really did," she says. "It would've been sort of poppy back in the '90s. I felt it stuck out at the time. But it's not as poppy as it is now. I reached really far, that was the poppiest I could've gone. But I didn't really know how to write a chorus then."
In between those records, MacNutt won the Mountain Stage NewSong contest, an annual American competition. Too poppy for the folk scene but with no Halifax pop scene to speak of, it gave her the confidence to reach out to Luke Boyd, AKA Classified. "He was the only person I would study, because he was the only person from here who was doing it," she says.
"It was very casual when we first started, not like 'This is the next thing that's going to blow me up' or anything," says Boyd, who'd had radio success collaborating with David Myles. "Ria's easy to get along with. She was willing to try anything. And you know if you're gonna go to Class, you're gonna get something more commercial."
The result was "Leaving Today," a mid-tempo kiss-off anchored by a hip-hop beat. "It didn't get on the radio at all, except for CBC," she says. Still, "I knew I wanted to work on a whole album with Classified, but I knew he wouldn't say yes unless I had the demos to show for it. That's why I went to Montreal."
There, on a housesitting gig, she wrote the 10 songs of Ria Mae, starting with "Clothes Off," which ultimately changed everything for her. "That was just me witnessing how forward people are at bars in Montreal," she says of the song, in which she sings, "I don't want your heart, your soul, or your hand/I want your body, your body instead/Take your clothes off." Her Juno category is sales-based, meaning "Clothes Off" was one of the five highest-selling singles in Canada in 2015, alongside "Hotline Bling" and "What Do You Mean?"
There are no pronouns in it—there are on the much more overt album track "Girlfriend," among others—but if you know that MacNutt is an out lesbian, "Clothes Off" becomes a rare thing: A defiant anthem of girl-on-girl lust.
"You know those movies now where Melissa McCarthy and Tina Fey are doing almost the same movies [as men] but they're flipping the gender?" she says. "Melissa McCarthy becomes such a unique character, when it's the same character, just flipped. I think that's what may have happened with 'Clothes Off'—to me it was not revolutionary, but then people hear my voice, a female voice, and think 'Oh this is unique.'...I've never once thought 'This is so empowering.' I thought it was gonna be like a Gnarls Barkley song."
MacNutt and Boyd slowly assembled Ria Mae at his studio in Enfield while "Clothes Off" took off, making it to some well-placed ears. Now she has a record deal with Sony in Canada, and Terry McBride—who very successfully handled the career of another Haligonian, Sarah McLachlan—came out of a seven-year retirement to manage her. "People were calling me from LA, Toronto, really aggressive managers, saying 'You need to make a decision today,'" she says. "Terry said, 'Look, I don't care if you don't choose me, but here's one word of advice: Don't let anyone in the studio with you and Class. No label, no manager, no one else. Just you guys.' And that really hit home. He was the only person who said that."
"She had no manager, no label, no booking agent," says Boyd, who's also been through the independent-to-major transition. "All that stuff is cool, but Ria would've figured it out anyway. She was touring before all this stuff, doing coffee shop tours down in the States. She was gonna grind it and figure it out anyway."
Though the major-label machine now runs behind her, helping to provide the opportunities she's always dreamed of, Ria Mae's favourite part is still the music. "I feel like I do everything else because I just want to be able to write songs," she says. "Driving around Halifax and my song comes on the radio, those moments are when I go 'Fuck, I did it.' I would drive from here"—she points as she passes a street off St. Margarets Bay Road—"all the way down to Gottingen Street and I would play the radio. Then I would put my song on, 'Clothes Off,' just pretend, try to get positive thoughts, you know?" She gets quieter. "I used to do it right near Long & McQuade. And the first time I ever heard it on the radio, it was exactly there."
The only artist Tara Thorne recognized during this interview was Drake. She is the copy chief at The Coast.