Hannah Thomas on playing with Amy Ray and growing up gay in the South

Hannah Thomas doesn’t like labels. That sound be why descriptions of her music have run the gamut from old-school country to classic rock, but mostly she’s been using her singing and songwriting skills to make a little more sense of the world and to appeal to what she likes to call “hometown audiences.”

Growing up in the South, her musical roots took shape, inspired by everything from the vinyl she found in her family’s closets to the golden oldies dominating the A.M. dial. For the past 18 months, she’s played more than 200 live shows around the country, cultivating a loyal fan base and earning attention from elder stateswomen in the industry, like the Indigo GirlsAmy Ray, with whom she duets on her newest studio album Goodbye on Wasted Time.

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Being open about her sexuality hasn’t always been easy in her home life, but she seems to have channeled even the most strident struggles into authentic songs about life, love and heartbreak that embody her unending discipline for the medium and for her own preservation.

Having shared the stage with Marti Jones, Steve Boggard and Antigone Rising, among many others, she took a little time to open up about her latest charitable efforts, what Amy Ray told her about being out and why she’s always loved the Spice Girls.

AfterEllen.com: You’ve committed to donating all proceeds from the sale of your single “New March” to Thistle Farms, a Nashville-based organization that helps women who have been homeless learn job skills. Why is this an important organization to you?

Hannah Thomas: I believe that all too often the women who end up in the Thistle Farms program are an overlooked population. I believe that everyone deserves a second chance, anyone can make a mistake and Thistle Farms is way to help teach women how to look at life in forward, instead of reverse.

AE: What is it about the song that connects on that level?

HT: The song is definitely about looking forward, looking at your life and saying this is where I was, and this is where I hope to be, and I am going to find the way to get there.

Hannah CJ Photography

AE: Much of your music has a sense of advocacy to it. What inspires your songwriting?

HT: Everything – the world around me, the life I live, the people I meet. Ultimately, I believe in fairness, although the world is certainly not always that way, so I guess that is where the advocacy comes from. I know my music can’t change the world, but if it helps one person, than it was worth it.

AE: Two years ago, you won the Georgia Lottery’s All Access Music Search and recorded your EP with Capitol Records. What was that experience like?

HT: It was a great experience getting my music out to a large audience. The TV show associated with the contest aired across the state several different times. It was great to meet so many talented people and to be able to record at Capitol, where so many iconic performers had recorded; it was just amazing!

AE: What’s behind your new album Goodbye on Wasted Time? And what made you decide to ask fans to help fund the project? 

HT: My fans had been asking for me to record new songs and it was really the best way to get the music out. With Kickstarter, fans basically preorder the album, or get other great rewards to donate money in advance of the record being made. The title comes from looking back and taking what you learned from experiences, both good and bad, and moving on.

AE: How did you end up connecting with Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls?

HT: We have some mutual friends and I have been a fan since I was a kid. I also share some band members with the Indigo Girls’ touring band. It was a dream come true to have her sing on my album and it was also exciting that I recorded some background vocals for her upcoming solo album.

Hannah B&W

AE: Congratulations! Did she offer any advice about being out in the industry?

HT: We haven’t really talked about it much, she just told me to be myself. But just looking at her career, and seeing the Indigo Girls still playing in front of thousands of people every night after nearly 25 years in the business is inspiring.

AE: What’s the experience been like for you? Why did you make the decision to come out publicly?

HT: It’s been mostly positive. It was about honesty. I grew up in a part of the country where people didn’t talk about such things, so being out was important to me. Being honest about who I was didn’t change who I was, but it changed how I felt about myself, and if I can help one person feel better about who they are, then I have done the right thing.

AE: I understand that when you came out to your mother, it didn’t go as well as you may have hoped. Has she come around? 

HT: Out of respect for my family’s privacy, I can’t answer this one. Thanks for understanding.

AE: Well, coming out personally and professionally can be life changing. Does your sexuality and these more challenging experiences inform your music in any way?

HT: I can definitely be more honest in my songs. I don’t have to filter my feelings or play the pronoun game. “Church on Friday” was born of a lyric I had in my head for years, but was too afraid to sing out loud – “I drank the devil’s water. I kissed the preacher’s daughter” – and when I sang it for my friend Emily Kate Boyd, we wrote that song. She asked me what was I waiting for, and then I had the courage to sing it.

AE: When did you first know you were a lesbian? Who was your first crush growing up as a girl in the small town of Covington, GA? 

HT: I always like the Spice Girls. I really liked Ginger Spice – I didn’t know why, but I liked her! It wasn’t until years later I realized what that meant.

AE: What it hard hiding your secret?

HT: Of course, I worried about what people would think, but once I started to be true to who I was, I found that people like honesty.

AE: Did you ever worry it could negatively impact your career?

HT: There are people that will tell you how being out has hurt their career, but I have great fans and friends and many have supported me since I was 16 and starting doing music.

AE: These days, where do you find your musical inspiration? 

HT: I find inspiration all around. I have spent the last 18 months in the car, seeing places from New York City to Oxford, MS, and many places in between, so the base of experiences I have to draw from has expanded. Every place is different, but people are (in many ways) the same. Everyone has a story, and being able to write a song that people can relate to, no matter where they are from, is what it’s all about.

AE: Are there any artists you would like to work with?

HT: I would love to work with Melissa Etheridge, Steven Tyler, Jennifer Nettles and Dave Grohl – they would all be at the top of my list.

AE: What’s on your own playlist this week?

HT: I have been listening to a lot of Melissa Etheridge and Ryan Adams this week. The new Jennifer Nettles single is amazing – can’t wait for that album to come out! It changes from day to day.

AE: How has music helped you deal with life events?

HT: Music has always been there for me. I have songs that have helped me through the hardest times and music that is the soundtrack to the best times. I can’t imagine life without it.

AE: How would you describe your music? Do you consider yourself a country, folk or rock artist? Does the label that even matter to you?

HT: I consider myself an artist. I don’t really think about genres when I am writing. When I let go of the filter, I let go of the idea that music had to fall into a category. Years ago, A.M. radio stations played pop, country and rock on the same station, I hate that we ever let go of that idea.

AE: You’ve said that your song “Pacifier” is about refusing to hide. What inspired the song?

HT: It’s letting go of all of the things you needed to say to feel a sense of freedom. It’s about not living your life to please other people, but speaking your truth and being who you are.

AE: Is there a lyric you’ve written that most embodies who you are as a person and an artist?

HT: “God help my mama, I turned out like my Dad.”

AE: What’s the tour been like for you? Any memorable moments from the road so far?

HT: Seeing new people every night. Going to a new city and having people come and sing my songs always amazes me. Of course, celebrating my birthday playing with Amy Ray this year was pretty cool! The fact that I get to do what I love for a living makes every show great in it’s own way.

AE: The industry has changed so much since bands like the Indigo Girls first got started, when playing live shows was really about connecting with fans. How much are you willing to share about yourself on social media? 

HT: I try to let people into a slice of my life. I like to make videos from the road and share the experiences I am so lucky to have. There are people who never comment on my page – they will come up and ask how was Chicago, or what I thought of the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, and that’s when I realize that people are paying attention to what I am doing. The business now is more about connecting with your audience than guys in suits in offices half the country away, and I love that. When folks like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis can have two number-one hits and not be with a label, I know that people are getting to decide what they want to hear instead of record executives, and I really think that is the way it should be.

AE: What’s the most unusual request or message you’ve received from a fan?

HT: Well, a seven-year-old asked if I would be her girlfriend the other day, as long as I didn’t mind she had a boyfriend.

AE: That’s very sweet. When you were growing up, what music did you listen to?

HT: My Mom and I listened to Tina Turner and The Judds; my Dad let me listen to Black Sabbath and Aerosmith when she wasn’t around. My uncle introduced me to Smashing Pumpkins and my world changed! On my own, I found Tori Amos, and later, the Indigo Girls. So now I think you can see why my music doesn’t really fit into any one genre.

AE: Definitely. What’s the one thing you miss from home when you’re on the road?

HT: Jessie, my roommate’s dog.

Find out where Hannah Thomas is playing near you at hannahthomasband.com.