Metro Weekly

Folk singer Crys Matthews pushes for social justice through a time-honored tradition of rich, meaningful songs

Matthews' latest album "Changemakers" wraps an urgent message in catchy, toe-tapping folk

Crys Matthews
Crys Matthews — Photo: Todd Franson

Crys Matthews has a mission. To uplift, to motivate, to spark people into action. And, like so many folk artists before her — from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez to Tracy Chapman — she has used her songs as the means to an end.

“The reason it’s called Changemakers,” she says of her just-released album, “is to be a beacon for those people who want to try to make this world better. We want to try to incite that change, and know that sometimes you just need fuel. You just need fuel for that fire to keep it burning long enough for the change to actually come.

“It’s not a sprint. It’s not a marathon. It’s a relay race. And so I just hope that people who are in this fight for justice hear those words and are inspired and encouraged to keep fighting, because we are at such a pivotal moment. We really have a chance to set things on course to be much better for the next generation. But we have to keep pushing for it.”

“Matthews’ unflinching sense of moral clarity is complemented by the tightness and precision with which the album is crafted,” wrote Metro Weekly music critic Sean Maunier in a recent review of the album. “The songs are clean and crisp, with slick production that takes nothing away from the warm timelessness of the simple guitar and banjo-driven melodies. Generations of singers have known the power in wrapping an urgent message in catchy, toe-tapping folk, and Crys Matthews can easily count herself among the best of them.”

While the 41-year-old North Carolina native has been able to get her message and her music out through virtual, she’s eagerly anticipating performing live concerts on stage before fans. Her “first in-person show in over a year” is already on the books at Virginia’s Reston Community Center on Saturday, May 15.

That concert is not a full Crys Matthews Band show — that will come later, planned for August 14, at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Va. Instead, the Reston date will be a solo show, just Matthews and her guitar — with accompaniment by fellow singer-songwriter Heather Mae. “She’ll be singing back-up and harmony,” Matthews says of the longtime singing partner who became her girlfriend two years ago. “It’s one of the nice perks of dating another musician who actually sings really, really well.”

Mae will also join Matthews on Saturday, April 24, for a virtual CD Release Party for Changemakers. “That’s going to happen online so anybody anywhere can participate.”

Matthews credits Mae for helping her stay the course as a full-time musician during the pandemic, leading the charge as they invested in good equipment and taught themselves how to perform and produce livestreamed concerts. “We have been performing virtually since the very beginning of the pandemic, since the very beginning of the lockdown,” she says. “We’re able to put on a pretty great show from the comfort of our dining room most times.”

In the end, the pandemic taught them how to live together in a crowded space along with a third person who is also in a relationship with Mae, two cats, and Matthews’ beloved 14-year-old rescue dog, Juice. “We moved in together the day before the pandemic. That was a really interesting transition. Trial by fire, right? It’s like, if you can survive this global pandemic and lockdown together, you’re probably going to be okay.”

Crys Matthews
Crys Matthews — Photo: Todd Franson

METRO WEEKLY: How would you say you’ve fared during the pandemic? Besides becoming a pro at Zoom, that is.

CRYS MATTHEWS: Better than many. Just because I had the good fortune of actually living with another singer/songwriter, Heather. Instinctively, Heather was just like, “Oh, this is definitely going to last longer than people think it’s going to last. We’re going to have to figure out how to do this online because there’s no way we can’t work for a year. There’s just no way.”

She hit the ground running immediately. And so we have a really good camera, a really good microphone. Just figuring out how to do this and do it well — make it good enough that it doesn’t feel like people have to sacrifice the connection piece of it, which is really what makes music so important. It’s not so much that the music sounds good, which is important, but it’s, ultimately, that it makes them feel a certain way.

Everything was so scary at that point, in the first month or so of the pandemic. We wanted to make sure that we could give fans some sense of normalcy and something that they could feel was relatively familiar in the middle of everything being so chaotic and unknown.

We actually created a Facebook community called Apart Together where we gathered her collective fans and my collective fans to really just give people a place to gather virtually and feel together and not so isolated and alone. Because the nature of keeping all of us safe in the middle of this thing is the isolation aspect of it, is keeping that distance, especially pre-vaccine. We wanted people to still feel like they could connect with other people so that doing the work of being helpful and proactive and isolating wasn’t so scary and detrimental to their health and their mental health.

It ended up being a really lovely space, a really lovely community, Apart Together. But ultimately, Zoom ended up being our favorite just because we’re able to actually see people — see them being connected to the music, see each other eye-to-eye in a way, and still utilize the chat. Literally being able to see the audience makes a very big difference for me as an artist, because of the type of music that I’m singing. With Zoom, you’re able to see people respond to a certain lyric, a certain message, in real time.

MW: When was the last in-person concert for you?

MATTHEWS: Second week of March 2020. I’m very risk-averse. I didn’t want to do anything before I was vaccinated and before it felt like the majority of the people in the area were getting vaccinated. It’s one thing to be concerned about me getting sick, but the idea of someone coming to one of my shows and getting sick and then not being able to recover — I just can’t even. If you talk to just about any musician, most of us are absolutely terrified of the prospect of somebody coming to our show and then getting sick or dying. It’s just a hard thing to have to grapple with because our work depends on people gathering. But the thing that is keeping people safe is not gathering. Until it felt like people could actually do it safely, and that I could also do it safely, I definitely was not trying to have any in-person shows at all.

MW: Tell me about your upbringing in North Carolina. How would you characterize your childhood and your experiences growing up and coming out?

MATTHEWS: It was really great. I grew up surrounded by family. My mom’s family is very close. Huge, huge, huge Southern Black family. Lots of cousins to play with. We grew up more like siblings than cousins really. Just had a huge open space to run around and explore and have fun in, be creative and use my imagination.

Being in the South and being a lesbian, of course, that’s a different aspect of how I grew up. I kissed my first girl when I was four years old. I’ve always known that I like girls. That’s been the thing I’ve known about as long as I’ve known what it means to be Black.

Coming out is one of those things that just kind of happens. What I think people don’t talk about is how kids discover that what they’re feeling is “bad,” because it’s not like anybody necessarily sits you aside and tells you, “Hey, don’t be this thing.” But you’re picking up on all these little societal clues and things as you’re growing up, as you’re developing, that tell you without telling you that this is a thing that needs to remain hidden, this is a thing that you should not utter out loud.

When I was in fourth grade, the only page that I actually ever wrote in this little diary that I had was just one page that said, “I think I might be gay.” My mom found that diary and ripped that page out and then never, ever talked to me about it. We never talked about that until I was an adult. I knew very, very young that I was gay and what that meant and that that was a thing I should try not to be. Just because that was what was being conditioned into me.

By the time I got to high school, I was like, “There’s definitely nothing else I can do. This is just it. This is who I am.” I had not come out but I was dating a girl online. This was back at the beginning of the AOL chatting thing. I had an online girlfriend and we were also talking on the phone and, of course, you’re young and just completely dumb and not thinking about logistics or forensic-type things like, “Perhaps this phone bill is going to be unnecessarily high and it will raise a flag for your mother.”

The girl’s mother saw the phone bill and called the number, and my understanding is that our two moms ended up communicating with one another. And by the time I got home, as I like to call it, that’s “the night the lights went out in Georgia.” I was unceremoniously outed. I was 17. It was just absolute chaos. It was such a rupture in my family life because my mom and I had always been so incredibly close. She grew up here in the South and she also is a woman with a very deep faith. My mom is a preacher. Those two things, at that time, were not things that could coexist. It was a tumultuous coming out.

I was definitely very fortunate because after I was outed with the Internet girlfriend, I ended up falling in love with one of my classmates [who] had just moved to our very tiny, very conservative town from California. She was a Navy brat who had seen the world, and her parents knew more about the world and were so affirming and incredible. They basically took me in. And the only reason I survived my senior year of high school — because it was such a scary time and it felt like everything was broken — was because of her mom. She made sure that I knew that there was nothing wrong with me, that I was okay, that it’s just, “When you grow up and get out of this little town, you will see that you are okay, and there are so many people like you.”

Crys Matthews
Crys Matthews — Photo: Todd Franson

And I did. I went to college, I joined the LGBTQ group, and went to my first drag show, and took amazing LGBTQ classes, and watched so many films, and just learned so much. I’m so grateful to her for helping me get through that year. I think about that all the time — it would’ve been so easy to have not made it through that year. And that’s the thing I always think about when kids are going through what I went through my senior year. When we look at suicide rates and things like that, it’s just such a simple thing to overcome in a lot of ways — if they just have somebody in their corner saying to them, “You are okay. You are not broken. You are not alone.” Knowing that and truly believing that can make such a difference between a kid surviving and not surviving. And I very much owe surviving that year to her, to my then-girlfriend’s mom.

I can count the number of weeks I spent at my actual home that last year. I just was never there. I didn’t get kicked out. But it was just too hard to be there because mom was so disappointed and was just so scared as well. She always says to me, “You don’t know what I was going through.” I assume pushback she was getting from her church family and things like that. She’s a very private woman. She doesn’t really talk about those kinds of things. She is one of those women who just bears her burden on her own. My mom still loved me, of course she did, but when you’re a kid, you aren’t able to perceive that. All you can see is how upset they are, and how hurt and how disappointed.

My mom and I, we now have a phenomenal relationship. We basically have a better relationship than we did before I was outed, but that took time and that took work. I think those kinds of stories are very important because so many kids and parents, when you’re in the thick of that really hard, very tumultuous part, it is so hard to even imagine the truth of things like “It Gets Better.” You can’t even fathom that that will ever be your truth. I’m always grateful to that arc of our story and our relationship, because that’s where we are now, and it’s important for people to know that that kind of thing does happen. It’s not just a thing for cool commercials and projects.

MW: I imagine you also didn’t know or see anybody that looked or acted like you.

MATTHEWS: Yeah, I didn’t see anybody like me for a couple of reasons. One, because I lived in the South and you just don’t see a lot of lesbians in general, but also being a Black lesbian, there was hardly [any] representation. I actually remember the very first and only characters I ever saw, where I was like, “Oh my gosh. That’s just like me!” And it was The Women of Brewster Place. There are two characters in that story who are Black lesbians and I was just like, “Oh my gosh. I’m not a unicorn. I’m not an alien. This is not something weird and random but a thing that people are.” I still remember what it felt like to actually see somebody like me on TV for the first time.

MW: How old were you?

MATTHEWS: Maybe 13 or 14. They were kissing each other, and I knew I liked kissing girls too. And they looked like me and I was like, “Oh my gosh. Okay. This exists. They do exist.”

MW: It’s great that you saw someone that not only looked like you, but you could relate to or identify with. Because that’s not always the case, even when you see another gay or queer person, because even with common experiences and interests, we’re ultimately a very diverse community in so many ways.

MATTHEWS: Right, we’re definitely not a monolith. For example, even just the language. My girlfriend identifies as queer. I do not. I identify as lesbian. I’m pretty firmly and staunchly planted in the old L category of LGBTQ.

MW: Do you accept “queer” as an umbrella term or synonym for the broader LGBTQ community?

MATTHEWS: I don’t personally, but that’s more of a sociopolitical thing than anything else. Because women are so historically marginalized and so historically disappeared in the grand scheme of history in so many contexts, it’s incredibly important for me to not have that also be the story in this other marginalized community.

I absolutely understand the ideology of queer consciousness. One hundred percent. As far as the general group umbrella term, it’s problematic because then you are completely isolating people whose ideology very intentionally differs from yours. It feels like another instance of the patriarchy taking over the disappearing “L.” When I am referring to my community, I refer to my community as the LGBTQ community. I don’t refer to it as the queer community because not everybody in this community identifies as queer and that’s important to me to distinguish those things.

When I say the acronym, I do include the “Q,” I say LGBTQ, because I absolutely understand the need to not be boxed in, and that the binary doesn’t really fit everybody. A lot of people who identify as queer, they don’t just date one gender. So for them, it is a much more accurate description as to who they are and who they love.

For me, it is not an accurate description as to how and who I love — lesbian is. And it’s important for me. I always push back. It’s one of my least favorite things when I’m labeled as “queer,” as a “queer artist,” because I don’t identify that way. It’s like, if I respect you enough to give you space for your “Q,” I expect the same in return for my “L.” It’s kind of as simple as that.

MW: How did you meet Heather?

MATTHEWS: Well, we’ve known each other for a long time. We first met playing at this thing called The Nine, where nine different singer/songwriters just come together for one night. We’ve known each other for eight or nine years at this point.

Four years ago, we started touring together more regularly, because she started doing social justice music and I started doing social justice music — that was where my songwriting was taking me. It made sense for us to share a show and so we did a couple of times. Then eventually we had this great idea of a Pride tour, of combining our forces — Heather’s fan base tends to skew a little bit younger than mine, because she’s much more pop-leaning and I’m very much folk-leaning, and so it was an interesting way for our fans to come together and see if our music meshed. And it did. We had a great, great run. And it kind of kept snowballing. Then in 2019, we did a full band tour. We did 38 shows in 40 days or something crazy. It was just the absolute most amazing time. We actually ended up getting super, super close on that tour and just like a romance novella from the LGBTQ archives, we ended up falling in love on that tour. One thing just led to another and that was it.

It was definitely an unexpected thing. She is very happily married. I was also married at the time. It was kind of, “What is this thing that’s happening? What are we going to do?” When the tour was over is when everything came to a head.

Our community is always like that. We redefine all kinds of things. We redefine what normal is for gender expression, and all kinds of expression. We are in what is called the polyamorous corner of our community. Heather has two partners and I’m one of those two.

MW: Does that mean you have two partners as well?

MATTHEWS: Nope. She’s my only one. For now. The year is early. Anything could happen.

MW: Even if it wasn’t a pandemic, that kind of relationship must take a lot of work.

MATTHEWS: It’s been interesting. We all three live together — Heather’s wife, Rah [Foard], who is trans non-binary, Heather, and myself — all of us and all our pets, who get along as well as we do. It’s pretty awesome.

MW: Do you each have your own room?

MATTHEWS: Yeah, Heather and Rah, they have their room, and then I have my room, which Heather says is her room, too.

Crys Matthews
Crys Matthews — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: So Heather is the queen of the house?

MATTHEWS: Yes, she is. One hundred percent. Absolutely. We’re always joking, “We should totally have a podcast,” because people are just so fascinated. You see us and you’re like, “Wait, what?” We’re just so normal and boring.

MW: I like how matter of fact you are about it. You’re not hiding it.

MATTHEWS: Absolutely. That’s one of the beauties of the LGBTQ community. It’s like, if you’ve spent a portion of your life being made to feel ashamed of who you are, you have absolutely no interest in spending another single day of your life being ashamed of who you are to anybody for any reason.

We are who we are. We love who we love. We are just a three-person family. And we just try to live our lives and be good people. We don’t anticipate anybody having too much to say about that when there’s so many other things to worry about in the world.

MW: As close as you are to your mother, how does she deal with your relationship and everything?

MATTHEWS: This one is a tough one. This one is definitely a challenge. This is going to be a slow burn for sure. This situation, from an outsider’s perspective, looks like a thing that could be very, very, very dangerous in the sense of, “Is there any security for you whatsoever?” That’s one of those things that she’s so worried about, especially because I’m her only kid. “Are you okay? Are you happy? Are you going to be safe? What happens if jealousy comes up or something happens and then you’re the odd woman out?” Her gaze is very fear-tinted and that’s where her worry is always.

MW: You’re not in any sort of bound contract in your relationship with Heather?

MATTHEWS: I am not. Nope. Just our love. That’s it.

MW: Have you talked about anything beyond that? Would you want to get married down the line?

MATTHEWS: I’ve been married once. It’s not a thing I’m looking for again or require. I am incredibly happy, and that’s enough of a contract for me right now — just to be as happy as I am and to be as absolutely loved and adored as I am. It’s just a beautiful relationship. I am 100 percent content.

MW: Let’s switch to music. When did that become a thing for you? And when did you make it your career?

MATTHEWS: I’ve been in love with music the majority of my life. I grew up in the Black church in the South. Gospel music, of course, was my first love, singing in the choir at church. And then as I grew up, in sixth grade I started playing in band and played clarinet and thought for the rest of my life I was going to be a high school band director. That’s what I went to school for, at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

The stars aligning as they do — just this one random night — my roommate at the time in college, the keyboard player for their band couldn’t play this gig and so she was like, “Can you fill in this gig for us?” To be a music education major, you have to have a pretty good proficiency on most instruments. I was like, “Yeah. I can get you through the gig. No problem.” She added, “You have to sing one song: ‘Tell Me Something Good.'” It was just the most incredible night. It was a feeling I had never experienced. I was immediately in love. That was it. I played that one gig with them, I went home, wrote my very first song on the keys, and then not long after that I entered the campus talent show, won first place, which was $500, which is like a million dollars in college currency. I thought, “Oh my gosh. This is amazing. I’m going to try to keep writing songs.” And so I did.

I absolutely can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Music has been my world ever since. I’ve been performing for about 12 years, but have been a full-time musician for five or six years now.

MW: Do you still identify as Christian?

MATTHEWS: I do. It’s almost impossible not to just because even when I don’t attend a church or anything like that, that’s just so much of who I am and how I was raised, and that is just such a deep, deep part of my world view — that notion of loving thy neighbor, of trying to make this world a better place.

MW: As far as racism, have you struggled with or experienced it firsthand?

MATTHEWS: I have never been the victim of a blatant hate crime or anything like that with regards to race. But growing up in the South, it’s inevitable. My mom bought her first home when I was five, and the part of Richlands that we moved to was very near to a known part of the county that was very heavily saturated with Klan members. And one of the first gifts that she received was a brick wrapped in a Klan newsletter.

She told me about that later, when I grew up. Personally, I’ve been very, very blessed in that I have not been subjected to that danger in a direct or explicit way. I’ve been very fortunate as far as the people that I surround myself with.

But you don’t get to grow up in the South and not understand what racism is and how dangerous racism can be for Black bodies. And because of that, I have heightened awareness. That’s why I’m always so very candid in my music, because I know that struggle. And I know that there are people who look like me who are dealing with that day in and day out on a very explicit level.

Because I sing folk music, and because my audiences are predominantly white, it’s very important for me to have those conversations in my music.

MW: What would you want to say about Changemakers in particular?

MATTHEWS: In the middle of a pandemic, it’s an interesting thing to release an album that is entirely social justice music. But this is the moment that we’re in. This is where we are.

A lot of the songs on Changemakers were written two years ago. One of them was written almost a decade ago, and it’s still so incredibly relevant. “Prodigal Son,” the LGBTQ song, is the oldest song on the album. So even though it’s topical music, the shelf-life, unfortunately — just because of the nature of society and this country — this album is going to be relevant for a very long time. The Black Lives Matter conversation alone is not going to go away anytime soon. The #MeToo conversation is not going to go away anytime soon. Voting rights, these are things that we’re going to be grappling with for a generation and trying to get right so that the next generation maybe doesn’t have to have songs like this. But for now, those songs are exceptionally relevant.

MW: Who would you say have been your influences or inspirations or role models in shaping your music?

MATTHEWS: I listen to so many different genres and so many different types of artists. But I get compared to Tracy Chapman a lot. I am a very big fan of her writing, I think she’s an incredible songwriter. I’m also a huge Otis Redding fan, and I’m a huge Nina Simone fan. And I love Melissa Etheridge. When I first heard her, it was like, “Okay, I’m definitely going to be a lesbian, there’s no getting around it. I need to know who this lesbian is that’s singing songs about women, who is this Melissa Etheridge?” I remember getting that CD and sneaking it into my room.

As a social justice songwriter, there certainly are artists I look up to and admire very much. Holly Near is a definite hero of mine. She’s so incredible, the work that she does with her art. Sweet Honey in the Rock, another act from D.C., who’s just done such amazing work in this world.

MW: What do you hope for your future?

MATTHEWS: I hope that I’m able to keep doing this work, and able to keep inspiring people. I hope ultimately that people won’t need an album like Changemakers anymore. That things will be so much better, that they won’t really need these kinds of songs, or that these songs will eventually lose their relevance. But I think that by the time that happens, I won’t even be on this planet anymore. So in the meantime, what I hope is that I’m able to keep talking and speaking and singing about truth, and doing it in a way that is so filled with hope and love, that people just want to get out there and fight this good fight, and get more people involved, and call more allies in, so that we can move closer to justice and can do so much, much faster.

MW: You use the phrase “keyboard warriors” in the title track.

MATTHEWS: It’s not my phrase. It’s people who sit behind the keyboard and are just raising these wars and have no interest in actually engaging in productive dialogue face-to-face, and are just being so cruel in a lot of ways. Literally just decimating people, just behind the safety of their keyboards in the comfort of their homes.

MW: Similar to trolls, then?

MATTHEWS: Yeah, in a sense. I think of trolls as people who are just being the nastiest, who are just not even doing anything but just calling names and just being cruel. And so much of what you run into when you’re engaged in conversations about things like the Confederate Flag and things like Black Lives Matter, is just hateful rhetoric, which is different than name-calling.

It’s kind of like those people who very cavalierly do as much damage as people who are in the streets beating up people, but they are able to do just as much harm in very nuanced dialogue from the comfort of their homes and their keyboards.

One of the interesting things about modern-day racism is the way that people are able to so casually [exemplify] it, in such a way that — unless you are Black, unless you are a person of color who is aware of all of those tropes and undercover ways that people hurl those slurs at us without hurling slurs at us — sometimes it’s so nuanced and clever that people who aren’t us don’t even see it happening right in front of their faces. And that’s the kind of thing that I want people to be more aware of, when I talk about “keyboard warriors.” It’s not just the trolls, it’s those people too.

MW: You’ve been on Patreon for a year now, and it’s become one way you’ve been able to earn money while staying focused on music and your art full-time during the pandemic. I understand you also raised the money to produce Changemakers on Kickstarter.

MATTHEWS: That’s the thing that I’ll always be so proud of. When you try to explain to somebody that there are people in this world who want better for this world, and believe in songs with messages like that, to the point that in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of so many people not working, and not having jobs, they believed in these songs enough to come together and help make this album — it’s just such a beautiful thing. It’s just beautiful.

I wish I could articulate more clearly how significant that is, because it is really something. I think that’s part of why I feel so passionately about this album, because it’s not just about me and these songs. It’s about these people, literally this army of lovers behind me, saying, “We want better for this world, and we’re going to do this one little thing to help try to make some ripple effect, so that it can be better.” It’s just such a beautiful thing.

MW: Is this the first time you’ve raised money through Kickstarter?

MATTHEWS: No. I’m an indie-folk singer, so almost all of my albums are crowdfunded. But this was my biggest ask. And to have it be successful — and we actually exceeded our goal by a lot, which was really great — it allowed me to get a publicist and to get a radio promoter for it. To have so many people believe in it so fervently, I mean it’s just so beautiful.

Crys Matthews performs the Virtual Changemakers Release Concert on Saturday, April 24, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20, or $45 including VIP Afterparty, or $75 including VIP Afterparty and a Limited Edition Changemakers Merch Bundle. Visit www.crysmatthews.com.

Matthews’ first in-person live show is set for Saturday, May 15, at 8 p.m., on the Center Stage at Reston Community Center, 2310 Colts Neck Road in Reston, V Tickets are $15 to $30. Call 703-476-4500 or visit www.restoncommunitycenter.com.

Changemakers is out now wherever you stream music.

Read More:

Brandy Clark, out and proud country star, celebrates her most personal record yet

Year of the Serpent: Musician serpentwithfeet is ready to share his joy

Colman Domingo brings his masterful ‘A Boy and His Soul’ to Round House Theatre

Support Metro Weekly’s Journalism

These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!

Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @ruleonwriting.

Leave a Comment: