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Singer-songwriter Maddie Zahm on her new album, growing up religious and coming out

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Singer-songwriter Maddie Zahm has had a whirlwind couple of years, from going mega-viral with the song "Fat Funny Friend"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAT FUNNY FRIEND")

MADDIE ZAHM: (Singing) Can't be too proud and can't think I'm pretty. Do they keep me around, so their flaws just seem silly? Life of the fat funny friend...

SUMMERS: ...To coming out to her parents and the world as queer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU MIGHT NOT LIKE HER")

ZAHM: (Singing) Someday, you'll kiss a girl, and you'll panic. Some guy will break your heart, and you'll feel manic.

SUMMERS: Zahm is 25 now and recently moved to Los Angeles, and her new album, "Now That I've Been Honest," is a deeply personal look at her life. Or as she puts it...

ZAHM: It is messy, ridiculous, hilarious, which is just the way to describe my year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DO ALL THE GOOD KIDS GO?")

ZAHM: (Singing) Parker made me a leader at 13. They ran out of adults. The closest thing was me.

SUMMERS: The first track is called "Where Do All The Good Kids Go?" And she sings about growing up in Boise, Idaho, and the heavy responsibility she felt within her church, even as a young teen.

ZAHM: I would say I was pretty mature for my age - like, emotionally aware. So I was put in a lot of situations where I should have been a kid and was expected to be an adult.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DO ALL THE GOOD KIDS GO?")

ZAHM: (Singing) I lead worship when my best friend's mom died. And that was an honor, but if I'm honest, I was terrified.

I think people that go through that - it's not necessarily like you just skip being a kid. It catches up to you at some point.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DO ALL THE GOOD KIDS GO?")

ZAHM: (Singing) I was always way too young to be that good at growing up. Does anybody really know where all of the good kids go?

And I think that that's why I had like a crazy last year-ish (ph) was because I feel like I was, like, catching up on my, like, high school-, college-age choices that I never made, you know?

SUMMERS: Yeah. You touch on so many firsts on this album and meaningful, really emotional moments. And I want to talk to you about one of those songs, the song "Dani."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANI")

ZAHM: (Singing) Back in high school swimming right behind you, I liked how you looked in your blue suit.

SUMMERS: Can you tell us the story behind it?

ZAHM: I had just posted "Fat Funny Friend." It went viral. Then "You Might Not Like Her" went viral and within, like, a few weeks, I had signed to a label and was headed home to film "You Might Not Like Her," the music video. And when I got there, I ran into a friend that I had known in high school. That relationship was just very, very confusing for me. And when I ran into her, it was interesting because I had come out at that time. And I saw her, and I was like, oh, my goodness. Like, I had a crush on her. I totally was into her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANI")

ZAHM: (Singing) That we couldn't be friends. And maybe that was true. I'm a lot more than a little in love with you, Dani.

Because I was in the church and closeted, I didn't even put two and two together. And so I think that's a very queer experience to, like, realize that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANI")

ZAHM: (Singing) If you're ever single, call me, Dani.

And although I don't feel that way now, I just needed to write it to honor that part of me.

SUMMERS: You mentioned the song "You Might Not Like Her," which for a while was all over Instagram Reels and TikTok. And I do have to ask you, there was this video that you posted earlier this year that - I will just confess, I absolutely sobbed my eyes out when I saw it. And it's from the first time that you performed that song with your parents in the same room. You're singing, and the fans are singing. And it's that part in the lyrics where you talk about how someday you think you'll disappoint your parents, but they'll love you not despite but regardless. And I think it's your mom who yells back, never, just like from her chest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZAHM: (Singing) Someday, you'll think you disappoint your parents.

ELICIA: Never.

ZAHM: (Singing) But they'll love you, not despite but regardless.

SUMMERS: I know that you came out to your parents when you released that song. What has that been like for the evolution of your relationship with them?

ZAHM: Oh, God. I am going to cry. I love my parents. Like, words cannot describe how well they have handled all of this. And although in the beginning it was really difficult for my mom, especially - like, she knew me in and out. And when I came out to her, it wasn't a - no, you're not - like, I don't want you to be, or, I'm ashamed of you. It was like a - I should have seen that. Like, it was almost acknowledging that there was a part of me that she didn't understand.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU MIGHT NOT LIKE HER")

ZAHM: (Singing) Some days feel like whiplash, 180s, and you'll hate that. You'll label yourself just to take it back.

My dad, he was the toughest person to come out to, I think, because for him, he was raised in a family where that just wasn't really tolerated. And we had hired an actor and an actress to play my parents for the scene where I come out for "You Might Not Like Her." And my dad came in, and he started crying and was like, I want a chance to give you the coming out that I wish that I would have given you the first time.

SUMMERS: Oh, wow.

ZAHM: And I would like to be myself in the music video. And that, for my dad - he doesn't like being on camera. Like, this is the closest that I've been to my family ever. I wish that everybody had parents - like, especially queer kids, I wish everyone received that type of support.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU MIGHT NOT LIKE HER")

ZAHM: (Singing) Someday, you'll learn to keep your own secrets, say you're doin' OK and really mean it. You'll lose your faith a bit and question if she's you. And for a while you might not like her, but I do.

SUMMERS: I think the other thing that really shined through in this album for me is just so much queer joy and acceptance and love. Can you talk about that part of this album a little bit because it was a delight to listen to.

ZAHM: (Laughter) Oh, thanks. Gay, gay, gay - it was so gay. This whole year has been so gay. Oh, my goodness. My favorite part of the album is the way that I introduce the gay stuff, which is the "Oh Um" part.

SUMMERS: Yeah.

ZAHM: I was on the way to my first date with a girl publicly. The Uber driver starts saying homophobic stuff - not even kidding. Just out of nowhere sees a gay bar and he just starts going off. And I'm panicking because I'm thinking in my head - you know, I still got the religious trauma - I'm like, Jesus, is that you? Do you not want me to kiss a girl? Be real with me. And so I took a voice note for the girl that I was meeting up with, and he asked me like, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH UM")

UNIDENTIFIED DRIVER: What do you like in a man?

ZAHM: Oh, um...

And then I just - it kickstarts into just the gayest part of the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LADY KILLER")

ZAHM: (Singing) Romeo's a bore. He doesn't know just what you like. Your poison tastes like candy, and I'd like to take a bite.

I think I really leaned into my gay.

SUMMERS: Maddie, if the Maddie Zahm of 10 years ago, who was leading worship at that church back in Idaho and who had not yet come out - if she could see where you are today, what do you think she'd have to say to you?

ZAHM: (Laughter) She'd be horrified - oh, my God, horrified. And I am so proud of that. I think little me could have used someone like me and the people that go to my concerts.

SUMMERS: Maddie, thank you so much.

ZAHM: Thank you. This has been a delight.

SUMMERS: Maddie Zahm - her debut album is "Now That I've Been Honest."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LADY KILLER")

ZAHM: (Singing) A lady killer, lady killer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.