Growing up in New Glarus, when did you start to recognize that you had talent for music?
It was an instantaneous relationship with my guitar, with poetry, and with storytelling. It’s therapeutic for me. My soul was cosmically bonded to it, and I don’t mean for that to be corny because it’s the realest thing in my life. I was 11 when I picked up a guitar. I wrote a song at 15 that’s now the first song on my album. And I wouldn’t have kept it if I didn’t think that it held up with the songs that I’m writing now.
What were you interested in writing about?
A lot of it was the turmoil of my family. My parents divorced when I was 14, but for a long time leading up to that, they were on and off. It was a roller coaster ride for all of us. And it was about observing people that were close to us. It was recognizing that I was different. I was also writing my little unrequited love stories. By the time I was 16, I was already socially aware. Back when I was five I was going home to my mom and saying, “There was a girl in my class wearing tight pants that said, ‘Tasty’ on her butt. Isn’t that exploitation and sexualizing of little girls?” I got into trouble a lot in school because of my mouth. In history class, my teacher would say something and I would respond with, “Actually, white people came here, raped and pillaged, and wiped out entire nations.”
I was always bucking the system because authority doesn’t scare me. I think it’s created the person that I am today. If it weren’t for music, I’ve gone down some really dark paths with loneliness, depression, anxiety, things like that. Those really heavily coincide with being an artist. And so, you add being a young woman, in a small town, and then being queer on top of that…
Did you ever struggle with gender identity?
Gender is a really interesting topic for me because I definitely am a non-binary, androgynous person. I don’t have any problems with being called any pronouns. I recognize the importance of that awareness and those labels. But for me, I’m just like, “Gender is a construct, I don’t really care.”
What brought you to Madison?
After I graduated, I spiraled into this super-dark depression. I was having panic attacks on an almost daily basis. It got so bad, I remember sitting with my mom and being like, “Get me out of here. I am losing my mind. I’m sick of writing these songs for no one. I need an audience.” I don’t think she really understood how bad it was, until I broke down in front of her about it.
After that, she was like, “Let’s go.” We got an apartment in downtown Madison. I definitely didn’t just snap out of my depression though. It was another year and a half or so, of slowly growing out of that.
How did you get started in the music scene here?
I was starting to play open mics. That quickly turned into, “Hey, there’s this girl, Raine, that can shred the guitar.” People started asking me to be in their band or fill in. There was a point when I was 18, in six bands at one time, and trying to go to college at MATC. I was already playing all these different open mics, and making money in all these different bands. Eventually I said, “I don’t want to be in these cover bands anymore. I want to play these songs that I’ve been writing forever.”
How did you begin connecting to the queer community in Madison?
Well, part of that was that, I was showing up to some of these gigs with a girl by my side. The first people that I was meeting in Madison’s LGBTQ community were all through music. I was at all my shows like, “Hey, this is a song called Lydia. It’s dedicated to my beautiful partner.”
How about queer people in the larger music industry?
I don’t really have a lot of female friends or a lot of gay friends, which is just sad. The queer community are my people. I’ve made a couple of friends while filming The Voice that I adore. But unfortunately, the music community is so male-dominated. It seems to lean in the direction of straight guys that are playing rock & roll to get the girls’ attention. I feel like I’m this brightly colored, weird fish, swimming around in that sea. It’s that way all the time in the music scene. It’s unfortunate because I just read that for the first time ever there were more electric guitars being purchased by women and young girls than men.
Was there anything significant leading to your first shows of your own music?
Definitely. I was playing with the Clyde Stubblefield All-stars, who did a bunch of classics and James Brown covers. I was seeing stuff online about Raine Stern, guitar prodigy. For some people, that might be awesome to see. I was like, “UGH, that’s not who I am. I’m not just some girl that can play guitar.” So I started telling all these bands that I’m going to play the next two months with you, and then I’m done.
I met Josh Cohen, a six string bass tapping phenom. We’d met at an Ian’s Pizza Open Mic. I was like, “Holy heck, who is this guy? He’s really good.” And then I went up and played one of my original songs, and he had the same reaction to me. He tapped me on the shoulder and was like, “Hey, you’re really good. We should get together and play some of your original stuff.” Now he’s the bass player on my album. I’m super grateful to have him.
I remember the first really big show where everyone was like, “Whoa, did you see that Raine Stern show last night?” I was so excited. We played, and I just remember people loved it. They were like, “Whoa, we’ve never seen this before. At least not from someone in Madison.”
What drew your attention to The Voice?
That’s a good question. I didn’t initiate that relationship, they actually contacted me. When the pandemic shut everything down I was in the thick of working on my album. I was like, “Oh, no, all these festivals are getting canceled.” My girlfriend said, “Let’s start a YouTube channel. You could maybe work off commission.” So that’s what I did. I started a series called “Quarantunes,” and I made the first video. I played a little snippet of a song and I said, “Hey world, I need your help. I don’t have a source of income right now. I’m trying to supplement my income with some Venmo and PayPal from you guys.” I did that for a couple months, and it actually worked. I managed to make enough to pay my expenses. Then I had an email from an NBC talent scout. She’d seen one of my posts.
She was like, “I like your look. I like that you can play guitar. I especially like that you can sing. You should try out for The Voice.” I didn’t really have any excuse not to, so I submitted three videos. They called and said, “You made it. What’s your airport? We’re going to send you to California in a month. Between now and then, we’d like you to quarantine, we’re going to COVID test you, we’re going to make you do a 500+ questionnaire to make sure that you’re sane.”
Any first thoughts when you got on set?
It was a lot like Lydia and I had talked about it. She said, “I know you’re having some hesitations because you don’t want to have your life signed away to a contract. But wouldn’t it just be so cool to know how this show works?” She was right. One of the things that surprised me was that all of the props that they had, all these amps and guitars, you couldn’t actually use. Our actual performances on TV are real, but they have a lot of behind the scenes interviews and B roll with this stuff.
I get asked a lot, “What was it like to meet Nick Jonas and Kelly Clarkson?” I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but at the end of the day, they’re just people. I probably talked to all of the coaches for a total of 30 minutes. That’s only enough time to get a first impression of somebody. I was like, “Oh, these are my kind of people. They get the kind of obsession I have with this.”
What was your response to your audition airing?
I watched it with my brother, his wife, and their kids. They’ve got a toddler. So it was a little more hectic than I had imagined it would be, but still wonderful. My dad zoomed in. I remember it was just this moment with my dad, brother, and my girlfriend. I could see the look on their faces. I remember this emotional look on my dad’s face, where he was like, “Oh man, you really did it.”
The show forewarned us about the audience response. They were like, “You’re probably just going to want to shut your phone off for the night.” So I definitely just put my phone in another room. I remember the next time I checked it, I already had 1,500 more followers on every platform.
Where do you want the exposure to take you?
I have every intention of using my platform and music as activism. The most important issues to me are climate and sustainability. I have a music video and an album coming out. I have a plan for three albums. I have one song on the first where I use they/them pronouns intentionally. In it, talking about relationships, I said, “You thought it was a genuine kiss when I was really thinking about them.” It wasn’t me trying to be vague. I was intentionally using non-binary pronouns because you don’t really hear “them” in music.
The second album is where everybody’s going to kind of see my commentary on the world through a pop commentary on pop culture. That album is going to be called Pop Cult. When we get to the third album, that’s when I’m basically just going to be no holds barred.
How do you see The Voice helping with that?
For me, going on The Voice is getting into the industry. I’m meeting people. I’m making contacts. Right before all of us flew home, the show’s band leader Paul ran up to me and said, “Before you leave, I want to give you my personal information. I want to keep in touch with you. I see a lot of potential in you.”
He was friends with some of the women in Prince’s band back in the day. He was like, “You give me that old school vibe that’s missing right now.” This is exactly what I was wanting. I’m making all of these business connections.
If you outgrow Madison, where do you see yourself going?
This has been the topic of the day for my partner and I, because we’ve had a lot of cool people and opportunities start to come our way. The thing for me is that I’m not going to go anywhere and not already have a foundation. I’m going to continue building my base and reputation. I think I will go on tour first while having my home base here.