I’m more than who I hold hands with, sings Kristen Merlin. Her new song “Shame,” co-written with Catt Gravitt and Jake Rose, depicts both internal and external pressures to be authentically oneself. As part of the LGBTQ+ community, Merlin, who rose to national prominence on the sixth season of “The Voice,” draws from her own experiences navigating the country music industry in Nashville.
“I’ve felt like I’ve always been a different animal in this whole thing. I don’t look the same. I don’t sound the same. I never think of it as parading around in rainbows, but I’ve never been shy to be myself,” she tells American Songwriter over a recent Zoom call. “I’ve always wanted to let music shine first and then people get to know me. It’s definitely a part of me, but it doesn’t make up all of me. That’s kind of what the song talks about. There’s so much more than what meets the eye. We judge people, and we don’t even mean to.”
What’s it to you who I love / What’s it got to do with who I am, she prods with the razor-edged second verse. How does it change what I’m made of / What’s it gonna take to make you understand.
With “Shame,” Merlin hopes to “open people’s eyes and hearts and minds to the idea [that] there’s so much more to people. We should take the time to get to know everyone’s story. It’s a vulnerable spot to put myself in. I know that it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was my story. To be able to share my story and have it be something that so many others relate to is a really beautiful moment.”
Shame on the way you’re acting / Shame that you can’t get past it, she barks with the thorny chorus. Shame that you just can’t see / I’m more than who I hold hands with.
Initially, there was no concrete plan to write “Shame” that particular day. Merlin had never met Gravitt or Rose before, but the trio immediately struck upon an electric kind of kinship. “Catt looked at me and said, ‘I just want to write something raw and real today.’ Then, she starts asking me 21 questions,” she laughs. “It’s kind of like a first date, you know, you go through all these weird questions, and you have to bare your soul to perfect strangers. But sometimes the best things come out of such vulnerable moments. We discussed a bunch of stuff, and as I rambled on about my struggles in the world of country music─one is being a female, and two is being an openly gay artist. As I rambled, I said something along the lines of ‘I’m more than who I hold hands with.’ And she said, ‘That’s it. That’s what we’re writing.”
The song (produced by Austin Shawn) spun outward from there and soon blossomed into “something where in the end I felt like so many will resonate with the same thing, because I’m not the only one who’s gone through that. And I’m not the only one who’s felt moments of shame within myself, but also from others.”
While the song was written two years ago, Merlin has been performing it countless times in her live shows and various writer’s rounds. One moment, following a performance at Nashville’s Alley Taps, sticks out in her mind as proof the world needs such personal anthems. “I wasn’t planning to play the song but ended up playing it. A gentleman came up to me after─a big ol’ burly man came over and just aggressively wanted to shake my hand but had tears in his eyes,” she recalls. “He said, ‘I just want to say thank you.’ I said, ‘Absolutely, man, I’m so glad you came to the show.’ He said, ‘No, that last song changed my entire life. I’ve never been on board with the whole lifestyle. I’ve always had my views and thoughts about it. And you have absolutely changed everything.’
“He was elated and couldn’t wait to go have a conversation with his daughter. And I’m not sure what that meant─whether she is [LGBTQ+] herself or something, that conversation that they’ve always disagreed on, or something like that. But it moved him to tears in the point where he’ll never be the same after that moment. That is why I do what I do.”
A forthcoming music video, slated for release later this summer, promises to “further the message and to evoke more emotion from the song,” teases Merlin. “I’m so blessed to have so many wonderful people in my life in the music circle. And I just keep meeting more and more as I go along. We collected a whole crew, and we set up in Printer’s Alley and had the time of our lives. My most favorite part is we have a drag queen named Ms. Kennedy Ann Scott, and she’s absolutely wonderful. She literally became the star of the shoot. I’m excited to see how it all comes together. As we walk through the video, you’ll see the parts where there are those who feel shame. We have what we call the goons, and they’re the villains in the whole thing. They’re the shamers. But I didn’t want to pick anybody in particular, because anybody can be a shamer. We have white masks for that, so it’s just a faceless person.”
Merlin last released a body of work with an EP titled Humans Being (2019), and for now, she eyes a series of single drops this year. “I’m thinking maybe the next single’s gonna be a little more lighthearted,” she hints.
Following her run on “The Voice,” she released a debut EP, Boomerang, in 2015. Six years later, she takes stock of her songwriting journey so far, quickly admitting, “It’s wild to see the difference. When I was on ‘The Voice,’ I had not yet moved to Nashville. I had always written on my own. What drew me to Nashville was the original music and the songwriting. My very first co-write was actually with Lance Carpenter. That was wild because he had just gotten his number one hit with Kelsea Ballerini. And so that was super intimidating. It was incredible to be in the room with him. He wanted to be there with me just as much as I wanted to be with him. We got a really beautiful song from that, and then it just spiraled out from there.”
“Over the years, I can see shifts in my songwriting. It’s a matter of just learning to grow as an artist and a songwriter but also being in different rooms with other [writers],” she adds. “You get into the rooms where you’re the worst writer in the room, but you’re still not that bad, you know, and you belong there. But you learn from everybody.”