Music

LeAnn Rimes on powerful women, making mistakes and giving voice to her late gay uncle

From an early age she had the guts to stand up for what she wanted, but it still took her a lifetime to learn how to say no

LeAnn Rimes

LeAnn Rimes. Image: PR supplied

LeAnn Rimes was born in August 1982 in Jackson, Mississippi. She was performing in talent shows from the age of five and by the time she was nine was touring nationally and had released her debut album, Everybody’s Sweetheart. Her breakthrough came in 1996, when her single Blue hit No. 10 on the Billboard Country Chart. The album of the same name reached No. 1 on the US Country Chart and went on to sell eight million copies worldwide.

In 1997 she became the youngest person ever to win a Grammy and released the worldwide hit single How Do I Live, which sold four million in the US alone while setting a record for the longest-running single in US chart history, spending 69 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100. The hugely successful albums You Light Up My Life, Sittin’ on Top of the World and LeAnn Rimes followed, while in 2000 Rimes released the international hit Can’t Fight the Moonlight, taken from the soundtrack to hit film Coyote Ugly.

Recent years have seen her branch out into acting and TV presenting, while continuing to release hit albums. In 2009, Rimes was given a special humanitarian award from the Academy of Country Music in honour of her philanthropy. Speaking to The Big Issue for her Letter to My Younger Self, Rimes reflects on the impact of early success and the challenges of being a woman in the music industry.

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By the age of 16, I had performed more than 500 shows and How Do I Live had been a huge hit. I was exhausted in a whirlwind of success. I’d started on stage when I was five, so by the time I signed my record deal at 11, it was already something I’d been working towards for years. I don’t think I realised how odd my childhood was until my stepsons came into my life when they were two and six. When the oldest turned 11, it finally hit me.  

My parents divorced when I was 14, and by 16 I was in a lawsuit with my dad and my record label. I was very gutsy. I wanted my freedom. So much of my life to that point had been living up to everybody else’s expectations or dictated to me. So that was a moment where I started to want to take back my life for myself. Even if I totally screwed it up, I wanted it to be on my terms.  

One of the first songs I remember hearing was Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow. But I grew up on everything: Patsy Cline, of course, singing Crazy and Whitney Houston, Janis Joplin as I got older and that wild abandon she sang with. I was grabbing pieces from all those artists to create my own voice. I listened to country and classic rock and my mom brought me up on Motown. I loved anything that had a soul or heartbeat – I always gravitate to those emotional singers.  

LeAnn Rimes 1997 Backstage at the Academy of Country Music Awards having won the Song of the Year, Single of the Year and Top New Female Vocalist categories.
1997: Backstage at the Academy of Country Music Awards having won the Song of the Year, Single of the Year and Top New Female Vocalist categories. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

So much of who I am now is shaped by my childhood. Before I signed my record deal at 11, I went to the head of a major record label’s house and sang for him in his living room. He was so condescending and told me to come back when I was 18 because the music industry didn’t want another Tanya Tucker to deal with. I walked out of his house, looked at my dad and said, “I’ll have a record deal in six weeks!” And I did. When I tell that story people go, “I want to meet that 11-year-old.” And I’m like, you’re meeting her right here because she’s very much alive in me. Sometimes as an adult I call upon those pieces of myself to fight the good fight, because she was fearless.  

I’ve been in the music industry for 30 years and I’m only 41, so I commune with my younger self all the time through my music. Some of the songs I recorded when I was so young reveal new levels as I’ve lived more life. I sing them from a much deeper level these days. But I’m in awe of that younger version of myself. Especially now, as a woman who has helped raise children. There is so much complexity to being that age. There are so many hormones running around. But to go through that with all the eyes of the world watching? I really had a lot on my shoulders at 16. And I kept it together – at least publicly.  

I was 15 when I worked with Elton John – I’ve worked with so many heroes. I’ve done duets with some of the biggest artists ever –  I joke that I’ve got my Uncle Elton and my Auntie Stevie [Nicks]. Growing up, I didn’t feel that sense of camaraderie because I was so young in a business that was all adults. Especially on this last album, I started to feel that sense of having a community of like-minded souls and musicians around me who respect and support what I do. It’s nice after all these years to feel I have a community of kind individuals to call upon.  

I would tell my younger self to listen to your inner voice. There were so many opinions and outside voices from the world and managers and agents coming at me, and it’s easy to stray from your own sense of centre. But I knew what was best for me. To listen to that inner voice above all else is so important. I’ve always been resilient. That’s been one of my strong suits. When Can’t Fight the Moonlight came out, I was 17 but I was so tired. I hardly did any press. I was adamant about taking time off and it got massive on its own, which was crazy.  

Was I able to enjoy the success? No. I wish I’d known how to live in the moment. Everything was always so forward looking. Oh, an award? OK, next! I appreciate it much more now than I did back then. This industry is rough. So now I try to do what lights me up first and then invite people into that space and hope they enjoy it.  

Integrity is everything. Tell the truth. I’ve always done it through my music – every time I open my mouth there is not a thing I lie about. So I would tell my younger self to always tell the truth, even if it’s a hard truth. And learn how to say no. That’s been my greatest gift to myself. In a world where I had to please so many people so early on, saying no was really hard. I’ve only really picked that up in the last three years. It’s hard to disappoint people. It will gnaw at me for a while. But when you know you’re disappointing yourself and betraying yourself – that’s the worst kind of pain. 

My husband and I have been together for 14 years now and you never know when love is going to fall into your lap. Sometimes it can make things incredibly difficult. But if it’s meant to be, you’ll know, even if there are challenging moments to get through to be with that person. I would tell my younger self to always follow her heart, because even if it’s led me to some dark places, it’s never led me completely astray. 

2019 - LeAnn Rimes at The Lion King film premiere in Hollywood with husband Eddie Cibrian and her two stepsons.
2019: At The Lion King film premiere in Hollywood with husband Eddie Cibrian and her two stepsons. Image: Faye Sadou/Media Punch/Alamy Live News

If I could relive one day, it would be my wedding day. It was so beautiful and so fun. And you only get to live it that one time, which is so sad. It was the best party. Very small, we had about 35 people. I think second time around, you realise you don’t need 200 people – I wanted to be surrounded by people I knew would be in my life for a very long time. So it was super intimate and we had the best time. I would love to go back and relive that. 

My godfather passed away when I was 15. He was one of the few people that allowed me to be a true kid. He would take me to the arcade every Sunday and we’d play games. He was so much fun. I wish he could have met my husband because they’re very similar. And I would love to have 15 minutes with him again, just to say thank you. I think he knew what a joy he was in my life. But I would love to tell him that he left such a lasting impression on me. 

I don’t think I ever had a chance to really make mistakes without the world watching. So having my stepsons in my life and seeing them with their dad, and for them to be able to just be kids with no weight on their shoulders, to screw up and have people that unconditionally love them – to have given that to them has been such a healing gift. With these kids I finally got to see what a normal childhood was like. A lot of healing has happened. 

Le Ann Rimes 2023 Performing at the Joy: The Holiday Tour in Miami in December.
2023: Performing at the Joy: The Holiday Tour in Miami in December. Image: Media Punch/Alamy

My mom and dad were very Republican and my godparents were very Democrat. So I grew up with a balance, and a lot of political arguing in the house. I can see all sides of things, which I think is a gift. I take in different opinions. But I’ve travelled the world and seen different cultures and people are people at the end of the day. We’re all looking to be accepted and loved and connected to each other. Sometimes our views can get in the way of that. It’s all about humanity for me – my uncle was gay and passed away from AIDS when I was 11. So I always wanted to give him a voice he didn’t have. It’s about giving voice to people who don’t have one wherever I can. I’m very unafraid when it comes to standing up for other people.  

In the music industry, they don’t want us to have a voice – especially as a woman. It’s still that way. But the more powerful women we have speaking out on issues, the better off we’re going to be. Women have power, especially as a collective, to move things forward. I was speaking about Roe vs Wade when I said guns have more rights in the US than women. It’s incredible how we can take five steps forward, and then 10 steps back. But if we get loud, things start to shift.  

LeAnn Rimes plays a special UK show at The O2 in London on 8 May.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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