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Chappell Roan is throwing a pop party, and queer joy is at the heart of it

Chappell Roan announced her debut album, "The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess" on Aug. 2. (Ryan Clemens)
Chappell Roan announced her debut album, "The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess" on Aug. 2. (Ryan Clemens)

Before Chappell Roan took the stage at her Springfield, Missouri, show in March, she felt more nerves than at any other show on the tour.

The Missouri native expected to look out into the crowd and recognize nearly everyone there. But instead, the house lights shone down on a venue packed with strangers, mostly LGBTQ people, dressed up in gowns, sashes and crowns. (All of Roan’s concerts on her spring 2023 Naked in North America tour had themes for attendees to dress for, and this one was homecoming queen.)

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, there are so many queer people here that I didn’t know about who are probably hiding a little bit like I was,’” she says.

Next month, she’ll be touring again with her forthcoming album, announced Wednesday, called “The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess.” Roan’s next single, “HOT TO GO!,” comes out on Aug. 11, and the album follows on Sept. 22.

Chappell Roan performs at The Sinclair in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 1, 2023. The theme of this show was Pink Pony Club. (Grace Griffin/Here & Now)

Roan grew up in Willard, Missouri, about 12 miles outside of Springfield. Raised in a small, religious town, Roan felt stifled in her adolescence. When she discovered her attraction to other girls, she wrote it off as a phase and kept enduring the conservative, heterosexual norms of her hometown.

Until she left in 2018; Roan moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. There, she started embracing herself as a queer woman and felt enveloped in the love and community of other LGBTQ people in California.

“I wanted to dance on stage and throw a party basically every night,” Roan says. “I know that’s what I really needed whenever I was closeted in the Midwest.”

Upon returning to Missouri this year, she discovered a queer community — united by her music — that she’d never known about before.

“It was my favorite show of the tour. It was so special. It was so fulfilling. And for the first time, it changed my perspective on my hometown,” she says. “Instead of having this resentment for how I was raised and whatever community I was raised in, I was just like, ‘Oh my God, there is a queer community here that accepts me.’”

Roan started playing piano and singing as a child. As a young teen, she uploaded covers of songs to her YouTube channel. She set off for songwriting summer camp at 17 and returned home having written the song that would get her signed.

She uploaded the song, titled “Die Young,” to YouTube and soon landed a record deal with Atlantic Records. At the time, she described her sound as dark, moody pop music. Still in high school, she flew between Missouri, New York and Los Angeles to get her career as a full-time musician started.

Watch on YouTube.

Roan released her single “Pink Pony Club” in 2020 to critical acclaim. USAToday ranked it number 3 in its round-up of songs of the 2020 summer.

The song erupted on TikTok, launching Roan into newfound social media stardom. But all that fanfare wasn’t enough for Atlantic Records, who dropped Roan as an artist after the song came out. That same week, her long-term partner broke up with her. She moved back in with her parents in Missouri, working as a production assistant, drive-through clerk and nanny in the meantime.

“It really made me look in the mirror and see what I was actually made of,” Roan says. “It was day after day after day of just being like, ‘You have to push, push, push.’ It was a million baby steps and small wins, no wins, just feeling like a failure… It all really came down to resilience.”

Watch on YouTube.

All that hard work and perseverance paid off, and Roan released her first single as an independent artist, “Naked in Manhattan,” in March 2022. In that same year, she released the songs “Femininomenon” and “Casual.”

By 2023, she’d opened for artists including Declan McKenna, Fletcher and Olivia Rodrigo, and set out on her own North America headline tour.

Watch on YouTube.

Like in the music video for “Pink Pony Club,” Roan featured drag performers on her tour. In each city she played, she enlisted a few local drag queens to open the show before she went on stage.

“To me, there is literally nothing more exciting than watching a drag performance. I feel like I’m 8 years old seeing Princess Jasmine for the first time,” she says. “When I walk out on stage after three drag queens have opened for me, the feeling is electric in the room. The room cannot hold the excitement and energy and joy.”

Roan has said she will do the same on her upcoming Midwest Princess tour. This comes at a time when hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills have been proposed or passed just this year in states — including Texas, Florida, North Dakota and Missouri — and drag shows consistently come under fire by anti-LGBTQ proponents.

Despite it all, Roan wants to introduce her audiences, namely queer people, to their local queens in an attempt to build up local queer communities across the country.

“A lot of people don’t even know that they have local drag queens or that drag happens in their town or they’ve never seen a drag show.”

Roan acknowledges that it can feel scary or isolating to live as an openly queer person, especially when LGBTQ rights are under attack across the country. But she still works to provide a sense of joy through her music that people can turn to for comfort, inspiration and acceptance.

As for those targeting LGBTQ people, Roan says she’ll keep fighting back alongside the rest of her community.

“Queer people have been through this before and we have always come together and fought like hell and overcome and I think most queer people are on that wavelength,” she says. “As long as they fight, I’m fighting right there with them.”

The 25-year-old’s music career is on a meteoric rise that doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Roan says she wants to keep writing albums, bring her upbeat, dance-inducing shows worldwide, and even pursue a career as an art therapist in the future. Along the way, she’ll keep spreading love and acceptance, both for herself and for her queer fans.

“I just truly want to live in this dream world that I’ve created. And I want everyone else to live in it with me, on stage, or in the music videos or listening to the music,” Roan says. “I just try to be the girl that I really needed when I was 14.”

Grace Griffin and Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Julia Corcoran. Griffin also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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