From a very early age, Meredith Heil has known she was different. Growing up in a liberal household was great and all, but when that household is in the middle of very conservative suburbs with little to no diversity, it can make the world a very lonely place (as I’m sure many of us have experienced). Music became an outlet that boasted of better places, of raging against the machine and female superheroes whose weapon of choice was a microphone.
As she matured and had the opportunity to finally move to the promised lands of visibility (New York) and harmony (San Francisco), Heil realized that sometimes not everything is as good as it sounds on a cassette tape. With that lesson came another one: The South can actually be a very welcoming place for queers and the artistic community. Many bands she’s been introduced to in the past few years have hailed from the southern states and are not only from there, but deeply loyal residents who don’t want to leave.
From all of this, the documentary Whistlin’ Dixie: The Queer Southern Music Project was born. We had the chance to speak with Meredith to find out how all of this started and where you’ll be able to catch it screening at an unconventional showcase near you.
AfterEllen.com: In your old home movies it looks like music has always been a part of your life, from the time when you were just a wee tiny lez. I know you moved around a lot, can you give me a little background on where you grew up?
Meredith Heil: I grew up mostly in Missouri and Texas in kind of a suburban environment where there wasn’t much diversity and I always felt kind of different. Since I was pretty young, I always found music to be my best friend, I guess, to keep me from being too lonely. Then when I was older and figuring out who I was — coming out when I was about 14, I found out about Riot Grrl and that totally radicalized me and politicized me and helped me figure out who I was. I connected to other people who were fans and becoming friends; exchanging mix tapes from there and really changed my life. It’s always played a big role, even in my every day life just figuring out about everything.
AE: Wow you were very aware of being queer from a very young age, it must’ve been very difficult not only living in Texas and Missouri but also moving around a lot. Did you feel like it made it harder to be yourself since you had to pick up and meet new people again and again or at some point did you just say, “Eff this — I’ll be moving again I might as well just be myself”?
MH: Yeah, it definitely made me pretty adaptable. My mom grew up as a military brat so she was pretty used to just picking up and leaving. It’s not that we moved around all the time but the moves were pretty drastic. I think that I always kind of felt like I fit in in those kind of white-washed suburban climates that I was being raised in but my family is really supportive.
Coming out wasn’t a big issue as much as me articulating it was. As soon as I was 14 and making those statements and learning more about myself is when I took it upon myself to find places to feel more comfortable. I ended up going to a great boarding school in Vermont that was really supportive and open and put myself in different situations at like summer camp that was less isolating. But, it was definitely difficult to feel like I was the only queer person living in these small towns. And then listening to this music I felt like I had to pick up and move to San Francisco or New York or Seattle just to have community.
AE: You mention in the movie trailer that you got a mixtape that changed your life. Do you remember what was on the playlist?
MH: Yeah! It was in summer camp and it was before ninth grade. And I’m 25 now so some of the bands on the tape weren’t around anymore or had broken up so it wasn’t like I could go to shows, unfortunately. I don’t still have it but it had some Sleater Kinney, Bikini Kill, L7 — basically a great intro to Riot Grrrl mixtape from an older girl I had a huge crush on.
AE: There’s always one of those.
MH: Yeah, to this day, I’m sure.