Despite finding a certain thrill in that chaos, Rice longed to fully commit to her music: a genre-blurring blend of soul and pop and folk-rock, emotionally raw yet gracefully composed. So at the start of 2016—soon after publishing her groundbreaking HIV research in The Journal of AIDS—Rice left the medical field and threw herself into finishing up her debut album. With Dear Misery arriving in June 2016 and gaining lavish acclaim from local media, Rice next scored a spot on season 12 of NBC’s The Voice—later emerging as a top 11 finalist, and beginning her ascent as a pop artist of extraordinary impact.
Now based in L.A., Rice has recently teamed up with in-demand songwriters like Justin Tranter (Janelle Monáe, Imagine Dragons, Kacey Musgraves, Julia Michaels) to bring her sophomore effort to life. But while the album is deeply informed by the painful experience of getting kicked out of her house after coming out to her family at age 18, Rice’s forthcoming material also shines with an undeniable sense of strength and resilience.
“When I got kicked out I started writing all these songs about life and loss, but they weren’t really specific to what I was going through,” says Rice, a multi-instrumentalist who plays piano, guitar, and drums. “Looking back, I was probably too scared to share those feelings. But now that more time has passed, I’m able to see it all from a new point of view. I want my music to empower people to take charge of their lives, no matter what anyone tells them what they can or can’t do.”
As she gears up to record with Ken Nelson (the Grammy Award-winning producer behind Coldplay’s first three albums), Rice continues to tap into the natural musicality she first cultivated in early childhood, after her grandmother gave her an old piano. Growing up in Texarkana as the daughter of a fundamentalist preacher, she began writing songs at age eight and quickly came to rely on music as an emotional outlet. “I felt like I was living with so many secrets, and my way of dealing with that was to wait until everyone else was asleep, then sneak into the piano room and write songs all night long,” says Rice.
Those early experiments in songwriting also enabled Rice to explore the range of her rich yet ethereal vocals—a gift she’d purposely hidden from others, even while singing in the church choir. “I always thought I had a very strange voice, so I sang really softly so that I wouldn’t stick out,” she notes. Although Rice was forbidden to listen to anything but Christian music, she eventually discovered artists like Imogen Heap and Regina Spektor, and amassed collections of their songs to play in secret. “Coldplay was the first non-church music I ever heard, and it was a such a revelation,” she recalls. “It’s so incredible to me that I’m going to get to work with the person who produced these records that have had such a huge effect on my life.”
For Rice, the rupture from her family at age 18 altered her trajectory in more ways than one. “Music became more of a primal need than a form of expression,” she says. “I felt like if I didn’t get the pain out, it would eat me alive.” But with that urgency came a newfound courage, and Rice soon made a name for herself on the local open-mic circuit. She also taught herself to play guitar and saved up to transfer from a community college to the University of Houston, then worked her way into the city’s ultra-competitive open-mic scene. “Houston’s the fourth largest city in the country and open-mic nights are a big deal, so to get on the list I’d have to leave school right after taking an exam and stand in line for hours,” says Rice. “I was going to school full-time and working almost full-time, but I was always so diligent about getting on that list.”
That diligence paid off when the owner of a local café asked Rice to host her own night at the venue, a gig that greatly expanded her following. After graduating with a degree in biology in 2013 (and landing a job at Baylor College of Medicine), she tried out for The Voice but failed to make it through the first round. Undaunted, Rice then formed a band called Colonial Blue with her longtime collaborator, drummer Corey Chierighino. As she immersed herself in the making of Dear Misery (released as a Colonial Blue album), Rice decided to cast off the safety net of her job, a move she partly credits to the encouragement of her wife. Released just weeks after she quit, Dear Misery proved to be a breakout success, hailed by the Houston Chronicle as one of the year’s best albums.
Emboldened by the reaction to Dear Misery, Rice tried out again for The Voice, earned a spot on the series, and soon paired up with coach and mentor Alicia Keys—who later praised Rice as “the purest artist on this show.” (Keys continued: “You are a producer, you are a musician, you play multiple instruments, you are a writer, you are exactly what an artist is supposed to be.”) Along with allowing Rice to share her story with a national audience, her time on The Voice also dramatically strengthened her vocal performance. “I’d never had a vocal lesson in my life, and being on the show was like a form of boot camp,” she says. “I feel like I was given a manual to my own voice, and now I know how to use it in a way I never did before.”
In working on her sophomore album, Rice has further sharpened her vocal presence by joining forces with her older brother, Benjamin Rice (a music and vocal producer who co-produced a number of Lady Gaga’s songs for the soundtrack to A Star Is Born, including the chart-topping “Shallow”). “I remember being 16-years-old and my brother telling me, ‘One day we’re gonna make music together,’ and it just stuck in my mind for years and years,” says Rice. “It’s amazing to see our paths finally start to cross, and I’m excited to see where it will take us.”
The latest chapter of Rice’s career marks a creative rebirth in countless ways, an element embodied in an upcoming song called “Pages.” “Love is something that’s celebrated in so many songs all throughout time, but for me love was always something I was in trouble for,” says Rice of the origins of “Pages.” “For so long, I was told that I was wrong to feel the way I did, and so I wanted to write a song that resonates with anyone who’s gone against the grain. I hope it helps them to write their own pages to their story, without any fear of judgment.”
In offering up songs like “Pages,” Rice reveals a vulnerability that transcends all barriers, and ultimately inspires others to embrace the beauty of their truth. “When I write, I always try to write from the most intimate perspective, because I believe that being as honest as possible is what helps people realize they’re not alone in what they’re going through,” she says. “No matter what your experience is or what you’re struggling with, I want to be the living, breathing proof that it’s going to be okay—because if I made it to the other side, then you can too.”