Shaed’s Max Ernst on coming out to his twin brother and lifting up queer kids
Max Ernst was just 19 years old when he came out as gay to his twin brother Spencer.
At that time, his band Shaed didn’t exist. He and his brother grew up with “really liberal” parents, but something about being raised in a “conservative” Catholic community meant that, for a long time, Max had a mental block about opening up to the world about his sexuality.
“It was a very different time then,” Max tells PinkNews. “I felt very pressured to kind of stay in the closet because of my career. It was really, really tough to come out.”
But Max couldn’t stay in the closet forever. When he found the courage to tell Spencer, the pair were performing as a folk rock duo called The Walking Sticks, and Max was starting to realise that he could never be truly authentic in his songwriting until he came out.
“We were on a long drive after going to see a concert, and I’ll never forget that moment when I told him. It was so powerful for me and for Spencer too. I hid it pretty well, so he had no idea. He was actually pretty shocked. I couldn’t even verbalise the words and I kind of had to make him guess what it was. His first guess was, ‘Max, did you kill someone? Did you murder someone?’ He’s like, ‘I’ve got your back. If you did, we’ll figure it out.’
“His second guess was if I was in love with Chelsea Lee (Shaed’s lead singer and now Spencer’s wife), and I was like, ‘No, I’m not in love with Chelsea.’ And then finally he was like, ‘Dude, are you gay?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’ and then it was just this incredible feeling for both of us just having that out in the air. It just kind of connected all the dots of why I had been going into my shell. He could sense that something had been eating away at me for a while there.”
Telling Chelsea was also “super powerful”, Max says. “She could just tell it was a tremendous weight that had been lifted when I told her. And a couple of weeks later, [Spencer and Chelsea] started dating, so it was kind of this pivotal moment in our relationship. It just really changed the dynamic between us three and it just brought out a whole other level of honesty and closeness between us.”
Shaed’s LGBT+ anthem ‘Colorful’ explores the feeling of freedom that coming out brings
That incredible experience – and the close bond now shared by Shaed members Max, Spencer and Chelsea – is explored on the trio’s new album High Dive. But one track in particular will stand out for LGBT+ listeners. “Colorful” is a powerful anthem about the joy of being queer – and the multitude of ways that coming out can strengthen a person’s self-worth and relationships with others.
“When we were writing this album and thinking about things in our past that kind of resonated with us, we revisited that time and tried to really come at the lyrics from trying to talk about the importance of acceptance and just how important it is to have a support network and people that love and support you when you’re coming out,” Max explains. “That was the message that we wanted the song to carry – just how freeing it is to come out, but how important it is to have people who support you.”
The trio recently released a music video for the track featuring a wide array of queer people – and that’s not all. Shaed has also launched “The Colourful Campaign”, which sees the group release remixes of their LGBT+ anthem featuring queer artists throughout the month of June to mark Pride Month.
Shaed also wants to make a difference to queer people’s lives, so they’ve teamed up with numerous organisations such as Compass Coffee, Rasa, Bailiwick Clothing and Down East Brewery – each one will donate portions of their revenue to the Give Pride 365 fund, which provides resources to LGBT+ organisations. Streaming revenues for “Colorful” will also be donated to the fund.
“After we had written and produced it, we knew we wanted to somehow involve the LGBTQ+ community and do something to raise money or just raise awareness for people in the community,” Max says. “Luckily we have a good relationship with this organisation called Capitol Pride here in Washington DC. They are the biggest LGBTQ+ organisation in DC and every year they throw a huge Pride parade here in normal years that aren’t a pandemic.
“We had a friend there and we reached out to him with the song, and he loved it. They were launching this new fund called the Good Pride 365 fund because they’re not doing the parade this year, and it’s really cool because basically any organisation in DC can tap into this fund by reaching out to Capitol Pride and applying for funds. It’s super inclusive and amazing what they’re trying to do, and we just kind of came up with a game plan with the record label to create a remix package for the song. That’s just the beginning – we’re imagining this campaign to run all the way through October when Capitol Pride is going to launch a new festival called the Colorful Festival.”
While the band is working hard to help LGBT+ people in the United States, Max also hopes “Colorful” will be heard by queer people living in countries where their identities are still criminalised.
“It breaks my heart to think about those people that have to literally fear for their lives for who they are. If this song can provide them any kind of comfort and give them confidence in who they are and make them feel more loved and accepted, that’s a huge part of this song too. It started out locally in DC but we’re trying to make it as big and as impactful as possible.”
Max hopes that this campaign – and the visibility of other queer artists – will help the next generation of LGBT+ people to feel less alone.
“When I was younger, before I came out, I felt like there wasn’t a ton of representation in music really. There wasn’t a Sam Smith or a Troye Sivan or a Lil Nas X on the forefront of the industry. In 2009, when I was super well aware that I was gay and deeply in the closet, there was not that kind of visibility in the mainstream music scene that there is now.
“My twin brother and I were in a band together, and it just felt impossible to be gay and to be a lead singer of a band like that at the time. It just felt like I would be sabotaging our career if I came out. Since we’ve signed with our record label, they’ve been nothing but supportive. I’ve been really privileged.”
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Trans visibility is so important right now.
While Max hopes queer people can find a message of hope and solidarity in “Colorful”, he’s also keen to point out that there’s “never a right or wrong time to come out”.
“For me personally, coming out was such a freeing moment that cleared this haze of shame that I had for many years. It’s made me a much happier person. The hardest part for me was not having someone to talk to at all about it, and I would hope that people can use this song as a catalyst to open up to someone about how they’re feeling – even if it’s someone that they don’t know, there are resources online for people you can talk to. I just feel that speaking about it with another human being, even if it’s not a friend or family member. I would encourage people to try and take a leap of faith in that regard, if they can.”
But he isn’t blind to the realities facing queer people today either. He is keenly aware of the spate of anti-trans bills making their way through state legislatures in the United States right now.
“I feel like trans visibility is so important right now. There’s a huge problem with homeless trans people of colour in DC right now that a lot of these funds are going to go directly to supporting those people in need. I’m just doing our part to raise awareness for that too.”
Shaed’s “Colorful” remixes with Kat Cunning and Rich are out now.