In the last year, Maddie Zahm's music has reached millions of fans on TikTok. Photo: Gus Black

Singer/songwriter Maddie Zahm has become a viral sensation on platforms like TikTok and Instagram for her deeply personal music. Her songs delve into queerness, body image and growing up in a religious community. With a following of over a million, Zahm is laying bare her soul and connecting with fans worldwide. News is Out spoke with Zahm, who was fresh off a mini-tour that included a stop in London. She was candid about opening up through song, dealing with newfound celebrity and what she’s planning on tackling next. 

News is Out: TikTok is a few years old now, but in the scheme of social media platforms, it’s pretty much a baby. As an artist, why do you like using the platform so much?

Maddie Zahm: Honestly, I think it’s because it gets my music to the proper audience. I can’t really explain it. You know the first song that I released, “Fat Funny Friend,” was immediately sent to the body-positive plus size, community! And it created this kind of safe space. It just feels like a safer platform, truthfully.

NIO: Well, that’s true. That’s how I found you. I was getting videos with people making stitches to your songs. So, you hadn’t personally come onto my timeline, but they did. And so that’s how I found you, through them. I love that your song, “You Might Not Like Her,” struck a chord with people on TikTok, and that’s the stitching that I found you first. Seeing a ton of people using your song and videos.

What was it like for you as a songwriter to see your song, and a very personal one at that, connect with so many people around the world in such a deeply personal way?

MZ: You know, I think the best answer is cathartic and also kind of shocking. I think when I first started releasing songs, part of the reason that I didn’t think that I had an artist project was because it was so personal and so specific. Even that first line of it, “If you would have told me I’d throw away my purity ring in the middle of an airport,” is an experience that I had at the Denver airport. I remember that moment, not realizing how significant it would be for other people. And so I think it was shocking, just because it wasn’t me trying to be universal or connect with people. To be honest, it was just me writing my story down. So, for people to be able to see themselves in that, it is really overwhelming because I really thought I was alone in a lot of those experiences. So yeah, overwhelming and shocking and cathartic.

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NIO: How do you balance giving so much of yourself on social media?

MZ: I mean, that’s something that I am still trying to figure out, to be honest, because this is all really new for me. I think sometimes we can see people online and assume that because that’s the position they’re in, they understand it. And just because I did release music that produced this following doesn’t necessarily mean that’s exactly what I thought was going to happen. Does that make sense? I’m still trying to catch up. And so there are times that I am excited about new music just because. I want people to know that I am just like a 24-year-old figuring it out and I don’t take it lightly. I know what communities are listening to my music, and I know I know what position I’m in. I want to take it seriously and I very much have been thinking a lot about how I can best represent these communities because I think it’s important. It’s a big role, you know.

NIO: What is it, Spiderman? “With great power comes great responsibility.”

MZ: That’s true and although I didn’t know this was the position that I was going to be in, and I’m still figuring it out, I do believe that with the communities that are surrounding me, we’re going to figure it out. We’re going to be alright.

NIO: Well, speaking of that community you’re with, the song “You Might Not Like Her,” you talk about your queerness and coming to a different place in your faith now from when you were younger. So many queer people who grew up in religious households are really connecting to that. Can you talk a little bit about your coming out journey?

MZ: You know, something that I’ve talked to my parents a lot about recently, when I first came out, the reaction wasn’t perfect and it never is. I very much look like a stereotypical Idahoan, so I grew up talking about boys I liked and all these kinds of things. And although I very much am identifying, I haven’t really dated a man since I started dating women, and it was really jarring for my parents to have this idea of who their daughter is and then feel like they missed out on a portion of my life. So, I think for them, now we’ve been able to articulate that they were never upset that I was queer. They were never upset that that that this is who I am. I think, in some ways, I was so close to my parents that it felt like, how did we miss this?

Now that we’ve been able to figure that out, I think a lot of healing has come from it and it’s been really beautiful. You know, when I shot that “You Might Not Like Her” video, I was supposed to hire two people that looked like my parents to play my parents to come out to. My dad came in, and he’s not very emotional. You look up stereotypical, Northwestern dad, and that’s who Robert is, right? Wears Patagonia and doesn’t like the spotlight. Just a good human. He came in, and he was like, “I really wish that I would have had an opportunity to respond the way that I wish that I had. And could I play myself in the music video?” And so, it was 20 minutes of them putting hair and makeup on and shooting. I saw my parents sitting on the couch and immediately, the waterworks came. I know that not everybody has that type of support, but I am grateful that my parents are now going to Pride without me…which is super rude.

NIO: We love a PFLAG family!

MZ: They’ve been incredible. I love my parents. And yeah, I’m aware that I’m very lucky.

Zahm writes about personal experiences with her faith, sexuality and body image. Photo: Gus Black

NIO: Well, that’s amazing. I love that for you. Another big part of who you are and what you do has been about your faith and your journey as a Christian in your music. Your song “Pocket Bible” on your new EP, as well as “If It’s Not God,” are wonderful examples of your transparency as an artist. Can you talk to us a little bit about the meaning behind these songs and how they relate to your faith now?

MZ: Yeah, I think it’s funny because I remember when I released “If It’s Not God,” there was so much discussion around, like whether or not I believe in God, or what my faith is. And honestly, if you leave listening to “If It’s Not God” wondering if I believe in Him, then you’ve missed the point. Because it’s not a statement of what I believe. It’s a statement of what I don’t want to believe, and I think that I was raised in a church that for a really long time taught me that the things that make me me, make me unlovable. I don’t want kids to be stuck in that. I don’t want to be in that because I don’t believe that a God who is all-loving would only pick a few. I wanted to make that point, whatever voice told me to leave the church that was harming my friends and was harming me, then that’s the voice I’ll listen to. And if it’s God, then so be it.

NIO: “Fat Funny Friend.” Again so many people on TikTok were really obsessed, really lifted up by that song. As a plus size person myself, I can’t remember a time when someone in song actually addressed what it’s like to be fat and the stigma that surrounds it. This song has millions of likes on TikTok and beyond. It’s everywhere. How did “Fat Funny Friend” become a game-changer for you as an artist?

MZ: I think that was the first time that I really believed my vision. I remember when I wrote that song with my best friend, Katie Turner, who lives with me. We wrote it, and we were like, oh, my God, this is so healing for both of us. And I remember I had shown it to a couple of friends who were not plus size. One of them had basically said, you should take out the fat, funny friend line in it so that more people can relate. I remember just thinking in my head like, no! We don’t have very many things. I remember thinking, even if that isolates my viewers, I don’t care if it would have been a hit if it. You know, it doesn’t matter. This song is for 12-year-old me. It was supposed to be specific. I think that was the first time that I really stuck to my guns, and I said, no, this is what this means, and this is what it is. I’m not sure that I would have been as honest in the rest of my songs had I not stuck to my original gut feeling, you know?

NIO: You’ve been kind of on this little mini tour. What has it been like to get up in front of these crowds singing along with you, waving rainbow flags? What has that experience been like?

MZ: Insane? I can’t. I cannot believe that I have the honor. Truly, I’ve already said this, but the people that are following my project are so different than the people that were following me before I was being honest. I feel like I have somehow cultivated this following of people that are listening to my music, people that I wish I would have sat in lunch with. Like, where were they? I wish that I would have had a community of people like that in high school when I was clinging to the Christian community or, you know, trying to fit in. It blows my mind that I have the honor of speaking for this community. It’s heavy and it’s cathartic and it just feels like family. I’m not even trying to do the whole artist “I love my fans” thing. It’s genuine. These people are special.

I feel like I really feel honored that I get to. I mean even London. I think we sat outside for three hours, all of us just drinking and talking, and the life experiences we’ve all shared are just so…it’s just a different connection. I can’t wait to take them on this journey. I feel honored for sure. Honestly, all these songs I wrote on that EP…all this happened like a year ago.

Yes, I’ve had heartbreak. I’ve had my first queer relationship. I’ve been experiencing a whole new life. I feel like I’ve been experiencing, in a lot of ways, what high school and college is like for people that are able to be themselves. I feel like I somehow compacted that into a year. I wrote a project about it. I feel like that really laid the groundwork for not only the people that I love, that are my listeners and that are safe spaces. I think what’s next is touring and also sharing the more universal and also deeply queer experiences that I’ve also been experiencing for the past, you know, twelve months. So it’s crazy.

Maddie Zahm’s EP, “You Might Not Like Her” is available now wherever you listen and buy your music.