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PEOPLE EXCLUSIVE: The Voice Standout Kristen Merlin Reflects on the Pain Behind Her Strength

"As a kid, I felt like I wasn't heard," Merlin tells PEOPLE. "I couldn't scream loud enough"

By Tricia DespresAugust 02, 2021 04:56 PM

Kristen Merlin never seemed to fit in. Even as a child growing up in Massachusetts, she was known as somewhat of a floater, drifting back and forth between different groups of friends, never quite finding a soft place in which to land. "As a kid, I felt like I wasn't heard," Merlin, 36, tells PEOPLE in a recent interview. "I couldn't scream loud enough." But somewhere along the line, the straight-A student who prided herself on living by the rules found a way for that internal voice to be heard, through the art of songwriting.

"I was in high school, and my grandfather was really sick," Merlin remembers. "I had this idea of writing a goodbye to my grandmother from him. So I wrote it and got to sing it at his funeral, and it was absolutely beautiful. To see the healing that music could bring, even amongst tears and sadness and whatnot, there's just such power behind music. And I always felt that within me."


It was also during this pivotal time that Merlin conjured up the courage to come out as gay, attending her junior prom with her girlfriend while hiding her basketball shorts under a frilly dress. "I knew it and I wasn't afraid of it because I've always marched to the beat of my own drum," she explains. "I had so much support from all of the faculty and the students. I wasn't putting it in anybody's face, but I also wasn't apologizing for finding a way for me to be comfortable with my sexuality." But despite the strength Merlin has gained from living out her truth, there remains a myriad of feelings and emotions, many of which stem from her own experiences as an openly gay artist. And it's this myriad of feelings that came to make themselves known within the context of her current single "Shame." "I was sitting with [songwriters] Catt [Gravitt] and Jake [Rose] and Catt asked me what my hurdles were as a gay person," remembers Merlin, who moved to Nashville shortly after her successful stint on season six of The Voice. "I tend to be an optimistic person, so I never actually stopped to think about what the obstacles were in front of me. But I start rattling off things, and that line 'I'm more than who I hold hands with' fell out, and we knew there was something there."


Premiering exclusively on PEOPLE, the accompanying music video takes that collection of complex feelings one step further, using masked characters to symbolize all of those little voices trying to tear all of us down in one way or another. "Everybody faces their own demons and everybody comes up against people shaming them," Merlin explains of the song, which she partnered with the Human Rights Campaign upon its release. "So I wanted to leave that a blank slate. Also, sometimes the people that are shaming others aren't facing themselves either. A lot of that comes from their own shame that they then put off on other people. So it's kind of misplaced emotions."


Misplaced emotions, but also real feelings. "What is shown in that music video are legitimate scenarios," she says. "It's pulling from my own life, but also from the lives of others and stories I've heard over the years. Sometimes, it's the right time to shine a little light on tough subjects." But make no mistake — Merlin isn't about to take credit for the timing of this important song. "I truly believe in God's timing," explains Merlin, who refers to her growing legion of fans as "Merlin Nation." "I feel like God comes through me and says the words that need to be heard and in such ways that are memorable to people or move people. And when I can evoke emotion from someone with a song, that's when I know I'm doing the right thing."

But still, the right thing isn't always the easy thing. "It was absolutely an emotional journey," Merlin says of the video shoot for "Shame." "So many of the people in the video were my friends and it was just a beautiful thing to have people who have been on this journey with me to be a part of something like that."

And now, Merlin sits back and watches how "Shame" will continue making its mark on everyone who hears it. "There was a gentleman at a writers round that I did where I played that song," Merlin remembers. "Afterwards, he came over and shook my hand with tears in his eyes and said to me, 'You have changed my entire perspective. I will never think the same way I was thinking. I just needed to thank you. And I can't wait to call my daughter.' That's why I do what I do. This song is so much bigger than I even know."

To read this story with People Magazine, click the link here.


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