The music industry is a business of characters and personalities. In addition to selling the product at hand, the music makers are also sold as pre-packaged personas: the druggy rebel, the cutesy boyfriend, the tortured genius. There's often a nucleus of truth to the persona, but large portions of it can be decorated and enhanced by the media. This situation reaches its unfortunate zenith when a musician's sexual orientation becomes the defining topic of their career.
At the same time, though, there is perhaps no profession that has lent itself to gay rights more effectively than that of the musician. Gay musicians such as the late Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Rob Halford and Joan Jett have been catalysts for affecting enormous social change. Yet the one thing all of those musicians have in common -- outside of being gay -- is that they spent large portions of their career in the closet. It even took later artists like Michael Stipe or Melissa Etheridge years before they would come out.
To come out as gay was once a career-ending move (remember how Liberace denied rumors until the end?) Whereas today, a dated-celebrity like Ricky Martin can revive his career by coming out, and acts like En Vogue, Tiffany and Debbie Gibson can once-again play to massive audiences thanks to the popularity of Pride Festivals.
In honor of this now institutional holiday, we sat down with some of Denver's most out-and-proud musicians, including Ian Cooke, Joshua Novak, Jen Korte, Israel Jimenez of PANAL S.A. DE C.V., Kalyn Heffernan of Wheelchair Sports Camp, ASiEL, Lauren Zwicky (aka DJ Narky Stares), Mariah Kohler, Magee Headley of the Haircut and Sarah Angela.
There were some who were reluctant to be included here, not wanting to be pigeonholed into having their music be merely a by-product of their sexuality. Attempting to have a career in a new age of hyper-tolerance, where you can be celebrated merely for the combination of being gay and making music, has made sincere musicians skittish. Understandably, they prefer to have their music judged on its own merit, as opposed to the sexuality of its creator. Even so, they understood the vital role music plays in affecting social change (as well as the undeniable connection between sex and music), and spoke candidly with us, discussing what it means to be an openly gay musician in 2012.
Ian Cooke has captivated audiences around the globe; from his hipster-afro days hypnotizing small Denver crowds with the mystical "Vassoon" to the massive audiences he now draws in somber concert halls, performing tracks from his second album., Fortitude, Cooke remains a soft-spoken, warm personality -- easy to meet, yet difficult to pin down. Having toured Australia and performed at the 2008 Toronto PrideFest (one of the biggest in the world), Cooke has a seasoned view of what it's like to be gay in the music industry. He recently took the time to sit down with us and discuss gender pronouns, Freddy Mercury and following a DJ on a festival lineup.
Westword: Do journalists often ask about your sexuality?
Ian Cooke: Not really. Sometimes it comes up if I'm asked who or what a particular song is about. I don't aim to make songs about being gay, but it's bound to be implied once in a while.
In the past your lyrics have been neutral on the issue of gender -- yet with your latest album you've ventured into using gender pronouns like "he." What brought about the change?
I feel like I used up enough of the tricks of getting around specifying gender in my first album -- saying "you and me" or "this and that," or naming characters things like "the owner and the origin." Part of the change came from wanting to break away from speaking first person so much. I guess I'm also less concerned with trying to write words that everyone can relate to, so newer lyrics are less vague or metaphoric.
Do you ever feel that because you're gay people expect you to be into or perform a certain genre of music?
Sometimes people suggest covers they'd like to hear me do. The most recent one was Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do With It?" I'm certainly influenced by some musicals and disco and gay-ish things like these, but I don't feel like anyone expects to hear anything specific from me.
Were there ever any "out" musicians that inspired you at a young age?
I guess it's debatable whether Freddie Mercury was out or not, but I remember thinking he was a badass early on. Wayne's World introduced me to Queen, and I've loved them ever since. Shortly after Rufus Wainwright released his debut album, I caught wind of it, and, after one listen, he was immediately added to my list of musical heroes. But, for the record, I didn't put it together that he was gay until later.
Is a musician's sexuality relevant to him or herself as an artist?
I don't believe so. I feel like I would be using the same musical ideas if I were straight. I guess one's sexuality can be used as a gimmick though, as Gay Pimp does, for example.
So many musicians have flirted with the "gay image" -- like David Bowie or Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes -- while really being straight. Do you feel that this is offensive?
Nope, they're just adopting a style, and I think it's flattering.
So many musicians in the past remained closeted -- like Dave Davies, Liberace, Ricky Martin -- while today that doesn't seem to be the case. How do you feel the music industry has changed toward being "out."
There are and always have been copious amounts of gay people making music. It's something a lot of us just tend to do. A lot of us that do are really good at it, and I think that has been acknowledged on a national, almost worldwide level, so it doesn't need to be covered up anymore. Why has it taken so long?! I also feel that there's an obvious correlation between gay rights and outness in pop culture. They're evolving hand in hand.
Are you ever frustrated with the media focusing too much on your sexuality?
No. I'm happy to be a gay representative. I'm not trying to sell records with the fact that I'm a homo, but I think the more chances I have to say I am and that it isn't a big deal, the better.
What was it like playing the 2008 Toronto PrideFest? How do you celebrate Pride?
2008 Toronto PrideFest was one of the best gigs of my career to date. It was a little rough playing after a DJ who got everyone in dance mode with a bunch of Madonna and Michael Jackson, but It's not every day you get to play for a few thousand people. Not everyone was into it, but several were, and we sold a lot of CDs. The entertainment coordinators also paid very well. I wanna go back!
I usually go to the parade, walk around Civic Center Park, then bar hop. This year I'll be in Washington D.C. for a Tour de Fat gig. I'm sad I'll miss Denver Pride, but one must spread one's music and pay the bills.
Kalyn Heffernan (of Wheelchair Sports Camp)
Kalyn Heffernan is a big hip-hop voice in a small hip-hop body. Fronting Wheelchair Sports Camp, a hip-hop/jazz fusion band, Heffernan could rely on her miniature appearance as a cute gimmick to sell tickets and win sympathy, but she has instead chosen to rely on talent. A long-time devotee of '90s hip-hop, Heffernan has devoted herself to the mike, crafting a life-long gift to not only blow away audiences with her punch and flow (atop a more than note-worthy duo of musicians), but to comment on social issues like homelessness, gender equality and the prison industrial complex, and she always does so with humor and infectious timing. We caught up with Kalyn recently to chat civil unions, Occupy, and homophobia in hip-hop.
Westword: How often -- if at all -- does your sexuality come up in your lyrics?
Kalyn Heffernan: Not a ton. I've never been too good about rapping about relationships, sex or any of that gushy stuff, even though our most watched video is us covering the viral song "My Vagina Ain't Handicapped." But I know I've dropped some silly lines here and there. Like: "I wish I was a little bit taller/I wish I was a baller/I wish I had a girl/Oh I do/I should call her..."
I also just uncovered all these old tracks that WSC did a long time ago before the band was a band, and I did my first and only love song with Auto-Tune all over the place (auto love). There are definitely some silly references to my girlfriend, but, again, nothing too serious. There are plenty of covers we do that I end up changing lyrics around to be about girl-on-girl action or even man-on-man just because it's fun; and i bet a lot of the rappers who meant for the tracks to be hetero would hate me for it!
Similar to your sexuality, you seem to have no reservations about commenting on your own disability -- both things that separate you from what the mainstream would describe as "normal."
Yeah, "normal" just gets farther from my vocab the older I get, I guess. I grew up in a very abnormal situation, in a pretty abnormal family, with plenty of abnormal experiences -- so common things always bore me. I remember dying my hair blue when I was 9; since, hey people already stared and thought of me as different so I took it a step further and continued to do that till I figured myself out -- and here I am. It's never been on purpose that I chose all these paths, that don't strike the "normal" chord, but I don't see myself living any other way. Complacency makes stagnant energy which could easily ruin our future.
The Colorado State legislature recently voted down a bill to legalize same-sex civil unions. Had it passed, how do you think it would have changed attitudes toward same-sex couples? Was this something you were concerned about?
My first reaction was no, it wouldn't have changed minds, but then again, I'm underestimating the power and control the mainstream media has on our society. Since Obama has an incentive to "support gay marriage" -- very vaguely, and only sort of -- 53 percent of our country now supports gay marriage and a record low of 36 percent of people still think it should be illegal.
I think if the bill did pass, it definitely could have started to change the public's attitude toward our elected officials. Many of us have good reason to believe that the government doesn't serve the people, most, especially the underdogs, unless there are profit motives. Had the bill passed, just maybe we could build a little trust and hope to keep this fight headed in the right direction with our representatives.
But once again, they remind us that the struggle has only begun, and it's up to our communities and persistence to educate the public about the dangers that come with oppression, bigotry, entitlement, hate and so forth... It was something I was closely watching, but I was much more worried about the urban camping ban, which was passed the same night -- which will effectively criminalize poor people; the LGBTQ community will surely feel that, being that the majority of our towns shelters don't even accept trans or queers --- so that was really what I was most worried about and still am.
You create and perform inside the culture of hip-hop, which has a strong history of misogyny and homophobia: Has your experience been comfortable?
Honestly it has been pretty comfortable for myself personally, but I have a few things working in my favor: One, I'm a lesbian, which is generally more accepted by homophobes than being a gay man or trans. Two, I'm this tiny little white girl confined to a wheelchair who usually has a posse of supportive friends around. So it's not often that people are blatant dicks to me.
Neither of these labels keep me from running into misogyny and homophobia all around. Hip-hop is just another voice to the current state of our culture, which, unfortunately, still has this testosterone imbalance. But hip-hop is definitely making more leaps than it ever has before, and I think it will continue to do so until the fight's over.
How do you feel about adopting a musical culture that has been so unwelcoming of a person of your sexuality and gender?
Well, I fell in love with hip-hop before I ever fell in love with a girl or even myself, so it's always been a huge part of me, and I had never felt un-welcomed by it. There are plenty of rap records I've grown up with that really go against everything I "sit" for nowadays, but that doesn't mean they're irrelevant. There is no such thing as having too many feelings, too many questions or too much literature. Whether or not we agree with every book ever written, it's still important to have libraries with all sides of the equation, so we can learn from everyone and effectively create a real change.
Now that I'm not just a listener and participate in the hip-hop community, things get tricky. I meet people who make great music with strong messages that I've always looked up to, who, in real life, aren't quite the person their music makes them out to be, or just people I don't really like after meeting them. Or there are people whose music I've never liked before and yet after meeting are incredible people who I have the utmost respect for and do more for their community than they could even make music about.
Un-"traditional" sexualities and artists have always gone hand in hand: Do you feel that being a lesbian -- and all the societal exclusions that come with being open -- has made it easier for you to pursue a creative lifestyle as opposed to a traditional, "professional" one?
Absolutely! I don't feel like there are more gay artists than, say, lawyers, but I do know that it's a hell of a lot easier to bring up the subject at a concert than, say, a board meeting. Being an artist is the profession with the most freedom to be yourself. Because of that, I feel like plenty more oppressed people gravitate to it and are more accepted. Of course, though, the consequence of choosing the art path is that it's usually less profitable, which is fine by me. Everything great comes from struggle.
You've been a pretty large presence in Occupy over the last year. While the event seems to primarily focus on income inequality, do you see Occupy having any benefit for the LGBT community?
Of course! The best part about Occupy -- which lots of people criticize -- is that it's not just one focus. Granted, income equality is the main fight, but that goes hand in hand with almost every other important cause. It's hard to put gay rights over immigrant rights, over environmental rights, so occupy is for everyone.
Money is the root of all evil, and when money gets conflicted with greed, and power, select groups of people are oppressed. One of those groups has been queers for a long time now. Employment and housing discrimination against the LGBTQ community is high. Openly gay males are 40 percent less likely to be granted job interviews. In the city that just made homelessness illegal, LGBTQ youth, most especially trans youth, have much higher chances of being without homes and access to homeless resources, including shelters.
LGBTQ youth in juvenile detention centers are twice as likely to have a history of home removal by a social worker, placement in a group or foster home, or homelessness when compared with their straight peers. Like women, and people of color, queer inmates are punished and sexually abused more often. We have a health-neglect system that doesn't provide for the needs of many, most especially the queer community. LGBTQ teen suicide is high, corporations exploit us, our politicians use us as distractions, and the list goes on an on and on.
All these things have to do with each other and sadly all this atrocity and oppression benefits a small group privileged people. There are Occupys now everywhere and most importantly they serve as a place to meet, discuss and solve problems. There are hundreds of working groups under each occupy and many have LGBTQ working groups dedicated to providing education and resources to demand full equality for LGBTQ people. Occupride is Occupy Denver's newest working group under the outreach committee which will have a float and info/sign up table at Gay Pride! Get involved.
Wheelchair Sports Camp, 4:30 p.m. Saturday, June 23, Westword Music Showcase at City Hall Amphitheater, 1144 Broadway. Buy tickets to the Westword Music Showcase and get more information.
Joshua Novak is a master-craftsman of vintage cool. Not vintage in a shag-carpet and Stones LP sort of way -- more of a Bends-style Britpop in a 120 minutes music video (with a dash of Marc Bolan glitter) sort of way. His album Dead Letters, has all the warmth and flow of a mid-'90s classic, while never sounding nostalgic or dated. Novak was reluctant to participate in a series profiling "gay musicians," primarily because he doesn't see himself as a "gay musician." He's happy to cop to his sexuality -- he's not shy or closeted -- but the idea of being pigeonholed into a novelty act, a born-this-way sympathy case with no identity outside of who he shares his bed with, left an unpleasant taste in Novak's mouth. So, naturally, that was one of the first things we wanted to discuss with him.
Westword: Do you ever feel like because of your sexuality, people expect you to play or be interested in a certain type of music?
Joshua Novak: Most definitely, especially years ago when I was starting out. I think I wasn't straight enough for some, and not gay enough for others. But now I think people don't even consider that when they listen to me. I'm just Josh. At least that's what I hope.
Some musicians are incidentally gay -- such as Michael Stipe or Tegan & Sara -- whereas others identify as a "gay musician" or a "gay band," where their sexuality is at the center of their craft, like Boy George or the Scissor Sisters. Is getting lumped into the latter category a concern of yours?
Yes, because I feel it's incredibly limiting, and often times I don't think those artists are taken seriously. I think some gay musicians see that as an "in," that it's this untapped market where they can show up and you've got this built-in support. It's lazy. I want to be successful or admired for the work that I do as a musician and not because I have job security in my sexuality.
How often -- if at all -- does your sexuality come up as a subject in your lyrics?
For a while now, I have strayed from writing too much in the first person. Writing songs, for me, is very much about creating characters and performing from their perspective. But there are obviously times when I am in love or heartbroken that I am me and singing to, or about, a man. But even then, I don't make a big deal about the gender of it. It's just a love song.
Do you feel that "gay music" -- e.g. Pride lineup -- is good for good for young gay people looking to find their own identity?
There is more to gay culture than the Village People and whoever they decide put on stage at Pride. Freddy Mercury, Michael Stipe and Elton John are good examples of how the gays have been amazing for music culture and history as a whole.
Have you ever been touring and performing in areas of the country where you didn't feel safe revealing your sexuality?
Sure. I unfortunately think about that stuff all the time. It's a bummer.
When you were a young musician, were there any "out" performers that you admired?
Rufus Wainwright has always been someone I have admired as a gay man and a musician. I grew up listening to tons of Elton John. I love Patrick Wolf. Stephin Merritt from the Magnetic Fields is a huge influence, as well as Jonsi [Birgisson] from Sigur Ros.
How do you think the music industry has changed in terms of gay musicians having a career while being out?
I think that gay musicians are able to have long careers now, without having to pretend they're straight to cash the checks. I think we've seen tons of artists that have transcended the stigmas of sexuality to have lots of crossover success.
How do you feel the Denver music scene compares to other cities in terms of gay acceptance?
I'm sure that plenty of other forward-thinking and well cultured cities are similar, but I think Denver is amazing. It has always been supportive -- not just in terms of being gay, but also as a working musician. I'm proud to be a native member of the Denver music scene.
Joshua Novak, 3 p.m., Saturday, June 23, Westword Music Showcase, Stoneys, 1111 Lincoln Street, Buy tickets to the Westword Music Showcase and get more information.
Jen Korte is one of Denver's most nakedly honest vocalists, bearing a powerful and arresting voice inside songs that demand your attention (she's also in a pretty badass Violent Femmes cover band). We caught up with Korte to discuss parents, labels in sex and music, and how Colorado rates against Texas on gay friendliness.
Westword: Labels have become ultra-specific in this new sex-positive, queer-friendly generation we're living in. How do you identify yourself sexually?
Jen Korte: Labels are very overestimated to me these days. It's almost as if nothing can exist as it's meant to be anymore. You say sex-positive, queer-friendly. Along with that comes a slew of subcultures that exist within that, and the labels that come with them. It's comparative to musical genres: sub-indie-emo-pop mixed with progressive-shoe-gazer-rock with an influence of indie-alt-folk. What does any of it mean anymore? Why cant music be music and people be people? I guess its never really been that simple.
I definitely identify myself as a lesbian, but it's not the first thing I say when you meet me. Nor is it the entire subject matter of my music or conversation or my identity in general. I don't get defensive about my sexuality. I've dated women who have also been with men. And even within that there is a gap. The discrimination is there within our own community. I was just in New Mexico having a conversation with a woman who said she refused to date a woman because she was bisexual. My head spins with these labels, labels, labels -- all the time.
Does the subject of your sexuality come up in your lyrics?
It does and it doesn't. Sometimes I think the lyrical content that I write about can only be assumed to have been written about a woman. Women, in general, draw the most passionate, articulate sides out in so many different mediums of art -- hence: the muse. Women are a universal theme in emotion. I don't deliberately avoid using the pronoun of "she," but that comes from most of my music starting out as a poem or a thought to someone versus it being about someone.
I think, subconsciously, things come up that I am not aware of until after the fact. For example, on "It's A Little Hard, Dear," the lyrics are "where can we go tonight? Where can we hide?" I was dating a woman at the time that was not necessarily comfortable being out in the straight community as a couple. It wasn't out of being ashamed so much as it was out of fear.
How will people react? How many men will come up and assume we are there for their viewing pleasure? Its uncomfortable. I think sometimes especially for feminine lesbians, its hard to be however you want with your partner in public without wanting to have a knee jerk reaction to a straight man's sexual comments about you. Its angering and frustrating.
How do you think Denver compares to other U.S. cities on a gay-friendly scale?
I grew up in a decent sized city in Texas, went to college in Waco, Texas, and had less grief there growing up about being gay than I have had in Colorado. I have seen some seriously atrocious things being said and have definitely been called some pretty aggressive anti-gay names, always by men, usually half-drunk and on the streets. I also have several friends -- straight and gay -- who have been attacked physically or emotionally here in Denver because they "might be displaying gay behavior," which you would never think would happen for it being such a liberally advertised city.
I completely agree with the phrase "safety in numbers" when it comes to going out in Denver. We forget that Colorado is a pretty conservative state in a lot of ways. There are a lot of traditional ideas that still exist. We are not far from some of the most anti-gay people on the planet: Focus on the Family. And they are not a weak organization. Colorado remained one of eleven states that did not include sexual orientation in their hate crime legislature until 2009, mainly because of their efforts to not allow LGBT to be included in hate crimes.
There are people who want to kill us! It's absolutely ridiculous, but absolutely real, and that exists everywhere, and it's terrifying. Not to mention that students at our universities come from all over the world, but many of them from some very conservative states surrounding us, and feel that their discriminatory opinions must be heard. I think it's important also to remember that a lot of the negative hype that the gay community gets is from the older generations that still see being gay as mental illness.
Fortunately, that mentality is fading out as time progresses. Even President Obama's point for standing behind gay rights is because his kids did not understand what the big deal was. We are all just people and families trying to make it work. But, I digress. The answer would be: Compared to U.S. cities, I have no idea. I only base it off of my own experience, which tends to ebb and flow depending on where you are. Lipgloss on a Friday: definitely safe. LoDo on a Friday: It's a crap shoot.
Pursuing a career in music can often make parents nervous. Were they accepting of your creative and sexual lifestyle?
My parents are wonderful parents. I would not say that they were immediately accepting. I think more of that was fear for having never really had someone in their life close to them that was gay. They also grew up in a very sheltered environment that was very conservative and racist.
When they were married they were considered to be a bi-racial couple, which is very strange to think about considering my mother is a very beautiful, lighter skinned Hispanic woman, and my dad is blue-eyed blonde Caucasian, meaning you would assume they were of the same race. They had to deal with some flack from that. I wonder sometimes if they relate to me in that sense, just the same as people are comparing the gay right movements to the civil rights movement.
But I have a younger set of parents that are very much in tune with the evolving world. They aren't extremely political people or religious people, so that helps. But I think as any parent who loves their children will always fear for them when their lifestyle choices are clearly harder ones than the "norm." And that is in regards to monetary and sexual orientation. I am not a starving artist, but I definitely work a day job to make ends meet.
It's taken me almost my whole life to come to terms with the fact that I want to be an artist. I have always fought that and thought at some point, I would have to go back to school and get a real job doing blah, blah, blah. The key now is to merge all of my skills into finding a way to make my creative side monetarily stable which sounds like an obvious point but one that has taken me a long time to learn.
Does it ever feel like the indie-music scene is at odds with -- or at least segregated from -- the "gay scene?"
I feel like I ride the fence on this issue. On one hand, I would love to be a role model for my community and to take the reigns, but on the other, it can be a very pigeonhole type of situation. I have this conversation constantly with people in the industry because I still don't really know how I feel about it. Also, it's not just about being a lesbian in the music scene, but a woman as well. I just feel like if I continue in every direction, I can to be honest with my work and respectful to those that surround me, I will succeed.
I also believe, as cliché as it sounds, to let the music speak for itself. We have many, many gay musicians here in Denver that don't feed off they gay hype so much as they just do what they came there to do and let the music speak for itself. There is a lot of power in that statement. Look at the greats: Freddie Mercury, Janis Joplin, Elton John, Michael Stipe, Cole Porter to name a few!
Were there any openly gay musicians that inspired you at a young age?
I wouldn't say there were very many openly gay musicians that inspired me. I will say that I remember the first time I bought an Ani DiFranco record. Okay, okay... I know what you're thinking: Gay chick with an acoustic guitar looked up to Ani DiFranco. Shocker. But there is a lot of substance in that. And a lot of amazing powerful things that have come from that woman's brain. I didn't listen to Ani because she was gay -- I had Tracy Chapman for that. I listened to Ani because she is one of the most prolific lyricists of our time. And one hell of a guitar player to boot. I
t saddens me that so much of the gay community has turned their back on her because she ended up married and with a child. Again the discrimination within the ranks. It's ridiculous. And to all you lesbians out there hating on Ani, try putting Dilate on and not fall in love with it all over again. I dare you.
Do people look at you and box you in to the Ani Difranco/Mellisa Ethridge soft-folk role?
And on that note: yes. I don't know if it's just because people say the first chick with a guitar that comes to their mind or what. Sometimes I take it more as a backhanded compliment. They mean well. I'm sure Ani, Melissa, K.D. Tracy, and whoever else you can think of gets told the same thing, which, I think, is great because none of them sound like each other at all.
Israel Jimenez (of PANAL S.A. DE C.V.)
Panal's layered, instrumental songs contain unique blends of metal, latin and Mars Volta style prog-rock. Panal drummer Israel Jimenez sat down with us to discuss masculine Latinos, gay classical composers and the Barry White School of Love.
Westword: You seem to come from a strong Latino background, which has a reputation for being very masculine and traditional. Have you encountered many obstacles being open in that community?
Israel Jimenez: Certainly. I learned early on that adaptation was key. Since all the Latino male figures in my life were gunning to be bad-ass number one, I had to try to follow along, even if it meant showing off my girl-throw on the baseball field. Of course hanging out with girls certainly didn't help my cause either. Them boys were ruthless.
Being that PANAL's music is instrumental, you obviously don't have lyrics to address sexuality within. Does sexuality play any role in your music?
I didn't think so until someone told me that our song "Alpenglow" was their song to do it to. I could see it because the song starts off lush and groovy and ends loud and abrasive, chock full of peaks and valleys. Those are lessons from the Barry White School of Love.
Some historians cite homosexuality influencing closeted gay composers like Tchaikovsky, Schubert and Leonard Bernstein to make notably "softer" music. As a gay instrumentalist who makes notably hard music, how does this assertion strike you?
Softer as in daintier? Hey, I'm not opposed to putting a light-hearted, pizzacato'd vamp in our music. We'll rock the shit out of it a few phrases down.
Do you see sexuality as being relevant to understanding an artists work?
Sure, especially if it'll make their stories more compelling. However, they should all go to the Barry White School of Love to learn a little seduction.
In the past being an openly gay musician was a liability -- and now, with Pride and an established gay culture, it can be an asset. What has your experience been being an openly gay musician?
Most have been really cool, while a few still stand sixty feet away from me when I enter a room. It doesn't bother me much because I'm there to do my job or hang out with the bandmates, friends and all of the cool random people in the Denver music scene. They're a strong support system.
Some lesbians we've spoken with have said it is easier for a female musician to be "out" than a male. Do you agree with that?
Yeah because even though I'm all fancy free, sometimes I feel like I still have to be careful around my musical contemporaries, otherwise I'll make someone feel uncomfortable. That's when I become the quiet one, or the one that leads the cat calling when there are some hot lesbians around.
PANAL S.A. DE C.V., 12:45 p.m. Saturday, June 23, Westword Music Showcase, The Church, 1144 Broadway Avenue. Buy tickets to the Westword Music Showcase and get more information.
Lauren Zwicky (DJ Narky Stares)
There are a lot of people who owe some of the best dance nights of their lives to Lauren Zwicky. Not only does she deliver the beats for clubs like Beauty Bar and Meadowlark, but she (along with like-minded Israel Rose Oka) is also the co-founder of Damn Gurl, a monthly queer dance night that has become a Denver institution over the last year, providing a safe, sex-positive space for queers, transgenders, and rhythm slaves of all ages. Zwicky was kind enough to chat with us on issues like gender fluidity, anarchy on the dancefloor and whether or not Prince is gay.
Westword: Sometimes the word "queer" is intended to encapsulate all sexual proclivities and genders. Do you use any qualifying words to describe yourself other than -- or in addition to -- queer?
Lauren Zwicky: I rarely associate myself with any specific qualifying words in terms of identity because other people are often too busy doing it for me, assuming who I am or what I am. I resonate deeply with the term "queer" as it is being revitalized to encapsulate not only gender and sexual identity, but a rich history of theory and, dare I say, politics, as well. It is a label I will proudly affiliate myself with because it confuses people. "Wait, what do you mean by the term 'queer'? I mean, like ... who do you sleep with? Guys or girls?" And then I get the opportunity to explain to them that it represents so much more of one's identity than who they sleep with or what genitalia they were born with.
Historically, dance clubs have been an integral space for sexual outcasts to open up and be themselves. How have you and Oka attempted to make Damn Gurl a place where outsiders -- who may not have the most welcoming home-life -- can be open about their sexuality?
What it boils down to is the intention Israel and I had when we started Damn Gurl -- to create a space that is not associated with a particular club or venue or identity, that might bounce around, that might disappear for a minute, that is never, ever predictable. It is more than a dance night to me. It has become a living breathing entity vitalized through each individual that chooses to participate.
We invite everyone and anyone to come as they are, the understanding being that as soon as you walk through the door you are agreeing to accept and respect those around you. Israel and I do not have the ability to promise anyone their safety; we can only trust that anyone who is drawn to the party shares in our intentions. We orchestrate the event up to a certain point, and then it's up to the community to bring the rest ... and boy do they bring it. Every month I am in awe of the amount of integrity present at, what is, in fact, simply a party.
Were there any openly gay musicians who inspired you at a young age?
Prince. Not that he's openly gay. But that fierce little man had me way before Purple Rain. When he was the Artist Formerly Known As Prince, I was around seven years old, and my parents took me to his concert at Fiddler's Green. I remember standing on my seat watching him go from wailing on a guitar to grinding a piano all while wearing the fiercest outfits known to this universe, and I thought "That's what I want to be when I grow up!"
How does a queer dance space like Damn Gurl compare with straight clubs who play similar music and gay clubs who play similar music?
I honestly don't think that any clubs, gay or straight, really compare to the musical curation of Damn Gurl. That's not to say that "similar" music doesn't get played, but I work hard to showcase dynamic and unique DJs and bands that are in line with what we are trying to create at DG. I don't book people based on gender presentation or sexual orientation ... but I also don't book people who have exclusionary or limited ideas or politics around gender and sexuality.
I think what sets us apart from said gay or straight clubs is that anyone who plays at DG must naturally be down for the cause. If you play Top 40, then play Top 40. If you play house, then do that. As long as you are happy playing it, the crowd will feel it; that's an aspect of deejaying and live performance, unrelated to the "queer" identity, that I feel may have gone astray these days, and which I hope to continually curate through DG.
Making a living as a musician is very difficult -- but I imagine the trade-off can be worth it, especially considering that many "professional" jobs may not be comfortable with hiring someone who is out.
I would agree with this statement insofar as making a living as a musician is based on being professional. There is definitely more room to present oneself in a less mainstream and more creative way considering you are creating an image or stage presence as a musician. There's more room to toy with gender/external expression and presentation. I make my uniform every time I "perform" as a DJ. I shift my appearance based on mood or context or desire, which may not have been an option in previous jobs.
How do you -- if at all -- infuse your sexuality into your music? Basically, I'm wondering if you weren't as sexually liberated as you are, could you still make the music that you do.
Am I sexually liberated? At certain moments, I definitely feel a liberation via music that is inextricably connected to my sexuality. If it's a good night, my sexual nature is infused in my music selection and transferred on to the dance floor. That's all I ever hope for -- that, by way of playing other people's music, my audience is turned on ... emotionally, physically, mentally, psychically. I would say my identity, taste and sexuality influence my selections. There are certain tracks or styles I will or will not play because of my sexual identity and politics.
DJ Narky Stares, Electric Camel Toe and Ginger Perry, 7 p.m. Sunday, June 17, Beauty Bar, 608 East 13th Avenue, $5. Click here for more information.
Magee Headley (of the Haircut)
Magee Headly is the quirky, all-soul and no filler front-woman for the garage-pop band, the Haircut. Not only does she deliver the puzzle-piece perfect melodies to snap right into guitarist Nelson Echeverry's charmingly infectious songs, but she adds that impossible blend of a light, feminine modal voice (sometimes bending the last note of a verse into a delectable squeal) and a powerful, demanding chest voice. While straddling both the freegan/queer world of Damn Gurl and Derailer, while playing delicate, almost commercial sounding indie-rock music, Headly had some articulate things to say about family, polyamory and how surf-rock is a metaphor for gender fluidity.
Westword: The Haircut has had a strong presence in the Damn Gurl/freegan/anarchists scene. How have they responded to your indie-pop sound?
Magee Headly: Openly and without question. Even when it came to playing at Damn Gurl, there was no question of us being not "dance-y" enough or being too indie pop to play a dance party. It wasn't a matter of sexuality or gender identity either. It was just like: Hey, friend, you play music. Wanna play music here? And we were like: Hell yeah! Derailer was also the first venue/show we ever played, and it will always have a nostalgic family feeling for us.
Outside of being a musician, you've devoted a lot of your time to working with children: As a public figure, do you feel that being open about your sexuality is important/helpful to younger people who may look up to you?
It's important if you choose to do so. I've definitely never been a fan of musicians who use their music as an outlet for their politics. It's a slippery slope that can take away from the actual creativity. However, when you're doing something as personal as singing lyrics from your heart to random strangers, some of that is inevitable. It also goes to say that I definitely do discuss things like gender roles and sexuality with my students regularly.
Kids pretty frequently question my short hair, saying "its boy hair." So I may ask them, "Why can't a girl have short hair?" I never try to indoctrinate them, though. I usually leave it in open ended questions for them to ponder and think about. As far as my personal sexuality, I would hope that younger people who may look up to me would see the openness that I try to have onstage and in life and apply that to all aspects of their lives, not just sexuality.
Some of your lyrics seem to touch on a not-so-perfect childhood. Was your choice to pursue music and a more liberated sexual lifestyle accepted by your family?
Music was accepted with open arms. More than half of my family are musicians on levels ranging from professional to hobbyist. I was always encouraged to find my instrument and style creatively. As far as sexuality, its a little different. My family are conservative Christians, and for the most part, they are unaware of my sexuality in any form of its existence. Its just not something we talk about. Frankly, for now, I think I'm okay with that.
Many musicians we've spoken with are uncomfortable with labels: Both sexually and musically. How do you feel that labels have helped and/or hurt queer musicians?
Labels are hard. Particularly because both music styles and sexuality are ever-changing, flowing things. Sometimes I really want to write a folky song. Sometimes I really wanna kiss a lady. Though sometimes I want to belt Lady Gaga and get my flirt on with someone who is male. I think, in that sense, using labels to define a person or a music style can be harmful because they are limiting.
However, using labels as describing term can be beneficial in getting what you want. I need to be able to use genre labels like "surf rock" or "experimental" to communicate what I want to my band. That doesn't make The Haircut a "surf rock band." It just means we wrote a song that had some surf rock vibes.
How -- if at all -- does your sexuality inform your music?
It does in the obvious sense of writing a song about a person that I'm attracted to; I may reference back to my sexuality for those feelings to translate them into lyrics. A few of our songs touch on the attitude of be who you are and do what you need too. That would be the biggest influence that comes from my sexuality. I may not sing directly about personal sex or romance or relationships, but I definitely see all those things as crucial parts of life that fall into the influence of my song writing.
As someone who has been in both polyamorous and monogamous relationships in your life, do you feel that polyamory is one more piece of our generation's evolving views towards sexuality?
I think acknowledging it as a legitimate way of living is important. By no means is it for everyone. Some people need to be in monogamous relationships, and that's okay. However it is not the only way. If our generation's views are to continue to evolve we need to constantly remind ourselves that what we need as individuals is not the same as what others need. Everyone deserves respect for their desires and chosen ways of life. Some people have multiple partners, some just have one, some have none. And when it comes down to it, if it doesn't effect you, why the fuck does it matter?
Were there any openly gay musicians that inspired you at a young age?
David Bowie and Iggy Pop were always really important to me. Their confidence really spoke to me and encouraged me to be myself. Not just in aspects of music or sexuality, but in general self esteem. Bowie always blew my mind with the way he could be a pop icon and simultaneously outrageous, with no real consideration for cultural definitions of what was the "norm," and yet everyone still thought he was the bomb-dig. That's what I want: To be able to be myself and be outrageous, and maybe people will like it and feel inspired. Or at least get a good laugh at the weird girl onstage.
ASiEL is a star. Whether he's playing a DIY venue to a handful of horny freegans, or controlling a massive crowd at the mainstage of Pride festival, he delivers an arresting performance that even the most racist, homophobe would stop and say, "Damn, that guy really brings it." Writing lyrics and staring in videos that are aggressively sexual, ASiEL casually exposes anti-gay myopia in the entertainment industry merely because his act, while being no more graphic than any hetero performer, is often taken as lewd simply because of the man-on-man imagery he presents. We recently got together to chat Catholics, Janet Jackson and what Jay Z has to do in order to really be pro-gay.
Westword: Other female rappers we've spoken with have said that it is easier to be an openly gay woman in hip-hop than it is to be a man. Is this something you would agree with?
ASiEL: I wouldn't say it's easier for an openly gay woman -- but more accepted than an openly gay male. Hip hop is a very masculine industry. I feel an openly gay male rapper is a threat to the straight rappers.
When you first started rapping, did you worry about entering a music culture that has a strong history of homophobia?
I never worried about homophobia and still don't. In fact, I welcome those kind of people. I like to challenge what it means to be masculine, some people don't like that.
Have you ever played hip-hop clubs were you felt your safety could be in danger because of your sexuality?
I have never felt in danger. However, I have played shows where some people have expressed their discomfort, everyone is entitled to their own opinion and the show must go on.
Your lyrics are highly sexualized, yet they utilize a lot of Catholic imagery to express that sexuality. Do you have a vendetta against the church, or is this just a humorous way to express yourself?
I rap about sex because, as humans, we are sexual beings and everyone can relate. As far as the Catholic imagery: I am very serious about those lyrics and although a person can find them humorous, that was not the intention. I wanted to address the Catholics for judging gay people and having priests who practice homosexuality in private.
You include a lot of fashion and choreography into your performances. Is this something that translates well when performing for a straight audience? Or is it mostly something only the gays get?
I consider myself a performer and artist. I feel choreography and fashion just come with the package. Although the gay crowd is more openly accepting, the straight crowd can't deny I give a great show. One time after a show a straight guy told me, "I'm not with all that gay shit, but you're talented as fuck"
In the last decade, there have been so many advances in accepting homosexuality and gender bending, from Andre 3000 and Janelle Monae embracing androgyny, to Jay-Z coming out in support of gay marriage. What steps do you feel the hip-hop/R&B community have yet to take?
I'll believe Jay-Z really supports gay marriage when he signs an openly gay rapper to his label.
When did you first come out as gay, and what role -- if any -- did music play in that process?
I first came out when I was sixteen. I have also been performing since I was sixteen. Music definitely had a huge influence on that process. I feel music helps a person understand their own emotions -- which leads to more self acceptance. Janet Jackson showed me it's okay to rap or sing about sex.
What is the story behind the ASiEL character?
ASiEL is a Hebrew name, it means "created by God." Its a reminder to myself and others that no matter what you are judged about, the same creator that made you made me.
ASiEL, 4 p.m., Saturday, June 16, at PrideFest 2012, Civic Center Park, Broadway and Colfax Avenue, free, all ages. Click here for more information on Pride Festival. (Note: DJ Narky Stares will be providing the beats for ASiEL's Pride performance.)
While we've seen so many Denver musicians head to Portland, Sarah Angela fought against the tide, abandoning the land of humid hipsters for our mountainous music scene. Playing a classic, white-girl blues in the tradition of Bonnie Raitt or Jewel, Angela's music has caught some wind in Denver's gay music scene, landing her a slot on the main stage of this year's Pride Festival. We got together with Angela to discuss Joan Jett, singing babies and big bad cops of the south.
Westword: Being a female folk/blues singer, you're following in a tradition that has a strong history with empowered lesbians. Was this something you were conscious of when you began making music?
Sarah Angela: Not really. I started singing when I could first start making sounds, and it just never stopped. I was influenced by women and men alike who rocked and rolled and empowered people as a whole, very unaware of their sexuality until later in life.
You'll be performing at Pride this weekend. How has the gay scene embraced you as an artist?
Denver, in particular, has given me good love. I feel really lucky to have had such a diverse fan base. Old and young, gay and straight alike, have embraced me as an artist. And now I have an awesome opportunity to perform for some of the best people on the planet in one of my favorite cities in the world, on such an important day.
Were there any "out" musicians that inspired you at a young age?
I grew up in a fairly sheltered atmosphere, again, unaware of the sexuality of the artists who inspired me. It was, though, super cool for me to learn that women artists artists I had aspired to be like -- Joan Jett, Janis Joplin, Melissa Etheridge -- were kind of "like me" after all.
Is it easier pursuing a career as a musician while being out, rather than a more mainstream career where sexuality can be a liability?
For me, being myself is definitely easier. I have never debated secrecy; that always comes back to haunt you. I certainly hope I can move and inspire others through being myself and reach people through my music.
Do you think it is easier to be open as a lesbian rather than as a gay male?
Wow, tough question. There was a time I might have said yes, based on the twisted minds of many. But I know so many gay men that are out and proud, with no hesitation, that proves it's all about your confidence and the people you surround yourself with. Today, I think its harder being an openly straight male.
You've toured quite a bit, have you experienced any homophobia while traveling through different parts of the country?
Oh yeah, from the big bad cops of the south. I was surrounded by a very prideful pack that put them in their place, thankfully.
How do you celebrate Pride?
I am going to sing my face off!
Sarah Angela, 4:15 p.m., June 17, PrideFest 2012, Civic Center Park, free, all ages. Click here for more information on Pride Festival.
Maria Kohler (M and the Gems, Kitty Crimes, Harpoontang)
Endlessly talented and shamelessly candid, Maria Kohler is a name you'll probably be hearing a lot more of in the years to come. Not only is she the frontwoman for the rock band M & The Gems, but you can often find her transformed into the hip-hop ocelot, Kitty Crimes, performing hilariously sexual songs with lyrics like, "Never shake a baby/ Shake what your mother gave ya."
Like Joshua Novak, Kohler was apprehensive to participate in an interview that could potentially marginalize her into the category of "gay musician." Thankfully, she decided to stick her head into the lion's mouth and answer a few questions, discussing matters such as musicians affecting social change, Mel Gibson, and her raunchy side project (with Laura Goldhamer and the ladies of Paper Bird), Harpoontang.
Westword: Sexuality can sometimes -- unfortunately -- pigeonhole someone into a specific type of culture. Did you ever feel that being a lesbian meant that you had to play "lesbian music?"
Maria Kohler: No more than if a false notion existed that I "had" to be a lesbian. Sexual energy is inherently creative -- and in my opinion creativity has an undercurrent of sexual energy -- so thank God that we can use it as a vessel for inspiration. I am also thankful that an honest reason to appear as anything but myself has never existed for me, that being true while my orientation has taken on different incarnations on a whim. I think it might be ill-inspired to make anything due to some real or imagined external persuasion if you don't already love what you're doing. Still, when I dated guys and sang music, this question never came up, which makes sense.
Do you feel that it is easier to be out while living as a musician, surrounded by creative people -- versus, say, working as a secretary in a male-dominated office setting?
I've never once encountered any oppressive energy from musical peers regarding my sexual orientation. As an artist in general, I've experienced a network of resounding encouragement and collaboration that has made the process of creating even more lovable.
Does your sexuality come across in your lyrics?
Touching again from earlier on the idea of creativity having an undercurrent of sexual energy, I'd say yes. Always. A band I'm in, Harpoontang, has a lyric that says "Dang J, is you between the I and the K? I be thinkin that you makin' me gay." I didn't write that but I would have if I could have. Kitty Crimes is lyrically queer at times, and I have a lot of fun using this character as a means for being tongue-in-cheek about sexuality. "If I were a millenium old/I'd be kickin it medieval in some convent reeking havoc on a flock of nuns." Fun.
The State Legislature recently voted down a civil rights bill granting same-sex couples nearly equal rights as straight couples. Had this passed, would it have affected you in any way? I guess what I'm saying is, are you pro-marriage?
I'm definitely pro-decency, and a proponent of people in love getting together and doing whatever they please, whether that be joining in marriage, commitment ceremonies, or Mel-Gibson monologue-offs at the skate park. It's a pleasure to witness American government and culture shifting to become more inclusive, but we still have our work cut out for us. I'll leave it at that.
What role -- if any -- do you feel that musicians could play, or have played in the past, to affect social change for gay rights?
Musicians have this great opportunity to affect social change through authenticity, to its benefit and detriment. Advocating on behalf of any demographic seems to be more effective when you've really demonstrated that you are genuine as a human. It's kind of hard to tell Freddie Mercury to stop being himself when you can't get over how brilliant "Bohemian Rhapsody" is, etc.
Maria Kholer (fronting M & the Gems), 1:30 p.m., Saturday, June 23, Westword Music Showcase, Vinyl, located at 1082 Broadway. Buy tickets to the Westword Music Showcase and get more information.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.