Script for QMH, November 2005
Veronica Klaus - I Will Survive (2005)
This is Queer Voices on KPFT and this segment is called Queer Music Heritage. I'm JD Doyle and tonight I'm bringing you three very special interviews, with three very talented transgender artists. They are Veronica Klaus, Jessica Xavier and Georgie Jessup, and if you think being an independent artist is hard, try being a transgender one. And that's why I thought Veronica's version of "I Will Survive" would be a good choice to start the show.
I first met Veronica Klaus at the GLAMA awards in 1999, when her debut album had been nominated for Best Recording by a Female Artist. It was called "All I Want," and I just love that album. We'll talk about it a little later, but she has a new album this year called "Veronica Klaus, Live at the Lodge," and that's where I got her version of "I Will Survive." I asked her about that song.
I've heard people say that the world doesn't need still another version of "I Will Survive," but I quite like yours.
Well, you know, I wondered that, too. But I just felt like you know, there's always room to say something in your own way, and I feel that we did something new with it. It's funny, because I originally put it on there and wasn't even sure if it was going to make the album cut, you know, and it just got such great feedback from it I decided that it had to be there.
Getting back to basics, who is Veronica Klaus?
(laughs) Well, that depends on who you ask. Ah, hmm. I am a singer. I am an actress. I am a scrabble fanatic. I am from Illinois originally. I'm an artist.
Where did you get the name Veronica Klaus?
Oh well, the name my last name has always been Klaus, but the name Veronica I got from hmm, you know I've always liked names that start with a "v" for some reason, I don't know, maybe they start out with a nice bold stroke, you know. But I think I got the name Veronica; I sort of decided on it after Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Veronica Voss."
And that's the name of a movie?
It's his movie about a dazzling heroin addicted film star in decline.
Well, there's something to strive for.
There you go. I always had trouble picking out appropriate role models, but it seemed like a great name.
Tell us about the new CD.
Well my latest album is called "Veronica Klaus, Live at the Lodge," which is exactly what the name says. We decided to do a big benefit for an organization, a queer humanitarian aid organization called Rainbow World Fund. And that night we had a ten-piece band, a lot of classic material. Everything from "Fever," with some original lyrics of mine in it, to a Phoebe Snow song, a John Prine duet with Mark Weigle, a Carole King song, a Tom Waitts song, all kinds of great mixture of r&b, jazz and blues, plus one of my own songs, "Black Diamond Days," sort of a signature tune, and it was all a live recording for a great cause.
One of my favorite gay artists is Mark Weigle, and I was delighted when I found out that Veronica's new CD included a duet with Mark. Please tell me about the recording of "Angel from Montgomery"
You know, my friend Mark Weigle, we've done some other recording together. I've done a couple projects with him on his CDs, one called "Jo & Libby," on his "Different and the Same" CD, that I had such a great time doing with him. And I've also sung some backup stuff with him on his latest CD "Soulsex," a track called "Victim," and we just had such a great time that we when we started planning this show we knew we wanted to do a couple duets. I had never I didn't really know this song and Mark brought it to my attention, and I'm a big Bonnie Raitt fan. Mark played this for me and suggested we do it and I jumped at the chance. I love that song. Mark Weigle is amazing, an amazing songwriter and I love his voice, I love singing with him, harmonizing with him. We work really well together
Veronica Klaus & Mark Weigle - Angel from Montgomery (2005)
Of what song that you've written are you most proud?
Oh, what's one song that I've written? The song I've written that I think I'm the most proud of and that sort of gives people a really good idea of who I am and where I come from and that kind of thing would have to be "Black Diamond Days." It's an autobiographical tune about my home town in Illinois, sort of gives a really good picture of growing up in a small town and how it feels to have come from there and, you know, an appreciation of where you come from and an appreciation of where you've been, and where you're going.
What Are Black Diamond Days?
Black Diamond Days is the name of a celebration in my hometown, that originated in my hometown. Gillespie, Illinois, is the home of Black Diamond Days, the original festival of coal. Black diamonds are coal
And would you talk about some of the lines in that song? I love that song.
Well, it sort of gives a little bit of a travelogue of Gillespie, you know, my small hometown. I think that I wanted to, being a transgender, transsexual person, I wanted to write a song that, you know, acknowledged that process and that sort of history. It's not specific about that, but at the same time if you, if you know my story it's easy to pull those things out, but at the same time another thing that was important to me in writing songs is that the songs not be so specific that people can't relate their own experiences to my experiences, you know I think that feelings are universal no matter you might not have the same circumstances but people certainly feel the same way, have the same kinds of feelings about their circumstances, and I think that I get people all the time saying that they relate so much to that song even though they're not transgender or they're not gay or they're not they might just come from a small town and have those same feelings.
There's a lot of references, symbolism in black diamonds and gems and "Life's a gem in the palm of her hand" and "you just can't force this jewel of a girl into a square setting." There's a line that says "you can't go back to a church that burned down a lifetime ago." And on the one hand that's a very literal thing for me, because growing up the church was really a sanctuary to me. And I mean not the church on Sundays, not the church full of people but in my very small town they never locked the church days and so when I was growing up in junior high and high school I used in the evenings, you know, when nobody else was around and spend hours and hours and hours in the church and play the piano and sing and just be there by myself. It was sort of my refuge and after I moved to California that church burned down. You know it's just sort of symbolic thing that applies on a literal level and on a symbolic level. You move on in your life and you have these memories of places and people and times in your head but you can't necessarily go back there.
Veronica Klaus - Black Diamond Days (1997)
I want to talk about your first album a little. Tell us about your recording of "Remember Walkin in the Sand" coupled with "Ruler of my Heart"
Oh, "Walkin' in the Sand" is such an amazing song. The Shangri Las were such an incredible group. I think my first introduction to the Shangri Las was through Bette, Bette Midler doing "Leader of the Pack." The Shangri Las are just one of those groups that I think I discovered first through her, and the Shangri Las are amazing. I mean, they were a teen group but their emotions and their feelings and their lyrics are so raw and so on the edge that they just sort of transcend the teen genre
I loved the way you segued into "Ruler of My Heart"
Oh, "Ruler of My Heart" was originally an Irma Thomas song from the 60's and Irma Thomas was another person I just adore, her New Orleans recordings from the 60's and even up to now, she's still an amazing voice. And "Ruler of My Heart" is just one of those songs that it's almost like a lullaby for me
To hear you do that a cappella is just stunning
I wanted so badly to do that a cappella and I really just had to jump and do it, because I wondered, doing something a cappella on a CD seems very risky to me, but I'm glad that I did. I used to, years ago I used to close most shows with that a cappella, and like I said it really is almost like a lullaby to me
Veronica Klaus - Remember Walkin' in the Sand/Ruler of My Heart (1997)
Tell me about "Blind Hearts and Knowing Glances"
It's about, again, about a break up and a lot of this, several of the songs on this CD were written after a particular break up, and it was a very difficult one for me. This person had really in some ways helped make some of that songwriting possible, while we were together. They were a musician, and helped me sort of get over my fear or my issues with finishing songs, and getting it out there for people to hear. You know, I had started songs a million times, but never finished them or never, never thought that they were worth presenting to anyone. And that person really helped me through that. And there are few songs on there that are they're very bittersweet. There were lots of good things about that relationship, but it just wasn't going to happen, you know, it wasn't going to work. So still you know, there's still some bittersweetness there.
But some good songs came out of it.
Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.
Veronica Klaus - Blind Hearts and Knowing Glances (1997)
For the last couple years one of the local hit productions in San Francisco has been "Family Jewels: The Making of Veronica Klaus." It's the story of a boy from a midwest family who grew up to become a singer--and a woman. Could you tell us about the show.
Well, "Family Jewels, the Making of Veronica Klaus" is a one-woman show, a solo theatre piece, and it's basically my life so far. A few of the songs that are on these two CDs are in the show, but it's really stories, it's songs and stories woven into songs about growing up, about transition, about being different, about trying to relate when you don't really relate to the place where you're growing up and how do you deal with, you know, feeling different and surviving, and feeling good about yourself and dealing with changes and with who you are and relationships and all that. It's funny, it's poignant, it's sexy, it's smart, which was really something that was important to me, to make something that was smart and funny at the same time.
And it's just been great, we've gotten really amazing feedback and it felt so good to do the show. People have a lot of questions, or questions they don't necessarily ask of transgender people, and you know this was really the opportunity to present my story, my way. I've not really made a big issue about it in general over the years because I felt like the music was the important thing. I felt like that when you're talking about transition and that kind of thing, it's sensational and people you know want to simplify it to one phrase or something like that, and it's a whole life worth of experience. It's impossible to condense it into a sound byte. For the longest time I wasn't hiding anything but at the same time I just didn't feel like .I knew it would be reduced to "Veronica Klaus, Transsexual Singer," and that doesn't tell the story. And so I felt like the only way I really to tell it was if I got to tell it my way. And this was really my opportunity to do that.
Since the show is autobiographical, what's the hardest part about doing that?
The hardest part is that there are still many parts of the show where I talk about my parents, my past relationship with my parents, my current relationship with my parents. That kind of thing I think is really the most difficult because a lot of it, even though it's in the past, a lot of it's still very, very emotional. A lot of it is still very fresh in my mind and a lot of it is still really difficult to talk about, when you're being honest.
Do you ever feel that, gee, I wish people would not focus on the transgender part and instead focus on the performance and the talent.
Sure, sure. I felt that it was more important to prove through my art who I was than through a discussion of any kind of clinical or sensational expose. Cause I think that to me is part of what I love about the show is the more larger than life my life is and the more I talk about details of my life, and the bigger my life gets in the show, and in examining details and that kind of thing. The bigger you blow it up the more people see similarities. It's almost like when you put it under the microscope you can get down to a level where people see things the can relate to. When you go into all these relationships with your parents and relationships with how you're perceived in the world, and how you really feel about yourself, or who you feel like you are you know, people can relate to those things, where on the surface they may not feel like they can
Do you feel people react differently to you as a transgender performer than they would to a female performer?
Oh, I'm sure they do react differently because they sort of sometimes, you know, it's funny, because when I'm performing in a jazz club, where I'm not really making an issue about my gender and that kind of thing, it's not an issue. I've proven who I am and what I can do. It's not an issue to me. It's not an issue to my musicians. It's not an issue to the venue. But that being said, you always, always go a period, it's like the first song, or the first two songs, I see, I look out into the audience while I'm singing and I can see the gears turning. You know you can see the thoughts written across people's foreheads, and it takes a song or two songs for them to figure things out, to get over it, and to enjoy the music. And I think that in that process they come out having learned something about the world and having learned something about people who are different from them that they're not that different. First of all, music is universal and feelings are universal. Experiences might not be the same, but feelings are universal
Veronica was kind enough to send me a recording of a song from her show, and it's never been released, so this is a special treat. And because of the song's language you'd soon see why this treat is reserved for my internet listeners. Here's "Sloe Gin" by Veronica Klaus.
Veronica Klaus - Sloe Gin (2005)
I've seen you described in the press as a "San Francisco Diva," a SF performance icon, and SF Weekly magazine described you as "Vanessa Williams, Cat Woman, and Jessica Rabbit rolled into one." How do you react to this kind of recognition?
(laughs) Vanessa Williams, Jessica Rabbit and Cat Woman all rolled into one I mean, that's a dream quote (laughs) you know I love that, yes, I do remember that, it was a while ago but I love that. Well, you know, you can't believe your own PR too much but it's certainly, certainly really great to be respected, to feel like your 15 years of performance and hard work has earned you some sort of reputation or respect reputation that threatens to become a career
I've read that you did a show called "Puttin' on the Titz"
Years ago I did a benefit. It was all sort of tongue in cheek, but I did a benefit called "Puttin' on the Titz" for cosmetic surgery and I think I actually lost money on that benefit
You didn't have to give anything back?
I didn't have to give anything back but I think I did have to earn enough money to have paid for the ones and then an extra one, I think, somewhere in there.
Let's get back to the new album, the additional verses to "Fever" .those were your invention?
They are. I wrote those original lyrics to "Fever" originally about ten years ago. San Francisco built a new library and there was an opening of the James Hormel Center, the Gay & Lesbian Center in the library, and I was playing at that opening. I wanted to do something special for that opening and so I wrote the two original verses to "Fever" talking about Liberace and his partner and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, you know, just wanted to put a little bit of history in it
Veronica Klaus - Fever (2005)
Again, that was Veronica Klaus, from her new album "Veronica Klaus, Live at the Lodge."
Jessica Xavier - Unity (1999)
You can already tell that the lyrics of this next artist can be very political, and that's why I really appreciate her work. Jessica Xavier has been a transgender activist for many years and also expresses herself musically. When I did my first special on Transgender Music in August of 2000 it was one of her songs that I chose to close the show. Her first album was called "Changeling," and she's back now, this time with a band, called Femme Messiah.
Who is Jessica Xavier?
Well, she is an openly bisexual, transsexual woman, but because of all the advocacy work that I do I get labeled as a transgender advocate, although my personal identity is transsexual woman. Neither term alone, either transsexual or woman, describe all that I am, so I tend to use both terms. I'm also a singer/songwriter and that has become my principal means of not only communicating a message to others, but also processing a lot of my trans experience of my life being out loud and proud as a queer person in an intolerant society. So that's kind of how I came to become a songwriter. It became a form of therapy. It was a lot more fulfilling personally to express myself that way and also a lot cheaper than having to pay a psychotherapist
You've also got quite a background in activism
Yeah, I've worked in the trans-political movement for about seven years and then left that in '99, and now I'm exclusively focused on health care advocacy. I've actually been working in the HIV epidemic for the past 21 years and at present I'm very proud to be an HIV warrior. I've been focusing a lot right now on the hidden epidemic of HIV amongst trans-women, particularly trans-women of color
Could you mention some of your other activism in the past, some of the other groups you've been involved with.
Well, I was a co-founder of It's Time America, which was a trans-political organization and in the 90's it had about 25 state chapters, and I led It's Time Maryland, one of those state chapters. And I was involved with various kind of LGBT events, like the 1993 March on Washington, the 1994 Stonewall 25 Commemoration, so I do kind of trans-focused stuff but I also am a mainstream queer activist as well.
Tell us about the new CD.
It's a collection of tunes, some of which go back to the early 90's, when I was in an all-transgender quartet called the Cherries. Later I started working with my friend David Machin. He's the guitar on (the album) "Changeling," but the songs are all about processing the experience of you know being a beautiful flower trying to live in a very harsh environment. Orchids are by nature very exotic and erotic, so there was a sexual energy in there as well as the notion of trying to be beautiful and honest and living a life of integrity while facing the consequences of dealing with the really harsh environment
Well that explains the name of the album, "Orchids in the Arctic," how about the name of the group?
Femme Messiah, well, originally I wanted to call the band Girl Jesus, but we had a very devout Christian in the group and she didn't like that, but a friend of ours suggested Femme Messiah and we went with that. It sort of speaks to the power I think of redemption through gender transition, salvation through sex change, that kind of notion. There is a certain power that we come to embrace in our femininity, in our womanhood, that I think transsexual women do understand.
Tell us about "The Rainbow Song"
"The Rainbow Song" was written when I was in gender transition. It's semi-autobiographical, especially in the process of coming out, and being lost and struggling with self-acceptance and finding myself alone and scared and frightened and all these thoughts and images are happening in my head and then all of a suddenly after I come out they are happening to me in actual life. And then through the wonder of discovery I find that I'm not alone. There are others like me, that I am just one color in a much, much brighter, broader rainbow filled with lovely colors and wonderful people. And that spectrum, honoring that difference and diversity and range, the possibility is what makes LGBT people so unique and so special. That's our gift to the rest of humanity.
Femme Messiah - Rainbow Song (2005)
Tell us about the song "Male Privilege"
Well, in 1994 I had gone to Camp Trans, which is the on-going protest against the exclusionary policies of the Michigan Women's Music Festival. They do not allow transsexual women to attend the festival or be on the land. And that's really based on a lot of misunderstanding and fear, distrust and paranoia. So the protest has been going on for all these years to try to get them to change their policies, and this song is just kind of follows up on that. Transsexual women tend to get accused of having male privilege. We continue, in the eyes of some lesbian feminists, continue to cleave to it, continue to act that way, in a male-entitled sort of fashion. And one of the lesbian feminists, actually separatists who actually is most guilty of that is Alix Dobkin.
So I wrote this song for Alix, just so that she could understand that my male privilege was never fully vested, that I never really used it. It was something that made me feel suicidal when I was growing up with it. So my male privilege consisted of feeling really bad about being forced into male behaviors that were not appropriate, that didn't fit, that made me uncomfortable, that put me at risk for physical assault and one time even sexual assault by males who perceived me as being less than male, so it wasn't a happy male privileged existence. It was torture growing up, and that's what I wanted to write about. It's another song that's semi-autobiographical, growing up, not wanting to be a boy, but wanting to be a girl, and then struggling to survive and figuring out how to deal with it.
Femme Messiah - Male Privilege (2005)
I'd like to hear about the song "Gender"
"Gender" is kind of like a howl. It's an expression of rage, of kind of absolute angst and anger, over the top. If you read the stuff that Kate Bornstein has written about gender. Gender becomes such a powerful social control mechanism. And it's quite often it's the hidden machine, it's not there. People don't really recognize just how it's shaping their behavior. I do diversity training for the metropolitan police department here in the District of Columbia, and one of the things that I tell them is that a lot of straight men are not aware about how powerful homophobia is in their lives, in shaping their behavior. Any straight man that gets called a faggot is going to stand up and defend himself, and there's going to be violence. And a lot of the times if you're straight you don't even realize is that's what caused it. It's homophobia. So we're not aware of these powerful social control mechanisms in our lives, and I think "Gender" was kind of like an expression of just that kind of pure rage against this hidden machine that used in controlling our behaviors. And it kind of works pretty well as an over-the-top punk song.
It reminded me of something Jayne County might sing
Ah, yeah, Jayne, God bless her. She's the fairy godmother of all transwomen songwriters.
Femme Messiah - Gender (2005)
From the album "Orchids in the Arctic" by Femme Messiah, that was "Gender." Up next, from Jessica's solo album "Changeling" she talks about the song "This Girl"
My personal coming out song. It's affirming about who I was at the time. I needed to write a song like that to kind of lay out the boundaries and explain who I was and why I was doing this and what type of a girl I was going to be
Jessica Xavier - This Girl (1999)
Do you think the meaning of the word transgender has been changing?
To a certain extent, yeah. In the early 90's the term transgender got coined and became the general label for this entire population. The term itself was kind of evolutionary at the time because we had this giant gulf between transsexuals, who gender transitioned, and cross-dressers who didn't. And along came this term transgender and all of a sudden it opened up all these other possibilities, because people could live in genders opposite their physical sexes without having surgery. That was quite a radical notion at the time. So as the term has evolved over time it's an umbrella term. It's also an individual identity term, and it continues to mean more and more things because of the numbers of individual identities that are contained in it. So it's still evolving, absolutely, and language for it is struggling to keep up with it because it's evolving so quickly.
I want to talk about the album "Changeling." It was really the first album that I came upon that politically talked about the trans experience, and I found that kind of a landmark recording.
Yeah, thank you. It was quite a struggle to get that CD out. It took a lot of effort. It was my first and I made a lot of mistakes on it. I wish I could have recorded and sang it better, but lyrically I think some of the songs do stand out.
What struggles did you have recording that album?
Well, it took a long time to do, took about two years. Financially it was a huge struggle because I was not making a lot of money at the time. I had a lot of technical problems that were going on. I was also unemployed for fourteen months. So for me to be able to produce that CD, it was a miracle, quite a miracle to get that thing out.
When we communicated about this before, about five years ago, you wrote me that transphobia played a big part in the struggles, because for you and other artists like you, you're often unemployed or underemployed and it makes it that much more difficult.
Absolutely. And we're just beginning to create an audience for trans music now. There are enough openly transgender artists now who are performing who are finally getting followings. Transphobia drove a lot of us underground, so the notion of being trans and coming to a show in the 90's was quite rare. Jayne County managed to do it in New York but in other places it's kind of difficult. There's a very high murder rate of transgender people, especially transgender women. Getting people to come to a show, or even to show up and buy your CD is
People would be afraid to come see you.
Yeah, exactly, exactly.
Now, there's a challenge.
Yeah, try to find your audience when they don't want to be seen. We know they're out there though, and now we've got the internet, and Gallae Records, our little record publishing company finally put up a website. That's very helpful. I didn't have that with "Changeling"
Of what song that you've written are you most proud?
"Stonewall" most certainly is one of those songs. I wrote that song very specifically, back in the early 90's, because I was concerned that we were getting 30 years on from the Stonewall Rebellion and due to a lot of sociopolitical forces and identity politics and assimilation that our history was being lost. I was concerned because at the time we were fighting a lot of inclusion battles, trying to become part of the gay & lesbian political agenda, and that was proving to be very difficult. And so "Stonewall" was kind of a reminder that trans people did play a very significant role in the birth of gay liberation. And my friend, sister, mentor, mother, hero, heroine, goddess, Sylvia Rivera, was really who the song was dedicated to. I knew Sylvia for seven years, and she was one of true heroes of the trans movement as well as the LGBT movement, and she loved the song, and was very, very excited and happy that I had written it because she too was concerned that her place in history was going to be forgotten, and I'll never let that happen.
I think you have an interesting story about how you met her.
Yeah, that's right. I was actually doing a political to the Metropolitan Gender Network in New York City. After I finished my presentation I in the course of it I described that there were two arms of the trans movement: the political arm and then the educational arm. I finished my presentation and we had the time for questions and comments and this figure stood up on the other side of the circle, and I couldn't really make her out, she was dressed in ordinary androgenous clothes. She said, "just one moment, Miss Xavier, there is a third arm of the transgender movement. That would be the sociocultural arm. Miss RuPaul gets 500,000 every fifteen minutes in her drive-time show on this radio network in New York." And I just realized I was being read out by Miss Sylvia Rivera. It was very funny, and afterwards we started talking and we kind of got to be friends, and I made lots of trips up to New York City in those days in my political work, and got to know Sylvia and learned a lot from her. You can't help but learn from a woman of that strength and that power
Jessica Xavier - Stonewall (1999)
How was the album "Changeling" received?
Oh, well it went straight to the top of the tranny charts. It sold about 57 copies. I stopped marketing it because I was moving into a new band. What it did do it did get me the interest of other trans musicians, and that's how Femme Messiah was born. In terms of the overall trans population, I think some people loved it. Certainly I think the favorite song on that for transwomen was "The Same New Me."
Yeah, I'd like to hear about the song "Same New Me" in more detail.
I wrote that because when I gender transitioned I lost my whole male peer group. Including my father, my middle brother and my best friend of 18 years. It was a very painful time for me. I wrote this song about going through this particular change, not in kind of explicit terms, so it became more of a song about loss, and then just picking up the pieces, and continuing on but at the same time feeling this massive amount of regret that I'm happier not and I'm whole and more complete than I ever have been. I'm just really sad that I can't bring you with me into my new life. That's what it was really about and it's really hard. I know. My friends who listen to it tell me it's their favorite on "Changeling," because it just expresses so much of that feeling.
Jessica Xavier - The Same New Me (1999)
It's my favorite song on the album as well. One more comment about "Same New Me." When I did my first Transgender Music show, in 2000, I used that song to close the show, because it's so powerful, and I was contacted by a listener who said it just brought her to tears.
That's nice, that's very nice. Yeah, I've seen the song actually have that effect, when I played it in gatherings of transsexual women before. It kind of gets us right where we live.
Is there an overall message you hope your music gets across?
that transpeople are ordinary human beings, and we have emotions and
spirits and souls that speak to all human experience, not just our
own. I think our struggle, our struggle for self, our struggle for
physical integrity, for bodies that don't shame us, our struggle for
survival speaks to the larger human experience, the human condition
be exactly who we are, to triumph over adversity, to find our spirit
in voice and song and in word. I think that my music is just a reflection
of the overall trans experience, of what we can add to the human condition.
I think it is a significant contribution. I think transpeople need
to be honored for our unique gifts. We understand those twin mysteries,
male, female, that everybody else seems to take for granted, but we
look at them oh so very carefully, because we have to.
And this is a good time to invite you to check out my website. If you visit it while you're listening you can see the playlist and follow along, while looking at photos of the artists and recordings. I've always considered our music history as a visual as well as an audial experience. And all of the artists featured on tonight's show gave me wonderful interviews, so good that I could not possibly fit it all into an hour show. So, you can hear an expanded version of the show at my website, with a lot more songs and comments. Again, that's at www.queermusicheritage.com. Also, for more very queer programming, please listen to After Hours with Jimmy Carper, every Friday night/Saturday morning from 1 to 4 am, on KPFT, it's Queer Radio, with attitude.
Georgie Jessup - Devil's Child / Anything But Love (2005)
Those two songs are by my last interview guest of the show, Georgie Jessup, and come from her latest and fourth album, "Woman in a Man's Suit." I wanted you to hear a little bit of her music before I introduced her because the songs speak much better than I can about the scope and passion of her music. She's a rocker who's not afraid to dig deep, whether it be about gay, lesbian and transgender issues or about one of her passions, bringing into focus the plight of Native Americans. I reached her by telephone where she lives near Baltimore.
Who is Georgie Jessup?
Well, I'm from the Baltimore, Maryland, area, DC and Baltimore. I'm a transsexual individual, male to female, and I'm a singer/songwriter.
Tell us about the new CD.
Okay, the new CD is called "Woman In A Man's Suit." It's got 13 songs and it's really about love, all kinds of different love. And it covers a wide variety of topics and musical styles. The production was meant to be kind of rootsy, so that the whatever style that the song kind of lends itself to so there's ballads and there's straight-up rock and roll songs. I'm very proud of it. It was an album I started actually three years ago. I'm looking forward to it coming out in December, and I think it's going to be pretty good.
From the new CD I'd like to hear about "Road to Trinidad"
"Road To Trinidad" is a song when I was really wrestling, when I was wrestling with what it means to be a man or a woman You know when I first started dressing I went to drag clubs because they were safe for me. You know I knew the gay man's idea of a woman was basically the same idea as a man's, a heterosexual man's idea of a woman, which was this stereotype image. I mean, you won't find too many drag queens coming out and parodying Roseanne Barr. They're mostly coming out and doing Bette Midler or Barbra Streisand or somebody even more glamorous than them. And it's all about glamour and about show and about theatre. And that's not where I was coming from. I was coming from just who I was, and when I started I wore the short skirts and fishnet stockings and high heels. You know, so "Trinidad" was kind of me doing that very thing, looking at the women that I admired, and that I knew about. And I knew some of their history, like Amelia Earhart and Georgia O'Keiffe and the fictional characters of Thelma and Louise. And they were all people that I admired, and they were all very different women and very different energies about them. And that kind of helped me to understand that there is no definition of what it means to be a woman. You just are, you are, and that's what "Trinidad" is about, finding your own place of power and staying there with dignity and some pride.
Is there an additional significance of the title?
Well, yeah, I went to Stanley Beiber for my surgery, and that's in Trinidad, Colorado.
Isn't it like the sex-change capital of the United States?
For years it really was, and now a lot of people go up to Canada and out to Oregon and there's a couple of other places that I don't even remember where they are anymore
But you would kind of have to be in the know to get the Trinidad reference.
A lot of times in a lot of my songs there are these little like inside things, that are going on, that if you're a transsexual you'll know what Trinidad is. You know what I'm saying? So I was like speaking directly to them there without alienating mainstream audiences in the song.
Georgie Jessup - Road to Trinidad (2005)
What advantage do you think being transgender gives you in your songwriting?
Well, it's like the whole idea of being transgender itself. I was born in a male body. I was raised as a male. I understand life from that perspective, but I never felt like a male, for whatever reason. And we tend when we respond about ourselves we tend to say, "oh well, I felt like a girl trapped in a boy's body or a woman trapped in a man's body, depending on what point in our life we're at. But really all we know is that it doesn't feel right. That's the only thing we really know, and we don't understand it anymore than anyone else does. And that brings us to the traditional way of looking at transgender people and that kind of thing, which is a gift from creator. So I was raised Catholic and there was a whole part of my life that I grew up thinking I was evil and I was terrible and finally when I started to understand and I started to learn from some of the more traditional native people that I met, and understood that it's also a burden. So it's always a dual-edged thing, and that reflects in my music, that I'm able to look at love, I believe, from the female standpoint and from the male's. I believe we were always kind of mediators, and I was always able to do that from both sides. I was able to sit down with males because I grew up around them, and I knew how they thought, and I knew what motivated them. And I knew the innocence of the motivation that sometimes women didn't see that as being innocent. They just thought they were friggin' pigs, you know. But I understood and I could empathize with them and at the same time I could understand what I was feeling, not necessarily being able to experience, but certainly something that I was in tune with, from the way that a woman thinks about things.
Now, that's very general, and I understand that, because the truth is, there is no definition of what there is to be a man or a woman, unless you're just going to look at physical bodies. But certainly there are lesbian women that are more masculine and there are some that are real feminine. And there are heterosexual women that are very masculine and heterosexuals that are very feminine. And so you can't really define it by masculine or feminine in who you are. And I get that a lot from a lot of people because I think you've heard me sing, and I have a very male voice when I sing, and that was a big concern for me when I transitioned, because it made me nervous because I was going to be exposed to the world because I looked pretty good, but the minute I opened my mouth people were going to figure something was us. So I just kind of put all that beside me and went out and sang my songs. That is reflected in everything that I do writing-wise. It's hard for me to write a song about a man because if they hear my voice and they going to say, "oh well, that's just a gay man." When that's not really what I'm doing. So I avoid a lot of he and she terminology and things like that. And I try to keep myself grounded, like I said, and I think that that helps me with lyrics that I wouldn't normally have.
When you perform, do you think audiences react differently to you than they would to a female performer?
Yes, I really do believe that they would, yes you know I mean, I can't even say, because when I go on stage I don't even think about that. When I hit that stage I'm doing what I'm put on this earth to do. That's the way I feel about it, and all that other stuff is outside of me and I don't take it with me. I leave it behind, and even though like now talking to you on the phone, you know, I can feel that way and I can have all the paranoia about going out on stage and how people are going to read me, and what they're going to think about me, but once I hit that stage all that goes away. And I just do what I do and it's up to them to determine. I've had people, both men and women, come up to me and say "wow, it's so good to see a woman up there singing with a strong voice." And I'm like "well, thank you very much." And then I've had other people come up, "well, like, what are you? Are you a girl trying to be a man, or are you a man trying to be a girl? So, what the heck are you?" And I've had people that come up and say "well, this is cool, man, I know people that are gay."
My focus when I hit a stage is to give the best performance I'm capable of giving, and I want the songs to speak. I mean, when you asked me who I was, yeah, I'm a transsexual but you know I'm a singer/songwriter who happens to be transsexual. I don't define myself by my transsexuality. That's just, you know, the way I am, and it's something that I had no control of, which brings up back to the spirituality. It didn't come from me, and I had two choices, either I was going to look at it as a burden or I was going to look at it as a gift. And at a certain point in my life I looked at it as a gift, and that changed my life dramatically
What is the song "I'm a Werewolf" about?
"I'm a Werewolf" is about when I first started transitioning and I would go out to these drag queen bars and hang out on the weekends. After I got out of that I started reflecting on the whole concept of coming out at night as monsters do, and especially the werewolf who has to wait til the full moon's out, and such. You know, I drew the parallel between a werewolf and a transgender person. And I think that's one of the magic moments of that album because you can really hear the whole transition between the male thing and the female side. It's all there and you can see the singer kind of transforming. The last verse says "I did not mean to scare you, so come on out from under the bed." I always felt that way. I know people don't know how to deal with transgender people but there's really nothing to be afraid of.
Georgie Jessup - I'm a Werewolf (2005)
Tell me about your CDs. How many CDs have your released?
I have three CDs. One that I did as a full-fledge project, I started it back in 1994, and it finished around 1996, and that's called "American Holocaust." And it was ten songs that addressed the genocide in America, that took place against the indigenous people of Turtle Island, which is what we call the USA. And, let's see, I have one that I put out in around 2001 called "Sweet Grass Smoke," and I've just recently changed the name of that album to "Red Cloud's Room." And the third one is "Winkte and Crazy Sacred Dogs," and that started out as a five-song demo to try and get the band work, and the band was actually called Winkte and Crazy Sacred Dogs, with me being Winkte.
And, tell me about the winkte concept?
The wintke is a tradition in Lakota culture. I traveled to South Dakota in 1983 cause I was married at the time to a biological woman and very much in love; we're still very close friends. You know, I wanted to find out what the heck was going on, how I could deal with this. When I first met her fortunately I was honest enough to tell her about what was going on in my head, but I didn't know where it was going to take me. And she went out to South Dakota with me and I wanted to meet some older medicine person who could maybe explain this tradition, and I could see whether it was the real deal, or was I just being a white man fantasizing or romanticizing all this in my head. Fortunately, and I guess coincidentally I was taken to a man named Frank Fool's Crow. It turned out he was the ceremonial chief of the Lakota people, so he was a very respected man. And from him I learned about this tradition of the wintke. And there's a lot of there was a lot of people at that time starting to latch on to the two-spirits terminology, and they were calling themselves wintke's and stuff like that, which is very cool. It's a good thing, I think any time you're heading back to spirituality it's good. But I think I hear "oh yeah, we're sacred, I'm a sacred person, because I'm a wintke, because I'm a transgender person." And what Fool's Crow helped me understand is the tradition is sacred and I may indeed be eligible for that tradition but I have to be able to walk that talk in order to do it
I know you identify very strongly with Indian culture, is there any song in particular that you would like to talk about that expresses this?
There's so many on "American Holocaust." That album really tells the story. It talks about the old days in "Talking to Myself" where that's really referring to a lot of the massacres that happened, and kind of reflecting on that too. "Good Day to Die," which is about growing up in modern times on a reservation, the alcoholic rates, the unemployment and all the things that are happening on reservations today, and "Until I Dance," which is about finding that place, that place of peace with everything. It is about dancing your dance, the figurative sense of letting yourself go and letting yourself dance, living your life and not caring what anybody thinks. All these things, all these questions that you have about yourself you won't know until you dance.
Georgie Jessup - Until I Dance (2001)
I want to ask about a song from the album "Wintke & Crazy Sacred Dogs." Please tell me about "Girl to Look Good."
Well, "Girl to Look Good," that was another song from "Wintke & Crazy Sacred Dogs" and you know that was another song that addressed this whole idea of what society says a woman should be and how they should act and me as a transgender person not really being able to fit those images, and realizing that there's a hell of a lot of women that don't fit that image either, kind of empathizing with them. The last verse in that is pretty poignant where it says "she's not a woman, he's not a man, God wouldn't have made me if there wasn't a plan. I've made you nervous and I knew I would, but it ain't easy for a girl to look good."
Georgie Jessup - Girl to Look Good (2001)
In addition to her four albums I'm pleased that Georgie's shared some unreleased tracks with me, and there's a couple I've just got to ask about. And when you hear them please keep in mind that they are demos and not yet mastered for release. Georgie, please tell us about "Drag City"
"Drag City" is a fun, pop song. It almost in some places has kind of a David Bowie kind of arrangement to it, with a piano interlude that's in there. It's a real fun song musically. But "Drag City" started kind of like addressing three different individuals that I ran across in the, you know, gay and transgender world as I was transitioning and. The first verse talks to basically, in a kind way, to the drag queens themselves. Then the second verse is actually talking to men who would hit on me. And I remember distinctly when I started to get respect for myself, because you got to understand that when a transsexual person is transitioning, they are emotionally like a 14-year old girl. So anybody that whistles at them: "oh geez, I must look good, I'm lookin' good today." You know. And in reality the people that were hitting on me, the people that were buying me drinks and you know wanting to have sex with me and whatever, they were people that I wouldn't even give the time of day to, in the day. That I would get into arguments with about politics, if I were sitting with them during the day. And here I was letting these people be intimate with me, so I was addressing them in this verse, saying you're not going to do that to me. And one guy actually said to me at one time. He kept following me around the bar and I said, "leave me alone." And he said, "what's wrong with you." And I said "You know, I don't want you around." He said, "why not?" I said, "you're weird." He goes, "what the hell is that, you call ME weird?" And I said, "that's exactly why you're weird, because you think I'm weird."
Georgie Jessup - Drag City
Tell us about "Transsexual Truck Stop"
Well, "Transsexual Truck Stop" is about a little bar in the spirit world, where it's all run by transsexuals. You know, the mechanics are transsexual, the waitresses, the bartenders, everybody there is transsexual. And the blues guitar players would relax and stop in there to have a drink on their way down to the crossroads, or whatever. And we would kind of tell 'em, you don't gotta sell your soul to the devil, it ain't gotta be black and white. It's about balance, and that's what you should be focusing on. It was a tongue-in-cheek thing about the Robert Johnson story where he goes down to the crossroads, and he's not a very good guitar player and he sells his soul to the devil and then he becomes the greatest guitar player ever. And you know, there's all these myths about guitar players going down there. In the black community, in the blues and black community down there in the South especially, it was if you played the blues you were doing the devil's music, and if you sang gospel you were doing God's work. And it was this either-or thing. And the thing is, transsexuals, at least ones that are similar to me, have dealt with all that by the time we've grown up. And here are these men, still dealing with good and evil and getting themselves drunk cause they're ashamed of themselves, but they gotta do it, so they get drunk in order to play their music. And it was kind of like I created this refuge for them to come to, and to chill, and to understand balance. So that's what "Transsexual Truck Stop" is about.
Georgie Jessup - Transsexual Truck Stop (2001)
How do you think the word "transgender" has evolved over the years?
Well, I read a book by Gordine Mackenzie, who co-hosts GenderTalk show, and I read this book by Gordine called "Transgender Nation," and she explores the history of transgender a little bit as a word, and I think it was a reaction to the word transsexual, which is kind of the wrong word because it implies a sexual thing, like homosexuality or heterosexuality. It doesn't really reflect the main issue, which is gender, and at least for transsexuals it doesn't matter who we sleep with it's about how we feel, who we are. So I was glad to have that word, and I would use that word more than I use transsexual only. And I only use transsexual because it clarifies it for the lay listener, if you will, so that they understand where my past has taken me in terms of surgery and things like that, and that I'm legally considered a woman on my driver's license, and stuff like that. But I actually prefer the word transgender.
You know, I'm a little concerned about the whole idea of it being about just simply not having gender, not recognizing the common feelings of gender that all of us have, and maybe it is just a sociological thing but I think it's something deeper, because I've had people react to me, both straight and gay and everything and say "oh yeah, I think we're all both." And I think we're all both. All of have female and male sides, but there's something about the transsexual person that as a little pre-puberty child that, you want to pull their penis back between their legs. And as a little kid I would tie my penis back between my legs, and it hurt, but I would do it because I thought it would go away if I did that. I thought magically it would go away, I mean, that's how young I was.
And there's something that drives us to go to those kind of extremes that has something more to do with just culturalization of what it means to be a man or woman. I mean, in my family women worked right did yard work and we lived on a horse farm, and I mean they were out there baling hay right beside the men. So it wasn't like I was being filled with all these stereotypical ideas of women versus men or anything, and yet it was still strong enough in me that I really felt the need to change myself physically in order to manifest what was inside me, so I gave it away, inside of keeping it inside of me, I gave it away, and that's a pretty big step to take, to go through that kind of surgery, not only economically, but to put your body through that kind of change, and to accept the kind of discrimination you're going to face along the way. That's a huge endeavor to do, and it shows a real commitment, and so for me it was kind of like an affirmation to myself that hey, this is not just about cross-dressing or being kinky or getting off on wearing feminine clothing. It's not about trying to attract men, or not attract men, attract women or not attract women. It's about who I am. I think that that's a real distinction between some of these people, some of these bands that are like in this in-between place. I think that's a real difference between where they're at and where transsexual transgender people are at.
You think that the word transgender's become too general, that the umbrella's too big?
You know, I don't I don't dwell on that kind of stuff to really I'm not going to tell anybody whether they can take just like 'wintke,' I'm not going to tell anyone that they can call themselves a wintke or not. If that's what they want to do, that's fine. And if they walk that talk I'm sure the truth will come to the light, and everybody will be happy about it. I'm just more concerned about myself.
Now, I've got one more song left in the show, but before I get to it I want to thank you all for listening, and to thank Veronica Klaus, Jessica Xavier and Georgie Jessup for their interviews. And I want to remind you that next week on Queer Voices I've got a bonus show featuring as much music by transgender artists as I can pack into one show, no interviews, just lots of music. And, as always if you have questions or comments about any of the music I've featured, please write me. And I wish you would. My website, of course is at www.queermusicheritage.com. This is JD Doyle for Queer Voices on KPFT in Houston.
Oh, and if want to visit the websites for our three artists, they are at www.veronicaklaus.com, www.georgiejessup.com, and for Jessica Xavier and her band Femme Messiah, you can visit www.GallaeRecords.com, Gallae is g-a-l-l-a-e record.com.
And now, back to Georgie for one more question.
Of what song that you've written are you most proud?
Whew, oh man. Right now, I mean I think it changes all the time. "Wintke and Crazy Sacred Dogs" had this song called "Post Op Freeway," and I'm very proud of that song because it reaches a lot of people and a lot of people request that song from me when they come back to hear me again. And it touches people, and they don't have to know anything about transsexuality to identify with it, and yet just from the title and some of the lyrics that are in there I think every transsexual sister and brother can identify with what I'm saying in that song.
Tell me more about it.
"Post Op Freeway" was my way of saying I'm not going to be defeated by this world that doesn't understand me, or looks down on me, or that treats me like I shouldn't even be here. And they're not going to defeat me, so and the last couple lines are "I will not die, I will not crash." There's so many lines in that song that just say where I'm coming from. "If you'd seen the music that I make you would not call it a mistake, you'd see the songs I paint, listen to the gender dance, are you afraid to take your chance, or does blood make you faint? You know I meant to run that light, I'd never claimed I'd be polite, I don't want your sympathy, I will not die, I will not crash."
That's my favorite of your songs.
It is for a lot of people. I'm very proud of it.
From the album "Winkte & Crazy Sacred Dogs," here's Georgie Jessup and "Post-Op Freeway"
George Jessup - Post Op Freeway (2001)