The soulful songstress primarily plays acoustic guitar and her music has been described by critics as “gorgeous and introspective”. She was featured in the Emmy Award winning documentary Out In The Silence – which dealt with a Gay youth’s struggles growing up in rural Penn.
Namoli Brennet performed for St. Louis audiences in a concert sponsored by The LGBT Center of St. Louis, Oct. 18 at O’Shay’s Pub in The Grove. We sat down the next morning a her hotel and chatted about her career and life as a trans entertainer.
Liz: I read that you were in your late 20’s when you decided it was time to come to terms with your gender issues…
NB: Yes – in my mid-20’s I started thinking about transitioning and then I was in my late 20’s before I actually started doing anything. I was pretty high strung and wanted to be sure it was the right thing for me.
Liz: Did you perform professionally before you transitioned?
NB: I did, Yes. I did Top 40, played with Rock Bands, Jazz Trios – so the decision to transition was also about getting back to who I was creatively. I had gotten lost in this other persona. Your path is what it is, but you can get stuck in a rut trying to chose things that are maybe adjacent to what you really want to do. Like, you want to be an artist, but instead you get a job at a gallery selling other people’s art.
Liz: Your first CD Boy In A Dress came out in 2002. How long did it take to go from being a male musician, to transitionaing enough to be able to express that journey in your music?
NB: It was a fluid process. I did release a CD in 1999 before transition, but I was still lost in that other persona. I thought at the time that if only I could be a big success as a male musician, the need to transition would fade. Transition is a pain – you have to be confrontational at times and stick up for yourself to get through it. That trait didn’t come naturally to me. At the time, I was working as a Church Music Director, transitioned on the job and was ultimately fired because of it. But that was actually a push to get out there – I found out I was ready to move on and find myself.
Liz: In the video you did for the website We Happy Trans – you say your “trans role models” were Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. How did these two works influence your gender identity?
NB: Well, there’s this idea that when you transition you’re supposed to reject all the things from your previous gender and adopt new ways of being. Reading Kate Bornstein’s books helped me to realize that you don’t have to drop skills or aptitudes you have just to fit into a preconceived gender mold. You should do whatever feels right for you.
Liz: You use yodel sounds, modulate your voice and hum – your vocal range is stunning!
NB: I turned to those variations as a way to help jump into my higher register. It feels a little more feminine and keeps things interesting. Actually, I sometimes wonder, “How LOW do I want to sing?” Because I can still hit some of those low notes.
Liz: Could you go back to a baritone range if you wanted?
NB: Absolutely! I do it in the car all the time. It kind of proves to me that the vocal changes I’ve experienced aren’t hormonal. I feel there are more than a handful of trans people who are interested in how to modulate their voices, or how to sing in their authentic gender – but may give it up when they transition. I did too. I thought I had to choose between transitioning and singing in the voice I was accustomed to. I didn’t want to have to come out or be ‘clocked’ as transgender at every performance. Part of the equation is finding something that fits for you personally, and figuring out more and more who you are. Personally, I’m not light and giggly and feminine, so that type of voice would feel wrong for me. Part of it is finding what feels comfortable for you; feminine, but natural. Transition is such a weird thing because you’re trying on all these things and identities – some don’t work. You have to keep looking and trying. You don’t want to strain your voice to reach a pitch that isn’t natural for you.
Liz: I hear influences from Joni Mitchell to Judy Collins in your music. In an interview for the Arizona Songwriter’s Circle you didn’t name any musical influences, but mentioned being influenced by books and movies. Are you influenced by other musicians?
NB: Well, interesting question. Part of it is, I think I am constantly listening to a lot of different stuff. Some I pick up and integrate into my music. Part of being an artist, a true artist, is discovering the art that exists inside of you and revealing that to the world. A part can be imitation, but it’s more a process of discovery. If I think of people I admire, like Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, they don’t seem to have modeled themselves after other musicians – they’re more just people who read books and observe world events around them, and that’s also how I get my inspiration. I don’t necessarily have a lot of control over the art that comes out of me, I’m more of a conduit. I just have to get out of the way and let it happen.
Liz: What are your goals professionally? Do you want to be huge with an entourage and a tour bus?
NB: Do you mean, do I want to be huge physically? (kidding) That’s a good question and something I think about a lot, because I’ve been at this for the better part of ten years now. In some ways it’s difficult to not see the progress I thought I would have made; I think about this a lot – I would definitely like to be a little more well known and playing bigger venues, but I also try to be grateful for the success that I have.
Liz: That’s a lot like transition, you tend to expect more progress at two years, or five years.
NB: Well, in a way you have more control over transitioning than you do over being a successful artist. How much of it is self effort, how much is being in the right place at the right time, or luck, or destiny? I don’t know. A part of me would still like to be famous. I try to balance it. I’m not in it JUST for the recognition, or attention – I don’t need that so much anymore. I’m in it to create meaningful art that makes some kind of difference in the world. It would be nice to have that art reach more people, and if I made a few extra bucks in the process, then SO BE IT! (laughs) I think about this all the time. It’s a balance between contentment and ambition. You want to try and be happy with what you have; if you don’t cultivate that, you’re going to be miserable no matter how much you have. At the same time, you have to be honest with yourself about what you want to see happen in your life. That’s the weird contradiction that everybody deals with, all the time. ambition has to balance with gratitude.
Liz: Other than two songs (“Boy In A Dress” and “We Belong”) you don’t generally address gender issues in your lyrics. Is that intentional to aim for a wider audience?
NB: None of it is intentional. The whole process is exploratory. What I write about is where I am at the time. Boy In A Dress was about wanting to write songs and wanting to transition at the same time. At the time, I thought maybe this is my whole ‘shtick’ – I’ll play Pride fests, LGBT Centers, etc. As I continued to write and created out a body of work it didn’t turn out that way. It’s also just how I am, in that there are a lot of things I am interested in. The creative process is this organic channeling of what is inside of me. I probably sound like a (psychic) Medium, or something. (laughs) Sometimes I don’t know where the inspiration comes from, and other times it’s obvious – like the song “Nebraska” that I played last night. That came from spending seven weeks in Omaha, Nebraska.
Liz: You’ve been out as trans since 2002. Since then, other musicians such as Mina Caputo, Laura Jane Grace and Movie Director Lana Wachowski have come out as transgender. Is it important for people in the public eye to come out?
NB: Sure! It’s important for everyone to come out, public figures especially, because people growing up trans need to have those those examples and role models to look to. I think back to my 20’s when I was transitioning, and there weren’t any trans women doing what I wanted to do. That’s one reason it’s important for people in the public eye to be open and honest. But it’s risky, I mean, it’s hard for anyone who has a lot invested in their current identity to go out on a limb and transition. But I think it’s also important to create trans role models that are happy, successful, creative and interesting.
Liz: The documentary; “Out In The Silence” was filmed in 2008 in Oil City, Pa. You performed at the Grand Reopening of the Latonia Theatre there which was brought about by a lesbian couple who wanted to bring quality productions to that rural area. Before playing you gave a message of love and understanding with a touch of humor and of course, your beautiful music. How special was the occasion?
NB: It was special because that community had a lot of division. The headquarters of the American Family Association is there- that group is very homophobic, and the community was very divided on the issue of gay rights. It’s rural America, but there are also people there who are progressive and trying to change things, there are a lot of good people there. People started to open up their minds and see that these two women were doing something good for the community by opening this theatre. So people were there to support the theatre, but they were not necessarily comfortable with the concept of transgender or gay identities. I felt a need to reach out a little bit, because I try to make room in my own brain for people who think differently than me. Even someone who is very far to the Right. Sometimes it is just a lack of understanding, so I wanted to try to say, “I don’t hate all of you just because you voted for George Bush.” It’s good for people to hear that, because there is a sharp division between Left and Right. Sometimes we’re just as guilty of stereotyping and making wisecracks about other viewpoints. THEY are part of diversity too, really. Part of me realizes I don’t know everything there is to know, so I try to keep an open mind. I’m not perfect. We all talk about diversity, and it’s weird but that diversity does include Conservatives and Fundamentalist Christians.
This might be your big finish: In a way I think the only thing that would really make us forget our differences would be if a gigantic spaceship landed, and all these spindly aliens came pouring out. Because then we’d be like, “Holy Crap! We’re all humans – THEY’RE different!!”
By LIZ LaVENTURE – CONTRIBUTING WRITER