Contestants from the increasingly more popular RuPaul's Drag Race have been known to dip their toes in dance music, television and film, but only Trixie Mattel – a contestant on the seventh season who returned for All Stars to take the winning crown – has successfully become a rising country star.
Mattel, the drag persona of Milwaukee-born Brian Firkus, made her musical debut in 2017 with debut album Two Birds. It was a sobering counterpart to the uproarious The Trixie and Katya Show, an anything-goes talk show on Viceland that began as a YouTube series with fellow Season Seven contestant Katya. Unlike other contestants, she demonstrated her talent at playing the autoharp and singing (rather than simply lip-synching for her legacy). The day after her Drag Race win aired on VH1, she dropped her second album, the earnest and stellar One Stone – which may just help establish the drag superstar as a country legend-in-the-making.
"I was happy to win All Stars, but I got back to my room, took my wig off, turned on my phone, went to iTunes and looked at the charts," Mattel recalls of the night she not only won but saw One Stone hit Number One on iTunes. "That is the win for me."
While en route to a show in New York City, Mattel spoke with Rolling Stone Country about growing up in Wisconsin, Kacey Musgraves and how she has fused drag with country.
How did you first start listening to country music?
Most people are like, "I grew up on it, so I've always loved it." I grew up on it and I hated it. I was like, "This is old people music. It's boring. It's repetitive. It's simple," but then as I got older, it was like a light bulb turned on. As an adult, I was like, "Oh, my god. It has so much depth. It has so much complexity. It addresses like the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves in a digestible way." It was music that wasn't originally made to make money. It was people singing songs to each other for the fun of it. And I love it so much.
I've played guitar since I was 13 and then I turned 22, 23 and was like, "Oh, my god. This is the type of music I'm made for."
What made the light bulb go off?
I worked backwards. I grew up playing guitar in the late Nineties, early 2000s, so a very acoustic-driven pop-rock era and, then in college, I started listening to Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves. Then I really fell in love when I discovered really old country, like June Carter Cash – one of my all-time favorites. I think she's such a good songwriter. So, her, Dolly Parton, and then it all just went overboard. I got too into it.
Midwestern country music fandom is often pretty understated. Tell me about the confluence of the genre with where you grew up.
It's funny because [the places] where country is associated, [the themes are], "My tractor's sexy and I ride my horse into the bar." None of those people have farms or ride tractors or have horses. Where I live, we actually have farms and tractors and horses. Like, I actually used to sit in a tree barefoot and play my guitar.
I feel like the music isn't written about us, but we're the ones that it's actually about. Northern Wisconsin, where I'm from, is so ridiculously rural.
How did you get started playing guitar at 13?
My grandpa was a country singer and I started learning guitar from him, just at the kitchen table when I was younger and I got really into it. I think being young and like 14, 15, you feel like a weirdo and playing guitar with my grandpa in my grandma's kitchen is probably my fondest memories I'll ever have. I learned guitar on Johnny Cash and George Jones and Conway Twitty, combined with [being] a homo who listened to a lot of the radio. I listened to a lot of Michelle Branch and Avril Lavigne and Melissa Etheridge. The fundamentals of what I was learning and how I was learning it was like folk-country, but the type of music I listened to and the type of melodies and the structures I was listening to was like radio folk-pop, which was big at the time.
When did singing and songwriting come in?
As soon as I started playing guitar. I sang when I was younger. I felt like the first thing I did was learn to play guitar and then start writing music. It was instinctual. I would write it for my human development, not necessarily because I was going to play it for people.
So, that's what's fun about One Stone and Two Birds: I was writing this music for my own fulfillment, whether or not I ever planned on people hearing it or selling it. It wasn't really important.
When it comes to performing your original music, was that always an element of your drag performances or did it start to come later?
No. I was doing the drag thing, lip-syncing and doing comedy, then it occurred to me: I've been playing guitar for 15 years and I've never put it together. And when I did, it was like ... "Oh my god. This is what I'm supposed to be doing."
I was listening to Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic or early Adam Sandler where they kind of play guitar and do jokes and I was like, "How have I never done this?" I guess I wasn't sure if the audience would go for this barely-persona playing guitar. I'm surprised it worked.
Your songs are much more intimate and earnest than your comedy persona. Was it hard to connect the two in a live show at first?
I was afraid that because my sense of comedy is so deep, dark and dry, people [wouldn't] go for the sort of earnest, honest half of the music. I find that I'm good at making people laugh, and I'm good at making people cry. And I found in the context of the stand-up show, taking a moment to really make people feel something, they actually love it. People love to laugh for like 20 minutes and then have an honest moment for five minutes.
I think the drag thing – the look and the hair and the child-like, toy persona – people are very trusting. People see me and they get like the warm fuzzies, the way they would from a child's toy. They're very willing. Something about drag is commanding. It's like, "I'm going to go on this journey, and guess what, Linda? You're coming with me."
There's something really compelling about being Trixie. This, like, cinched and snatched and painted fabricated character, but going places that are very real. It's like a crying clown moment. People really go for it.
What I love about many of the visuals you've released to accompany your music is that we see both Trixie and Brian. What made you want to perform both in and out of drag for your music videos?
It's sort of like Sybil. In Sybil, she's like, "Oh, I don't know how to play piano," but she finds out one of her alter personalities does and that's how she learns piano. I guess with me, I let my real life as Brian inform my music and my comedy. But with the music, it's not important if you think of Brian or Trixie singing it. It's not really the point because the whole point of Two Birds, One Stone is this is all the same story, whether or not I'm wearing a costume. This is the same person. These are the same jokes about the same person's life, and these are the same songs about me. For the music videos, I thought it was important for people to see me as both and, therefore, see me as neither.
It's also just fun! It's fun to see two people in different costumes, pretending they're different people. I mean that's just so stupid and will never not be fun to watch.
Kacey Musgraves wants to work with you. Have you met her yet?
I haven't met her. I'm obsessed with her. She's a great songwriter and a great crossover artist because her sound is so young and poppy. She is also so pretty. She's basically in drag. She wears these beautiful rhinestone cowgirl costumes.
My favorite about her is, just like me, she writes songs from a point of view that don't necessarily belong in this genre. She talks about kissing girls and smoking weed and being who you are. I think folk and country music has an unfair reputation of being close-minded. People like Kacey Musgraves and people who love her represent people who are like, "Hey, we might be country, but we're not assholes." Or, "We might be country, but we want everybody to be who they are."
Finally, with Shania Twain serving as an upcoming guest judge on the current season of Drag Race, what song do you hope that the queens lip-sync for their lives to?
Oh, "I'm Gonna Getcha Good!" Come, on! [Singing] "Don't want you for the weekend."
And there's two versions of that! There's a country version and a radio pop version. The pop version has keyboards and stuff. That song is amazing.