Trixie Mattel on Folk Music, Comedy and Breaking the Vinyl Ceiling
Each of Trixie Mattel’s album releases to date, 2017’s Two Birds and 2018’s One Stone, hinted at a bygone era of popular music. The colorful winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars season 3, who’s also a talented folk singer-songwriter, evoked the simplicity of the Fifties with the pastoral scene on the Two Birds album cover, then followed it by nodding to the more freewheeling, liberal period of the Sixties with One Stone, posing in and out of drag in both images. Both of those album covers featured the circular wear pattern of a vinyl LP, as if they were beloved discs handed down across generations. But strangely, neither of the releases was actually available on vinyl.
“I’m 29 — I was like, ‘I don’t have vinyl and I don’t think people listen to it anymore,'” says Mattel, the stage name of Wisconsin native Brian Firkus. “And then this whole year, I did a 70-city tour of the U.S. and Canada, and every city, people were like, ‘There’s no vinyl?'”
That changes on December 7th, when Two Birds and One Stone will be packaged together on one vinyl disc — made of special “pink blob” wax, naturally — that includes an interview with producer Brandon James Gwinn, a sticker sheet illustrated by Mary Shyne and a double-sided fold-out poster. Pre-orders for the release, which is being distributed through ATO Records, start this week.
Mattel has enjoyed a wild ride in the past two years. In addition to winning Drag Race All-Stars and releasing her surprisingly earnest original music, she starred in the web series The Trixie and Katya Show (co-starring fellow queen Katya Zamolodchikova), which completed its first season on Viceland, and played numerous cities on her Moving Parts Tour. After appearing at DragCon New York at the end of this week, Mattel will head back out for the final dates of Moving Parts, visiting smaller markets like Fargo, North Dakota and Durham, North Carolina.
What’s the response to your live act like when you play smaller towns in more conservative states, like Fargo, North Dakota?
If they’re at the show, they haven’t been tricked. They know what they’re coming to. It’s not like they’re like season pass holders who are like, “This isn’t Wicked!” Or maybe they are. Or sometimes we do trick them. I still have people walk out sometimes. Maybe some people like me from Drag Race but maybe my sense of humor in real life is too up to the line for them.
Do you view Two Birds and One Stone as two halves of a complete album?
It’s always been intended that the listener hears them [as] a breakup. One is sort of the first week of a breakup and the other is six months later, reflecting on. It’s like Kill Bill volume 1 and 2. The first album is like, “Something was done to me, why me, someone hurt me.” And then One Stone is a lot more mature and it’s a lot more like, “Well maybe the problem is you, maybe you bring things on yourself.”
You’ve talked some about how you incorporate Trixie’s experiences and worldliness into Brian’s background when you write. How does that work?
Well, I always say my sense of humor and my musicianship is a candy bar and the gloss of Trixie is the candy bar wrapper. And there’s a relationship there. For example, my first single, “Mama Don’t Make Me Put on the Dress Again” — that’s really a song about emotional fatigue and having a lot of work to do. It’s about the balance of real world and wanting to not work anymore. But because it’s Trixie, I got to phrase it as not wanting to put on a dress. Which, at the time, I was so sick of doing drag. You don’t have to be a drag queen to understand that. I don’t think everybody at the 7/11 wants to punch in that day.
What kind of challenges have you had marketing yourself?
I’ll be on every gay everything. And I’ll be on the folk charts, the Americana charts, my singles and my albums will be Number One on the singer-songwriter charts. But I won’t be in a lot of the publications. I won’t be doing interviews for Acoustic Guitar magazine. And I won’t be participating in the Americana monthly newsletter [laughs]. I won’t be doing Newport Folk Festival. Even though I’m in these same sales brackets with these artists, I don’t usually get to do this stuff. But I get to really dominate in this other world they don’t go into.
Do you think your exclusion from those types of events is because of drag?
Nooooooo. I mean, a lot of people think it’s Bible thumpers. First of all, if they’re severe Bible thumpers they don’t even know who I am and they don’t care. But for example I was just on the cover of Autoharp Quarterly, which, yes, is a real magazine, because I’m an autoharpist and there’s not a lot of them out there under the age of 50. I was on the cover in and out of drag. At first I was like oh no, people’s grandmas are fully gonna roast me. But then I realized, not everybody who plays folk music is conservative. A lot of them are hippies.
That seems to be one of the misconceptions about folk and country, the assumption that the fans are all super-conservative. But it’s much more varied than that.
Yeah, because folk music especially – you can call it country but what is country? It’s folk music in a cowboy hat. It’s more of a costume and attitude than an actual style. Folk music is storytelling, and people who are storytellers enjoy opening their shoes up to other people and stepping into the shoes of other people. In the music world, nobody looks at me as crazy. They look at me as tall. Everybody is actually pretty respectful. The albums have all sold and they’ve always charted high, so I can’t say there’s any sort of “I’m left out” because obviously that’s not the case. Definitely being a TV comic helps people to look at my music. And this year, it was like, I’m not [just] the only drag queen on two TV shows and albums out, I’m the only person. I don’t even think of myself as a drag queen. I’m just a piece of shit from Wisconsin who has nice wigs.
I’m always fascinated with the campiness of classic country singers like Dolly Parton or Tammy Wynette. Have you absorbed any lessons from watching those entertainers?
Of course. What I learned from the comedy world, watching people like Ben Folds, or Aimee Mann or Sarah Silverman, or Adam Sandler, is, folk music and storytelling with the music really blends well with standup. I’m a standup at heart, but I wanted to be a musician way before I’d even begun telling jokes. What I learned from the music world too is, these women were doing drag before drag was drag, you know? Dolly Parton always says, I don’t mind Dolly Parton jokes, because nobody has better Dolly Parton jokes than me. She has the ultimate sense of humor about herself and she knows she looks ridiculous. And with songwriting, especially with country and folk music, they way music is built in those genres, we’re not really reinventing the wheel, but it comes down to the clever wordplay and the sincerity that paints a totally new picture when you hear some of these songs that are maybe structurally similar. It’s about how can I say something that’s truly relatable but have it be heard like it’s fresh.
Would you ever have any interest in performing at the Grand Ole Opry?
Oh my god, the Opry, the Ryman, there’s places that for me, [would be] bucket list moments as a drag queen. Early in my career as a drag queen, I was just hoping to make 50 bucks in tips that night. I’m a dreamer, but I’m also a realist.
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