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An Interview With Justin Vivian Bond

Posted: 06/25/2012 5:04 pm

The preeminent cabaret act of a generation, there is no doubt that Justin Vivian Bond is a veritable icon.

A fixture of the New York City avant-garde scene, Bond has wowed audiences with a wry sense of humor and vulnerable stage presence, evoking earnest tears and hearty laughs in equal measure. A celebrated iconoclast, v (never he, never she, always v) is an author, a singer/performer, an outspoken activist, and an artist in the truest sense.

With the release of v's latest album of music, Silver Wells, I had the distinct pleasure to sit down for a few minutes with the busy performer to discuss the haunting new musical collection.

Beginning with a simple query of the album's origins, we spiraled into an all-encompassing conversation that provides true insight into the mind of a creative provocateur.

From musical inspiration to a genderless God, v certainly had a lot to say, and I, for one, could not have been more thrilled to be along for the ride.

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Your recently released album, Silver Wells, is primarily a collection of covers. Yet, in listening to the album as a whole, it feels like the audience is privy to something intensely personal. Can you discuss a little bit about your song selection process?

Well, when I was choosing these songs, I was originally putting them together as a set list for a show that I did at Joe's Pub last fall. I had just put out my memoir, Tango, and I was in the process of going around reading from this very personal book. I had also just opened a gallery exhibition at this place on Houston Street, which featured a lot of my water color work and portraits of my friends.

At the same time, I was transitioning between living spaces, because the loft where I was living in the East Village was being torn down. So, I was touring, working, promoting the record and book, and I didn't have a lot of personal space.

Ultimately, I went to music as a source of solace and sustenance. These were songs that I had listened to throughout my life and from which I had derived comfort. They're sad songs, but they always made me happy in a way. So, I decided to sing them, and it became something of a personal show, simply by being in touch with those things that grounded me during this very chaotic period in my life. I enjoyed performing those songs so much, and Thomas [Bartlett] played them so beautifully on the piano, that we decided to record them. It wasn't something we had initially planned on doing, but I enjoyed singing them, and people seemed to like hearing them. It was such a thrill, we had to record the songs.

How would you say Silver Wells differs from your first album, Dendrophile?

Well, Dendrophile was more a collection of songs that I wrote. I'd say over half of the songs were original, and the covers, while they also meant a lot to me, were pieces that seemed to fit in with the album theme. The album is all about honoring your nature, and nature itself. A dendrophile is a person that gets an erotic charge out of nature, which I do, but also is a person that is turned on by people who are in touch with their own nature. So, it's a personal expression of yourself and who you are, whereas Silver Wells is more about history and emotions.

For the next six Mondays (June 4th-July 9th, 2012), you're doing performances at 54 Below in New York City celebrating the release of Silver Wells. What can audiences expect from these shows? Will they be similar to that initial performance you did at Joe's Pub?

Well, I didn't perform them very well when I did them before! [Laughs] Now they're a little more polished and we're doing the album from start to finish, with a lot of storytelling in between. So, it's a recreation of the record itself, which is a lot of fun. It's also a rare thing, because Thomas is so busy, we may not be able to tour it too much.

I know you recently wrapped up a tour of the country with Sister Spit, but in light of Silver Wells and the NYC shows, do you have any plans to hit the road for solo gigs at all?

Well, I'm going to be in Cherry Grove and Fire Island on July 7th, and then I'm flying out to Provincetown for the third weekend in July. I'll be doing some songs from the record at those shows, but it's going to be something of a mixture of songs from Dendrophile and the new one, so it won't be a strictly start-to-finish record show. After that, I'm taking some time off in August, because I need a little break! But, after that, I'm going to San Francisco, and I'll be touring a bit more in the fall.

You celebrate your idols openly. You mention Elton John, Vivian Leigh, and others very directly in your book. Now, the title of your album, Silver Wells, is a direct reference to the work of Joan Didion. You've alluded in previous interviews to your admiration of her, so I want you to tell me a little bit about Joan Didion. What draws you to her work?

I read Play It As It Lays for the first time when I was in high school, and I didn't really understand it. It was a very adult book for me, and I didn't have a lot of frames of reference for the characters and what was happening to them. But, it took place in LA, and I was always sort of obsessed with the idea of Los Angeles. Also, I was taken with the nihilism of it, being a trans kid in a small town, and being relatively unhappy. I felt I wasn't being accepted for who I was, but at the time I didn't even have the words to express who I was, so reading this book that said "nothing matters" was a huge comfort to me. Reading that, I was really able to let go of the things that were bothering me.

As I've gotten older, I've read the book again many times and developed a deeper understanding. It's also a flashback narrative of a girl in a psychiatric hospital, which has always been one of my favorite genres of movie. [Laughs] Anyway, at the time I first read it, I had a girlfriend who had been in a psychiatric hospital, so I just connected with Joan Didion's language. I love her sense of spare humor. It all seems very funny now, but at the time I didn't necessarily know that was the case.

I eventually saw her read at a book signing here in New York, and I thought she was so funny. I know a lot of people don't think she's funny, but I'm always drawn to these dry, witty women... especially ones with an evil sense of humor.

You just recently wrapped up a role in the stage production Jukebox Jackie, wherein you played Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis. What was that experience like for you?

It was really exciting, because I had read Superstar in a Housedress, the biography of Jackie Curtis, several years ago. I've always been really interested in Jackie, Holly Woodlawn, and Candy Darling, because they, along with Renee Richards and Christine Jorgensen, were the first famous trans people. When I was young, they were really the only trans people to which I had been exposed. Of course, Candy was the kind of person people could relate to, because she was so beautiful, and a very passive, gorgeous woman. Holly was more funny, and somewhat fey. But, I always liked Jackie, because Jackie wasn't willing to say, "I am a woman trapped in a man's body," she'd say, "I'm trans, I'm not a man. I'm not a woman. I'm Jackie." Which, by the way, was the last line of the show.

I think what Jackie achieved was overshadowed by the sensationalistic world she came from, and this play was taken from the writings of Jackie and writings inspired by Jackie. So, it was a great way to really celebrate Jackie, and provide a different reading for this remarkable individual.

You've appeared in many shows and films, and you've portrayed many different roles. But, in taking a role like Jackie Curtis, because of Jackie's similar experience to your own, do you feel like there was a little bit more responsibility in the taking of that part?

I get offered a lot more roles than I take. I feel the responsibility, for me, is in the roles I decide to assume. I feel responsible for the statement my work makes. So, if it's offensive, stupid, or isn't worth the effort, it's still something that you're going to have to answer to for a very long time. I take a lot of pride in my work. Because most of the things I do are self-generated, if I accept a role in the work of other people, it has to be something I really believe in and works within the world views that I try to bring to audiences anyway.

In this case, it wasn't a difficult decision, because I liked the subject and I liked the language in which the story was being delivered. Initially, Scott Wittman (the director) and I thought about doing one of Jackie's plays. But, they were these crazy, amphetamine-fueled stories that didn't make a lot of sense. I'm sure they did at the time, especially with Jackie knowing the intentions behind the stories, but we couldn't really make sense of them. So, we decided the next best thing was to do this journalistic show. It was made even better because we had Cole Escola, Bridget Everett, and all these amazing performers who helped share Jackie's story and make it a little more easily digestible.

In your memoir, Tango, you discuss a period of in your life where you were militantly religious. I was reading in a prior interview that you're no longer that pious kid you once were, but now prescribe to a "trans-theology." I thought this concept was so awesome, I was wondering if you would mind sharing with my readers what you meant by that notion?

Well, I don't think of God or the Holy Spirit as gendered, but I do believe there is a power greater than us. I just don't think that power has gender, it's just this energy that goes through us and through the planet. I think that part of what makes the world so difficult to live in is this fake notion that it's an either/or world, where God is a man and women are subjugated in many religions because of this weird hierarchy. So, trans-theology, for me, is not about this gender limitation, but an energy, a spirit, and a force that everybody can tap into. That's sort of an easy way of saying it, but I think that believing God is gendered is a big mistake.

You've appeared in films, recorded albums, toured the country, and even were nominated for a Tony. It seems you've done a bit of everything. What's next?

Well, that's what I haven't decided! I'm not even sure myself! I know I want to write more, and work on my next record, but I feel like I just need to tap into something that will inspire me. I'm looking forward to doing a little reading and journaling, and going around to see what other people are doing in my time off. I'm just opening myself up to inspiration, because I've spent so much time in the last year either putting things out or promoting them, I haven't had a lot of time to decide what's important to me. I feel like my life can be very one note, because I'm talking about myself all the time. [Laughs] I'm looking forward to experiencing other things that are coming to nourish my creative spirit and see where it goes!

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For more information on Justin Vivian Bond, "Silver Wells," and all of v's latest, please visit http://www.justinbond.com

 

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