"This show is church for people who don't like church," Our Lady J told HuffPost Gay Voices last week when we spoke about her "Gospel For the Godless." The acclaimed singer-songwriter and classically trained pianist will bring the regularly sold-out show, which she has toured around the world, to New York City's Joe's Pub on Sunday, March 23.
"I call it 'Gospel For the Godless' because I take the medium of gospel music and I take away the dogma and write my own gospel," she added.
Our Lady J has been writing her own gospel for years. Aside from penning and performing her own music, she is a much sought after pianist and has collaborated with Sia, Lady Gaga, Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry, Antony of Antony and the Johnsons and Scissor Sisters, among others. As a classical pianist, she has worked with American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Los Angeles Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet and the Mark Morris Dance Group. She's also made headlines with her buddy Daniel Radcliffe and most recently guest starred on "RuPaul's Drag Race."
We caught up with Our Lady J to chat about her music, her dedication to beauty as a guiding principal, life in the music industry as a transgender musician and more.
The Huffington Post: Do you remember exactly where you were or what was going on when you came up with the idea for the "Gospel for the Godless"?
Our Lady J: I was at a party in Williamsburg about ten years ago and a marching band showed up in the middle of the party. I thought it was the best thing ever and I wanted to do a show with a marching band because I just loved the bigness of it. But that didn’t work out and I thought, “Well how else can I get a big giant sound that gets everyone in the audience involved?” And I thought a gospel choir would make sense because I grew up in the church and I know how to arrange music for singers. So I got the gospel choir together. It’s become kind of a community thing ever sense. People come to my shows and then next time if they want to sing in the show I work with them. The gospel choir grows and grows every time we perform. In every city that I go to I utilize the local singers. I’ll tweet at people or people will send me messages on Facebook and it becomes part of the performance –- the audience being involved in the gospel choir.
There’s something really organic I think about the show. I’ve seen it so many times now but every time I see it, it is a totally different experience depending on who is there and what’s happening with you and I love it for that.
It is cabaret at the same time, so a lot of it involves storytelling between the songs. That’s probably why it’s different every time, there’s different stories to tell.
I love that. You were raised in a Pentecostal household. How has that manifested itself in your art -- or how has your reaction to that manifested itself in your art?
I think the arts were always seen as an expression of worship in the Church and even in the Amish community that was around me. Women would quilt and that was an expression of God. So, I always have seen music and dance and any sort of art form as an expression of spirituality rather than just entertainment. I feel like I have a lot invested in it because of what I was taught and how I was taught to view the arts.
Is music itself spiritual for you? Or is music more of a component of a spiritual event or a spiritual expression?
I think it’s an expression of something that is hard to express. Spirituality for me is nothingness. To bring that into the physical plane -- music is as close as you can get to nothingness. You can’t see it but you can feel it.
You also are dedicated to the concept of beauty. How does beauty play a part in your life and why is the idea of beauty a kind of guiding principle for you?
It sounds shallow to say that beauty is a guiding principle, but it’s not physical beauty. The concept of beauty, when I say beauty is my goddess, it means that’s the path that I follow when I don’t know where to turn. I guess it started when I was transitioning. There’s so many books and there’s so many areas that I turned to when I was trying to figure out if I was a woman or if I was a woman born in a man’s body or what the concept of being transgender was because nobody told me. It’s something you find out for yourself. I didn’t always feel like a girl -- I always fit in with the girls, I always enjoyed being part of that tribe, but I wasn’t a kid who said, “Oh, I’m a girl.” For me it was always about expressing beauty and whenever I just removed myself from the rest of the world and imagined I was on an island all by myself, I imagined how I would express myself and what I would look like and how I would feel and act and talk, and that happened to be as a woman. I guess beauty has been my guide in transitioning as well as in what I create.
Everything you just said made me wonder how you currently envision yourself and identify. When you think about your transgender experience, do you think about it as moving from one end of the binary to the other? Or is that not important to you?
Well, I feel like I bounced back and forth on the binary, kind of like a slingshot, because I was trying so hard to fit in as a man –- really, really trying to be butch to no avail. And so when I decided that I was going to go for it and, in the eyes of society at least, become a woman, even though I consider myself more genderqueer -- if you have to check male or female, I’m going to check female -- if there was a third box I would check that. So, I bounced into this super feminine world because I thought that’s what I must be. We’re given such black and white definitions of gender to play with. And then I felt that that felt really awkward. I don’t enjoy all of the stereotypical female things and so after a couple years of that early on in my transition I sort of swayed back towards the center of things.
And that’s where you are now?
Yeah. I definitely identify as female. I have no problem with female pronouns. In an ideal world there wouldn’t be such an emphasis on gender and we wouldn’t have to think about it so much.
You're often presented as a transgender artist. Is that problematic for you? Do you wish that wasn’t emphasized so much? Or is that something you think is important to your art and who you are as an artist?
I think it can be difficult because people go in with an idea of what transgender means to them. So they already have these assumptions about what I am about, about what my art is about. So that can be a difficult barrier to break. But I think the benefit of identifying as a transgender artist involves the community –- it’s about being a role model. A lot of kids, they contact me on Facebook and tell me their struggles of coming out as trans and I feel a certain amount of pride about being trans and being open about it and saying that you can be successful in whatever career you want to be in or as an artist -- as a human being. I think it’s important as a community to identify with each other.
You and I have talked at length about Jared Leto playing a trans woman in “Dallas Buyers Club” and why that was problematic. If we zoom out from there for a second and consider how mainstream media and culture looks at transgender people and experiences in 2014, what are your thoughts?
I think cisgender [non-transgender] actors portraying trans roles has been beneficial to an extent. But I think that the time has come where we need to only cast trans actors in trans roles for now, because when we cast a cisgender actor in a trans role it gives a message of invisibility towards trans people. I don’t see myself on the big screen anywhere. I never did as a child. And that’s how we identify growing up in the modern age –- we see ourselves through movies and TV and art. And when we don’t see ourselves, because we are different bodied, it’s not just about acting. Gender and sexuality are different –- it’s not about acting gay or acting straight. Our bodies are physically different, for the most part. I don’t want to generalize and box anyone in but a lot of transgender women do alter their bodies. I have spent a hell of a lot of time and energy and money altering my body to become more female and when I see an actor portraying a transgender woman, I don’t see myself in that and I know a lot of my sisters don’t as well. And there are trans women who don’t alter their bodies and that’s fine. But I feel like if they’re going to go to the extent that they did with “Dallas Buyers Club” and say that was a transgender role, then they should have had a self-identified transgender woman playing it. If it was more of a genderqueer or a man who was questioning his gender identity, then that would have been another thing. All the press releases said it was a transgender woman. So I think it miseducates the audience and also makes young trans people feel invisible at the same time.
That being said, trans issues and trans people have been a lot more visible in the mainstream media lately. We’ve got Janet Mock, we’ve got Laverne Cox, we have more and more trans people speaking out about their lives and experiences. Are you hopeful about things moving forward?
I am actually. I was having a conversation with a director in LA last week about things and he was telling me how Hollywood is a little bit embarrassed about the whole “Dallas Buyers Club” because they didn’t think it was offensive. And then when they got such a reaction from the trans community -- you know, no one was out there to offend us. I don’t think Hollywood is against trans people. I think they do want to be on the right side of history. So there is a conversation that’s being had. I think we owe it to a lot of trans activists for speaking up like Janet and Laverne,and people are interested. So, I’m really hopeful, actually.
Do you ever feel like you’ve been pigeonholed in the industry because you're trans? Or do you think it has actually allowed you to reach people you never would have reached?
I know there have been moments where I have walked into a room and people have looked at my like they have no idea what I am when I’m presenting my music to producers. I’ve definitely gotten the look like I’m a freak and I’ve been made to feel like I’m a freak before in professional situations, so I’m sure it has held me back. At the same time it’s also allowed me to have a unique voice. You know, when you’re part of a group of people that is generally displaced by society it does allow you to have a lot more to say. Right now I think the thing I struggle with the most is I’m not really interested in being a passable trans woman. I haven’t altered my body to the point of not being visually identified as trans. And I think a lot of people in the music industry and in Hollywood and in general –- they feel much more comfortable with a trans woman who is passable. And that can be frustrating. I feel like that has held me back. I have had people in the music industry say to me they don’t want a trans person who sings sad songs. They want a skinny passable trans woman who dances and entertains. I think it’s the same pressure as a cisgender woman –- they want this little pop star and to have anything that looks different and sounds different than that, it is more difficult.
That seems to be an issue within the trans community, too. I think some trans people who transition from one end of the gender binary to the other, once they do that, they aren't always interested in continuing to be a part of a trans community anymore. For some trans people the ultimate goal is to transition and then to just live his or her life.
I respect that because it is difficult and if someone is tired –- if they don’t have the energy to bring that on then I respect them. That’s not my path, for sure. I think there’s something special about being raised male and living female. I’ve learned so much by being on both sides of the gender binary. I wasn’t taught the shame that a lot of girls were taught about their bodies growing up in society. So I have the perspective -- I feel like I was raised with this male privilege and now I’m living as a woman. And I take a lot of that with me. I don’t put up with a lot of things that girls are taught to put up with who are raised in a nonfeminist society. So I’m grateful.
Do you think of your art and your gender identity as political? When you walk out on stage and you do what you do, is that a political act for you?
I think any sort of defiance is political and the way I was raised in the religious community, I was not supposed to be successful. And I think just thriving is political -- when you thrive as a queer person you are being political because we are taught that we are not supposed to thrive, that we are less than. So I think in any business, whether you’re performing or whatever you’re doing –- any of the underdogs who thrive, that is a political statement.
What else do you have coming up for the rest of 2014?
I’m going on a European tour this spring, which is working my pussy! I decided to perform with the Royal Danish Ballet as a classical pianist because that’s kind of my day job. So while I’m over there I’m going to be doing my solo shows in Copenhagen, London and Dublin. Then I’m going to Vienna to start working on my new album.
They’re really hungry over there for you, aren’t they?
I ran into Antony [Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons] a couple of months ago and we were talking about the music business. And he said, "Girl, if you want to be taken seriously as a transgender musician you’ve got to leave the United States." He was like it’s not going to happen here right now. Europe is where it’s at right now.