Interview: Trixie Mattel
“Trixie Mattel . . . Your performance on season seven of RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE was . . . ‘ha ha’ . . . but your upcoming album is a little . . . ‘yee-haw’.” After stealing hearts on TV and tap-dancing her way across the country in her one-woman show Ages 3 and Up, drag queen Trixie Mattel ventures into new yet familiar territory with her upcoming folk album, TWO BIRDS. In her conversation with Crossfader Television Editor Kate Brogden, she explores her music, drag, comedy, and her self-fulfilling approach to art.
I have been a big fan of you for a while, but for those unfortunate enough not to know, how would you describe yourself as an artist?
Visually, my style is a comforting, familiar color palette and silhouette of your Polly Pocket, your Barbie, your My Little Pony. Something straight out of your childhood, straight off the toy shelf.
But the art I do is kind of a combination of comedy and music that addresses much darker places in life. I think the magic in what I do is the marriage of a visual that is very young and carefree with a type of comedy that’s a little darker, a little more alternative and realist. I get my license to kill, you know? Everybody loves Barbie, and when Barbie says it’s time to joke about depression, you know, they’re like, “Okay, let’s go.”
When I was at your one-woman show, Ages 3 and Up, you made some kind of Columbine joke, and then the room went “awwwwww,” and you yelled at the audience for not being on board with you!
I’ve learned that audiences, especially in this delicate climate, especially white people, their guilt is so heavy that for every joke about something off-color, you need to make like three jokes about Caucasian people just to loosen them up. If you can go to a dark place and come back from it as a comedian, I think it’s an impressive feat. The visuals as Trixie make people trust me. When you look like you’re a clown, you get to really break the fourth wall into life and status and depression, and joke about shootings, breakups . . . but it’s all in the service of looking at life in a way that you probably wouldn’t feel comfortable with unless you let someone else say it for you.
Getting back to the musical aspect, when did you first start getting into music and what really drew you to music in the first place?
I grew up deep, deep in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Not a lot of kids to play with, not a lot of neighbors. My grandpa was a lifelong folk and country musician, so I learned, at the kitchen table, guitar and songwriting and folk music. I think, to the day I die, those are some of the happiest moments of my life. I’ll remember being 14 years old, the most awkward time in your life, especially knowing that I was gay and weird.
I remember being a kid and sitting in my grandpa’s lap, and he would strum the guitar and we would sing together. So long before it crossed my mind to even put on concealer, I was a folk musician. And then I went to school for music and musical theater, and that’s when I started developing Trixie.
I found that being a drag queen and having discernable gifts is actually something that audiences aren’t used to. They’re not used to drag queens being able to dress up and then do something.
“I Know You All Over Again” is effectively your big single because it got so popular on YouTube after you performed it in your show. What was it about that song that made you want to put it in the show?
I was writing the show right around the time I was finishing an unsuccessful relationship. I wrote it at a time when I was working in the city where the gentleman lived after we broke up. There’s nothing like being slapped in the face by the smell of someone you used to be with, or finding their laundry in your house, and it’s like it never ends sometimes.
At the time it was just hard to write jokes because it was such a devastating blow, and that show helped me discover that if I serve people real musicianship and original work and if I deliver it in a sincere way, with how I’ve been singing forever, that people are a lot more willing to go to a sad place with you than you would think. People know me more from my comedy, they know me from my YouTube series. Ages 3 and Up, it’s 95% a comedy show. I never thought the audience would receive music from me very well because it doesn’t really fit.
The album itself isn’t all sad. A lot of the songs are pretty upbeat.
Yeah, it’s fun! I love fun music.
“Mama Don’t Make Me Put On The Dress Again” is a song I wrote when I was just starting the emotional upswing from my breakup. I was doing at least five drag shows a week. I needed a physical break, I needed a mental break, I needed an emotional break. Just getting in drag for an audience sometimes . . . It is really hard. Once you’re in drag you have to act a certain way, you have to be on at all times. “Mama Don’t Make Me Put On The Dress Again” is a song about when you want to pursue all your dreams, and you put all your time and work and heart into it, but you worry about, “Am I living my dreams or am I wasting my life?”
I’m almost 30, I think everybody in my age group is reaching a point where we think we’re supposed to know what we’re doing, and we question if what we’re doing is the same as what we’re supposed to be doing. We all think when we grow up we’re gonna know, “This is what I’m supposed to be doing.” I think all the time, “Am I supposed to be Trixie Mattel, and for how long?”
For this album, do you want to reach out to people who aren’t familiar with you through Drag Race, or do you want people to listen to it with the context of knowing a lot about you already?
Well, first and foremost, it’s not drag music, it’s just music. Even the most conservative person who does not know anything about drag can just enjoy the music; it’s relatable life material. Drag just happens to be what I do.
We actually shot three album covers: we shot an album cover in drag, we shot an album cover out of drag, and we shot an album cover together. Originally, I wasn’t even going to use the name Trixie Mattel, but what I found from touring Ages 3 and Up (I hate the word “fans”, but . . .) people who would come to my shows were willing to go on these little mini journeys with me. They’re looking forward to anything that Trixie pulls out because they trust that it’s gonna be funny or moving or interesting. And I thought—I don’t want it to be drag music, but it is the story of travelling and being Trixie Mattel, so it would be stupid not to have that in.
How has the creation of the album affected you personally and professionally, and what are your goals going forward from here, now that it’s getting ready to come out?
Well, it is an expensive process. Most people and other DRAG RACE queens use producers, they use management, they use labels, and I’m funding it all myself.
I was doing Ages 3 and Up five days a week in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and I had the cheapest, grossest, tiniest little hole-in-the-wall seaside cabin, no air conditioning, no working refrigerator, no wifi. All I had was a dumb little cot to sleep in and my guitar. I just was going through so much. To keep myself entertained, I wrote 11 songs, and we ended up choosing seven. What I learned from doing my YouTube series is people love short things. If I see an album that’s 15 songs, I’m not gonna listen to 15 of them. It’s a small bite, it’s a 15-20 minute piece of music.
And what I’ve learned, touring the show: originally I thought I was just going for my own enjoyment and my own fulfilment, and now I’m finding the audience is way more enthusiastic about it than I thought they would ever be.
You’re already in the top pre-orders on iTunes right now! It’s Harry Styles and Gorillaz and you. Is that a total surprise?
I know, it’s bananas!
I was a little surprised, only because I don’t think people and young women like folk or country music very much. People know me for comedy, they know me for the fierceness of Trixie Mattel, and TWO BIRDS is a little more of a somber experience, but it has a tongue-in-cheek feel to it. It’s bouncy, light music. A lot of it is breakup music, but it’s country music; it can be heavy material interpreted in an upbeat way. I mean, think of “Ring of Fire”; it compares falling in love to burning. But it’s a fun song to listen to.
I’m really surprised and eternally grateful that the audience and my friends and family and people who come to my shows are even listening to the previews. I try to write music that I enjoy. I don’t try to have a unique voice in comedy. I have a unique voice because I do what I think is funny. And what I found on YouTube and doing Ages 3 and Up: if you give people your unique perspective delivered in a polished way, you really can’t go wrong.
I completely agree and I think that you have executed that incredibly well.
I mean, I almost had a roadblock. It never occurred to me to play guitar [as Trixie], it never occurred to me to use my real musical skills. You know, I’d come home from touring as Trixie and just sit in my room for days and sing and play, and it never occurred to me because drag queens don’t play instruments, drag queens don’t sing original music that they wrote, drag queens don’t do music that’s not jokey.
Jinkx Monsoon and Adore do.
Yeah, but they don’t play something live. They don’t play guitar, piano, or anything. To me it was like, “What? Drag queens don’t do that. That’s probably why I don’t do it.” I guess that, when you’re an artist, you want to make sense to your fans, and I was afraid that playing guitar wouldn’t make sense, but weaving comedy in with fun little folk tunes has been so successful and so artistically fulfilling for me.
I love to laugh and I love to cry. I love those two things. And really in Ages 3 and Up, “I Know You All Over Again” did become like an accidental single because it really moves people in the context of that show.
There’s something really effective about seeing this ‘Barbie doll’ singing this very personal and very heartfelt song, and it’s dissonant in a way that’s really interesting. Is that on purpose, the confusion of that image?
There’s a line where I say, “If you get your heart broken, write a show, go to Los Angeles, and wear enough makeup so at the meet-and-greet, no one knows you’re sobbing.” Comedy is a little feather, and it floats down to a place where it’s just big laughs, then half-laughs, and then chuckles where they’re actually not sure if it’s a joke, so I learned to kind of ease them into it. People come to laugh, and I knew it was an effective moment because every night at my hour-long comedy show, people would say, “My favorite part was the song.” I’m like: “Your favorite part of the comedy show was the sad part?”
There’s a big movement in comedy nowadays that’s this anti-comedy.
Oh, my favorite moment in comedy is when something isn’t landing. I love a dad joke. Just a couple of weeks ago on DRAG RACE, RuPaul said, “Why don’t you come up and seaweed me sometime?” And no one laughed, and he turned to Michelle Visage and went, “No, nothing?” That’s my favorite. Or in my show I have a few jokes, like, “ChristianMingle, which is stupid because if your name is Christian, why would you want to meet someone else named Christian?” That is just a dumb joke, and I think it’s hilarious.
Sometimes the jokes are more for the comedian than they are for the audience, in a way.
Oh, completely. Or like, “I do believe in safe sex, I’m a stickler for it, it’s the only thing I’m really anal about.” I know it’s a dumb joke, but it just makes me happy.
Artistically, makeup-wise, Trixie Mattel, every part of me is about being authentic to what I think is funny, what I think is good music, what I think is beautiful makeup; because once you start pulling punches and trying to tailor yourself to the audience, you’re not representing yourself anymore. It’s a slippery slope. If you think it’s funny and no one laughed, say it the next night. Doesn’t matter. I have jokes in my show where no one is really, truly laughing at it and I don’t give a fuck, because to me, that’s my honest perspective on what is funny.
And same with my music! I love folk music, I love country music, and I hit a point where I was like, “I don’t really care if my traditional Trixie audience doesn’t have a lot of country on their iPod, maybe I can show them that they should.” Don’t think of it as country, don’t think of it as folk. I don’t think of my show Ages 3 and Up as a drag show, I think it’s a standup show. The drag is secondary. My album, the drag is secondary. It’s just music.
With a lot of the DRAG RACE queens it’s hard to separate from their TV persona, so it’s cool that you’ve been able to strike out on your own and you really don’t give a shit what other people think.
Yeah, and people like me for my comedy. People watch my YouTube series because they like my jokes. People like my look as Trixie because of what I, as Brian, as a person, create. You can’t think that people only like you because of the way you look dressed up. People like you because of your insight as an artist. People like my point of view on comedy, on music, regardless of whether they picture me singing that album in drag, or picture me singing it out of drag. Just listen to it. When you hear the album, who you hear singing it is very irrelevant. It’s the same story told by the same person.
Awesome. Well, we have covered quite a bit of ground today, is there anything else that you want to say before we go ahead and wrap it up?
The album is going to be available on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Shazam; it’ll be everywhere. And being very environmentally conscious, it’s digital only.
Very woke of you.
Yes, well, I feel that a hard copy at this point is an exercise in self-indulgence. I don’t even have a CD player, how would I listen to it?
You know what’s so cute though, on the album art you have the little impression ring that you would get on a vinyl sleeve.
Yeah, and I’m selling things to sign that look like a square vinyl. So you can have the album art on your wall if you want, but I just think it’s silly to print hard copies.
Because that’s the part everybody really wants anyway, is just the cover and the pictures.
Yeah, the art is fab; the art is all by Lisa Predko out of Chicago. She specializes in vintage set design. She and I are just brainchildren together. I was telling her I want Porter Wagoner with Dolly Parton, I want Johnny Cash and June Carter, I want almost like a gospel Christian country album from the ‘60s vibe. She couldn’t have hit on it any more, I’m obsessed with the album art.
It’s so pretty. I was at the show when you premiered the album art and you put it up on the projector and begged everybody not to take pictures, and nobody did as far as I could tell!
Nobody did, which I was actually surprised by, but that’s the thing: Trixie fans are also very respectful. You know, it all comes out in time. I’ve gotta tell you, I wrote all this music last year, so think about how long I’ve been waiting for people to hear it.
It would have been so sad if it had been spoiled, so that is super fortunate, and it just goes to show how excited people are for it. They don’t want to ruin it for themselves or for anybody else.
It’s like DRAG RACE. Shea Couleé is one of my oldest friends. I didn’t ask her for any information about the show because I want to be surprised. I want to view it.
She is kicking ass, by the way.
Oh my god, nobody’s gonna beat her.
That’s what I said, right when the “Meet the Queens” video came out, I was like, “Oh, Shea. Duh.”
Nobody’s gonna beat her. I mean, I love pretty queens, so I’m also obviously with Farrah, and I’m obsessed with Kimora.
Yes! Did you see Farrah’s air fresheners that she’s gonna be selling at DragCon? They’re air fresheners for your car, but they’re drawings of her as a 1950s pinup. They’re adorable.
Oh! My fragrance called Plastic premieres at DragCon too, so stop by the Xyrena booth and smell it. There’s even a geotag on SnapChat for the fragrance at DragCon.
That’s amazing. Thank you so much for talking to me today.
I really appreciate the interview. It’s been great too, with the album not being just a drag thing, I’ve gotten to do so many interviews with publications that aren’t even drag-specific, so that’s been fabulous.
TWO BIRDS releases May 2nd across platforms, and is available for pre-order on iTunes.
Trixie’s webseries UNHhhh with fellow drag queen Katya Zomolodchikova premieres Mondays on Youtube at WOWPresents.
Trixie will be debuting her fragrance “Plastic” and other exclusive merchandise April 29-30th at RuPaul’s Drag Con at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Day and weekend passes available here.