I was lucky enough to get to interview the beautiful Alexis Blair Penney for the site. A little late on the release date but it is never to late to buy the new album “Window”, available digital now and you can purchase vinyl here. The new album is incredible and you can listen to it over and over. I’d say preferably in a teddy or sheer robe and with a glass of wine. It ranges from sexy to heartfelt and is one of the most amazing things I have heard in ages. The innovation and passion felt is game changing, ‘Window’ is a classic and is made for a full music conoisseur in mind, and that conoisseur is you and Alexis Blair Penney, and only you two. With an accompanying book conveniently also named “Window”(which you can buy here), Alexis is nowhere close to stopping. Telling us a story the whole way through, through song and literature, and now we are pleased to take some time with the one and only:
RO: Alexis Blair Penney how we have grown. It has been quite a while since we have heard from you musically. We started our relationship with you in 2010 and have been obsessed ever since. You’ve finally released your full length album “Window” and it was well worth the wait. We have a few questions for you about the album and about life in general.
First off tell us a little about what have you been up to for the last 2 years musically, what has the process on recording this album?
ABP: The process was really kind of stretched out between the whole 2 years it took us to finish the record, between starting to record in my bedroom in San Francisco, to flying to convene in Los Angeles and then finishing it up in New York. It all came about as sort of a personal challenge to myself and to my collaborators to see if we could really sit down and make something full and cohesive and contained and it really kind of blossomed from there once we started to really get the material written. Some of the songs are songs I have known I needed to write for a long time and some of them I discovered along the way, and so it was really magical, if scary and intense at times, to sit down and birth this thing.
RO: You always seem to be collaborating with some very artistic people on both coasts. Can you tell us a little about who you have worked with and what that relationship is like?
ABP: On this record I worked with Nick Weiss, of the band Teengirl Fantasy, who I consider my chief producer and collaborator. He also produced “Lonely Sea” and was really the first person that I ever felt I really clicked with and who understood exactly what I was trying to do, while also bringing a whole array of complimentary influences and ideas to the table. He is such a genius artist in his own right, and has a really amazing sensibility for melody and song-craft, really pop but also really dance and punk rooted, so he is always a blessing to work with and it was amazing to get to do this with him. He is the kind of person who, having worked together and been friends for so long now, he like never hesitates to check me when I’m being crazy, which I’m really grateful for. The other person who co-wrote this record with us was Jamie Crewe, of Sheffield, UK, who performs as Poisonous Relationship. Jamie and I had been in contact on the internet for a long time and he had sent me a crop of songs that he had written that he felt didn’t quite synch with what he was doing with his music, one of which was “Like The Devil.” Immediately on hearing and recording that song I felt like I had written it, and that him and I were of really similar minds and spirit, and so after Nick and I committed to doing the album I figured, if singing Jamie’s songs is so powerful for me, what would it be like to try to write songs with him? So we all convened in Los Angeles for about 10 days and from the get go it was a total dream, just like every time I felt stumped Jamie would have the right idea, or lyric, or whatever, it all just came together really well and was really exciting to be able to just take time out and exist in this creative space with two really talented musicians. Jamie’s stuff is so incredible and his relationship with his emotions is so similar to mine – he is also an Aquarius. On the business end, after we had written this crop of demos I sent them just casually over to Rafael, of Ecstasy Records, just to see what he thought, and he was immediately like, yes, we wanna put it out, so that kind of spurred me on to really get serious and finish the project, because before I had kind of imagined I’d just work at it casually whenever Nick was in town and shop it around once it was done, but having that support system already in place was a really strong reason we were able to finish it at all. Rafael also fell in love with Jamie’s record Garden of Problems after I played him the sort of demo version while in Portland, which actually came out on Ecstasy a few months before mine, so it’s kind of a cool creative family we have going here. The guitarist on the record, Grant Martin, of the band Icewater, I actually met through my drag collaborator Sam Banks, who I was living with at the time in San Francisco, and after sharing one magical night together and reading that he had a room open in New York, I felt totally just so drawn to his energy and being that I up and decided to move to New York, at the same time as Nick did, which was amazing not just to be able to live with him and work with him musically, as Icewater became my go-to backing band and he came up with all these beautiful accompaniments for the songs, but Nick ended up moving in down the street, so we were suddenly in the same place at the same time, which had never happened before, very serendipitous. Grant passed away about 3 weeks ago so the record has become sort of retroactively about losing him as much as about losing love, so it’s been a really insane experience to say the least finally willing this thing onto the world.
RO: You moved to New York from San Francisco, those two cities seem to always be fighting it out creatively in the gay music scene. The drag is definitely different on both sides of the spectrum. What has been the biggest difference you have noticed between the two cities? What do you miss the most and least about San Francisco?
Rest of interview
ABP: Well, San Francisco has a really small town vibe to it, which in a way every city does as you sort of gravitate to the people that are on the same kind of wavelength and vibe as you, but San Francisco just geographically is so small that you really just can’t help but bump up against everyone all the time. It’s also so drag-centric in the way that there really isn’t any nightlife in San Francisco that doesn’t have a drag element, so it’s been kind of strange going from doing 3 shows a week at Aunt Charlie’s and then having all these random gigs all around town on top of that, and having really just fallen ass backwards into that lifestyle, to being in New York where you really have to work and hustle really hard to get gigs that pay enough to justify schlepping your ass in drag on the subway halfway across the city. Everything was definitely “easier” in a way in San Francisco, though the cities do match up in terms of cost of living, but that ease of life really kind of bred a lot of bad habits in me. I really wasn’t that productive and so much of my life revolved around drinking and drugs, whereas in New York I’ve sort of found some space and motivation to breathe and realize what I really want to be doing with my life, which isn’t to say that drag isn’t a part of that, but it’s only one part, or perhaps the backdrop to it, so I feel way more productive here for sure. I miss a lot about San Francisco – the thrifting, the queens, the community, the shows, the lifestyle of just rolling out of bed, getting in drag, hopping in my regularly timed Homobile and going to the club, doing the show and then hopping in my Homobile to a second show, it was really life changing all of those experiences, and there are also a lot of really incredibly talented artists and musicians outside of the drag scene there, but that place has ghosts, and very intense vibes, I’m not really sure what it is exactly, but I went through some really kind of harrowing psychedelic things there. I haven’t been back since I’ve quit drinking for the most part, so I’m excited to see it with new eyes.
RO: The album is so full of emotion and feels so raw, it really hurts sometimes in a very beautiful way. It seems most music in the gay community tends to stick to a routine of comedy and kitsch yet there are a few artists like yourself and a few others that tend to draw a picture full of feelings from reality, from pain and beauty. Who inspired you on this album lyrically and emotionally? What situations?
ABP: Yeah I mean in a way that is just totally reflective of how my life has always been, I’ve always been a really emotional person, have struggled with depression most of my life, though only recently have I been able to articulate that that was what I was dealing with. A huge sort of unnamed influence is my mother, who is a singer and retail maven in Kansas. She was a huge presence and though she always worked she always was home when we were let out of school, cooking a home made meal and listening to music and drinking wine and talking on the phone and talking to us about our days. She has really varied but specific tastes in music and always has it on at all hours of the day and night, so I grew up just unconsciously digesting soo much music, like Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell, Judy Garland, Heart, The Eagles, kind of all over the map, a lot of really emotionally poignant stuff for sure. Definitely my relationship with my ex who moved me out to San Francisco in the first place is the sort of emotional center-piece of the record, and its dissolution of course, but a lot of that spins out of the projections of my parents relationship that I cast on his and mine, and things like that. As far as artistically influential on me, I always found a lot of truth in records like Nightclubbing by Grace Jones, where she is inhabiting all these other writers’ songs but so solidly as herself, Diva by Annie Lennox, Ray of Light by Madonna, Marianne Faithful’s Broken English, a lot of self-confessional, fully-formed pop masterpieces. Season of Glass by Yoko Ono is really huge, late career Nico, especially The Drama of Exile, Everything But The Girl, The Red Shoes by Kate Bush. Really anyone who is telling stories of their lives and other lives just honestly and truthfully set to music. I really just wanted to show a little slice of how my life felt and sounded during the time I was making the record and before.
RO: What has the reception of this album and of your music been amongst your friends, fans, and your peers? Any special stories you want to share?
ABP: Haha it’s funny I actually was playing a show at Vassar a few months ago with Mykki Blanco, who is an old friend, and was trying to drop all of this unknown, fairly heavy material from the record on these kids and they absolutely could not deal, and I was getting heckled, but the minute I started playing “Lonely Sea” they all freaked out and started singing along, it was really funny, kids just love what they know, and I think a lot of people really responded to that song, it came out of such a raw and immediate place, we wrote that like 3 weeks after the break-up. Being so involved in that release was really amazing for me because I was shipping by hand all these 7 inches to places like Indonesia, Japan, Russia, South America, all over the world, this funny nostalgic 90s club pop song with cheesy lyrics I wrote in the depths of some depression in my punk house in Oakland, it was a total trip. Have had people say they were at huge clubs in Europe showing that video on jumbotrons and shit, but still have not managed to get to any of those places to play yet. It’s just really exciting for me when anyone responds to the feeling behind it all, because that’s what it’s really all about for me. I have this penpal in Jerusalem who when I sent him an advance listen of the record really stuck on “Another Life” which is one of the slower and kind of harder sells I think, but he said it felt like he had written it, and he is the age that I was when I was feeling those feelings and going through that shit, so I think that’s really beautiful and I’m really excited that I managed to translate all these complicated specific feelings in a way that’s universally palatable.
RO: This album has a very serious stripped 80′s feel to it. In some songs I hear some Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Spandau Ballet influence. You nailed the ballad. Am I wrong in thinking this? Who else inspires you from that or other eras?
ABP: Oh yeah for sure, I am very 80s inspired. Depeche Mode of course is a huge one, that era Madonna, a lot of the darker stuff though you can’t always hear that, like Ministry, Severed Heads…I am a huge Duran Duran fan actually, think they were really amazing song writers and they actually wrote about some really strange stuff, but I also really love when all the folk singers and rockers kind of caught up with the 80s, like Trans by Neil Young and Dog Eat Dog and Wild Things Run Fast by Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty, just on the verge of being cheesy, or quite possibly actually just cheesy but in such a genuine way.
RO: One thing I really appreciate about your music is that it just feels so real. It isn’t forced. It is obvious you are making this for you and to let some things out. Most artists these days seem to be pushing for fame and to appeal to the masses. Yet this album is so you and so different than what others are releasing. What are some of your dreams on where this will take you? Whats your dream gig?
ABP: Oh yeah I mean it comes from an originally very selfish place, it’s like therapy, but it feels good that I can sort of share that and it can become therapy for others. I guess really that’s all I really want, is to be able to share these feelings and experiences with as many people as possible. I’d love to and fully plan on being really famous and successful, really for mostly political reasons. I feel like there is so much hurting going on and not enough healing, so I’d really like to have a platform to kind of start and keep conversations going about a lot of things, and of course just reach out to all the weirdos out there, not the Lady Gaga fans but the real weirdos, young psychics and intuitives and shamans and empaths who feel all these insane feelings that I felt growing up and don’t have a pop culture or really any cultural reflection or language about which to articulate them. It’s also political in the way that I am so different and such a weirdo, and living the way I live is punishable by death in a lot of places, but underneath these differences I am feeling feelings that literally every person is feeling, so if you can respond to my feelings maybe you can stop responding so strongly to the external differences between me and you, or you and your neighbor, whatever they may be. I know those are very lofty goals for this funny little record but you have to start somewhere.
RO: Any plans for videos, singles, or tours for this album?
ABP: Well the video for “Your Eyes” is out now, directed by the amazing Tony Lowe and Glass Embassy and featuring my talented family Chez Deep and Icewater. There is also a video that will be out in September in time with my book, which is a companion piece and memoir also called Window, coming via Peradam.info, for “Never Home” and we have two more videos coming later in the Fall, for “I Remember” and “Praying For Rain.” I am trying to figure out live dates right now, hopefully will be doing a US and European tour, but no specifics yet. We’re already recording a follow-up EP.
RO: What’s a day in the life of Alexis like?
ABP: Oh jeez I do a lot of yoga, I tweet a lot, I work a day job managing a restaurant so I am there kind of a lot, I water my plants, I read a lot and do a lot of kind of walking around, taking photos, grocery shopping, cooking myself the same meal every day, and then occasionally I get in drag and go out and channel spirits.
RO: What is some advise you have for future beauty queens with punk rock fantasies?
ABP: To paraphrase RuPaul, buy yourself some shitty make-up brushes from the drug store and start practicing! Watch tutorials and don’t be intimidated. Just live it. Don’t put it on and take it off for a show, wear it there and back and feel the way it feels for people to react or not react to that person you’ve become. Read books! Read The Naked Civil Servant! Read about what’s happening in the world! Vapid can be funny but only if there is true depth behind it. We live in a day and age of complete unawareness, of tuning out, so the only way we can turn things around is by being completely aware, of ourselves and of everything, and the ramifications of each of our actions. We are all witches. Practice magic. Do yoga. Love yourself and everyone else.