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Singer/songwriter Eli Conley kicks off his mid-Atlantic folk tour with a show at the Gay Community Center on Wednesday, Dec. 14. The former Richmonder now lives in California.As part of a concert for Girls Rock RVA!, he’ll be playing a queer acoustic show with local cellist Constance Sisk, a former classmate at the Maggie Walker Governor’s School. They’ll be supported by Be Steadwell aka B Steady of the popular DC hip hop duo The Lost Bois.
GayRVA.com: How did you get into music?
Conley: As a child I sang all the time, and my parents encouraged me, signing me up for the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC), piano lessons, the Greater Richmond Children’s Choir, jazz band. They also played music constantly in our house. And they took me to see concerts by people like Los Lobos and Christine Lavin and big folk festivals in North Carolina and Canada. So I was lucky to have parents who were very encouraging of my musical pursuits.
When I was in high school I started writing songs and thinking more seriously about music as a career, but I had this idea that being a singer/songwriter wasn’t “practical.” I took singing lessons with the intention of going to a conservatory and studying opera.
Part of my hesitation at pursuing classical music came from the fact that toward the end of high school I realized that despite being born with a body that people labeled “female,” I didn’t feel like a woman. So as much as I enjoyed singing soprano arias (and I did!), once I started identifying as transgender, going for a career in the highly gendered world of opera seemed dicey. Especially once I was considering taking testosterone, which would change my voice dramatically.
I had no idea whether I would still be able to sing after taking hormones, but with the help of my college voice teacher, I’m thankful to have become a very confident tenor! That’s part of the reason I became a voice teacher myself — to pass on what I learned to other transgender people who want to learn to sing better.
Still, it wasn’t until I was working full time at a non-profit that I realized that I would never be happy unless I gave myself the chance to try and make it as a singer/songwriter. So here I am.
What’s the best part about touring?
Getting to play my songs for friends and family who’ve never seen me perform, and getting to catch up with them after the show. Touring is like a road trip on steroids. You get to see many places really quickly.
I also love meeting new musicians, getting to hear so many different incredible artists, and connecting with people who also do this funny thing I do, write music and play it for strangers in strange cities and hope that it resonates with people. I’m really looking forward to getting to play in Richmond again since it’s my hometown.
As an independent singer/songwriter, I do all of my own booking and publicity, even as I’m playing and rehearsing, teaching singing students, and trying to always keep the songwriting juices flowing. There’s a ton of prep work that goes in before you actually get on the road. It can be hard to deal with the rejection that you will inevitably get from the majority of the venues you contact and keep at it. But once things start to come together and you’re making connections with musicians and venues in the cities you’re aiming to tour in, if feels great.
What’s your idea of a perfect day off?
Hiking in the mountains in the morning, lunch at a vegan diner, playing music for fun with friends in the afternoon, taking a nap in the sun and then spending the night with my boyfriend somewhere we can see the stars. Can you tell that even though I live in the Bay Area, I still miss Virginia? We probably have more veggie-friendly restaurants over here, but there’s nothing like the stars I can see from my parents’ porch in Hanover County.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?
This is actually a really hard question for me! Even if I weren’t pursuing music professionally, I’m sure I’d still be playing and writing and singing. I’d probably be more heavily involved in a social justice organization.
Why are you looking forward to the mid-Atlantic tour?
I’m really looking forward to getting to collaborate with Constance Sisk. Constance is a wonderful cellist who’s played around Richmond as a sideman, and is starting to perform her solo arrangements of songs by people like Lyle Lovett and Regina Spektor, as well as her own compositions. In addition to looking forward to each of the shows we’ll be playing, I’m excited to get to spend time with her in the car and just kick it. Musicians make the best mix CD’s.
What’s your idea of a perfect date?
I’d love to make my boyfriend a special dinner at home, then go out and hold hands at a show, and get dessert and drinks afterward someplace fancy. There is this place in Berkeley that makes the best key lime pie you’ve ever tasted, and it’s raw, vegan and gluten-free! That pie plus my sweetie alone makes a perfect date.
How do you want to be remembered?
I’d like to be remembered as a kind, creative man who made music that moved people. As someone who taught music to many queer and trans people and allies, was a part of social movements for everyone’s collective liberation, and who appreciated the beauty in the world and the people around him.
Karen Newton is a freelance writer and full-time nerd who isn’t happy unless she’s going out every night for food, music or art and blogging it at www.icouldgoonandon.blogspot.com.