Original Plumbing is "the premier print magazine dedicated to the sexuality and culture of FTM trans guys."
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I sat down with two of the Bay Area’s most talented and prolific trans folk music heroes, Eli Conley and StormMiguel Florez. See Eli live at El Rio (San Francisco) on April 26, and StormMiguel on April 29 at Second Story Arts Collective (Sacramento)!
So, how would you guys describe your music to our readers in 3 words?
Eli Conley: Soulful, melodic Americana.
StormMiguel Florez: Acoustic, Moody, Twangy.
Beautiful! And what inspires you to be artists?
EC: I’m inspired by my friend, feminist singer-songwriter Talia Cooper, who says that artists aren’t “special”, we all have the capacity to be deeply creative. Artists are just folks who choose to prioritize and follow creativity. When I think of it that way, I pay attention in my day to day life, recognizing that songwriting inspiration can strike anytime. The trick is to allow myself to drop into what I’m doing and follow that path to see where it takes me, something I’ve done a lot more of since allowing myself to claim the title “artist.”
SMF: For me, it’s the one consistent thing I’ve loved to do my whole life. When I was in fourth grade, I had a friend who was a bit of a bully and one day when I was singing she told me to stop because I was tone deaf. I could’ve clammed up, but I joined the school chorus instead. I figured if I was tone deaf, I’d better learn to sing right. For me, singing is meditation. It’s cathartic, and the best way I know to express myself.
And how does being trans impact your music?
SMF: As a trans man on testosterone, it changed my voice. I was pretty happy with my singing voice, so [starting testosterone] felt like a huge risk. Even after 7 years on “t”, my voice still changes and settles. I sometimes miss my old voice, but I’m happy with what I have now and pleasantly surprised at the things it can do. It was well worth the risk.
Being trans also impacts decisions I make. I recently had the opportunity to work with a lesbian performer I’ve always admired but right before we started, she told me she regularly performs at Michfest. As much as I wanted to work with her, I believe that as a trans artist and activist, my art should reflect my beliefs, especially since I see being a trans artist of color as a form of activism. I try to remember that even though my songs are rarely political, I contribute to social justice by making art and performing in alignment with my beliefs and the change I want to see in the world. I’m not hatin’ on Michfest, but I want them to be stronger allies to trans women.
EC: For me, songwriters are storytellers, and so as a trans man, inevitably some of the stories I tell have to do with being trans. My song “Pinocchio” says trans people are who we say we are, regardless of our transition status. And “Social Security Song” is about changing my gender at the Social Security office in Virginia, where I was raised. These days being trans isn’t a core part of my identity, so the stories I tell in songs have less to do with gender than they once did. My recent songs have been love songs, and one about a siren who joins a rock band because she’s tired of singing sailors to their deaths on the cliffs.
Cute!! Ok , what’s the best gig you’ve played, the hardest one, and the dream gig?
EC: Let’s see…Well for two years I had a trio called Eli Conley and Hip for Squares. When I went solo, we had a goodbye show at a social justice arts and performance space where I teach a singing class for LGBTQ people, and the house was packed with family. That was the best gig so far. My hardest gig was the first show of my August tour, playing at an upscale pizza place in Eugene, Oregon. We drove for 8 hours and didn’t know anyone there. Once onstage we realized several of our cords were broken and it felt like no one was listening. But afterward, several folks signed my mailing list and bought CD’s, so that goes to show that just because it feels like a rough night to me, it doesn’t mean the audience isn’t feeling it. I try to remember that when I’m having a tough show. My dream gig is to play on Mountain Stage, the public radio show taped in front of a live audience in West Virginia. I grew up listening to it, and it would be phenomenal to get to play it.
SMF: Best gig… back in the glory days of my all dyke band from Albuquerque, one of the best gigs I played was in Baltimore at a tiny place called Cafe Diana. Earlier in the day when we walked into the space, the drummer and bass player had a fit about how it would be impossible to perform in this small space and almost cancelled the gig. But we made it work, and were surprised at the great energy in that room, crammed with at least 20 people and our four piece band. I’ve had amazing gigs since then, but that one stands out. Worst gig? Somehow I got booked to play at a jazz poetry club in New Orleans. It was a hot club with a lot of talent, but as a folksinger, I had no business there. People were very polite except for one woman who laughed during most of my set. And dream gig…I would love to open for Lila Downs, and then have her and her band back me up. She could sing back-up vocals on my song “Legend”!
So asking as a fan, do your fans sometimes move you as much as you move them?
SMF: I am absolutely moved by people who show up and participate in the energy exchange of live performance. It’s one of my favorite things in the world. We’re out there baring our souls and opening our hearts to the love in the room. I know it sounds hella woo, but anyone who loves live music knows what I’m talking about. I am deeply moved by my supporters.
EC: I agree! That’s also why being an openly trans musician is such a gift. There have been a number of times when trans folks come up to me after I’ve played and tell me that I’ve inspired them to believe they could perform music, or they realize that taking testosterone doesn’t have to mean giving up singing. When the songs you write are mostly about personal experiences, it feels really gratifying to have someone come up after a show and share something about their lives and the way your music has touched them.
I love that. Alright, what advice do you have for future generations of trans artists?
SMF: It’s the same advice I have for all artists. Make art because you love to make art. Even though the world is not set up to support artists, it doesn’t make us and our work any less important or worthy. The world and your communities need you, whether they know it or not.
EC: So true. For me, and to paraphrase Emerson, every artist started out an amateur. I remind myself of that. Keep at your art, and don’t get discouraged by your mistakes — recognize and grow from them. Reach out to other artists, trans or not. We are often afraid to ask for help or feedback or advice from other artists and live in a capitalist society that encourages us to be competitive rather than collaborative. It can feel like there’s limited opportunities and we have to be “better” than other artists. But we have everything to gain from being in community with each other! I’m amazed at the generosity of other musicians, especially trans and queer musicians — folks like you, Josh. (Aw, thanks Eli!) Nomy Lamm and StormMiguel Florez and Shawna Virago and many other folks have also offered me advice, places to perform, encouraging words, and I am so thankful. The most important thing is keep believing in yourself, put in the time with your art and follow your muse wherever it leads. And once you’ve got work you’re proud of, don’t be afraid to promote yourself!
Yes! Next to last question: If you had one wish for the world, what would it be?
EC: I’d wish for true social justice for all people. To quote the Black Panthers, that includes land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace and people’s community control of modern technology. Not just for the 1%, but for people from all oppressed communities.
SMF: My wish is that everyone welcomes and expects compassion and accountability for and by everyone, especially themselves.
Your hearts are huge my friends! Last but not least – what’ve you got coming up?
EC: I’m really looking forward to “Three Guys: The Mix” 4/26 at El Rio in SF. It’s with Joe Stevens of Coyote Grace, and multi-instrumentalist Beau Dream. Sunday 4/29 I’ll be in Sacramento at the Second Story Arts Collective to teach a singing workshop for LGBTQ people and allies, and play a show with Joe and StormMiguel. I love these all trans guy shows! May 18th I’m at Dolores Park Cafe in SF backed by Ashley Wai’olu Moore – she’s another talented trans musician! Info on all this is at my website, www.eliconley.com
SMF: I’m excited to premiere my new (zombie) drinking song video “I’ve Been To Manhattan” this summer – time and place to be announced. The single should be out in May. In June, I play the Fresh Meat Festival. And (transgender queer punk folk rocker) Shawna Virago and I might do another Gender Desperado Jamboree show in May. My website has all the info: www.stormflorez.com
Thanks for your time guys – and here’s to many more years of your music in the world!
More links to Eli and StormMiguel: