Ed Schrader’s Personal Guide to Nightclub Daydreaming

On being their full self, in both art and life.

“Pony In The Night” is the introduction to Nightclub Daydreaming. There’s this place outside of Baltimore called Assateague, and about four or five hundred years ago, a Spanish ship washed up to shore there. The ship went aground and the Spanish fleet moved on, but they left all their ponies behind. Ever since, the ponies have been there, so you can go to Assateague and see all these wild ponies. It’s really cool, but they’ll try to steal your lunch, so you have to be careful. People are like, “Ugh, they’re eating my potato chips!” But it’s like, “Yeah, the ponies are not in their natural environment. This isn’t where this pony wants to be.”

“Pony In The Night” is about being in an unnatural environment that distorts who you actually are. The pony is a metaphor for the artist, the person on stage. People come and take pictures of them. It’s kind of what being on stage is like — you’re like the animal at the zoo. You put that cage around yourself. For me, that cage was not being myself. And a lot of it was self-perpetuated.

Queen Isabella was the Spanish queen, so also in the song I say, “What would Isabella say of one descending from steeds?” It’s that fear of, What would someone say if they saw me as myself when I’m supposed to be a man? There are always these coded things in all the songs about gender. It’s funny, because Elton John said in an interview once, “It was always there — ‘You never read the songs/They all think they know, but they all got it wrong,’” quoting the song “Made In England.” He talks about how he always felt like he was an actor playing the wrong part, and I was like, Oh my god, yes! 

“This Thirst” kind of covers that territory. I say, “Who will rock you to the fire” — the fire being all the things happening right now — ”who’s the priestess to ordain?” That’s the first time I explicitly referred to myself in the female sense in a song. But I’ve always kind of done that. “Pink Moons” is a song from Party Jail, and in it I say, “Under pink moons, Sadie Hawkins every night.” I think certain friends kind of knew. I was hanging out with my buddy Kevin once, and he was like, “I really like that song ‘Pink Moons.’ ‘Sadie Hawkins every night,’ huh?” And I was like, “Yeah. Wanna play Mario Kart?” He was kind of putting it out there, but I was just too scared at that point to talk about it. I had to come to the conclusion myself. 

I remember the breaking point for me, I think, was when I was listening to the radio one day. There was a civil rights leader talking (I can’t remember their name) and a caller was like, “What do you do in the face of intolerance and ignorance?” And he said he’d say to them, “I reject your rejection.” I was just like, Oh, I could do that. I don’t have to be the person other people are comfortable with, I could be the person I actually am. It’s funny — you’d think I’d be able to figure that out!

Also in “This Thirst,” I mention, “Night Safari got me sleeping in canopies.” At night we have these anxiety dreams, like I’ve got that big meeting tomorrow, and what if I’m naked! But for me, I’d have dreams where I was in drag in front of different people, like my parents or my partner’s parents. So “Night Safari” — it’s like people are coming after you, you’re the hunted. And then I’m “sleeping in canopies” — I go up into the trees. I have these dreams where I’m flying and always hiding in trees. 

Shooting the album cover was really crazy. Devlin and I played all of the different parts, because the people who were supposed to do it, obviously because of COVID, couldn’t. So we ended up having to change clothes every five minutes, like “Put on this dress! Put on this suit! Put on this space helmet!” It was actually really fun, and it was interesting because that was before I had talked to anyone about any of the gender stuff. So I was just like, “OK, I guess I’ll wear this dress if I have to!” I had kind of dropped some hints when we were talking about the cover, like, “Well, if I have to wear a dress, geez louise, I’ll do it if I gotta…” The people we were working with were really great, and I think they could definitely sense, “OK, you’re kind of into this, we can roll with that.” 

It’s something I’d always done in secret in the past. The song “Eutaw Strut” is about when I lived on Preston Street in Baltimore. I lived with Dan Deacon, Future Islands, and Double Dagger all in this one big house, and we all stole each other’s food constantly and played Ken Griffey Baseball on Super Nintendo. None of them knew — or maybe vaguely, they might have seen some clues — but I would leave the house with my book bag full of clothes, and then I’d go to the University of Maryland, because they had a bathroom I could change in. Then I’d walk around downtown. 

In “Eutaw Strut,” I go, “I need a disaster so I’ll head downtown” — the disaster is the fear, because every time I did that, something weird would happen. Some creepy business guy would follow me for three blocks, or someone would proposition me really loudly. One time, I went through this Barnes & Noble fully dressed — with horrible makeup on; I was really bad at the makeup when I started, so I probably stood out — and the cashier was this guy who kept being like, “Sir, OK, sir.” He kept calling me “sir” more than I’d ever heard in my life when I was presenting as a man, to purposely put me in my place. But then I went to the same store a month later, and there was an African American gentleman who went out of his way to say “ma’am,” and was so nice. I really appreciated that. I think people who have experienced ignorance themselves are oftentimes the people who will reach out and have your back in those situations, whereas people from privilege will just talk to you however they want, and project their own fears and insecurities at you. I at least found that to be the case in Baltimore. 

“Eutaw Strut” is about is also kind of a proletariat anthem about class and working in restaurants — dressing in drag in secret, and then working in a greasy spoon diner washing dishes all night. Everyone in the diner just thought I was this working class, Bruce Springsteen kind of guy, the weird person who does dishes who’s missing’ a front tooth (this was before I got my teeth fixed). The waiters would come over and gossip about me while I stood there hearing all of it. When I first moved to Baltimore, I was kind of spazzy and high energy, and I think a lot of people mistook that for me having some kind of mental deficiency, and would say things in front of me that I don’t think they would have had they realized I was very cognizant. I graduated second in my class, one step from valedictorian, but as a performer, people thought I was like the Domino’s Noid or something. And that’s what I went for! But a lot of times, what you do on stage, people think that’s what you are when you get off stage. 

In “European Moons,” I say, “My posture’s at your strings,” kind of alluding to a marionette. People don’t even realize that they’re controlling you by their implicit responses to things. The way people talk and dress, and what they imply in their words and clothing, puts barriers around you. You read the room and you’re like, Am I safe here? Can I be myself? Before I came out, it was also my own perpetuated fear. We can’t read minds — just because someone has a cowboy hat on doesn’t mean they’re going to judge me. Some of it’s coming from me, too, and I realize that. I was the puppeteer and the puppet, and I didn’t realize I could just snip the strings.

In “Black Pearl,” I’m singing, “I’ve a love see/Cross the water.” The love across the water is the other side of myself that I can’t bring into fruition and syncopate into my full being. The song is about the dualism of oneself. We all have the self that we present at work or with our friends or our family, and then there’s your actual self. I feel like so many people tragically never get to show that actual self to everybody. I’m 43 now, and I’m just like, Fuck it, I gotta be myself! 

I was listening to Stevie Nicks, and she says, “Time makes you bolder/And the children, they get older.” I was like, Fuck yeah, right on! In “Echo Base,” I have the line “Belladonna ‘81,” talking about the Stevie Nicks album Bella Donna. I talk about Carrie Fisher too, because “Echo Base” is a Star Wars reference. There’s a part in the song where I say, “I can’t sell this uniform/I’m all too alive in it,” and that’s me being like, “I can’t wear this tough guy punk uniform anymore, that’s not who I am.” And it’s a nod to Sting, of all people, because he has a line on Synchronicity, in “Miss Gradenko,” where he says, “Your uniform doesn’t seem to fit/You’re much too alive in it.” I think he’s talking about a person going through a similar kind of crisis, and I always thought that was a great line. I also say in the song, “We must weather fire for the Snow Queen” — big surprise, I’m the Snow Queen. (I’m from up north, you know.) So it’s like, I can weather through the dirty looks at truck stops, people bumping into me, these awkward situations. 

In “Kensington Gore,” the last line of the album is, “Sun ain’t coming so we stay out all night.” For a person who’s in the closet, the sun never comes up. We don’t get to experience the fullness of the day in the sun; we can only be ourselves in the night, in these enclaves, these hidden places. But now I’m saying that I want to be myself at a gas station in the middle of the day. I remember when I was doing therapy years ago, they were like, “OK, you want to be a woman. But do you want to be a woman just at night in private, or do you want to be a woman at a bank in the middle of the day?” There was one point the other day where I was fully presenting, dressed how I want to dress, and I was actually standing in line at a bank just thinking, I’ve made it! 

And people were giving me weird looks. Yesterday, we were in Texas at this restaurant and there was this old guy dressed as a soldier — I think he was a vet —and he was just frowning at me the whole time. At the end of the meal, I got up and saluted him, kind of semi-ironically, and he just put his head down and said nothing. Obviously, depending who you are, you can put yourself in danger confronting people like that. I understand being a white person, my situation is different than it is for other people who might face danger in that situation. 

For someone who is Black and trans, they have double stresses to deal with. That’s something I recognize. So I’ve been sure I learn from others who have come before me — like DDm, who is a great rapper in Baltimore. He’s always been androdynous. He’s proud of who he is and he’s not ashamed. I’ll see DDm at CVS in the middle of the day buying eyeliner, no shame. The other day, I saw DDm buying eyeliner and nail polish and I was like, I wanna talk to you about this, but I’m with my partner and I haven’t told them yet! What’s crazy is that ever since I’ve come out, stuff with me and my partner has been better than ever. We’re so much closer, and our relationship is so much deeper. Because I’m actually being myself, and that honesty is so essential in a relationship. 

I’m in Texas right now and it’s frankly scary. I don’t get out at every stop because I’m just nervous some places, and I’ve never had to deal with that before when I was wearing a baseball cap and jeans. It just makes me appreciate people who have had it much, much worse. Nobody deserves to live that way, and we need to make a world where everyone can feel welcome. 

As told to Annie Fell.

Nightclub Daydreaming is out now on Carpark Records. 

Ed Schrader is the eponymous frontperson of the Baltimore-based rock duo Ed Schrader’s Music Beat. Their latest record Nightclub Daydreaming is out now on Carpark Records.

(Photo Credit: Micah E. Wood)