Gig Economy: Trixie Mattel

"Being a musician out of drag is a lot harder," and other career insights from a true queen.

Gig Economy is a Talkhouse series in which artists tell us about their work histories, from part-time pasts to the present tense, in order to demystify the many different paths that can lead to a career as a working musician. Here, Talkhouse contributor Terra Naomi interviews Trixie Mattel, the drag queen and country singer-songwriter, about her life on the job.

—Amy Rose Spiegel, Editor-in-Chief, Talkhouse Music

I met the drag queen and country musician Trixie Mattel, aka Brian Firkus, backstage at Largo in Los Angeles. We were both performing at a charity event hosted by our mutual friend, Our Lady J.  I showed up at the venue that night in a plain black jumpsuit, Doc Martens, and mascara, and found myself sharing a dressing room with Trixie and her fellow RuPaul’s Drag Race alums Courtney Act, Willam, and all of their wigs and costume changes. They all assumed I intended to change into something a bit more glam, but no.

I performed a slow, sad version of Dolly Parton’s “Wildflowers.” Trixie and I bonded over acoustic guitars, our love of country music, and our very different approach to makeup, i.e., I wore close to none and she wore all. The following day, I watched Trixie Mattel videos for about five hours straight and became somewhat obsessed (but not in a scary way, and I’ve been assured it’s mutual).

When Talkhouse asked if I’d like to interview Trixie, I jumped at the opportunity. Although we’d talked a lot backstage, and texted quite a bit, I wondered about so many things—things you don’t necessarily ask outside of the context of an interview. I was fascinated with every aspect of Trixie’s career—I wondered what role music played in her decision to audition for Drag Race; whether a music career was always part of the plan, or just a happy accident; how it feels to be a drag queen making country music—you know, all the usual things you wonder about your friends.

We chatted for an hour, I sent Talkhouse a 26-page transcription of our conversation, and they somehow managed to whittle it down to the interview below. I hope we cover some of the questions you might have about her. And if you aren’t yet familiar with Trixie, I also hope you’ll climb out from under that rock, head over to YouTube, VICELAND, or one of 40 upcoming shows across the North America, and experience her genius. —Terra Naomi

Terra:  When I was a kid, my parents listened to country and folk, and I thought it was really lame. Was that your experience?

Trixie:  Oh, girl, we are the same! When I was a kid learning guitar, my grandpa taught me like Conway Twitty and George Jones, stuff that I did not think was cool. I thought it was so boring—like, It’s repetitive, it’s fuddy-duddy. I saw it as the music my grandma and grandpa listen to—the music my mom listens to when she’s drunk.

In my adulthood, it was like a light switch: Oh, there’s so much emotional intelligence and depth to this music. It’s like a magic trick, how structurally simple folk and Americana music can be, but how deep it can cut. I was probably 24 when I started really hearing it for the first time. All my favorite contemporary musicians are influenced by it, so it’s all linked. Who’s your all-time favorite songwriter?  

Terra: Joni Mitchell and Dolly Parton. What about you?

Trixie: Dolly possesses a gift. A lot of artists, you think they just write this music and it’s all accidentally commercial… Dolly clearly loves writing it, but she also is smart. She’ll always write some sort of story to it, or a double entendre that will sell it.

I also love June Carter Cash. She has a great sense of humor, and she wasn’t that fabulous of a singer, especially compared to her sister Anita, but I love that she always found a way to make it interesting, and the music and the lyrics are strong and bouncy. She’s one of my all-time faves.

Terra: How does it feel to be a very visibly queer person making country music?

Trixie: It’s weirdly easier. The community that likes country music doesn’t get the credit they deserve. People can be into folk and country, and be more traditionally conservative, and still be okay with drag.

It is odd, because when I release music, I’ll make it on the Billboard or iTunes charts in folk and country, but I’ll never be in country publications. It’s very weird, being on the charts and selling, but not ever being spoken about by your peers.

My first album was only six tracks because I self-produced, and was like, all right, if this is like a vanity project that everyone hates, I’ll eat the loss and nobody needs to know about it, it’s just a small release. I always had the backup plan of if Two Birds sells, then I can do the other half of the album as a companion album and call it One Stone. When it did sell I was like, Okay, great! A lot of my music isn’t comedy, so it was surprising that people were willing to go with me, especially when I started shifting from Malibu Barbie to a Coachella/Woodstock Barbie look.

Terra: I wonder if you’ll be able to capture existing country audiences—if they’ll convert to Trixie fans the way that your Trixie audiences are embracing country.

Trixie: It’s the same as people who are like, “I didn’t know I could like country or folk music.” Maybe they haven’t been shown the right thing. When people hear country or folk music, they think of probably whatever cassette tapes their dad played on road trips, and people don’t realize they see drag all the time. People say, “I’m not really into drag.” Well, do you like Mrs. Doubtfire? Then, guess what, you are into drag!

Terra: How much of your decision to go on Drag Race was influenced by music?

Trixie: When I was getting my BFA in musical theater, drag went from a hobby to my part-time income. I could pay my bills doing drag. Drag had to be my focus because it’s more lucrative. A white guy with a guitar wasn’t as compelling as this Barbie doll telling jokes. I was like, You know what? I’ll just let music be my hobby. If you really love music, there is a turning point where you decide if it’s gonna be for you, or if you’re gonna try to sell it. I used Drag Race to do comedy and music on a much bigger scale. I believe in a gimmick. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I mean, everything is a gimmick. Do you have a pretty-looking guitar? That’s a gimmick. Do you wear mascara before you go on stage?  Shtick, and having an approach that makes you a little more memorable, is just smart business.

My show had a big chunk of stand-up where I added one of my original songs, one of my breakup songs, to punctuate that section in the middle of the show. I was afraid no one would go for it, especially with my child’s-toy aesthetic. And every night, people would be like, “That is the best part, we all cried.” There’s something powerful in that crying-clown thing. When you look like this child’s toy, they wanna go on a journey with you.

It works both ways. I’ve been doing drag about 10 years and drag’s gotten so big. When people are like, “I do drag, too, I wanna show you a picture,” 99 percent of the time my knee-jerk reaction is to throw the phone! There’s too many of us already! As a drag queen, I’m like, This is an industry of people lip synching and doing the splits and a bunch of stuff I can’t do—how am I gonna make this work for me? I started combining being a musician into drag—and now I’m the only person doing this. I’m not gonna be compared, no matter what. Anybody in drag who picks up a guitar next is only going to get compared to me. And in the music world, everybody is a white guy or girl with a guitar. Every time I grab a guitar out of drag, mentally, people hear, And now, “Wonderwall!” In drag, I’m telling some jokes and I look fabulous and they’re laughing. When I pull out that guitar, it’s icing on the cake to them.

Terra: After we met, I was on YouTube watching your videos for, like, five hours.

Trixie: Oh, werk!  

Terra: I couldn’t stop. I was laughing out loud. I was like, How is this person capturing my attention for so long?

Trixie: I’m really into the cocktail. When I’m doing stand-up or singing, I’m like, I wanna quit drag and just do this, but all of it put together is so much more compelling. It’s a business choice, too. When I got my BFA, they talked about how one of the only musicals to be financially successful in the past decade was Wicked. Why? It preys on an audience’s nostalgia for The Wizard of Oz. With Trixie and her Barbie aesthetic, I knew if an audience saw pink, blond, that body shape, and all that makeup, they would instantly be like, I trust this. Obviously, I love Barbie, and I wasn’t allowed to have girl toys when I was a kid, so as an adult, it’s cool to be able to explore all that. Combining this dark, dry humor with this happy kids’-toy look was the winning combination. It’s funny to be this happy-looking thing and be “over it.”

Terra: Do you see a time when you’re gonna be Brian Firkus up on stage, like at Stagecoach or something, or do you think it will always be Trixie?

Trixie: In my videos, I always like to be in and out of drag because one informs the other. It’s like in Sybil, when she’s like, “I can’t even play the piano, but one of my alter egos, Vanessa, can.” The music I write as Brian, I use on stage as Trixie. It’s a back-and-forth.

Long-term, I don’t see myself being 45 years old and dressed up as a Barbie doll. The costume is more for the audience than it is for me. As a drag queen, they’re rooting for me, but, also, their standards for what they think a drag queen is capable of are fairly low. Let’s be honest. Nobody thinks I’m gonna actually play that fucking guitar. People think I’m gonna lip sync with it or, like, pretend to do a bump off it. It’s weird. A lot of the time the compliment is like “I actually like your music.” Hmm…it’s not really how you should have phrased it. I know what they mean. What they mean is, “Your music was of higher quality than I thought a drag queen was gonna be giving me.”

Terra: Drag queens have this power and presence. What is it about drag queens?

Trixie: Well, it’s probably, number one, the height! Out of drag, I’m just a skinny, bald-headed white guy, which, white guys are the problem in a lot of ways in the world. As a drag queen, you look great, but you also forfeit your [male] privilege. I experience the difference all the time, ’cause I’m in drag and I’m out of drag, so I operate in the two extremes.

An audience is watching you, base-level, be the joke. I’ve always been fascinated in comedy how the look supports the jokes—knowing your voice and what you look like. Amy Schumer is excellent at that. She plays that funny friend who had one too many wines. With drag, you get to choose what you look like to really match what you want to do. As a person, when you’re not in drag, really all you have to work with what’s in your closet. You better hope you look like the music you want to sing, and you better hope that you are funny, but not too up your own ass. Being a musician out of drag is a lot harder. When I’m in drag, it feels like if I bomb, it’s not really my bomb.

Terra: It sounds like fun to be you. Is it?

Trixie: It’s so fun. Imagine being 6’4”, in this giant platinum wig and all pink with the teeniest little waist and this giant face on, and you walk into wherever you’re going and the whole room just stops. Drag queens dress that way because we wanna take the air out of the room.

I love good music, but this industry is so much more about making sure people leave remembering you and have your name on their lips. If you can get them to remember what you looked like, and remember your name, you did your job that day.

Terra Naomi is an indie-folk-rock singer and songwriter from New York and Los Angeles, known for winning the inaugural YouTube Award for Best Music Video. “Machine Age,” the first single from her new album (coming September 2018), was recently hailed as “the first truly great song to come at the expense of the world’s collective sanity.” (Jubilant). Follow her on Twitter here,  Facebook here, Instagram here, and listen to “Machine Age” and the follow-up single, “Nothing to Hide,” on on Spotify.