Saturday 8 March 2014

Interview with Namoli Brennet

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Namoli Brennet, an Iowa-based singer and songwriter, 4-time Outmusic award nominee, recipient of the Tucson Folk Festival Songwriting Award and finalist in the ISC songwriting competition; her 2010 album "Black Crow" was named one of KXCI FM's 50 best albums of the year. Hello Namoli!
Namoli: Hi Monika.
Monika: When did you decide that music would be your way of life?
Namoli: I’m actually one of those people who - I just always knew that I would do something with music - I’m pretty sure I knew I was a musician before I knew I was trans. So I didn’t have to think about it too much, except for what form it would take.
I had always felt like I wanted to write, record and tour but I think in part I was underconfident, and I also hadn’t begun to deal with transitioning yet so I felt kind of stuck. Seeing the show “RENT” when I was 29 was a pivotal moment that made me feel like, “I need to do this - now.” The theme of that show is “No day but today” and it was exactly what I needed to hear at the time.

Monika: You are a very prolific artist. Since your debut in 2002 you have already released 10 albums. Where do you get your inspirations from?
Namoli: For me, I feel like a big part of my job as an artist is noticing things, whether it’s people, situations, majestic beauty, small details - just noticing all these things and filing them away. Then, when I sit down and start trying to write, I kind of like to let the ideas surface organically and lead me rather than the other way around.
Songwriting for me is often more about discovery than intention - kind of like sculpture, starting with this rough idea and chipping away at it until what’s underneath is revealed. The inspiration is kind of an internal thing, a desire to create, and a big part of it is this mysterious process of tapping into some kind of creative wellspring, something that seems to come up with better ideas than I could think of on my own.
Monika: How have you changed as an artist over those 12 years?
Namoli: One thing is, I’m always seeking out new sounds, tunings, ideas - when I make a record, I feel like on some level I need to be doing something I haven’t done yet. So there’s that evolution, of trying and experimenting, of constantly seeking something that feels new. In general, though - I feel like maybe now as opposed to 10 years ago I’m a little more confident about having something interesting or meaningful to say, and more assured in my own ability to say it well.

Courtesy of Namoli Brennet.

Monika: Your music was also featured in the Emmy-award winning documentary "Out in the Silence", which details the struggle of a gay teen growing up in rural Pennsylvania. Could you say a few words about that project?
Namoli: Sure - that was a movie Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer approached me about, a documentary about gay teens who were experiencing harassment and bullying at this high school in rural Pennsylvania.
In this case some of the staff and teachers were kind of complicit, and there was some anti-gay sentiment in the community too, so they weren’t really taking it seriously. I think this documentary really made a difference and started a conversation that needed to happen.
Monika: What does it mean to be a transgender artist? Are your music and lyrics influenced by your transgender experience?
Namoli: The distinction I would make is - I think of myself as an artist who happens to be transgendered. Being a creative person is the most important, vital part of my identity as a human being.
That being said, it’s hard to create any kind of meaningful work if you’re not living authentically - so coming out and transitioning was an important step for me to take, if only because it meant I was no longer filtering myself in such a destructive way. And it freed me up to create in a way that I just plain was not able to do before.
Very little of my music is overtly about being trans, but there are ideas - trying to find a sense of place, some kind of self-acceptance, inner peace, whatever - those are tied into my identity.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Namoli: I had a pretty great support group in Tucson, Arizona where I was living at the time. There were a lot of trans men and women at different stages of transition, and also a willingness to be creative around gender and presentation. So I had these people who were just starting out, and others who had transitioned years ago, who were just living their lives, and it made me feel like it was possible. They kind of helped to normalize the trans experience for me. As far as being a touring musician, though, and being trans - at the time I didn’t know of anyone else doing that.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Namoli: Just the day-to-day explaining, misgendering, having to stand up for myself, risking ridicule, being misunderstood.
Monika: Your Irish grandmother seems to have been a very special person in your life …
Namoli: Maybe so? She passed away when I was maybe 14 or 15, but she was a very independent, nomadic soul who loved to travel. So I guess I kind of take after her in that way.

Courtesy of Namoli Brennet.

Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Namoli: I think that in some ways things are much better than they were even 10 years ago, in terms of acceptance and visibility, of having role models and a sense of hope.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s still an unacceptable amount violence directed at trans women, particularly trans women of color; access to health care is difficult, finding a job - in many places you can be fired for being trans with no recourse.
And then poverty, just being able to afford transition is a huge obstacle and it’s not an even playing field at all. And in many ways we’re still misunderstood and constantly working to correct people’s misperceptions, to just be treated with respect and dignity. But progress is happening. 
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Namoli: I would say it’s one of many frontiers - I mean, as a society we definitely haven’t conquered injustice in all it’s other forms. So I think we’re somewhere in the mix - and I think raising the tolerance for differentness is a good thing.
But I also realize that there are a lot of different ways that human beings suffer and that some of them are probably much harder than being trans.. And that some of them also intersect with being trans. So it would be hard for me to say we’re the new frontier, but I think we’re part of a growing movement to recognize the humanity of groups that have been historically marginalized.

Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Namoli: I’ve been writing material for a new CD that I’m hoping to start recording later this year, and also doing some touring in Europe this summer.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Namoli: It’s crossed my mind, but I don’t think I’m quite ready yet. Maybe after I live a little more.
Monika: Namoli, thank you for the interview!
Namoli: You’re so welcome.

Main photos: courtesy of Namoli Brennet.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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